Summary: Jakub thought deep and long about what the top 10 PC games of all time would be. How to categorize them? We tried Top 5 multiplayer and Top 5 singleplayer. How much credit to give for originality, or for fun factor? How important was popular appeal? Should we reward games that didn't sell well? All these questions and more are answered. Oh... and somehow, Jakub fit 12 games into a top 10 list. Read on to find out which ones made the cut!
Number 5, multiplayer
Tied for fifth spot are two games that revolutionized multiplayer by bringing roleplaying games to the market.
Often called the most addictive game of all time, Diablo polarized the gaming community. At a time when traditional RPGs were dying, this RPG-lite title appeared and stole the show, creating much resentment among the roleplaying enthusiasts who didn't want their cherished games to become simplified hack and slash clickfests. Yet, it's quite possible that Diablo kept the RPG market alive and injected fresh ideas of realtime combat, ideas that perhaps influenced the eventual savior of PC roleplaying, Baldur's Gate.
Diablo is remembered for more than its gameplay. It gave gamers yet another reason to connect to the internet, and it revolutionized online internet play. At a time when most people were going to websites to check for Quake servers online and QuakeSpy (later GameSpy) was just catching on, Diablo introduced us to Battle.net. Online matchmaking was easy, simple and done with just a few clicks, not trying to remember IP addresses and port numbers. With Diablo, the mainstream masses had the first game that brought them online.
On the other side of the fence is BioWare's Neverwinter Nights. Five years of development created a game that tapped into a market that no one believed could exist. Explicitly designed to appeal to D&D players who wanted to bring the tabletop experience to the PC, NWN boasts ever-rising player numbers, with an average of 7500 players online at any given moment and 30,000 unique users logging on per day.
The Solstice Toolset permits Dungeon Masters and even mere designers the ability to create entire worlds for players to explore, conquer and interact in. Any content from Neverwinter or its expansions is available to designers, and the robust scripting language permits construction of complex quests and dialogues. With the toolset, a Dungeon Master can design new items and weapons, customize creatures and characters to his liking and populate the world as he sees fit. The new Hordes of the Underdark expansion permits players to go all the way from level 1 to 40, from safe city tiles through wild woods, deserts, the underdark and even the planes themselves.
Adam Miller, creator of the highly acclaimed and popular Dreamcatcher series for Neverwinter Nights, was kind enough to share a few comments about the game:
I've long toyed with the idea of making my own roleplaying computer game, but not until Neverwinter Nights was released was I able to make it a reality. With the game came incredible tools, allowing me to construct an epic tale that over a hundred thousand people around the world have played. A legion of fans supports the game, creating thousands of modules and bringing such worlds as Planescape and Dragonlance to life.
BioWare's gamble that a market for such a game exists and that independent content designers will deliver the goods paid off. Few, if any, other games permit end-users so much power over their own product. Many of the modules for Neverwinter Nights were better than the original campaign, and some rival the expansions in popular appeal and quality.
For revolutionizing multiplayer gaming, introducing multiplayer to RPGs and creating a new kind of community, Diablo and Neverwinter Nights share position Number 5 on FiringSquad's Top Multiplayer Games of All Time.
SIDEBAR: Thanks to Mr. Ohle for the useless NWN facts he kept bombarding me with yesterday.
This is one game that most of you have assuredly never played, though undoubtedly heard of as I constantly harp on its many, many virtues. This is the only real-time strategy, massively multiplayer, team-based tactical space combat game ever. What the hell does all that mean?
Allegiance threw up to one hundred players together on one of two teams, with a huge chunk of space between them to explore, exploit and defend from the enemy. Resources must be gathered to research new weapons and ship designs. These ships and weapons will protect your own AI miners, while striking at the enemy's operations. The race is on to see who can build a cruiser first, to take the enemy star base out.
With a cruiser built, you need crew to man the turrets and cockpit, and it helps to have an escort to protect it from those pesky bombers. That's the job of the commander - he has to organize his team, focus them on the necessary tasks, decide on the research path and keep an eye out for sneak attacks by the enemy.
As a typical pilot or gunner, you'd only have access to the information immediately available to you. Scanners had limited range, and even if you could see across an entire sector, there were many sectors interconnected by the various alephs (wormholes.) If your commander gave you an order, you had to have faith in his abilities and he had to know you could do the task at hand.
That remarkably human quality about the difficulty of command and the limited information offered to any individual player is what made Allegiance special and unique. Sadly, it is this same uniqueness that led to the premature end of the game. Most gamers didn't know how to approach it, the concepts were so foreign and seemed hopelessly mixed up. Could such a weird combination of ideas work, we thought? The answer was a decisive yes for those who tried it, but too few people tried the idea. Besides, who ever heard of a game without singleplayer? Discounting the subscription MMOs (subscription was only optional for Allegiance), no game until Quake III Arena came around with nothing but multiplayer, and succeeded.
Many games get accused of being ahead of their time, but never was this label so apt as with Allegiance. If someone announced Allegiance today, especially with an established license name like Wing Commander or FreeSpace attached to it, we're sure it would get a warmer reception than it did back in the day. For these reasons, Allegiance is FiringSquad's Number 4 Multiplayer Game of All Time.
SIDEBAR: I'm really excited to see what the source code release can do for Allegiance.
Starsiege: Tribes was the defining game of my career. While most of the FiringSquad and gamers crew cut their teeth on Quake, it wouldn't be until years later until I appreciated the game. Tribes was revolutionary in so many ways, it boggles the mind. In days when the most advanced team play options were mods like Quakeworld Team Fortress, Tribes came onto the scene with complex team ideas that are only now starting to become standard.
Capture the Flag was the standard mode of play, but unlike ThreeWave CTF or Team Fortress, Tribes CTF involved the use of vehicles and depriving your enemy of resources. Bases had inventory stations at which players could switch armor and weapons or replenish their health. These areas and the major entrances were guarded by turrets, and all of this was powered by the generators.
Defending the generators was the second most important task after defending your own flag. If the gens go down, your entire base shuts off. The turrets stop fighting and the inventory stations obviously stop working. Without inventory stations, there's no way to get heavy armor and many of the weapons and packs - which makes offense and defense incredibly difficult.
Tribes was most notable for an unintentional design feature - skiing. The game physics permitted even the lumbering heavy armor to go down the side of a hill, gaining momentum, and with precise use of the jump button and jetpack, he could launch himself into the air from another hill. While in the air, the heavy would rain mortars down on unsuspecting enemies, and try to land on the edge of another hill to slide down and back up again. The light armor class would speed by in the meantime, making constant attempts from the flag.
In competitive play, Tribes was a completely different beast. Everyone would be charged with strict duties and the heavies on offense would often follow precise skiing routes in order to minimize travel time to the enemy base. Teams would act like clockwork, relentlessly repeating the tasks they were charged with until the timer wound down. That's not to say that individual skill didn't count, like getting air discs on a heavy trying to fly into the base entrance on Raindance, or gunning down a flag runner with the chaingun at 150m.
Michael "KineticPoet" Johnston, formerly a member of the famed, Imperial Elite tribe, later a contracted designer of Tribes 2 Classic and Team Rabbit 2, and now designer of Tribes Vengeance had this to say when asked about Tribes:
Vehicles. Vast outdoor environments. Focus on teamplay. Online support for at least 32 players. Base equipment and trinkets. Jetpacks offering full freedom of movement. Mixing and matching gear to create your own roles. Never the same game twice. Even today these features make Tribes stand out in a crowd of other FPS games, but several years ago when the original Tribes was released, it was downright revolutionary. Whether you bought the box, downloaded the demo, or "borrowed" it from a buddy, chances are you've tried Tribes. If not, then you've still experienced its influence in any number of other games that have since embraced its successful combination of features. So what happened to Tribes? It's alive and well in a sequel we're creating here at Irrational Games. Check out Tribes: Vengeance later this year, a full single player and multiplayer extravaganza in the spirit of the original Tribes.
For its emphasis on teamwork and fast, unique style of play, Tribes is FiringSquad's Number 3 Multiplayer Game of All Time.
SIDEBAR: I remain, to this day, a Tribes junkie.
There are many real-time strategy games that could arguably take StarCraft's spot on this list. After all, it was WarCraft II that made multiplayer RTS gaming popular through Kali. Red Alert made internet gaming even easier and was arguably the first true internet RTS, and Total Annihilation made the first use of 3D, not to mention truly combining land, sea and air.
Yet if you look at popularity both among mainstream and hardcore gamers, if you look at the numbers of people who play and own StarCraft, there's no comparison. Even Blizzard's follow up, WarCraft III, isn't as popular. No other game has three completely unique races that don't share a single unit. Heck, no two units even resemble each other. Yet, despite the drastic differences between the Zerg, Terran, and Protoss, they remain balanced. The balance hasn't always been maintained, but even at the height of Zerg imbalance,, Terran and Protoss players still stood a chance.
This balance is tricky and always changing, people come up with new tricks all the time and recycle old ones. Styles of play that grew unpopular a year ago can be reintroduced due to their effectiveness against the latest fad. Sure, the pace of development has slowed down, but the competition remains furious. Even those who simplify StarCraft down to the "rushing will beat a hard tech, hard tech beats balanced, and fast teching beats balanced" maxim are often the very same who play the game to this day.
As with its other games, Blizzard has extended continuing support to StarCraft over the years. After the Brood War expansion pack came a host of balance patches, patches that Blizzard delivered after much research and often against the objections of its players because more often than not, what Blizzard did was right. However, the balance changes aren't all. Demo recording was implemented to satisfy the online crowd and this has led to a revolution in how quickly strategies and tactics are picked up by new players.
Not only is StarCraft a multiplayer real-time strategy king, but it remains the benchmark for a singleplayer campaign. Who can forget characters like Raynor, Kerrigan and Tassadar? How about the haunting opening sequence of Brood War, when the foreign Battlecruiser leaves the marines below to die at the hands of the Zerg swarm? And there is only one game that has a more chilling ending than Kerrigan, the Zerg Queen, coming out on top in the end.
In the words of former FiringSquad Editor-in-Chief, and StarCraft strategy guide writer Bob "CalBear" Colayco,
The game had staying power, because aside from the three uniquely balanced races, Blizzard actually took an interest in the game after release (what a concept!). They actively adjusted the game balance over a period of months and years after release and added enhancements and tweaks to the battle.net interface as well. It's amazing that many RTS games today still can't get matchmaking right, and it's five years after Blizzard provided the blueprint with Battle.net
For these reasons and more, StarCraft has earned its position as Number Two on FiringSquad's Best Multiplayer Games of All Time list.
SIDEBAR: I almost failed Math 115 in university because of my SC addiction.
Shakin' and Quakin'
You couldn't get a more predictable answer on FiringSquad for the Number One Multiplayer Game of All Time than Quake. Quake was a revolution like no other game before or since. For the first time, a first-person shooter had true 3D graphics with all the standard bells and whistles. Internet multiplayer was a reality, no longer did players have to fake IPX connections with Kali, or connect through clumsy proprietary gaming services like DWANGO.
The addition of a real third dimension, unlike the "2.5D" of Doom or Duke Nukem, opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The intricate levels permitted two entities to be right over each other, or overhanging ledges - two things that couldn't be done in 2.5D. Aim became a much bigger deal as you had to compensate for the vertical axis. And let's not forget the speed - the game is ruthless. Air maneuvering, incredibly fast runs, instant weapon switching (for that boomstick and shaft combo) and the almost complete lack of sounds made for a vicious mind game.
A better way to measure Quake's contribution is to look at the media attention that focused on it and even the media that sprang up because of Quake. For how many years after did magazines and developers dub games "Quake killers"? Not to mention the sites and businesses that sprang up because of the game. Other than porn, Quake may be the single biggest reason the internet is as popular as it is. It introduced people to a whole new world of possibilities, and this created a market for information, mods and utilities to improve the game. Without Quake we wouldn't have GameSpy (and its competitors like All Seeing Eye), Blue's News, PlanetQuake and the Planet series of sites, Shacknews and mods like Team Fortress or CTF.
Caryn "Hellchick" Law, formerly of PlanetQuake and now working for Activision thanks to her involvement with the game, had this to say:
The beauty of Quake was that it was so many things in one package. Technologically, it was an incredible advancement in game engines. Sure, games had been inching up to real 3D capabilities and pretty hardware rendering, but do you remember the first time you loaded GLQuake and your jaw dropped? I remember it. And what makes Quake deserving of the #1 slot was that it had even more to offer. Quake completely changed the way we played online with its client/server architecture, and enhancements to the netcode meant we could play fast, furious, and bloody deathmatches with our friends that were nothing like what we'd played even in DOOM. And finally, when a GAME can rip someone like myself from a science career and make me say, "I want to work with that for a living," yeah, it deserves the #1 slot.
What science career did Caryn leave behind? She was in grad school, working on a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Yeah, you read that right, and she's damn happy with her choice.
Hence, it is without reservation that we annoint Quake as the Best Multiplayer Game of All Time.
SIDEBAR: GameSpy offered Caryn a job just as her research grant was winding down.
Half-Life is the only game that deserves just as much to be on the multiplayer list as it does on the singleplayer. However, its contributions to singleplayer are far more important, and Half-Life itself is far more accomplished in that area.
Before Half-Life, first-person shooters were simplistic affairs. Levels were created. They were populated with enemies, locked doors, and keys. The player went through, finding the keys and opening the doors. Half-Life totally revamped things. First of all, the story was more than window dressing. While it's an exaggeration to say that Half-Life had a great story, it did have an excellent, consistent setting that it took full advantage of.
The game's creative environments and puzzles, supplemented by some truly trick scripted sequences, made it feel remarkably real. Just think of the anticipation that the non-skippable opening tram ride built up. Before Half-Life, there was almost no such thing as a non-hostile entity in a FPS. Yet, the first level of the game didn't let you shoot anyone, it was only after the accident of the experiment that combat began. Even after that, you'd run into allies here and there who'd help you escape the Black Mesa Facility.
Half-Life is also notable for being the first to truly tackle human beings as a potential enemy AI. Other games had "human" characters, but these were often cartoonized caricatures like ninjas, with little to no AI. Half-Life's AI constructs, particularly the marines, were amazingly lifelike. Marines would spot you, take cover, shoot suppressing fire and throw grenades to flush you out. If you threw a grenade at their position, they'd abandon it like any intelligent being. To this day, there are many games that don't have AI nearly as convincing as Half-Life's. Gamers always judge "human" characters more harshly than they would other entities. For some reason, it makes sense that a monster or blue triangle wouldn't notice if its friends got shot, but a human character can't have even a 5% failure rate without being lambasted for poor AI. Few big games since then have dared to break away from the guidelines sent by Half-Life.
Half-Life's huge installed client base perpetuated what Quake started - online gaming was big. Initially, people were all too happy to play the rather lackadaisical Half-Life deathmatch, but Valve wouldn't sit on its laurels. They acquired the rights to Team Fortress and released Team Fortress Classic as a free download for Half-Life. TF and TFC once seemed to be the ultimate mods, as complicated as we could ever expect from "mere mod teams". Of course, Valve's support was unparalleled and mods took over the gaming scene. Official games like Quake and Tribes were losing their edge compared to free mods like Counter-Strike, which retains its popularity crown after all these years.
For revolutionizing first-person shooter design and helping make realism cool, Valve Software's Half-Life ranks Number Five on FiringSquad's Best Singleplayer Game of All Time list.
SIDEBAR: I picked up Half-Life the day it was available.
Planescape: Torment is the best RPG released on the PC, along with Knights of the Old Republic. However, it came three years before Knights and it's a testament to Torment's design that after those three very long years, it's still good enough to stand toe-to-toe with BioWare's latest. Unfortunately, Torment is also one of the most obscure and unpopular games, the one nobody picked up. "It's like Baldur's Gate, but a weird setting", "You can't design your party", and "That perspective makes it look too much like Diablo" are all common complaints. That it was released almost completely after Christmas didn't help much, either. Yet, like Master of Magic, another game almost no one played, we all like to say we played Torment.
Torment was ahead of its time, but unlike Allegiance, not in a bad way. One of the greatest compliments I can pay to the Black Isle team that developed it is that they out-BioWared BioWare. As good as Baldur's Gate II is, few who've played both games can say that it's the better game. Yes, the combat is better. Yes, it sold better. It had multiplayer too, and a great expansion pack. But Torment had the best story of any game, ever. "Flaws" like pre-built characters were strengths as you played the game and discovered the mystery behind the Nameless One and his strange relationship to the floating skull, Morte.
The mystery and the character developments were interwoven with each other and the game world. Even the famed Ultimas (many of which could rightfully argue their spots onto this list) didn't feel as complete to me as Torment. Oh sure, they had their day and night cycles, and NPCs had schedules, but Torment was so clearly a labor of love, filled with painstaking detail. True, it lacked many of the cooler features of Baldur's Gate II, like getting a fortress for your character or the millions of sidequests with their cool gear, but Torment was more focused and delivered a far better story.
It's almost as if it was half adventure game, half RPG. Adventure game is almost a dirty word nowadays, conjuring up images of cheap, tricky puzzles and corny dialogue, but the way Torment pulled it off, it worked. If you've played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Up until KOTOR, Torment was without comparison. In fact, the similarities of story development and style between the two are more striking than the differences in game mechanics and setting.
I have little doubt that Planescape: Torment influenced the design of Knights of the Old Republic, consciously or not. Or perhaps the designers naturally moved onto the logical next step, the best ideas, all the things they couldn't do in Baldur's Gate I and II - and those happened to be the same ones as in Torment.
Planescape: Torment is Number Four on FiringSquad's Best Singleplayer Games of All Time for being the best RPG, bar none. If Knights had been released earlier it might hold that position, but it'd be a gamble I wouldn't want to place bets on.
SIDEBAR: I just realized how similar Torment and KOTOR are as I was writing this.
As I mentioned in my FreeSpace 2 review (or was it the demo review? Anyway, don't read them, my writing was awful back then.) Like I was saying… as I mentioned back then, I'm an unabashed Wing Commander junkie. Wing Commander was the first game I got on PC and it's still the most memorable. Yet in good conscience I could not place a Wing Commander above FreeSpace 2 on this list.
FreeSpace 2 is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the space sim world. Oh sure, you can make good arguments for TIE Fighter, X-Wing, various Wing Commanders and even the original Descent: FreeSpace: The Great War. But none of these are as polished, technically advanced or mature as FreeSpace 2.
FreeSpace 2 had you fighting as part of a flight that's part of a squadron that's part of a fleet, against an enemy fleet. Enemy starships 3 miles long? Yeah… just sit back and don't bother attacking. Leave it to your cruisers and bombers, while you make sure enemy bombers don't take runs at your ships. How about running escort for corvettes of yours in a nebula, full of firestorms and lightning, with constant magnetic interference that scrambles your sensors as you seek out enemy carriers and cruisers.
How about very difficult, optional missions for special squadrons? Flying stealth fighters to scout out behemoth enemy ships? Or flying deep - way deep - into unknown enemy territory, scanning and destroying objects that you can't even identify. Your scans will be sent into an intelligence agency but you, the lowly pilot, will never, ever know what you attacked, if it was important, and what difference it made.
You are anonymous. You never have a name, only medals, a rank and a squadron. You do your missions and you do them well, an ace many times over, but never given a headlining story. The story starts with a tragic war against fellow brothers and men, and ends up in a desperate fight against an unstoppable enemy alien force.
Unlike so many other games, FreeSpace 2 never falls back on cliches. It never over-exposes the plot, you never end up being disappointed that an enemy hyped as being invicinble is just a push-over. It's impossible to give FreeSpace 2 all the credit it deserves without spoiling the plot. Like its predecessor, it's one of the so very, very few games with the maturity and strength to deny the player, to make him wonder, to leave questions behind. In fact, after FS2, there are more questions than ever about the Shivans, your ultimate enemy.
FreeSpace 2 clinches its award as Number Three on FiringSquad's Best Singleplayer Games of All Time for simply being the best space combat sim, and the most mature game ever. Like Baldur's Gate, Fallout and Descent, it is unfortunate to see this franchise locked down by a publisher that can't afford to develop the games, but we hope that Interplay can rebound from its current troubles.
SIDEBAR: I still have FreeSpace 2 installed.
As with the Number 5 position in multiplayer, we're tied here. Not only is it impossible to say which of these games is better, but it'd be just as difficult to try and bump one of the previous titles off the list.
Civilization influenced subsequent game design like few others. It was OK to abstract, diplomatic AI was important, war wasn't necessary, there was fun in research trees and building. Many would argue it's the best game of all time.
X-Com, however, is the Perfect Game. It did everything. There was absolutely not a single extra feature that was necessary. Replay value is limitless, as levels are designed on the fly and always new. The game has research, an excellent turn-based combat system, and all characters have statistics - an unheard of feature at the time. In fact, it wasn't until around the year 2000 that the trend to give everyone statistics and abilities became commonplace. But more than that, X-Com forces the player to defend his base, to capture aliens and equipment for study, to balance a budget, to build spacecraft and aircraft to shoot down the enemy. The player goes through a fundamental economic and gameplay change about one third of the way through X-Com, when he stops relying on funding from various nations and can support himself through the sale of alien artifacts.
Best of all, the game is perfectly executed. At this time, games were tackling the 640K barrier with odd methods, employing bizarre memory managers that attempted to trick EMS and XMS into behaving like basic RAM, due to limitations on MS-DOS and Intel processors which could only work with 1MB of RAM in real mode. We can see the effects of these managers in the problems that the two Ultima VII games had, for example. X-Com was quite bug free, easy to set up, worked with all major sound cards and graphics cards, worked with the mouse, and looked beautiful. There was nothing more anyone could expect. That's why it was, for a very long time, the highest-rated game by Computer Gaming World, at a time when CGW was the definitive PC publication.
For their lasting contributions and the sheer perfection of design in simplicity, we award Civilization and X-Com the tie for the coveted Number Two position on FiringSquad's Best Singleplayer Game List.
SIDEBAR: Even today, after four years of writing professionally, I don't think I'd be good enough to write for CGW the way they were back then.
SimCity? The Best Singleplayer Game of All Time on FiringSquad? Just what is Jakub smoking, you might ask. Well, nothing really. But you have to admit, deep down inside, that even you get tired of the killing. Sometimes, you just want to sit back, relax, play an easy game where you build a city for people and take care of them. You use rail instead of roads because rail never suffers from traffic problems. You put residential areas near the water front and power plants off in a lonesome corner of the map. And then, when your city is nicely grown, with beautiful bridges, skyscrapers and content citizens, you unleash Godzilla on the unsuspecting Sims.
SimCity made non-violent, non-competitive games cool. Will Wright began development in 1985, but somewhere along the way was told that games needed to have goals and objectives. So, in 1989, when SimCity was released, it had scenarios with pre-built cities that had objectives to fix - scenarios no one played, because as Will Wright rightly guessed, people liked creating from scratch. That we later ruined our creations with floods, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes and monsters is besides the point.
The immense popularity of the non-violent Sim franchise flies in the face of the nanny-state activists who'd have you believe that games are nothing but violence, mindless or otherwise. The Sims became the best-selling PC game last year, and it, like SimGolf, SimAnt, SimEarth, SimLife, SimCity 2000, SimIsle, SimCopter, owes its existence to SimCity. Imagine how much emptier, sadder and, in a way, more cynical gaming would be if not for these light-hearted, constructive and sometimes even educational games.
We've all felt the surge of adrenaline when playing Quake or StarCraft, when competing in seemingly mortal combat against our foul opponent or dread rival. We often get angry when we die or lose battles, we curse, and call each other mexican jew lizards. SimCity and its successors taught us to relax and enjoy, to engage in calm mental exercises that challenged us in non-obvious ways. Just why is this part of town run-down? What can I do to improve it? Do I have to add a new police station or can I simply move one I have? Increase taxes or cut expenses to balance the budget?
No other great designer has contributed as much to the enlightened aspects of gaming as Will. In these times when games are so often under assault for being needlessly violent, and often with good cause (Manhunt, Postal 2), we can always look at the Sim games and feel good about at least part of our hobby. This will be taken as an exaggeration, but SimCity has ensured that PC games will never lose their human side. This is why it passes so many other fabled titles and X-Com, the Perfect Game, for the title of Best Singleplayer PC Game of All Time.
SIDEBAR: This is the end, my only friend.
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