30. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
For some people, Morrowind will always be the best Elder Scrolls game. It’s the one that doesn’t compromise for anyone, a beautiful relic of a bygone era when Bethesda weren’t trying to or didn’t believe they could chase the mass-market. It’s weird. It’s surprising. It’s experimental. It’s difficult to decipher, at first. It’s clunky, too, but that fades away once you realise quite how much you have at your disposal. Very few edges are filed off in the name of explicability or trope. It is one of the best ‘stranger in a strange land’ experiences you can have in a game.
With mods, you can make it feel something close to new again, too. There are HD texture packs and quality-of-life tweaks aplenty to make it accessible. Its age means it’s still not the Elder Scrolls game we’d recommend you start with, but if you’ve experience with the genre and are looking to visit a place you’ve never seen before, Morrowind holds up.
29. Ultima VII: The Complete Edition
Ultima VII is a game engineered to convince the player that they are part of a world that doesn’t revolve around their character. You are not the centre of the system, the sun around which all things orbit. More than twenty years later, it’s still one of the best examples of its type. It’s an RPG that starts with a murder investigation rather than a dungeon crawl, set in a place where NPCs work, eat and sleep. It is an RPG about life rather than death and the experience that death bestows.
Interacting with the world is as unusual and gratifying as observing it. There is no crafting skill in Ultima VII, you simply learn to make things. You can bake, you can make clothes, you can rearrange the books on a shelf, position your bedroll in a clearing under the stars, shift the furniture around in an NPC’s house when their back is turned. It’s still rare, that sense of visiting a living world, one that seems capable of continuing when the lights are switched off and where every tree that falls makes a sound whether you’re there to hear it or not.
The iconography of Fallout’s world has become so powerful that it can make a crowd at E3 holler in excitement and is suitable for merchandising and special edition branding opportunities. Vault Boy, the vault dweller’s uniform, the faux-fifties post-apocalypse – these are big budget concerns and where the series once parodied popular culture, it has now become a part of it.
With the sound and fury of the Wasteland louder than ever, it’s easy to forget where it all began. The first Fallout game, released in 1997, was as memorable for its societies of ghouls and weird religions as for its between-times flavour. It’s a wonderfully liberating game. Interplay throws so many ideas at the wall, it doesn’t matter when a few slither to the ground rather than sticking. There’s a richness and weirdness to the tonal shifts – from grave survivalism and harrowing oppression to B-movie trashiness and Dr Who references – that the shift to 3D has never entirely recaptured. Most importantly, beneath all of the surface feeling there is a solid RPG system that encourages playful experimentation rather than determined min-maxing. It’s a system entirely in keeping with the unexpected playfulness of the setting.
27. Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon would be an inventive and challenging roguelike even without its two major innovations: ongoing, reactive narration and an extended investigation into the psychological effects of repeatedly chucking adventurers into dungeons full of unspeakable horrors. The more you make them fight, down there in the dark, the more vices and phobias they develop, steadily becoming greater liabilities even as their skills improve.
This is presuming you can keep them alive in the first place, of course. The Dungeon has a high turnover. Where the Bioware model of RPGs has you chat to team members at length to keep them happy, Darkest Dungeon is a thoughtful – and stressful – management game. There are no magic bullets to cure insanity – it’s ongoing and expensive work, and if things get too out of hand you simply need to let your heroes go. The papercraft visual style is a treat too, while the turn-based combat is massively strategic and full of deadly variety.
26. Legend Of Grimrock 2
After the delightful Dungeon Master tribute that was first-person RPG Legend Of Grimrock, Almost Human could likely have rested on those laurels and created another series of descending dungeons packed with monsters and puzzles. But they decided to go bigger, and indeed better. Grimrock II takes things upstairs and outdoors, with an enormous, sprawling map of multiple regions, to explore one tile at a time.
It’s a much more difficult game, not just with tougher puzzles and enemies, but by being open enough that you can wander into areas far too tricky to cope with early on. Then it’s packed with multi-floor dungeons all over the place, each a trove of challenges and treasures. Superbly put together, and surprisingly tricky, it’s perhaps the Chaos Strikes Back tribute no one was expecting. Ooh, and that fireball spell – what a treat.
25. Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord
Bannerlord expands on the Mount & Blade template in almost every way. You create a character, and then wander a huge world looking for an army to recruit. To begin with, you’re crap at everything, but through play your mental and physical stats improve. You win fights, use your winnings to pay and grow your army, and win bigger fights. When not hitting things with swords or poking them with spears, you deal with a dynamic economy of traders and caravans, do jobs for the criminal underworld, or try to woo the nobles.
Where previous games in the series painted every part of your adventures with a broad brush, Bannerlord dives down into the details. There are more weapons and different kinds of soldiers to hire, and more complexity to combat. There’s more variety in jobs to perform and far less repeated dialogue. Each system is now more interesting to tinker with, and you need a lot less imagination – or fewer mods – to string those systems into a fun story than before. The only caveat is that Bannerlord remains in early access, with balancing and bug fixing still in progress.
24. Fallout: New Vegas
New Vegas crafts a more believable world than any other Fallout game to date. Where the other games in the post-nuclear series have been crammed with colour and flavour but somewhat lacking in theme, Obsidian’s take on the Wasteland borrows inspiration from the water wars of Chinatown and the great Western land grab.
It asks how and why people will struggle to survive in a place that is at best inhospitable and at worst outright hostile to human survival, and it plants the player character in the burned-out remains of a region that was already parched before the bombs fell. There’s an attempt to make sense of the weird clash of cultures and styles that had become a hallmark of Fallout’s world and it’s all wrapped in a story, engine and reputation system flexible enough to allow for free-form roleplaying within the boundaries of its blighted territories.
23. Sunless Skies
Who among us has not looked at the stars and thought: “I would like to fly through those in a steam train”? A common dream, and one which is indulged by the Victorian astro-wanderers of Sunless Skies. Like its predecessor, this is often a game about turning your ship slowly around to fire steampunk cannons at unimaginable horrors.
But it is also about adventuring across terrifying voids, about meeting ancient interdimensional beings in the cosmos, eating the cooked flesh of your first mate because he died yesterday and, let’s face it, we’re out of food. There is horror here, yes, but there is also wonder. And most of this wonder is delivered not with sprawling vistas or anime bombast, but in ticking prose that lets your own imagination fill in the gaps of your space train’s story, ill-fated or otherwise.
22. Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic
Lots of games are the best Star Wars game, but KOTOR can lay claim to being both the best Star Wars RPG and the best Jedi/Sith game. This was Bioware both hitting their populist stride and being unabashed Star Wars fans, folding the guns ‘n’ conversation structure they’d later nail in Mass Effect into a sort of greatest hits tour of the house of Lucas.
By rewinding the timeline to centuries before the original films, they had free reign to use everything we so badly wanted to see in a Star Wars game without any fear of toe-treading. Add to that persistent choice to be a cosmic hero or a galactic prick (or something in between), some chunky plot twists and what might just be the best ever Bioware supporting cast, and you’ll find that KOTOR remains a classic despite increasingly showing its age.
21. Monster Hunter: World
Monster Hunter: World is about being the most fashionably efficient beast killer in the jungle (or desert, or swamp). It has a story campaign about catching a gargantuan beast, along with some questionable ecological practices. But really this is a solid turn-your-brain-off tramp through a detailed landscape, full of slow, careful brawls with giant beasts after which you collect their skulls to wear as bone helmets.
There is so much gear to craft. Scaley kneepads, massive hammers, pooey slingshots – you will make use of all these and more to track and tranquilise a big fire-breathing T-Rex. There are 14 different main weapons and they all handle in different ways, often changing how you’ll conduct your whole hunt. All this gear-chasing does mean there is the endless levelling-up feel of an MMO at times, but when you stumble across a new species, part Jesus lizard, part Jaguar, all that dissipates like a puff of tranquiliser gas, and another long fight begins.