20. Red Dead Redemption 2
We’ve written a fair bit about The Cowboy Game by now – and yet, it never gets any easier to resist the urge to open with some kind of deadpan variant on “yee haw” or the likes. In fact, we’ve only avoided succumbing to the temptation now by confessing to it instead. The reason it’s so hard not to yee or haw, of course, is that RDR2 really is as good a distillation of Western cliches as you could hope to find in a game – it’s not called The Cowboy Game for nothing.
It is an enormous playground in which to be a cowboy, where you can hunt, gamble, gunfight, camp, bean-chug, fish, rustle, mosey, bank-rob, train-rob, blackjack, horse-groom, bird-burst and swamp-trudge to your heart’s content. If you could feasibly imagine a cowboy doing it, it’s probably possible to do in the game. You can even go to a crap late-Victorian cinema, or just have a relaxing bath.
For what it’s worth, the game has a much more engrossing story than it needs to, as well. In fact, we rate the characters pretty highly – not least the main lad Arthur Morgan, who is a genuinely thoughtful take on the classic ‘morally ambiguous outlaw’ trope. He’s a bruiser who’s not afraid to talk about his feelings, even though he doesn’t always know what his feelings are. He’s a killer, but his heart isn’t entirely in it. It’s a big heart, is Arthur’s. But it’s got stubble all over it.
It’s a bit of a shame, in fact, that to make his story play out, you have no choice but to constantly make him do massacres. There’s only ever one way through any given mission, and since that way usually takes Arthur through a lake of spilled blood, you often feel completely at odds with the impression you’ve built of him in your head. So take him off on an endless, aimless odyssey of vague Cowboy activities instead – as with the best of open-world games, there’s so much in this digital West that you’ll never find yourself short of something to do, even if you abandon the narrative completely.
What else should I be playing: We can’t legally recommend the original Red Dead as it’s not on PC, but this one largely does everything better anyway. If you wish that Arthur’s horse was a car, there’s always Rockstar’s gargantuan money machine GTA V. And if you’re after immersive, historical open-worldliness, with good story and lots of weirdly engrossing busywork, we’d recommend Kingdom Come: Deliverance, on the caveat that the developers got themselves mired in the debate on “authenticity” and racism in historical games, and didn’t come out of it brilliantly.
19. Rise of the Tomb Raider
Following on from the 2013 reboot, Rise Of The Tomb Raider felt like the new series of Lara Croft’s ruff, tuff survival adventures really found its footing. While 2018’s Shadow Of The Tomb Raider had some good puzzle-and-platforming tombs, Rise combines the traditional Croftian theft of ancient artefacts with some really splendid survival and action bits, which is why it’s our pick of the bunch.
Perhaps the feeling of danger and isolation is enhanced because it’s so bloody cold. For much of Rise, Lara is on the back foot and stranded in Siberia, so scavenging and hunting to enhance your gear feels extra essential. Those moments where she can warm herself next to a pitiful little fire seem like an actual reprieve for Lara.
Lara is packing a lot more metaphorical heat in Rise, though, with a buncha guns as well as the quieter stealth options. In Shadow the emphasis is much more on the latter, but Rise is a lot of fun precisely because you know that if things go south and you get spotted by the Trinity goons, at least you’ve got a massive shotgun backing you up. There are a lot more tense animal encounters in Rise, too, which channels the spirit of the classic Tomb Raider games. If you’re not sure where to start with the reboot, popping on a parka and joining Lara in the frozen wastes of Russia is probably the way to go.
What else should I be playing: While we’ve picked Rise as our favourite of the new Tomb Raiders, we’d be hard pressed to not recommend them if you like this entry. We can’t yet tell you to play Horizon Zero Dawn, which has a very similar feel but with the addition of a big robot t-rex, but the Far Cry series will give you a similar hit of action survival whilst making wallets out of boar hide.
18. Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow
Look, we know we said no Metroidvanias on this list, but hear us out. Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow is not what you think it is. While its name may have become entangled with Nintendo’s twisty-turny space blaster series over the years, Lords of Shadow is as linear as they come. And by golly what a corker it is, too. Once again, it’s a classic clash between the Belmonts and the big king Drac. This time, it’s Gabriel B stepping up to the Belmont plate, and armed with his trusty Combat Cross, he must wade through swamps, temples, forests, lakes and all manner of dungeons before he can finally confront his arch nemesis.
It’s as broad and cliched as they come, but it’s also deliciously retro-feeling in its style and structure, drawing on the DNA of Super Castlevania IV and re-shaping it into the grand 3D adventure you’ve always dreamed of. Indeed, with developers Mercurysteam going all in on the type of wild creature design you might expect from a Guillermo del Toro film, Lords of Shadow continues to have a wonderfully ethereal kind of beauty about it even today.
Of course, thanks to Gabriel’s lethal Combat Cross, it’s not long before those cooing ‘ahhhh’s turn into ghoulish ‘uhhhh’s. This retractable chain whip swishes and slashes with deadly precision, and it’s probably the closest thing PC has to God of War’s Blades of Chaos, which, let’s not forget, is arguably one of the most satisfying hack and slash weapons of all time. The Combat Cross isn’t just good for skewering demons and doing your best “GET OVER HERE!” impression from Mortal Kombat, though. It also doubles up as a grappling hook, letting Gabriel soar to ever greater heights as he heads towards Dracula’s castle looming forever on the horizon, whether it’s taking down the game’s Shadow of the Colossus-style Titan bosses or sniffing out secret areas in the world around him.
Lords of Shadow can be a bit serious at times, and there are other games on this list that do the whole ‘evil, screen-hogging demon’ thing with a bit more style and sense of playfulness. In terms of epic scale and thrilling set-pieces, though, Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow still holds up as one of today’s action greats. Plus, you’ve got Sir Patrick Stewart hamming it up as both the game’s narrator and Gabriel’s mate Zobek, which way more enjoyable than anything you’ll hear in Rise Of The Tomb Raider. Just a shame about the sequel, eh?
What else should I be playing: Alas, while Lords Of Shadow ended on the best cliffhanger of all time, its sequel Lords of Shadow 2 is nowhere near as good as the first one. Do give Lords of Shadow: Mirror Of Fate a go, though, as this excellent middle chapter in the Lords Of Shadow series is classic Metroidvania fare. If you’re into bashing demons at speed, though, then you should also check out Bayonetta and Devil May Cry 5, which you’ll find elsewhere on this list.
17. Nuclear Throne
Nuclear Throne is crunchier than a box of cornflakes. Nothing dies in its wasteland without going splat, no gun fires without a reverberating thud. Of all the things to praise about Vlambeer’s roguelike, the noises come out on top.
There’s the twang of the crossbow, the thwump of the wrench. The deep wailing of the big robotic dog, moments before it vapourises you. Every enemy is a joy to disintegrate, providing they don’t disintegrate you first. Disaster lurks behind a moment’s hesitation, or a split-second misjudgement. Then you’re right back at the start, clawing your way towards the throne once more.
The path there is paved with ignoble deaths. You’ll blow yourself up with your own bazooka. You’ll shoot a monument, and accidentally summon the extra-dimensional police. You’ll be eaten by a maggot. You’ll keep coming back, though. You’ll keep unlocking characters, each with their own distinctive styles. You’ll turn back bullets using the telekinesis powers of a creature made of eyes, explode corpses as a melting mutant, eat guns as a robot. The throne will get a little closer with each attempt, and one day you’ll sit atop it.
What else should I be playing: Spelunky is still the finest roguelike this side of Spelunky 2, and it’s even more brutal than Nuclear Throne.
We think we all knew that we needed an action adventure version of The X-Files, didn’t we? Jesse Faden is drawn to the Federal Bureau of Control (essentially what would happen if Mulder and Scully were given an entire clandestine wing of government) and accidentally becomes the head of the entire place by picking up a magic gun.
At the same time, the building is being attacked by an entity called The Hiss, a malevolent energy seeping from another dimension. Mondays, am I right? What follows is an original and satisfying shooty action game, because you don’t have to just shoot bad guys – you can also hurl fire extinguishers at them. And fly, as well.
Control has been compared to things like Twin Peaks, because of the general tone. The Oldest House, the building the FBC is in, moves around Jesse. Walls shift. New areas reveal option extras, like a kind of pan-dimensional fungus. You don’t have a mini-map, but you do have a map you can bring up sometimes, and cross reference with the helpful signs on the walls. It’s like having a telekinetic firefight in an NHS hospital, but if the hospital was a concrete brutalist beauty, and it absolutely owns.
Where can I buy it: Epic
What else should I be playing: Alan Wake was Remedy Entertainment’s previous most famous game, and continues the general David Fincherian vibe. There’s also Quantum Break, another Remedy game along similar weird science lines, but with added FMV.