PC gaming is in something of an odd period at the moment. The stagnation of consoles' graphical abilities and their investment in motion controlled tech (Kinect, Move) means that the PC has almost become a third wheel in the games market. Almost.
On the other hand, great things often grow from muddy waters. Take a look at the The Ball which uses the standard Unreal Engine 3 but does something genuinely interesting with it. Bethesda's Brink is based on the six-year-old Doom 3 engine, but still manages to look fresh and vibrant, because of extensive customisation and its distinctive art style.
New PC technology isn't going untapped, too, and there are plenty of games that take advantage of the latest hardware. DirectX 11 may not seem like the grand shift that was DirectX 9, but its incremental tessellated goodness makes games look a gazillion times better than they ever would on a console. And that's scientific fact.
There's also a big push to take advantage of those multiple cores in your PC, too, so you can finally justify spending £654 on a Core i7 Extreme Edition. We've focussed on new games and sequels in our list of titles to look out for in 2011, but there's also a whole host of expansion packs and DLCs coming our way.
Fallout: New Vegas' first DLC, Dead Money, is coming to the Xbox 360 first, but we're certain it'll find its way onto the PC soon. There's also the excellent-looking and supposedly final Dawn of War II expansion, Retribution.
2011 is set to feature some top PC games, and it looks like there's a big drive to make sure we don't miss out on any of the action thumb-twiddlers like to indulge in. Our games look better, too. Why do people buy consoles again?
Read on for our pick of the best PC games to play this year.
The Old Republic
Release date: Who knows?
Admittedly, we've had our doubts about The Old Republic. The seemingly interminable development cycle combined with unconfirmed reports that the budget's spiralling out of control had an air of the APB about it. As it stands at the moment, it's probably not going to be the disaster that Realtime World's folly was, and it could actually compete with – dare we say it – WoW.
Of course, BioWare isn't Realtime Worlds, and all its (space worm) eggs aren't in this (space) basket: it has Mass Effect and Dragon Age to fall back on.
The new PvE quest we played introduced the new Jedi classes, and we were given the choice between the pugnacious Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan, or the dignified Alec Guinness Obi-Wan. From here, we had to slaughter herds of Flesh Eaters, which are flabby terrestrial hammerheaded lunk types. It seems they're under the control of a rogue, unlicensed Jedi (apply to your local council).
It starts out MMO-ey enough, and the cartoony Clone Wars-style graphics are simplistic enough to make you believe this is less than an ageing engine. But it has a charm of its own, and we soon warmed to it, which is pretty critical.
We – understandably – couldn't get into the long game, but initial impressions are favourable. The only concern we have is combat, which feels just a tad disconnected with its number button mashing. Otherwise, though, the force is strong in this one.
Dragon Age 2
Release date: Quarter 1 2011
Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, those lovable chaps from Bioware, seem to spend most of their lives somewhere above the Atlantic. They've just made yet another trip across the pond to promote Dragon Age II, the sequel to last year's RPG blockbuster, but they don't seem to be suffering from any form of jetlag. They must have invested in some pretty decent power-ups.
One of Dragon Age's biggest boons for PC gamers was that, despite console co-development, it looked and felt like a proper, fullblown PC game.
Dragon Age II looks set to continue Bioware's dedication to the platform: "We had to make some changes in the way the camera works and the interface," says Muzyka. "But in every one of our games we always strive to make a sort of handcrafted approach to the interface design, so each one is designed from the ground up to work ideally on that platform. That's what we're striving for. So, we're co-developing on the different platforms, trying to optimise it for the mouse and keyboard so people can enjoy it more on PC."
Dragon Age II starts in parallel with Origins, beginning about a third before the end of the original. It sees you take the role of Hawke, a human character who finds himself caught up in the DarkSpawn's continuing crusade. From what we played so far, it's shaping up to be every bit as involving and mature as its progenitor, and might even better it.
Release date: Quarter 1 2011
Last year's Just Cause 2 with it's huge Southeast Asia open world proved that games can still have a lot of fun and not get bogged down in violent pontification.
Bulletstorm looks set to continue the trend; like Just Cause 2, it provides combat fun in the form of a short length of rope which can tether people and fling them through the air. Who would have thought that the simple addition of a length of technological whip-like material could make games so much fun.
Unlike Just Cause 2, Bulletstorm is a far more linear experience, powered by ye olde Unreal Engine 3, and overseen by Epic's Design Director, Cliff Bleszinski. As a result, it's a step – okay, more of a slight ledge – above your standard Unreal fare. But it's a stupid amount of amusement, too.
Enemies just seem to be waiting to be skewered, or decapitated, or gibbed, in a variety of amusing ways. You can pull them out of helicopters and kick them onto rather vicious cacti. You can wrap a pair of grenades around their necks and explode their noggins.
There's no jumping, and no crouching in this game, although the player character can perform momentum-defying power-slides. Thankfully, there's also no stupid sticky cover system too.
The Xbox 360 build we played was graphically competent and easy to get to grips with, but it's a game that we believe is likely to prove just as at home on the PC as on the consoles. It's also being developed by Painkiller's People Can Fly, so it already has a high pedigree of mentalism and FPS nouse.
Release date: Quarter 1 2011
As it stands, Crysis 2 is in something of a weird position. Its prequel shook up PC gaming, and probably made enough money to line developer Crytek's pockets for the next few millennia. But Crytek needed more Euros to make more astonishing games engines, and decided to release Crysis 2 on the PC and consoles.
Despite our initial jaw-dropping reaction to Crysis 2 on consoles, the multiplayer Xbox 360 build didn't actually look all that good. In fact Crysis – which has just celebrated its third birthday – looks better.
It's not necessarily Crytek's fault: the limited hardware of the 360 resulted in a apparent lack of anti-aliasing, and the intensely detailed levels simply became busy, jagged messes. The multiplayer gameplay was also generic as hell, a team-based affair differentiated only by the fact that you could jump quite high, and go invisible from time to time.
No one bought Crysis to actually play the game, though. PC gamers bought it to push their rigs as far and hard as they could, to justify the £400 they just spent on a new graphics card. We've yet to see the PC build, but a number of co-developed console games (Just Cause 2, AvP, Lost Planet 2) have actually proved to be rather punishing to our desktops. Here's hoping Crysis 2 pushes it just that little further.
Release date: Quarter 2011 sometime
"According to professional drivers, night driving is scary as F**K," says Marcus Nillson, senior producer at DICE.
Need for Speed: Shift 2 is also scary as f**k, going for much-needed realism in a series that so far is defined by slightly cartoony and chavtastic motoring. The (ignition) key to playing Shift 2 is to get out of the floaty third-person perspective and seat yourself firmly in the cockpit.
Here, it's a different game, every bit as stomach churning as being behind the wheel in a real race. Your vision is permanently letterboxed by the claustrophobic confines of your helmet, and the dashboard shines when the headlights of a pursuer hit it.
It's a game where you can't afford to make mistakes. Accidentally ram a barrier on the first corner and your bonnet juts up, obscuring your vision of your opponents and the track. It's frantic, terrifying stuff, and a nice move for the franchise.
The presence of Nillson, who has established himself on DICE's Battlefield series make sense, too, and hopefully his understanding of tense online battles will shine through in Shift 2's multiplayer. Our only slight concern is a lack of support for the Track IR head movement gizmo, which is surely designed for games like this.
Dead Space 2
Release date: Quarter 2 2011
One thing sorely missed in Dead Space's vacuous setting was multiplayer. This time around a team-based multiplayer element has been added and in true Left 4 Dead style, you get to play as humans or hideous necromorphs. The humans have weapons, the monsters have unique attacks.
Play as The Pack, for example, and you're a hideous baby thing able to pounce on humans and chomp away. The necromorphs also have a unique X-ray sight system, whereby they can see the human's nerves and eyeballs as they panic. The biggest problem is Dead Space's slightly clunky, slow controls remain; particularly when playing as a human.
The controls were fine in the claustrophobic confines of the USG Ishimura, where a slow-turning speed meant you couldn't quickly respond to an enemy attack. But in multiplayer, it feels awkward and clumsy. Admittedly, we played the PS3 build; hopefully mouse and keyboard will make the multiplayer a must-play.