The 30 Must-Play PC Games of The Decade

Nathan Grayson

You know that stereotype of the total loser from high school – busted glasses, craggy acne canyon of a face, every spoken word followed by a refreshing mist of saliva – who goes on to become rich and successful beyond your wildest dreams? Well, that's the gaming industry's past ten years in a nutshell. No longer is gaming that shameful hobby you mumble in between “hanging out” and “...uh, other stuff.” Now, it's just something everyone does. With the exception of a few stragglers and the occasional re-emergence of Jack Thompson, gaming has finally arrived.

In that spirit, we thought it'd be fitting to spotlight some of the games that helped put our favorite past-time on top of the world. So, without further ado, we present the 30 best PC games of the past decade!

Also, check out our other Decade in Review features: 13 Biggest Tech Blunders of the Decade and the 25 Most Important Tech Moments.

2001

Max Payne

Oftentimes, the best games aren't the most polished or the most innovative. Rather, they're the ones that take established formulas, sprinkle in a couple new “I can't believe no one ever thought of this before”-type ideas, and mash the “blend” button until both old and new are inseparable. Max Payne's pioneering usage of scripted levels and cinematic storytelling techniques not only made it more than just another third-person shooter, but helped pave the way for today's tightly scripted shooter juggernauts. Along with a Big Gulp-sized dose of slow-mo, those things ensured that Max Payne was both an innovator and a damn fun game in its own right.

Black & White

Bless Black & White's heart, it tried. It reached for the sun, only to come plummeting back down to earth. The end result was a god game not quite worthy of the divine praise it initially received. However, in spite of some repetition and less-than-stellar questing, Black & White was still chock full of great ideas, from an almost-entirely gesture-based interface to what was, at the time, perhaps the most comprehensive morality system ever seen. Also, the game's cow people were only slightly terrifying, which is a pretty big accomplishment when you're dealing with cow people.

Civilization III

Times change. Civilizations rise and fall. The game called “Civilization,” however, remains a constant. Keeping with this trend, Civilization III made small tweaks to an already fantastic formula, adding standouts like city zones, culture victories, and an in-depth transportation system.

2002

Battlefield 1942

Games before Battlefield turned the clock back to WWII. Games before Battlefield did their fair share of multiplayer shooting. Battlefield, however, made those games look like 12-year-old birthday party paintball matches. With vehicles of all shapes and sizes, 64-player matches, and positively gigantic maps, the game lobbed a grenade at our previous conceptions of what war games could be and walked away from the explosion in slow motion. On top of that, it lacked just enough realism to still remain fun as all get-out, which is nice since it turns out that we take to actual plane flight like a duck to piranha-infested waters.

Grand Theft Auto III

Sirens blaring. People screaming, The sound of your own heart pounding through your chest. Everyone remembers their first GTA rampage not only for all the excitement, but because GTA III allowed you to do it. You were the bad guy in a city where nothing was off-limits. The missions weren't bad either, but you're not even listening to us anymore because you're remembering the time when you outran the military going backward in a beat-up ice cream truck.

Warcraft III

With a single-player campaign that blurred the line between RTS and RPG, and Blizzard's trademark dedication to multiplayer excellence, Warcraft III was a fantastic game in its own right. However, it also served as the extremely fertile soil that nurtured a number of long-lasting mods, including the maniacally addictive Defense of the Ancients, which has been used as the basis for multiple full games including Demigod, League of Legends, and Valve's upcoming DoTA.

2003

Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic

Licensed games are usually bottom-of-the-barrel scum. After all, who wants to waste time and money making a great game if it's a guaranteed cash cow no matter how you slice it? The answer: BioWare. Demonstrating both an extreme reverence for the source material and the writing chops that have made it one of the best in the business, BioWare crafted a story that rivaled – and in some ways, surpassed – the original trilogy. On top of that, your choices altered both your character and the story's outcome, meaning that conversations weren't just snooze-worthy verbal spew that you mashed your way through to get to the good stuff. And then there's HK-47, who single-handedly gave us back the ability to smile after the second trilogy froze our faces into ugly masks equal parts rage and sadness.

Call of Duty

Call of Duty didn't necessarily do anything new, but boy did it do things right. Massive cinematic action sequences and pacing that barely left time for players to catch their breath made other WWII campaigns look downright silly, and the multiplayer – while not quite as revolutionary as Modern Warfare's – had more than enough variety to keep players hooked.

Splinter Cell

The more realistic rival to Metal Gear Solid's fat-men-on-rollerblades-and-oh-look-a-vampire zaniness, Splinter Cell encouraged precision and perfection, and – in the process –  crafted a methodical hero who stood in stark contrast to gaming's gallery of increasingly trigger-happy meatheads.

2004

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a lot of things. Far too many to fit in this tiny space. Even when it first launched, It was accessible in a way other games only wished they could be – fun for everyone without being “dumbed down.” It was also smartly designed to encourage multiple playstyles, whether you wanted to pop in for 30 minutes or quest from sun-up to sundown. Emerging after an incredibly long beta period, WoW proudly bore Blizzard's standard of quality-over-quantity, yet still managed to be positively massive – a personality packed world full of things to see and do. Depressingly often, things become pop culture “phenomena” due to targeted marketing, bad taste, or the evil machinations of some blood-devouring devil that exists outside the realm of space and time (see Justin Bieber's success). WoW, however, is definitely an exception to that rule.

Half-Life 2

Many would see the original Half-Life as a perfectly decent swan song, but for Valve, it was only a warm-up. Half-Life 2 topped it in just about every way imaginable with City 17's haunting believability, the pitch-perfect pacing of levels like Ravenholm, and characters like Alyx, who brought a human quality to the proceedings that  the majority of games still struggle to match.

Sid Meier's Pirates!

We're all for revolutionary titles that change the face of videogames forever, but sometimes we just want to have fun. If we had to describe Pirates in one word, it'd be exactly that: fun. Sailing the high seas in the game's brightly colored world was so effortlessly enjoyable that we spent days utterly absorbed in its charms. And all the while, we couldn't wipe the goofy, childlike grin off our faces.

2005

Psychonauts

Judged purely on mechanical terms, Psychonauts was good – but not great. Its brand of brain-powered brain-teasing was enjoyable, sure, but nothing to write home about. Fortunately, that's not all there is to videogames, and that goes double for Psychonauts. The game was a vibrant, hilarious, and – most of all – completely original vision of what a videogame world could be. Its settings and encounters were brilliantly inventive, and to this day, you won't find anything even vaguely like it. Or, summed up in three words: the milkman conspiracy.

Civilization IV

Newsflash: Yet another Civilization game is great. Shocking, we know. Sure, no one's stopping the presses here, but there's a reason many regard Civ IV as the best in the series to this day. Its interface was beautifully slick and streamlined, and it finally made Civ multiplayer more than just a pipe dream.

Battlefield 2

Despite a title that might lead you to believe Battlefield 1942 is the 1,940th sequel to this game, Battlefield 2 advanced leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor. More weapons, more levels, and more vehicles were merely icing on a surprisingly meaty cake (in a good, significantly less disgusting-sounding way) that included an RTS-like Commander mode, squads, and an addictive promotion system.

2006

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Open air. Snow-capped mountains off in the distance. The bright morning sun glinting off a nearby lake. Green everywhere. Lush grass and trees as far as the eye can see. As far as memorable moments in games go, it's pretty hard to top your emergence from the sewers in Oblivion. It was all so beautiful that you almost didn't notice that irrationally angry mud crab attempting to devour your ankles. Even so, that moment encapsulated everything that made Oblivion great. Put simply, the game was mind-blowingly massive, and you could adventure wherever you pleased. The main quest in Oblivion was the faintest whisper of a suggestion, and forging your own path found you quickly rewarded with all sorts of interesting, epic sights and sounds.

Company of Heroes

RTSes, right? You click on tiny men until your finger's a bloody stub and collect resources so you can get to the actual fun part in roughly 45 minutes. Wrong, says Company of Heroes. A thousand times wrong. The game placed an emphasis on fast-paced tactics and unit management above all else, creating a new breed of RTS that was streamlined yet still incredibly deep – just in different way. The game's stellar AI was also a breath of fresh air in a genre where the aforementioned tiny men were previously prone to happily jogging into enemies' streams of hot leaden death when left to their own devices.

DEFCON

Defcon matches typically ended with the entire human race dying a horrible nuclear death. Yeah, kind of makes all these other games look kind of silly, doesn't it? Beneath that chilling premise, however, was a highly cerebral brand of strategy that – true to its setting – all went kablooey in the final few minutes of each match.

2007

Portal

Sure, it's only about two hours long, but we'd argue that Portal is the best two hours the gaming industry's ever produced. The game's beautifully paced in terms of both narrative and gameplay arcs. When you first laid hands on the portal gun, it blew your mind. And, of course, you immediately fired one portal at the ground and another at the ceiling and pulled a “Look ma! No space-time laws!” infinite falling gag. By the time you were squaring off with GlaDOS one-on-multiple-insane-cortexes, though, it was like you'd learned another language. Why? Brilliant level design that gradually turned you into a master of portal gun-fu. And then there was GlaDOS herself, who threatened to make us die of laughter nearly as often as she threatened to make us die.

BioShock

“A man chooses, a slave obeys.” BioShock's mid-game twist was one of the most brilliant gaming's ever seen, literally calling into question your motivation for every action you've ever performed in an FPS. On top of that, the city of Rapture was one of the most imaginative places games have ever given us the pleasure of exploring. Equal parts beautiful and horrifying, the undersea utopia gone wrong introduced us to all manner of completely psychotic characters – from the mad artist Sander Cohen to the tyrannical yet well-intentioned Andrew Ryan to the iconic diving suit-clad Big Daddies. The game's almost unnecessarily painful arsenal of upgradeable plasmid powers was also a highlight, although – seriously – fire and bees? We know the guy tried to kill you and all, but we're pretty sure you just shot Hell at him.

Mass Effect

Take away BioWare's Star Wars license and what do you get? Oh, not much – just the developer's most in-depth and fully realized universe yet. On top of that, a streamlined conversation system made for tense, fast-paced verbal duels while combat – though slightly janky – matched trademark BioWare tactics with the action of a third-person shooter.

2008

Fallout 3

When Bethesda's take on the storied Fallout franchise was first announced, longtime fans cried blasphemy. That, however, didn't stop Bethesda from crafting a bombed-out husk of a world so absorbing that the prospect of nuclear apocalypse now legitimately excites us so long as Deathclaws are replaced by Super Bunnies. In Fallout 3, the world itself was the main character. Every location – from crumbling skyscrapers to secret underground cannibal societies – had its own story to tell, and every play session was its own unique adventure. Oftentimes, we'd just point our character in a random direction and walk – fully expecting to stub our irradiated toes on some excellent micro-tale we'd yet to uncover. We were rarely disappointed.

World of Goo

You wouldn't think that helping tiny adorable blob creatures form a giant transportation Voltron would... aw, who are we kidding? World of Goo had the best premise ever. Better still, it lived up to the promise of that premise, throwing curveball after curveball at players with all manner of maniacally creative puzzles.

Left 4 Dead

Valve's entrant into the ever-growing horde of zombie games immediately positioned itself at the head of the pack with frantic team-based play, the ever-looming threat of powerful Special Infected, and a devious AI Director that gave the strings a tug every time you even thought about taking a breather.

2009

Dragon Age: Origins

As a pure RPG, Dragon Age is BioWare's finest work to date. Sure, the Mass Effect franchise may have it beat in terms of style, but Dragon Age's fascinating web of themes, characters, and lore makes it the clear winner when it comes to substance. Massive as it was massively fantastic, Dragon Age rewarded those who invested themselves in its world with an emotional attachment like none other. Tiny touches like characters casually conversing with each other during your adventures made the game's shockingly huge choices all the more difficult. Speaking of difficulty, the battle system was far from a cake walk, and the execution of a carefully planned strategy was met with a rush of satisfaction seldom matched by other RPGs. Dragon Age certainly made you work to squeeze out its tiniest morsels of enjoyment, but those were also its most delicious.

Borderlands

How can you not love a game whose main selling point is “87 bazillion guns”? Borderlands' frantic mix of shooting and looting was enjoyable enough all by its lonesome, but then Gearbox had to go and pair it with a hilariously off-kilter world and online co-op. And so disappeared hundreds of hours of our lives. Thanks a lot, Gearbox.

Machinarium

You may not have heard about Machinarium when it first came out, but now you have no excuse. It was a wonderfully charming adventure game set in an absolutely gorgeous pencil-sketched world. Its robotic cast of characters, meanwhile, communicated purely through speech bubbles with pictures in them, adding yet another layer of uniqueness to the proceedings. Sure, the puzzles were occasionally a bit simple, but you don't play a game like Machinarium to be frustrated by nebulous puzzle design.

2010

Minecraft

Minecraft is the face of a new chapter in PC gaming history. Sure, it may not have its own multi-million dollar ad campaign starring Kobe Bryant and a Jeep, but Minecraft is simple, wildly inventive, and backed by an incredibly dedicated community. Its core concept – build to survive – has given rise to block-by-block recreations of just about everything you can imagine, from BioShock's city of Rapture to an entire working 16-bit computer. The game's amazingly versatile and frighteningly absorbing. On multiple occasions, we've sat down intending to build a tiny shack in five minutes, only to instead spend two hours creating a castle that God Himself might consider using as a vacation home.

Fallout: New Vegas

We'll say it outright: New Vegas is better than Fallout 3. The locations are more varied, the writing's absolutely fantastic, and the companion characters make Fallout 3's lack thereof all the more glaring. New Vegas strikes a brilliant balance between staying true to the spirit of the older Fallout games and leveraging Bethesda's best ideas from Fallout 3. It's the best of both worlds, and we can't recommend it enough – especially now that it's been patched up tight.

Mass Effect 2

If you're looking to tell a story in a videogame, Mass Effect 2 is absolutely the game to beat. Its mix of convincing virtual actors, excellent voice-acting, great writing, and smartly streamlined pacing kept players hooked from start-to-finish. The only thing that was missing? An Elcor party member -- preferably with romance options. Come on BioWare! Make it happen in Mass Effect 3!

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