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The Best PC games of the 2000s

By Jeff Buckland, 12/11/2009

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Looking back at people's lists of their favorite games, I've found that it's harder than I expected to put together my own list of the top PC games of this decade. I was originally going to make this a top ten, but after having to cut so many great games off the list, I decided to expand it to 20 just so that these fantastic games would get mentioned. From hugely popular online shooters to RPGs, strategy games and MMOs, I think we've got a good mix here. Not everything started out as a PC game, either. Even though a PC game almost always does better if it starts out on the PC rather than on consoles, there have been some great ports of fantastic games over the years. Let's get started, shall we?

20. BioShock

Irrational Games stormed onto the PC gaming scene in 1999 with System Shock 2, a fantastic first person action/RPG with amazing atmosphere and a story that was unparalleled in first person games at the time. But it was their 2007 re-imagining of the formula, the deep-sea action game BioShock, that brought the studio now known as 2K Boston into the mainstream. The simultaneous release of the PC and console editions meant that, as with most games launched like this, the console version got the most sales and the PC version had a few technical issues. Still, BioShock on the PC looked and played better than its console counterparts, and while it lost a few things in the RPG department compared to their space-horror masterpiece from eight years before, 2K Boston made up for it with wonderful art design and solid shooter action.

19. Counter-Strike

FPS fans had been playing Counter-Strike as a mod for years, but the retail release of this online-only competitive shooter was launched in 2000. Its brand of addictive shooter action kept players coming back for years, spawning thousands of clan-based matches and hundreds of e-sports and LAN gaming center temper tantrums. It was probably the biggest success story we've seen for a mod development team, as it got the designers jobs at Valve Software and became one of the better-selling first person shooters of the decade.

18. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Bioware led the charge in bringing western-style RPGs to consoles with the 2004 release of Knights of the Old Republic on consoles, but the PC version that soon followed was no slouch, either. Featuring an incredible Star Wars story that was arguably just as powerful as Lucas' originals without all of the baggage he had built up, KOTOR still has one of the best plot twists in any game ever made. It helped that the RPG elements combined well with the action while even borrowing from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' rule set. This game may not have started out on the PC, but it was definitely at home right here.

17. Company of Heroes

After we'd seen years of huge-scale strategy games where a nuclear weapon was pretty much a must-have, developer Relic Entertainment decided they'd de-escalate. Thus Company of Heroes was born, and its World War 2 strategy started to resemble the slower, tactical games of strategy's past years. But it was by no means an empty game: now your soldiers had to fight from cover to win, use special abilities, and capture territory on a map. It did a good job of mirroring the amazing WW2 action in movies and shows like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and it all worked nicely in multiplayer modes as well. Company of Heroes taught us that that a better strategy game doesn't necessarily have to be bigger in scale than its predecessors.

16. Far Cry

Back in early 2004, the PC gaming world was enamored with the upcoming release of id Software's DOOM 3. They were hyped up for the promised dark, atmospheric action and new horror elements added by the Dallas-based developer. But not three months prior to the big release date, Eastern European studio Crytek and publisher Ubisoft unleashed Far Cry on the world, and it was like a night-and-day difference. Featuring massive outdoor maps, a beautiful tropical setting, and an amazingly bright and crisp color palette, Far Cry was the antithesis to the id Software brand of dark hallways and muted colors. It helped that the non-linear action allowed players to complete levels in many different ways, and as long as you can bring yourself to quit out and say "well, I won the game!" as soon as the first mutated Trigen creature shows up, I think you'll find that in a lot of ways, Far Cry still holds up five and a half years later.

15. Warcraft III

Blizzard Entertainment's games will be seen on this list more than a couple times, but Warcraft III deserves a spot in any "best of" list that it's eligible for. With Blizzard's excellent storytelling and some new RPG elements playing a major part in the action, they redefined strategy games away from the old Dune II model created by Westwood in the 90s by putting a bigger focus on the main characters that take part in battles. With an addictive and charming art style that served them well for many years through the eventual release of World of Warcraft, the game ran nicely on older PCs too. It's no surprise, then, that Warcraft III is still played today - or that it's served as a major influence for RTS developers ever since its release.

14. Battlefield 2

The developers at DICE always played fast and loose with their game design and technical issues, and no game of theirs summed up the DICE online experience better than Battlefield 2. At times highly flawed and always just a little wonky, Battlefield 2 still pulled in many gamers with its large fights, high player counts, persistent stats, weapon unlocks, and addictive gameplay style. The vehicles were the star of the show, though, and BF2 was always at its best when everything came together in huge battles with tanks, choppers, planes, and troops on the ground.

13. Mass Effect

While Bioware's tactical action/RPG Mass Effect was a success on the Xbox 360, it felt right when it was released six months later on the PC. With superb mouse-based shooter controls, solid RPG stat-crunching, and a great introduction to Bioware's new vision of the sci-fi future, this game is a winner right from the start. The PC version introduced new commands for your squadmates as well as improved visuals, and this made it the superior version. The upcoming sequel should prove to be a worthy successor on PC when it launches early next year - and this time it'll be a simultaneous release alongside the console versions.

12. Deus Ex

Dallas-based studio ION Storm started off by delivering three games, and Deus Ex got the best reception by far. This near-future shooter delivered many of the great RPG experiences that past games from creators Harvey Smith and Warren Spector had been perfecting since Ultima Underworld in the early 90s. Those designs culminated in Deus Ex with a deep, thoughtful shooter that had as many solutions to puzzles as it had real, hard-hitting questions to ask about the way we live our lives today. Few games even try to take on politics, totalitarianism and the role of technology in our existence, but that's exactly what Deus Ex did while juggling some great action and interesting choices for the player to make.

11. The Operative: No One Lives Forever

Monolith's masterpiece came with this parody of the classic James Bond flicks. Featuring a sassy, amazing protagonist named Cate Archer, it deftly balanced humor and story along with both stealth and full-on action. It challenged first person shooter stereotypes and made fun of so many of the signature elements of classic spy flicks. Its sequel was arguably the better game, but we've got to give Monolith even more credit for this first in the series. Sequels ruled around the time that NOLF was released, so anyone creating new properties then was more likely to fail and be swallowed up. While it was never a big hit as far as sales go, this classic is still one of the smartest, sharpest, funniest shooters around.

10. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Morrowind took the PC gaming world by surprise. It had been so long since Bethesda's last big fantasy RPG, Daggerfall, had been released, that people seemed to have forgotten about the series entirely. But the first time players stepped off that prison boat onto the island of Vvardenfell, they knew something magical was unfolding in front of them. The game world was strange and the inhabitants were even more alien, but it didn't take long to find yourself accustomed to it. The epic story and completely non-linear design wowed players with its openness, but the game's atmosphere - the music, the towns you visit, and the unique visual style - all created something greater than the sum of its parts.

9. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Infinity Ward, at least up until this year's Modern Warfare 2 debacle, did for a few years uphold a reputation of being able to give both console and PC gamers exactly what they wanted - and sell well on pretty much any platform. CoD4 is still played heavily to this day, and its amazing single player campaign mostly holds together under scrutiny - something that can't be said for its just-released sequel. With a perfect range of options for online play and the mod community taking hold and keeping this one for years to come still, it's easy to see why CoD4 is one of the most influential shooters ever made - and that's not even counting the millions of console editions sold.

8. Civilization IV

Sid Meier returned to direct Civ IV after the third game wound up a bit disappointing to many hardcore fans, and the result was astounding. Now in full 3D, Civilization IV expanded on its turn-based pedigree, adding new complexity where so many developers were attempting to scale back and make their games more accessible. It paid off for Firaxis, though, as Civ IV wound up selling over three million copies and bringing together an extensive mod community that still makes new scenarios and other content years after its release.

7. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn

Barely slipping in for this list is one of Bioware's finest games, 2000's Baldur's Gate II. With an interesting story, expansive world to explore, and a huge number of tactical options coming from playing six fully-configurable characters at once, BG2 wasn't made for the newcomer to RPGs. Its complexity was overwhelming at times, as enemies layered on protection spells and you scrambled to figure out which attacks would strip them off, but the overall effect was one of the best Dungeons & Dragons experiences you could get on a PC. The game doesn't hold up terribly well today, even considering the rewritten engine that allows the game to run better on modern hardware, but for its time, this game was an absolute dream for a fan of western RPGs.

6. Fallout 3

Bethesda had its fair share of problems with the PC release of Fallout 3, as ongoing patches broke mods and introduced problems that weren't there before. But the core game is still brilliant, and Bethesda's re-imagining of the classic post-apocalyptic wasteland is simply breathtaking. The quests you were sent on were fun and bizarre, but it was the little stories the designers set up deep in some vault or at the bottom of a cave - a skeleton and a gun lying in a bed, a panicked audio log entry left behind - that really fleshed out the human quality of Bethesda's "Capital Wasteland". It's hard to deny the impact that Fallout 3 has had: the modding community is still going strong and the world Bethesda created is still as undeniably addictive as ever.

5. World of Warcraft

It's not only the world's most successful MMORPGs and one of the most profitable games of all time, but World of Warcraft is also a true favorite of Blizzard fans worldwide. The development team took what went right with pioneering MMORPG Everquest, dropped the most annoying and frustrating parts of it, and applied the formula to a world they'd already created. It was an immediate success and has been building a massive subscriber base ever since. After five years and two expansion packs (plus a third on the way), WoW shows no signs of slowing down yet. And its fanatical players wouldn't have it any other way.

4. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

After the success of Morrowind, gamers knew what to expect from Bethesda this time. And with the release of Oblivion, most got more than they expected. The best elements of Morrowind returned with a revamped combat system, fantastic new visuals, and even more to achieve. There were some downsides, like the whole game leveling up as you do and what seemed at first like a more generic fantasy setting, but mods on the PC version went a long way towards fixing that and adding plenty of new content. As the rumors of Elder Scrolls V begin to solidify, gamers' standards will be even higher for Bethesda's next big game - thanks in no small part to the success of Oblivion.

3. Supreme Commander

Gas Powered Games released the critically acclaimed Supreme Commander in 2007, but gamers worldwide almost immediately were turned off of it for its steep system requirements and seemingly similar units in the game's three races. Still, its massive scale is unparalleled in modern strategy games and as dual-core CPUs have hit the mainstream, many of these issues simply went away for gamers. It was too late for Supreme Commander to leave a solid first impression in the eyes of many fans, but those who stuck with it found a game that paid back for years in fantastic action and interesting strategy. To this day, its ability to seamlessly zoom the map out to a satellite-like view and see the whole battlefield at once is unmatched by its competition, and I hope that more RTS games start copying this feature soon.

2. Diablo II

It's hard to believe that Diablo II was released less than ten years ago, but yep, it was. June of 2000 brought one of Blizzard's biggest and most addictive games, an action-RPG clickfest that kept players coming back for more loot and more levels on a daily basis. What's amazing is that the game's still thriving on; I bet Blizzard never imagined that the online service they set up for Diablo II over a decade ago would still be running in its original form today. It's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about this game that keeps you coming back, and many games have tried and failed to reproduce its magic, but it seems pretty sure now that the only Diablo II killer will be Diablo III.

1. The Orange Box

I got to cheat on this one, because Valve included the full Half-Life 2 package plus Portal and Team Fortress 2 all in one action-packed $50 collection. Every self-respecting PC gamer got their hands on this, because it offered countless hours of amazing gameplay between all of the titles included. TF2 is enjoying strong numbers in online play today, HL2 is simply an instant classic single-player FPS, and Portal changed the way we think about puzzle/action games. Simply put, The Orange Box, for its time, is arguably the best value in all of PC gaming.


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