It's hard to understate just how big a year this has been for PC gaming. Even with latest living room consoles just hitting their stride, the real gaming story of the year has been new PC hardware. Systems such as the Alienware Alpha, HP Omen and Lenovo Y50, and 4K components such as Haswell-E CPUs from Intel and GeForce 980 graphics chips from Nvidia, have helped PC games leapfrog past the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
This list represents my picks for the best PC games of 2014. Some are PC-exclusive games from indie developers, where much of the real innovative work in game design is going on, while a few are cross-platform games that simply look and play better on PCs. Your list will no doubt be different, so add your own picks in the comments section below.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (Focus Interactive)
Easily my favorite game of the year. This long-running French game series captures the feel of the original stories, while also channeling everyone's favorite screen incarnation, the 1980s Granada television series starring Jeremy Brett as a cranky know-it-all consulting detective. As my wife put it after seeing this game, "Man, Sherlock Holmes is a jerk."
A visually stunning game that makes the most of its realistic outdoor environments while throwing you into a murky plot with shades of David Lynch and "Twin Peaks." It's more of an exercise in storytelling mechanics than a traditional game, but it looks and plays great, even on midlevel gaming laptops.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers - 20th anniversary edition (Pinkerton Road Studio)
Perhaps with a thumb on the scale for nostalgia, this two-decade-old point-and-click adventure holds up shockingly well, thanks to a setting and plot grounded in real-life New Orleans, and characters who aren't afraid to stand out. The new high-res graphics look great, but it's a shame the original voice cast of B-list stars needed to be replaced.
This challenging hack-and-slash role-playing game isn't a PC exclusive, but it might as well be. GPU maker Nvidia has pitched it as great example of what high-end PC gaming hardware can do, and pushed to the limits on a PC with a GeForce GTX 980 GPU, it looks spectacular, even if the brutal difficulty and overpowered enemies makes it a chore for casual players.
Kickstarter campaigns for PC games outside of the current commercial trends are becoming increasingly common. One of the first successful examples led to this charming point-and-click adventure game that started as a PC exclusive, but later made it to iOS and Android, with a PS4 version coming in 2015. Lest you get any ideas about kickstarting your own adventure game, note that this came with the pedigree of director Tim Schafer, the designer of critically loved games such as Grim Fandango and Psychonauts.
If you can overlook the cloying "8-bit" design aesthetic, this is a challenging series of mini-morality plays set up as sci-fi spy thriller. It's exactly the kind of thought-provoking, text-heavy game that would never fly on consoles, although its brutally unsentimental approach to life and death is hard to handle for too long in one sitting.
Think of this as the classic physics puzzle game Portal pulled out of its underground science lab, and set free in a series of ancient ruins populated with killer robots. It helps that you're apparently a robot yourself (even if nothing is as it seems). Solving puzzles involves swiping glowing Tetris-like puzzle pieces from well-guarded mazes, and the game rides the fine line between longform storytelling and segments of bite-size gaming.
A big-budget action game set in a lush Himalayan environment filled with elephants, rhinos and killer eagles. It will undoubtedly sell more copies on consoles, but the game really comes to life on a high-powered PC. If you really want to push the visuals, try it on a 4K monitor or UHD TV.
The only other game on this list (besides Far Cry) that's primarily considered a console game. The PC implementation makes it easier to keep track of spells and abilities, and switching from real-time to turn-based action feels much more natural (and PC-like). A great example of a huge, sprawling sword-and-sorcery game, although it hews to fantasy RPG tropes in a rigidly conservative fashion, perhaps afraid to offend the gamers who loved the first installment and loathed the second.
Another Kickstarter success story, and another classic PC game series resurrected for new audiences. The gameplay and graphics don't get the same high-polish reboot as the very similar post-apocalyptic Fallout series did several years ago, but the turn-based combat will appeal to armchair strategists, while the tongue-in-cheek dialog spouted by the large cast of characters wandering the barren midwest reminds us that games don't need to be quite so serious, even after a nuclear armageddon.