Synopsis: When it comes to old-school RTS games, no one did it bigger or better than Ensemble's Age of Kings. Though it lacked the sophisticated tactical action of Starcraft, Age of Kings' rock-paper-scissors combat model and its subtle balancing of a wide range of civilizations makes it one of the most enjoyable RTS games ever. Sure, the historical setting required a bit of similarity among the unit types but the advantages and disadvantages of each civilization were so intriguing that no one side played like any other. Possessing one of the most engaging resource models in any RTS before or since, Age of Kings was just as much about your infrastructure as it was about your armies. The RTS has definitely evolved a lot over the last eight years but Age of Kings still represents the peak of what historical RTS games used to be.
Synopsis: For many, the fist-person shooter genre really bloomed with the original Half-Life. While the game introduced grand new storytelling techniques and used atmosphere and tension to draw gameplay along, we decided for today's purposes that Half-Life 2 is simply the better game. Amazingly enough, the sequel did manage to best the original through the wide variety of gameplay provided. Whether it was straight up run and gun, vehicle combat, or physics based puzzles, there were no dull moments to be found in Gordon Freeman's assault on City 17. The same story-telling techniques that made Half-Life so popular were back and improved thanks to character models with emotion (in voice and animation) and the brilliant dystopian City-17 of the future. The game immediately managed to draw us in and create the best single-player first-person shooter entertainment experience ever made on the PC. That long six year wait ended heroically.
Synopsis: Fitter, happier, more productive. The citizens of your city are free to live long and happy lives presuming you have any clue what goes into city planning. If not, SimCity 2000 will give you a crash course to help create your own utopia and then allow you to smash it with an alien or monster attack when your citizens have grown too fat and lazy (they don't, but imagination opens up all kinds of possibility). SimCity gave players an open sandbox in which to create their own perfect (or disastrous) city using a clever paint tool style interface. The more services a city had, the more attractive it would become to people hoping to move there. In addition to being sickeningly addictive, the title helped provide a base for players to educate themselves on the workings of a city and the dangers of crime and pollution.. SimCity 2000 is a sleeker model of the original and still one of the most ingenious and creative titles ever shipped for the PC.
Synopsis: Plenty of Dungeons and Dragons based PC RPGs have come out over the years, but Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn had the biggest impact. Riding the surge of praise after the release of Baldur's Gate in 1998, the sequel delivered an even more fully featured pseudo-turn-based combat system, expansive environments, a seemingly endless number of side quests, and a compelling narrative. If there's a single element that makes BGII stand out, it's character. The game had a truly sinister, multi-faceted villain, as well as some hilarious NPC companions. Take Minsc, for example, a brash fighter who frequently consulted with Boo, his trusty hamster companion. If you never bothered with this when it first came out in 2000, you should pick up a copy this instant. It may not look so good anymore, but it's still one of the best RPGs ever made.
Synopsis: When you say the three letters RTS, there are a few games that immediately pop to mind. For millions of gamers, it's StarCraft. It remains as one of the most popular real-time strategy games played on the Internet around the world. For those of us that only revisit on occasion, there's still an immense amount to love. StarCraft managed to create three wildly different factions in nearly all forms. Motivation, technology, and biology provided an amazing platform for a brilliant story and universe. Even more amazing was the ability to create checks and balances when none of the races shared units or even particular functions. Even the builder units acted much differently to fit the background of each race. The superb balance translated into enticing and addictive gameplay. The galactic war between the Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg proved to be one of the most entertaining pieces of software ever created and the unannounced sequel (we have hope) is still one of the most asked about games of the future.
Synopsis: Fallout really had it all: dynamic, believable characters; a quality of narrative and storytelling too rarely seen in games; and the opportunity for players to drastically affect how events proceeded. It was a game that above all else recognized and rewarded the player's free will. Fallout's fiction and game world were vivid, it's character development system deep, and it possessed an often hilarious tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Peering past the post-apocalyptic science fiction surface, deeper cultural themes become apparent, echoing notions of humanity's absurd fallacies hit on in novels like Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Though games like Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment and plenty of others are all worthy of the PC RPG crown, this 1997 release from Interplay is our choice for the top of the heap.
Synopsis: Creative Assembly's third entry in the Total War series represents some of the deepest, most polished, and addictive strategic gameplay out there. Fusing a 4X style overworld map with riveting real-time battles, there was a near overwhelming amount of expertly designed content to chew through. The A.I. always put up a challenging fight, making aggressive overworld map moves and employing effective tactics on the battlefield. Rome offered even more complex siege battles, cities whose appearance reflected the structures placed therein, a wide range of highly detailed units, and unprecedented sound design. This is one of those games that when you start playing, it's near impossible to stop, and is certainly worthy of being considered one of the top PC games of all time.
Synopsis: Fans of space combat games will always have a soft spot to games like Wing Commander or Elite, but no game before or since has captured the drama and action of the genre as well as TIE Fighter. Benefiting from the lessons learned from the X-Wing game that launched the franchise, TIE Fighter boasted some of the best flight mechanics and mission design ever seen in a space combat game. Long before Knights of the Old Republic gave us a chance to see what it's like to serve the Empire, TIE Fighter presented the opportunity for the player to become the villain. The Collector's Edition went one better by adding improved polygonal graphics and brilliant sound design. There have been a few imitators since this classic game was released, but none have come close to delivering the excitement and joy that we still find running secret missions for the Emperor.
Synopsis: One of the Civilization games was absolutely going to be in the top 5 in this list, it was just a matter of which one we chose to occupy the spot. For years, it was largely understood that Civilization II was the best in the series offering up complex strategy in a palatable and even graceful format. Some out there would probably still argue that it's the best of the bunch, but we decided the latest went above and beyond that great title with more improvements than can be counted. From the revamped damage system to the diplomatic improvements and inclusion of religion, Civilization IV provides the most addictive 4X experience on the market. Even worse for those of us incapable of quitting to desktop is the inclusion of a very workable multiplayer solution. Turn-based strategy has never been easy this way, but Firaxis managed to make it easy, make saves work, and make it easily as much fun as the single player if not more so. Civilization IV is a brilliant game.
Synopsis: It may be old as hell and you may have to actually disable DirectDraw to get it to run these days but there's still no PC game that can compete with the mighty X-COM. Conceptually it's one of the finest strategy games to ever appear on any system. Putting the player in charge of a worldwide defense against an alien invasion, the original X-COM combined elements of sophisticated base management, high-tech research, engaging roleplaying, thrilling tactical combat and a tense, terrifying story to create an experience that has yet to be duplicated by any other game. Leading your squads on missions to reclaim crashed UFOs or fighting house to house in an effort to repel alien terror attacks on major cities throughout the world were the highlights of the game but X-COM has plenty of other pleasures in store, from juggling personnel and equipment to keeping the nations of the world happy enough to sustain your budget. Simply put, there's no excuse for strategy fans not to break this one out and play through it again.
You've seen all of our choices and read our Top 25 feature. Now what? How about a special episode of our show IGN Weekly? We've gathered all the editors together to reflect on what truly made these games great. So now you can savor this moment a littler longer. Just sit back, turn up the volume, and click play. We guarantee not only some of the industry's most respected nerds, but also pretty girls. How can you resist?
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