Gaming PCs, especially powerful ones, may be more expensive than consoles, but PCs have flexibility, moddability, and power unavailable in the competition. As a result, PC gaming is able to quickly pivot both toward and away from trends to give its players unique and amazing experiences.
So a warning upfront: Unlike our other Essentials lists, this one covers a catalog that’s spread across multiple decades, and focuses on the 22 games on the platform we think everyone should play if they want to get the most out of PC gaming.
Why 22 games, though? Any less makes it hard to narrow things down, and any more might be overwhelming. Twenty-two games is a solid number of titles, spread across multiple genres, with selections for just about every age group.
We wanted to focus on the best of the best for this guide to the essential releases on the PC, so we cast the net widely when considering what to include. And heck, when possible, we’ve included a link to our guide for each game, in case you need a little help to get started.
If the list of 22 games up top isn’t enough, check out the extra recommendations we threw in at the bottom for a little additional inspiration.
Let’s dig in!
Sid Meier’s Civilization 6
In the world of PC gaming, there are few series that cast as long a shadow as Civilization. First released in 1991, it’s a historical strategy game played across lengthy turns, scheming against the computer or other human players.
Players take on the role of a famous historical figure, leading a people from ancient times into the space race and beyond. Each entry in the series has felt distinct, yet all share the same gentle learning curve and impressively complex endgame.
But, for my money, you can’t go wrong with the latest in the series, Civilization 6. The most recent expansion, Rise and Fall, has also received rave reviews and helps to elevate an already successful game into the definitive Civilization experience.
Critics and players have raved about Remedy Entertainment’s Control, a third-person action game unlike any other. Here at Polygon, we called it both an artistic and a technical achievement. While it’s available on modern consoles, the game looks and runs the best on a high-end PC, especially if you have an Nvidia RTX video card to enable ray tracing.
As Jesse Faden, players enter a brutalist skyscraper in New York City only to uncover a mystery that would make the writers of The X-Files blush. The gunplay is exceptional, matched by sound design and animation flourishes that earned six nominations and one trophy at The Game Awards in 2019. But what ties it all together is a wild sense of humor and a relentlessly unnerving story that rewards exploration and mastery in equal measure.
The game can be a bit intimidating, especially its skill trees and somewhat cumbersome map. Check out our detailed guides section to get started.
Get it here: Epic Games Store
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Before there were “modern” role-playing games spread across every platform, RPGs based on existing pen-and-paper rules had become popular on the PC. Also referred to as classic or computer RPGs (CRPGs), these games have their roots firmly in the tabletop space, and inspired a legion of followers and competitors.
And, for my money, you can’t go wrong with Divinity: Original Sin 2 as one of the best modern examples of the form.
Original Sin 2 presents a world that will feel at once familiar and completely alien to fans of high fantasy. Its latest iteration is incredibly refined with top-notch voice acting, and the campaign itself has remarkable depth and replayability. You can even dodge the traditional challenge entirely and fire the experience up in story mode if you just want to focus on the narrative.
For years after Doom’s original release in 1993, other first-person shooter titles were simply referred to as “Doom clones.” It’s fitting, then, that one of the best first-person shooters of the last decade is the 2016 reboot of the franchise, called simply Doom.
The reboot was so good, in fact, that it was Polygon’s game of the year in 2016. Here’s what we said at the time:
Doom is fast. When I first played it, I remember thinking that it actually seemed too fast; this is in part an illusion, since the game sets you free in a small chamber before introducing you to the game’s massive outdoor environments. But it’s also a statement: The game lets you know that things are going to be different. […]
Doom had the audacity to reject years of common wisdom, decades of increased expectations and generations of first-person brinksmanship to reach back to the beginning, to reintroduce the shooter that started it all.
Doom may be the quintessential modern FPS, with a focus on action and aggression.
Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress, better known simply as Dwarf Fortress, is a remarkable game. The result of the decadeslong collaboration between two brothers, Zach Adam and Tarn Adams, it’s one of the most complex and esoteric simulations every conceived, and it’s rendered in ASCII.
In the game’s most well-known mode, players take control of a band of dwarves setting out to create a community from scratch in a hostile world. “Control” is the wrong word, really, since the dwarves in the game have their own thoughts and feelings. Players merely suggest that they dig into the mountain and plant a field of mushrooms, while the dwarves themselves decide if they’re up to it at that particular point in time.
Regardless of whether you elect to play the game, simply creating a world in Dwarf Fortress is an experience not to be missed if you own a gaming PC. In each new round’s opening seconds, the game uses ridiculously complex systems to generate a 16,000-square-mile chunk of real estate, 250 miles thick.
Keep in mind that, in addition to the colony simulation itself, there’s another mode in the game: a roguelike single-player adventure that allows players to explore the game’s procedurally generated history from ground level.
Dwarf Fortress is completely free. Donations, naturally, are quite welcome. As a reward, you may be gifted with a handmade drawing.
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
One of the many benefits of PC gaming is the ability to get under the hood and tinker with the games that you already own. There’s no better series to satisfy the tinkerer’s itch than The Elder Scrolls. The franchise has embraced the modding community for nearly two decades, and the creative team behind it says that decision has had much to do with the series’ longevity and popularity over the years.
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim serves as an excellent introduction to game modding, thanks to its integration with the Steam Workshop. Simply purchase and download the game, and you’ll be able to select from more than 28,000 community-created mods that add everything from new skins, items, and quest lines to large-scale battles.
For those who want to dig a little deeper, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind provides a much more hands-on modding experience. You’ll need to tinker with the actual game files themselves or download third-party tools to do the work, but the results can be extremely satisfying. One mod, now 17 years in the making, has even added an entire landmass with high-quality quests, additional voice-over work, and full integration with the game’s fast-travel system.
At the core of this game is a realistic simulation of all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy. No, that’s not a typo. The secret is the so-called Stellar Forge, a procedural system that developer Frontier Developments used to realistically simulate the formation of our galaxy. Using the best available astronomical data, the studio sort of threw all of creation into a digital rock tumbler and then continued to polish what fell out as an MMO.
Players begin as a nearly destitute mercenary, set adrift somewhere in the inhabited Bubble of human civilization circa 3300. While the storyline of the game, such as it is, is currently moving at an abysmally slow pace for some fans, it’s the community that makes this game such a joy to play.
Whether you want to risk life and limb rescuing your fellow players as a member of the Fuel Rats, engage in high-stakes player-versus-player combat during community-sponsored narrative battles, or simply take a weekslong joyride to the edge of the our unfashionable Western spiral arm, there’s something in here for everyone.
Even better, the game is fully compatible with the TrackIR head-tracking peripheral, as well as all manner of joysticks, pedals, and HOTAS sets. For an even more intense experience, I suggest playing in VR.
Listen: When the original version of Fortnite launched, I hated it.
And I wasn’t alone. At the time, it was a $40 early access title, an endlessly “soon-to-be-free-to-play” cooperative multiplayer hybrid building … thing. There were zombies in it. You collected characters in the form of trading cards, and unlocked abilities from a skill tree. There was so much mindless clicking in the original version that my wrist would hurt after every each session.
That original mode, called Save the World, is still in the game. It even has a small, but devoted, ongoing fan base. But their numbers are completely dwarfed by fans of the Battle Royale mode, what is now most often simply called “Fortnite.”
Fortnite is arguably the biggest game in the world thanks to Battle Royale. It’s more than just a fast-follow of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a dynamic world with elements of Minecraft’s elaborate building systems, but Epic Games is also constantly adding little mysteries alongside the massive seasonal content drops that keep the fans guessing about what’s coming next.
Get it here: Epic Games Store
The original Half-Life tells the story of the MIT-educated theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman and a transdimensional rift that may someday kill us all. As far as PC shooters go, Half-Life represents an inflection point for the entire genre, threading a nearly uninterrupted narrative through a seamless and carefully paced action spectacle.
While the gameplay itself more than holds up, the look and feel of the original leaves something to be desired. Thankfully, the team at Crowbar Collective — themselves a bunch of modders — have created Black Mesa. It’s not simply a remaster of the original game, but also an effort to redesign Half-Life’s final, troubled levels featuring jumping puzzles on the alien planet Xen.
Whether you want to play the classic version or the updated Black Mesa is up to you, but every PC enthusiast should at least try one or the other at least once.
Get Half-Life here: Steam
Get Black Mesa here: Steam
Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most fascinating narrative experiments in all of video games. The brainchild of the small team of artists at Cardboard Computer, it uses magical realism to tell a bizarre tale set in rural America.
The game, which began as a Kickstarter campaign, has been released episodically over the past six years. The final segment is expected sometime soon. Cardboard Computer has also released a series of experiences it calls interludes, which are freely available online.
League of Legends
League of Legends can be extremely intimidating. It’s a hybrid of the RTS genre and action RPGs, where physical skill and high-level strategy mingle for intense online battles. With over 140 champions for players to learn and master, there are many different ways to break in, and multiple roles to play in each round.
LoL is also fascinating solely as a spectator sport. Fans turn out in droves to watch multinational tournaments played all around the world. Many esports organizations hang their hats on the quality of the LoL teams they can field. Given that kind of popularity, it’s little wonder that this game is one of the most-watched titles on Twitch.
Get it here: Riot
The Metro series, from the team at 4A Games, can be a tough nut to crack.
The first-person shooter gameplay demands patience and a high level of skill. The latest entry in the series, Metro Exodus, was a bit rocky out of the gate. But once you get up to speed with the brutal survival and crafting elements, not to mention the bleak tone, there’s simply nothing else like it.
Best of all, Exodus, which focuses on a journey by train into the heart of post-apocalyptic Russia, tells a remarkable story, with hints of hope spread among the desolation.
Get it here: Epic Games Store
Before Minecraft was the cultural force it is today, it was a survival game.
Minecraft drops players on a procedurally generated map eight times larger than the surface of the Earth. They’ll have to forage for, hunt down, or grow enough food to survive, all while dodging the ever-present threat of explosive Creepers and deadly zombies, on the way to an endgame battle against a powerful extradimensional dragon.
Of course, it’s Minecraft’s no-stakes Creative mode that has garnered the game tens of millions of views on Twitch and YouTube, two entire industries seemingly purpose-built for the new breed of gaming personalities that it helped to reveal to the world.
Outer Wilds, Polygon’s game of the year for 2019, began as a student project before embarking on a successful crowdfunding campaign on the Fig platform.
Outer Wilds is about exploring the unknown, but there’s a catch. The game’s pocket-sized solar system runs on a tight 22-minute loop. Each cycle ends with the player waking up, with everything seemingly reset, except for the knowledge they’ve gained by exploring space and the planets in it. Why this is happening, and what the player must do to set things right, make up one of the most intriguing mysteries in all of gaming.
Get it here: Epic Games Store
Return of the Obra Dinn
Just like an old-fashioned murder story, Return of the Obra Dinn poses a complex mystery, layered with personalities, motives, secrets, and lies. But it supercharges whodunit conventions by infusing misdirection into every nook and cranny of its intricate, gorgeous murder scenes.
The story is set aboard an early 19th-century merchant ship that shows up in port five years after it was reported missing, presumed lost at sea. The ship is bereft of human life. My job is to board the ship and figure out what happened. I’m soon confronted with evidence of a voyage gone awry. Skeletons, exploded cannons, and destroyed rigging all add up to … what?
Obra Dinn features a monochromatic art style inspired by early Macintosh game, but it’s also fully three-dimensional in movement and visuals. As the player, you inhabit an insurance adjuster from the Age of Sail who gains limited control over time and space. The game demands attention to detail and cleverness on the part of the player to get to the bottom of what happened to each character, while delighting them at every turn with a story and design that gradually reveals itself with surprising bursts of sound and violence.
In his glowing review, our Colin Campbell concluded that Obra Dinn “isn’t merely a great game, it’s the work of an intense and creative intelligence.”
StarCraft may not be the first real-time strategy game, but fans of the genre generally agree that it’s among the best RTS games ever made. The fast-paced strategy game is widely credited as the bringing about the modern competitive esports scene.
Thanks to StarCraft Remastered, released in 2017, it remains utterly accessible on modern PCs.
For $14.99 you can download both the original game and its vital expansion, Brood War, and play them start to finish in full 4K resolution. That’s not something you can say about many games that are more than two decades old.
Get it here: Battle.net
This science fiction fantasy shooter blends third-person action and Vanquish-style acrobatics with tried and true MMO systems to create a vibrant community of players. It’s also more approachable than it’s ever been before.
‘Tenno’ is the noun used for the player character, who awakens from cryosleep only to be immediately thrust into conflict with the Grineer. Luckily, my Warframe gets me through the conflict, and I am aided by the benevolent Lotus. Confused at all the proper nouns? It takes a while to pick up the size and scope of Warframe’s plot, but that largely doesn’t matter. Most of it is pretty standard sci-fi stuff — an ancient empire crumbled, the factions of that empire are now at war, and I am a powerful card put into play. But there is a twist that you shouldn’t spoil for yourself if you’re going to play.
What that effectively means is that I unlock a host of missions with variable objectives and I get to jump around and be a ninja. Warframe’s combat is a genuine joy. Movement is fast, fluid, and beautifully lethal. Individual hits can have a huge impact — I take pleasure out of pulling back an arrow and firing it right through an enemy’s head, where he ricochets back and is pinned to a wall. Melee attacks are accompanied with a satisfying sound effect and bright flash, along with a snappy animation.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Years after its release, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt still stands as a towering achievement in modern video game design.
Much has been written about the game’s lengthy main quest and how the series uses player decisions to make thoughtful changes to the game’s world over time. In that regard, it’s the gold standard for digital role-playing games. But where The Witcher 3 truly shines on PC is in providing a glorious spectacle for the eyes. From the game’s rich and moody skyboxes to the environmental and character art itself, The Witcher 3 looks best on PC, with longer draw distances and higher resolutions than are possible anywhere else.
In that regard, the four-year-old title’s age is actually a benefit. You’ll spend far less on an appropriately high-end graphics card today than you would have when the game was first released.
World of Warcraft
A high-fantasy massive multiplayer online game standing on the shoulders of giants like Ultima and EverQuest, World of Warcraft has continually reinvented itself for more than 15 years, and has recently even moved back to the past to try to rekindle the interest of players who may have left the game.
And WoW continues to have a thriving community, even if the total number of players sometimes goes up and down with the times. Whether you land in Azeroth solo or with a close group of friends, you should never need to adventure alone.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
The style of game is simple, even if the strategy is not: Take a small group of heavily armed commandos and painstakingly move into and out of harm’s way, taking turns moving or attacking with an enemy who is trying to stop, to accomplish some sort of objective.
Where War of the Chosen excels, however, is in its world-building and storytelling. Not only is it based on the exceptionally well-executed reboot by Firaxis Games, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it also includes a lovable cast of characters. Making things even more fun, the voice-over artists all hail from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In my review, I called it “the definitive XCOM experience,” and that’s just as true today as it was at launch.
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