By Quintin Smith on February 16th, 2011 at 12:18 pm.
Our assembly of the definitive list of the most important PC games of the last 150 years continues! On Monday Dr Rossignol talked us through his first instalment, with an eye for first-personly shoot-games. Yesterday saw a guest lecture from Professor John Walker detailing another fifth of our unambiguous inventory. What classics will we cover today? Ah! We must remember our manners. First, let us all thank Intel’s AppUp developer program for their generous sponsorship. Now, to business.
Hello there, ladies and gents. Phew, it’s hot in here, isn’t it? Let me take this jacket and tie off. Sarah, is it? Sarah, would you mind hanging on to all that? Great.
Much better. Now, I’m here because you lot want to learn more about PC games. My name is Quintin Smith, which you might also recognise as the author such scholastic blockbusters as “Giving Headcrab: Valve’s Gift to Gaming”, and “Cry Havok! And Let Slip the Dogs of Innovation”. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and I’ve not much time, so let’s begin. I know concentrating under mad central heating like this can be like trying to pee into a keyhole if you’ll pardon the expression, so feel free to pop your collars and get a little more comfortable.
Note that I’ve ordered these games by descending quality of graphics, because if there’s another way to do it I can’t think of it. Let us begin.
Far Cry 2
RELEASE DATE: 2008
Far Cry 2 was characterised by a school of development that didn’t seem to think anything was good enough, with the game randomising, enlarging and detailing absolutely everything it could, from the way you took damage, to relationships with NPCs, to its level design and story and so much more. You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody more disenfranchised with the single-player FPS than me, but playing Far Cry 2 on its hardest difficult setting, getting sucked into its world, then being forced to mercy-kill my AI buddy was my gaming moment of 2008. I still remember his name, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Rest in peace, Paul Ferenc. You were a friend.
RELEASE DATE: 2008
Like many others I’ve talked to, the first few missions where GTA4 finally starts forcing you to commit terrible crimes settled on me like a heavy, itchy blanket. For a moment this game offered a glimpse of a simple immigration simulator, and it was beautiful. A thousand jacked cars and two thousand murders later I’d long since shrugged off said blanket. How could I keep it on, staring at all the time and sweat that Rockstar had sunk into this game. Whatever about GTAIV’s plot and its message- Liberty City is as impressive a feat of workmanship as gaming has ever seen, lovingly crafted from the very tips of its helicopter blades to the coffee cup dropped by the man you just ran over. This series is growing up, but it’s doing so on its own terms.
RELEASE DATE: 2010
Yeah, you can put it down for being disappointingly similar to the original StarCraft. You can argue that it’s done irreparable harm to the RTS genre by achieving massive sales through turning its back on innovation. But what you can’t say is that what Blizzard did here was easy. This is a game with the attention to detail of high-end jewellery, the attention to depth of an OCD archaeologist excavating his own mother. But what really impresses me is that you slap a good commentator on it, and it’s a brilliant, watchable sport like no other game I can think of. But then, I’ve been drinking since lunch.
RELEASE DATE: 2004 (mod), 2006 (commercial game)
God bless the employed dreamers who decided to put this game together in their spare time, and bless them twice for deciding to give up those employments to make this game full-time. Red Orchestra is a multiplayer FPS covering the Eastern front of World War 2, and it’s cold and tense like nothing else out there. No, wait- let me try that description again. Red Orchestra is: staring out of a window in a ruined house, watching a distant figure go sprinting from one alley to another, unsure whether he’s an enemy or a friend, unsure of whether to shoot, feeling the pathos rolling around your stomach like a mouthful of copper, and then being stabbed in the neck by a man who was creeping up behind you the whole time. That’s Red Orchestra.
RELEASE DATE: 2009
If I were pressed for time, if my house were on fire or a bad man had broken in and was stealing my baby right out of its little baby house (I don’t have a baby) and somebody asked me what Braid was, I wouldn’t be able to just tell them it was a “puzzle platformer”. I’d have to take the time to say something else, something cryptic, like “The guy who made it, Joanthon Blow, argued with Microsoft for it to not have a main menu screen”. The idea behind it is just too strong and too interesting for me to pass this game of as the member of a genre, even if it is a great puzzle platformer. Braid is first and foremost an incredible story, it’s a piece of art, it’s just a fantastic achievement with the most perfect beginning and end I’ve ever seen in a videogame. It’s a vision. That’s what it is. A brilliant, startling vision.
RELEASE DATE: 2005
Why haven’t we had a sequel to this game yet? It’s a question you could ask about any number of games in this list, but with Swat 4 it feels that much more applicable because surely this is a game with mass-market appeal. Surely everybody would love the chance to represent the long arm of justice; to lace up some heavy boots, load up with thousands of dollars worth of protective equipment and lead a brave team into a building to protect the civilians within and incapacitate the criminals by firing a beanbag into their beanbag. But you know what, that doesn’t even cover half of SWAT 4′s appeal. It’s also in the briefing where every word, every scrap of information could doom you or save a life. It’s in the ungodly stretches of silence where you’re meticulously picking your way through an empty building, knowing deadly gunfire could erupt at any moment. It’s in the minuscule gasps of action where you go dashing into a room after throwing in a flashbang. The whole game feels like you’re disarming an emotional bomb that could go off at any instant, and the serial killer level in particular is as perfect a gaming experience as has ever been put together.
RELEASE DATE: 2001
Good sim games know that if you’re going to get the player to build something, it helps if that something is worth looking at. Startopia went one further, and gave us something worth falling in love with. From the beeping sensors and clattering hospitals of your space station’s workmanlike engineering deck, to the warbling and giggling aliens of the candy-coloured recreation deck, to the serene beauty of the glass-roofed bio deck, Startopia was a seductively playful vision of the future that warmed you like a mug of hot chocolate. It had a deliciously dark side too, of course, with your AI assistant VAL and disreputable alien trader Arona Daal sharing all kinds of disgusting trivia about all the aliens, not to mention the terrifying beasts that would hatch in dirty stations. First came the litter, then the cute little cats, and finally you’d double-take at the sight of a towering nightmare monster ripping up your DINE-O-MAT, or somewhere. Ah, everyone remembers the first time. Course, while Startopia’s abundance of heart will be remembered by all, what gets forgotten is all the clever mechanics the game had outside of the biodeck, like fighting to take over the segments of your neighbours’ stations or being able to tangle up all your funds in risky trading. That developers Mucky Foot were forced to close their doors two years after making this is a tidy tragedy.
RELEASE DATE: 1999
This was a wonderful first. I don’t mean a space RTS with elegant 3D combat and a wonderful camera – though Homeworld had that in its jumpsuit pocket too, of course – I mean an RTS that managed to make you feel that what you were doing and the decisions you were making were important beyond the strategic level. Achieved through a delicate combination of excellent writing, beautiful music and well-directed cutscenes, the terrible feeling of gravity around Homeworld’s campaign gave you a whole other level to be tense and excited on during any battles. If I’m honest, I found the plot of the similarly excellent Homeworld: Cataclysm to be even more affecting (crew of an enormous space-mining barge accidentally release galaxy-devouring virus, spend entire single-player campaign transforming themselves into a warship to defeat it), but Homeworld was the crucible of creativity from which fiery little Cacaclysm would be forged. I’m wondering now if what allowed Homeworld to be so affecting was that it never had to portray humanity on an individual scale, instead having you simply gaze at the outside of spaceships and let you imagination do all the heavy lifting. If that’s the case, it’s a trick I’d love to see other strategy games try in the future.
Max Payne 2
RELEASE DATE: 2003
Look at him up there! The picture of nonchalance. Remedy’s sequel to their hard-boiled noir shooter would be an unlikely choice for anybody’s favourite game, but it does represent a certain peaking of confidence within the action genre. This was a game unabashedly trying to offer love and a style of immersive realism with one hand, while offering a near-endless series of polished gunfights with the other, with your constant killing never excused in some way or acknowledged as being ridiculous, as if that was simply what videogames were. The nearest we’ve come since then is almost certainly Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, though even that game felt the need to express how exhausted its characters were by the end. Max Payne 2? It was the last cocksure bullet fired by a punk who didn’t know he was dead yet, the gun making a noise like a door slamming shut on an entire school of thought. Or something. Where did I put that bloody mary?
Rome: Total War
RELEASE DATE: 2004
The Total War series was most succinctly summed up by Kieron in his Medieval: Total War review. “I am King of Spain!” it began and ended. In fact I think it might have appeared quite a lot in the middle, too. The point is that at its best, this series’ trademark breadth and its giant battles give you a sense of not quite power, but that you’re wielding an entire nation like a weapon, parrying invasions and beheading states. Course, if we step back a bit, what the Total War series provides is the appeal of hardcore, detailed, tabletop wargames distilled into a dramatic and accessible framework. Rather than reading a rulebook the width of your arm and then nudging cardboard tokens around, the game itself gently teaches you how to play it and then shows you thousands of men clashing with one another. Technology, baby! And nobody elevates this particular hobby better than Total War. Not that many people have tried recently, but still.
RELEASE DATE: 2000
The question poised by Ground Control was a simple one- “What if we made an RTS with no base building?” (It’s also a very nerdy one, and should probably be spoken aloud while pinching your nose closed.) Yes, Massive Entertainment’s sci-fi strategy title was a bit of a trailblazer, forcing you to carefully shunt your precious forces through levels with all the pitfalls and tension of a platformer viewed from above. You were so terrified to lose anybody, such was the game’s interest in experience carried from battle to battle and the steely charisma of the little guys. Anyone who played Ground Control will remember the theatre of your artillery, the villainy of planes shredding ground troops with no air support, the dozens of brutal special weapons unleashed with the lightest of mouseclicks. Which is to say nothing of the writing, which provided a backdrop of passion and deception to the warfare between cold-hearted religious institution and cold-hearted corporation. The entire game was simply a rock-solid package.
Giants: Citizen Kabuto
RELEASE DATE: 2000
IMPORTANCENESS: Optimistically so
Giants, really, is important for its attitude. “Can we make a 3rd person sci-fi base building squad shooter?” it asks. “Could we face that side off against an entirely asymmetrical race of sea nymphs? Could we throw in a THIRD side, which is some kind of massive Godzilla creature? And maybe the Godzilla thing starts small, then gets bigger and also has babies? Would that work?” In short, the answer was “No, not really,” but dammit these guys tried.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
RELEASE DATE: 2010
I like Amnesia for the ethos behind it as much as anything else. The horror genre’s always been diluted by attempts to lever standard game frameworks on top of it, whether that makes a game a horror puzzler, a horror shooter, a horror adventure game and so on. Amnesia? Amnesia’s just interested in horror. You can’t imagine Amnesia without the horror. It’d just be a bender wandering around an empty house. And yet that horror is spread so tangibly and thickly across the surface of the game that it fills it entirely, making for as thoroughly satisfying and engaging an experience as a game that might need, say, a tutorial or a rulebook. You understand? I’m talking about the horror. The horror.
System Shock 2
RELEASE DATE: 1999
In the wake of slippery BioShock, it’s perhaps worth looking back at System Shock 2 to see why the release Irrational’s watery opus was tinged with disappointment. BioShock was a broad, spectacular action game, but SS2 was an immersive sim and simply had more to offer. Inventory management, a more real sense of weakness and horror, heftier puzzles, environment mapping- it all builds into a sense of trust in the player that was absent in Bioshock. SS2 trusted that you’d figure out what happened onboard this ship, or the way into that room, or the way to survive against these creatures, which made for a more rewarding experience overall. It was simply a crystallisation of the first System Shock, providing something harder, sharper and larger, sacrificing nothing.
RELEASE DATE: 2001
It’s always fascinating when Western or Eastern developers take a stab at a genre considered to belong to the other. A good example of this is Namco’s mad-as-boots FPS Breakdown, and another is Ion Storm’s surrealist noir JRPG Anachronox, which managed all the epic scale of the form while achieving a barrage of successes unusual for the genre, like naturalistic patter between characters, a fairy generous attitude to content and a nice studding of minigames. The finished product also wandered into tedious territory at times, but its music, imagery and dialogue had a habit of sticking around in your head. Also, one of the characters in your party was an entire planet populated by billions of people that had shrunk itself to travel alongside you. And the mouse cursor was a flying robot that existed in-game. And the planet of Anachronox itself is made up of countless plates that shift endlessly, as if some unseen hand were trying to solve the place like a Rubix cube. And. And!
RELEASE DATE: 1996
IMPORTANCENESS: Seven out of ten
FASA’s MechWarrior universe is an absolutely killer license for a videogame, and as much as I love Mech Commander I’d happily admit that MechWarrior 2 did it best. “Weight” and “feel” are nebulous concepts and as such are tricky to get right in a game, but when an action title does nail them so it’s satisfying to simply walk around, take a hit or fire your gun, it’s a thing of beauty. But when a game about piloting 120 ton bipedal battle robots gets them right… that’s a whole other level. Tell you what- I’ve never been into any hardcore sims, but if somebody announced a MechWarrior game with the complexity and attention to detail of, say, IL-2 Sturmovik, I’d be out there building a cockpit in my shed within the hour, and I don’t even have a shed. Or a garden. I’d have to buy a shed and put it up in my living room. But I’d do it. That’s how serious I am.
Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2
RELEASE DATE: 1998
It wasn’t Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2′s unwieldly, mutant size that made them landmark games. No, it was what they did with the content. Bioware did something far more impressive these Advanced Dungeons & Dragons-driven games than simply making them long- they brought them to life with incidental details, with side quests that could have comfortably been the plots of lesser RPGs, with more party relationships than you’d expect from Prince after a gig. They added and added to these worlds of theirs, until they had a game where as rigid as the central plot was, it still felt like your story. As much as I adore Mass Effect 2, that’s not something I feel Bioware has repeated since.
Jagged Alliance 2
RELEASE DATE: 1999
As game plots go, Jagged Alliance 2′s is a favourite of mine. A 3rd world dictator needs toppling, here are some funds to hire some bad dudes to lead, the lot of you will be inserted into the country by helicopter, go! It’s to the point, the scale of your mission is immediately engaging and the freedom it hints at is massively seductive. To start playing the game and discover that it’s every bit as freeform, every inch as badass as you could have hoped? That’s a marvel. This game had it all. It was cinematic yet believable, serious business capable of kidding around, huge yet human. You fought battle after battle, but the pain of losing a merc was horrific. You were the best of the best, but you weren’t above repurposing an ice-cream truck to get around (or teaching one another different skills). You fought tanks, but you were scared of the bloody things. And if you finally toppled that bitch Deidranna, when you finally freed the country, streaked with blood and sweat and stories, it felt like an achievement. I’m just going to flick the obvious question into the middle of the room like a cigarette butt, now: What was the last AAA, boxed game you played recently, in these times of unlockable achievements, where beating the game felt like an achievement?
Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares
RELEASE DATE: 1996
Everyone talks about Alpha Centauri (as well they should), but Master of Orion 2 not only pre-dated it by three years, the sci-fi grand strategy it offered included Death Stars, wiping out whole planets with biological bombs and the Darloks, an entire species of creepy guys in hoods who specialise in spying. I could go on. It was simply a more fun, colourful interpretation of the future than Alpha Centauri, utilising every scrap of sci-fi it could think of and smoothly slotting it into the tech tree. It was Galactic Civilizations before Galactic Civilizations, for sure.
Uplink: Hacker Elite
RELEASE DATE: 2001
I was young enough when I loaded Uplink for the first time to experience a pang of fear at its immersive intro sequence. Was I really connecting to an international community of hackers, bouncing my signal through computers worldwide to thieve electronic reserves of money and data remotely? The fact that it looked like the lovechild of a Tron still and a spreadsheet did nothing to bring me back down to Earth. My dad was gonna be soo cross. Fortunately I wasn’t actually committing cyber-crimes, but my youth made it easy for me to pretend I was for the entire duration of my time with Uplink. Not that that plausibility was what made Uplink a great game. That was just one aspect of it. What made Uplink a great game was that it was exactly that- a great game. No plot, no set-pieces, no fluff. Like some giddy future-solitaire, it laid out its rules and then you played the game within the confines of those rules. You had fun, riding waves of tension, elation and disappointment, edging your way up towards your high scores and maybe past them, until the final mistake came that ended the game. There aren’t many games as brash as that on this list.
Sid Meier’s Civilization II
RELEASE DATE: 1996
This epic, history-straddling strategy series has an unreal knack for gluing PC owners to their mice and monitors. Part of that was always down to it being a great strategy game that dropped an intriguing decision at your feet every minute, but I’d argue that the real appeal was in watching something grow. Unlike most base-building strategy games where you put something together, win or lose, wipe the slate clean and start again within 30 minutes, Civilization had you growing your nation for dozens of hours, right up to its endgame. The reason those intriguing decisions were so intriguing is that they affected the shape of your holdings for thousands of years. If you conquered somewhere it would sit there, the ultimate trophy, for every future turn. Likewise, if you built a road or discovered a technology, you were laying the foundation for future development. It’s exactly like how unlockables have revolutionised the online FPS in recent years. It’s hopelessly addicting to load up a game and be playing off the back of all your past experiences.
Nethack / Angband / ZangbandTK
RELEASE DATE: Various
Here’s something else that’s hopelessly addicting. Playing a game that offers you something to lose. These classic roguelikes (ZangbandTK being a fan-made freeware variant) work off a very simple formula. You create a hero and explore a big, randomly-generated world, gradually mapping your land out and encountering progressively nastier creatures, until eventually some hateful combination of bad luck, bad calls and fate gets the better of you (a particularly nasty monster, a particularly optimistic prayer to a vengeful God for help, you get the idea). At that point everything you’ve gathered, all the experience, your character’s story- it’s over. Move on. I can be pragmatic about it here, but the truth is that losing a prized character in a roguelike is a monstrously distressing twist of the knife and impresses a sense of grandeur and nobility on the entire game. With the exception of Spelunky, that virtually nobody has picked up on the permadeath + randomised world teachings of roguelikes is bizarre.
RELEASE DATE: 2005
IMPORTANCENESS: Subversively so
Built on ailing technology and released outside of Russia a year late with a miserable translation and no hype or marketing whatsoever, Pathologic was doomed to commercial failure over here before it had so much as touched a shop shelf. That wasn’t bad luck for the developers; I don’t see a way that could have shook down differently, but it was bad luck for gaming in general. Pathologic is one of the most fascinating and adventurous games ever made. Described by developers Ice Pick Lodge as belonging to the barren genre of “experiment in decision making”, Pathologic let you play as one of three healers (a modern doctor, a shaman and a messianical faith healer) arriving in an isolated town in the Russian steppes in about 1910. The moment you arrived an apocalyptic plague broke out, and the game saw your healer combating the plague over 14 days, attempting to enlist the aid of various members of the town, researching the disease, solving problems and trying to keep yourself alive. Interesting elements of Pathologic included its magical realist plot, its morally ambiguous tone that saw you making all sorts of horrible decisions, how it made you as a player start thinking similarly to the healer you chose, its moments of horror and its uniquely cruel and unrelenting atmosphere. Playing Pathologic felt like having a noose slowly tighten around your neck, both mechanically and narratively, and that more gamers didn’t get the most out of it at release is to be lamented. All together now: What a shame.
Please note that this post is but one fragment of a larger list, which in total covers over 100 of what RPS feels is the PC’s most important games (but not all of them). You can find the other parts to date here. More is yet to come.
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