It’s easy to reel off some suitably spine-chilling villains from your favorite movies – some of ours that immediately spring to mind are Agent Smith from The Matrix, the T-1000 from Terminator 2, and of course Darth Vader. But have you ever pondered who are the best villains in the world of PC gaming?
Of course, the ‘best’ villains (or should that be worst?) can stand out for numerous different reasons. So in this list, we’re looking at picking not just the most evil, cold or calculating characters – and the plain scariest villains – but also in some cases, the most unhinged, coolest, or even tongue-in-cheek bad guys, who can well be the most memorable.
So, who populates this rogue’s gallery of polygonal evil-doers who cast long, menacing shadows across our PC monitor screens? Here are our 10 best villains ranked in descending order.
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the featured villains and the games they’re in (and the embedded videos have more spoilers where noted). If you’ve not yet played the particular game one of these baddies is in, and you intend to, then go play it – all these games are great, incidentally, if a little aged in some cases – then come back and read about the villain.
10. Arthas Menethil (Warcraft)
One of the major players in Blizzard’s Warcraft universe – and featuring particularly heavily in Warcraft III – Arthas is a classic example of good-turned-bad. He began life as a young, headstrong paladin, turning towards the dark side after the infamous purge of Stratholme. It’s here that he makes the decision to massacre the entire population and raze the city, before the inhabitants turn undead (after having been infected by the plague).
From there, Arthas takes up the two-handed sword, Frostmourne, despite knowing the blade is cursed, vowing to “pay any price” to save his people. That price is indeed a heavy one, as the weapon steals his soul, and Arthas becomes a death knight, slaughtering his own men to resurrect them as undead. Treading an increasingly dark path, he eventually becomes the Lich King, a thoroughly nasty piece of necromantic work.
The story of his downfall is strikingly well-told in Blizzard’s epic RTS Warcraft III – don’t forget the ‘Reforged’ reboot is due soon – and it’s the engaging depiction of this fall from grace and slide into villainy which earns Arthas the honor of kicking-off our list. Note that he also features in World of Warcraft (Wrath of the Lich King expansion).
9. Karras (Thief II)
The Thief games positively drip with a wonderfully woven dark and uneasy atmosphere, and Garrett’s archenemy in the sequel (Metal Age) helps take that to new levels. Karras, head of the Mechanists cult, remains a hidden adversary throughout almost the entire game, and you only ever hear his voice, from behind a locked door, or crackling over a PA speaker complete with whining feedback.
And that seriously creepy voice, afflicted with an odd speech impediment, perfectly captures Karras’ unhinged nature, and when combined with the content of his religious ramblings about the builder and ‘cleansing’… for us, this made him a truly disturbing villain. As many horror films have taught us, an unseen enemy – particularly one as insane and broken as Karras – can often make the biggest impact.
Interesting fact: the same person provides the voice for both Garrett (the eponymous thief) and Karras, believe it or not.
8. Vaas Montenegro (Far Cry 3)
The boss of the pirates in Far Cry 3, Vaas is a superbly written character in terms of being a truly intimidating gangster type. This brutal villain is a bubbling volcano, speaking softly and quietly mannered one moment, then exploding into full-on insanity in the next, raging, swearing, and, well, generally making you feel like you’re not going to last much longer than a few more seconds.
He’s a very well-realized antagonist, and also gives one of the most memorable speeches ever, which begins: “Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?” This scene itself is a truly brilliant moment in PC gaming, and Vaas is one of the most captivating evil henchmen.
7. SHODAN (System Shock)
SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) is the AI which terrorizes the player in System Shock and its sequel. Like all the best artificially intelligent entities, she goes rogue and embarks on a crusade to wipe out humanity.
The settings of both games involve you being alone on a spaceship (or station), in dire circumstances and claustrophobic environments, being watched and manipulated by this AI which is highly spooky to say the least.
Her lines are brilliantly scripted, but what makes her interjections truly chilling is not just the frayed sanity of the content, but the sheer genius of her wavering, pitch-shifting, echoing and glitchy voice. SHODAN truly is the stuff of high-tech nightmares, and the speech masterfully hits the mark in terms of bringing to life this ragged, misfiring megalomaniac of an AI.
“It is my will that gave you your cybernetic implants, the only beauty in that meat you call a body. If you value that meat, you will do as I tell you.”
6. Handsome Jack (Borderlands)
This more-than-colorful character is the villainous star of Borderlands 2 and Tales from the Borderlands, and makes quite an impression. Handsome Jack murdered his way to the top of the Hyperion Corporation (a weapons manufacturer), then self-declared himself dictator of the planet Pandora.
He’s a manipulative and unhinged character who has done some truly abhorrent things. In Borderlands 2, he tells one tale in which he scooped out a guy’s eyeballs with a spoon, with the poor victim’s kids present, then watched him running around panicked, blindly bumping into things. Jack finds this hilarious as he recounts the incident to the player.
The thing is, Jack can also be kind of charming – and genuinely funny at times. And at other times, he sends you to ‘rescue’ his grandmother from bandits, and when you discover her corpse, Jack guffaws away, informing you that he actually sent the outlaws to murder her, and now doesn’t have to pay them because you’ve eliminated the lot.
He also offers to pay you to jump off a cliff and kill yourself, a ‘mission’ delivered with a gleefully dark sense of humor.
Handsome Jack has some fantastic lines, but more than this, he’s as entertaining as he is disturbing, and feels like a three-dimensional villain – with his childhood back-story explaining a lot about how he turned out. And funnily enough, it involves the aforementioned grandma, and her disciplinary implement of choice (not a belt, but a ‘buzz axe’ which is exactly what the name suggests – part axe, part buzzsaw).
5. Apollyon (For Honor)
For Honor’s primary antagonist, the chief of the Blackstone Legion, is a towering woman in chunky plate armor. Her face completely hidden behind a full helm, battered and rusty, with only a smattering of small holes cut in it for vision and ventilation, Apollyon is an imposing figure with an equally imposing weapon. She uses a huge sword with wicked-looking serrated sections, which seems like it should be impossible to wield in one hand, as she does – and with blinding speed.
Between the savage slashes and brutal decapitations, though, Apollyon proves to be an intriguing villain, and far more than a mere monster of a killing machine. Indeed, she is perhaps that most worrying of characters: a thinking, killing machine.
What drives Apollyon? War. She believes it to be the natural state of our species, a way of sorting the wolves from the sheep, so only the former remain. At one point, she is asked: “Who do you think you are?”
“War. I am war,” Apollyon replies.
When campaigning against the Vikings, and hitting their food supply, an underling suggests burning all the provisions so they’ll starve and die. Apollyon calmly states that this will only unite them – and what the Legion should do is leave some scraps, enough for two or three clans, so they will fight over what remains. The wolves among them will then rise…
We are not here to kill them, she observes, but to teach them who they are.
Apollyon means ‘angel of death’ (in one translation) and the fact that she gets stabbed deep in the gut at one point in the game, and simply pulls the dagger out, carrying on as if nothing has happened suggests there could even be something supernatural about this indomitable warrior.
Like many good villains, she remains an enigma throughout For Honor, and we never actually get to see under that plate helm. Ever. Apollyon may have a movie-quality voice actor, but she’s a million blood-soaked miles away from those clichéd ‘kick-ass’ Hollywood female characters who are as much about their looks as Kung Fu or sword skills. And for that, the developers must be roundly applauded.
4. GLaDOS (Portal)
GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) is another AI and star of the universally acclaimed puzzler Portal and its sequel. Taking obvious cues from the already mentioned SHODAN, she has a melodious synthesized voice and very much plants her virtual tongue firmly in her artificial cheek.
Throughout these games, GLaDOS is your guide and, well, tormentor, coming up with some of the most sublime and darkly humorous lines ever uttered on a PC (or outside of gaming, for that matter).
At one point, GLaDOS informs the player: “Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an ‘unsatisfactory’ mark on your official testing record… [short pause] Followed by death.”
Other notable comic touches include her voice glitching out when giving vital pieces of advice: “Do not submerge the device in liquid, even partially. Most importantly, under no circumstances should you… *buzz, crackle* [voice cuts out].”
A very different type of nemesis, but so cool and effortlessly funny that she clearly deserves a place high up on our list.
3. Xenomorph (Alien: Isolation)
One of the most iconic antagonists ever to be conceived, our PC gaming incarnation of this particular foe comes straight from the dark and steam-filled corridors of Alien: Isolation.
There are several elements that come together to make the Xenomorph such a compelling enemy here. For starters, it’s a suitably hulking and terrifying realization of the slavering evil incarnate beast which scared us so much in the movies. Then there’s the certainty that it’s unstoppable, and you’re effectively stone dead if spotted (this is a survival game, not a shooter).
But more than this, it’s the manner in which the Alien seeks you out. It doesn’t traverse the space station in a scripted pattern, but rather, actually hunts for you, using its (artificial) intelligence, reacting to noises you might errantly make, narrowing its search area based on audio or visual cues.
And perhaps most importantly of all, it acts unpredictably. The Alien might have just climbed up into a vent, but that doesn’t mean it might not poke its head back down again, just to check it hasn’t missed anything, or whether some unfortunate might’ve scurried out of cover thinking the coast’s clear.
When combined with the overarching scenario of Alien: Isolation, and the chilling beep of the motion tracker which lets you know the beast is near, if not visible, this game of cat-and-mouse can become unbelievably tense. Many is the time you’ll hastily hide, perhaps diving into a locker, cowering there, sweating and praying not to be discovered. Isolation’s Xenomorph is a truly chilling adversary that’s guaranteed to get your adrenaline pumping like there’s no tomorrow (which is a distinct possibility).
2. Sovereign (Mass Effect)
Sovereign is a gigantic dreadnought of a sentient spaceship, one of the Reapers from the Mass Effect universe, and without a doubt one of the most menacing villains ever to have been conceived.
A bewilderingly powerful AI with the ability to indoctrinate and effectively brainwash living beings to do its bidding, Sovereign has a total lack of any regard for other lifeforms, and comes out with some of the most chilling speeches ever heard in PC gaming history.
Hyper-intelligent, with its brilliance only exceeded by its confidence, Sovereign delivers all these disturbing lines in a calm, detached and matter-of-fact voice – albeit suitably deep and ominous – giving them all the more impact. This AI makes you feel like some totally insignificant biological bug, about to be splattered on the cosmic windshield of its hull.
Sovereign says of the Reapers: “You cannot even grasp the nature of our existence. We have no beginning. We have no end. We are infinite.”
So give up, pack up, and go home; you have already lost. Sovereign brilliantly evokes a unique feeling of hopelessness – like you really are facing and staring into the incomprehensible inky black depths of infinity – and is a genius stroke of villainy from BioWare.
1. Player One (from countless games)
Yes – you. We’re looking at you, sat on the other side of this monitor.
Well, maybe not specifically you – although possibly, we can’t judge from here – but most likely some of you. The gist of what we’re driving at here is that the biggest villains in some virtual worlds can be real-life humans. At least for those games which are MMOs, or have an online component.
The sad fact is that incorrigible cheaters certainly make their presence felt these days. You can cheat in single-player too, of course, but you’re only cheating yourself as the cliché goes. What really makes you a bad guy in multiplayer games is that you’re ruining everybody else’s experience.
This includes scumbags who can see through walls, use speed hacks, or even-scummier-bags with aimbots. One issue with the PC is that while it has a much more open philosophy in terms of customization than consoles, with a fantastic modding scene, this also leaves the door open to make things easier for potential cheaters, to an extent.
Toxic teammates may also darken your doors. They’re supposed to be on your side, but in reality are anything but, mainly because (a) you didn’t choose the character they wanted you to select for the ‘optimal’ synergy of your team; or (b) you picked up that weapon/ammo/armor/power-up/walrus polishing kit that they desperately needed; or (c) you’re clearly a total newb, man, and [insert long string of swear words] why do they always get stuck with the clueless [insert longer string of swear words] newbs?
The saving grace in the last case is that this almost certainly precedes a rage quit, and given that outcome, your odds of winning will probably shoot up.
Merciless griefers are another blight on the gaming world, staying within the rules, but making themselves a serious pain in the butt, one way or another. To this day, we still remember the dwarven cleric from EverQuest, way back when on the E’ci server, who at a relatively high level ran around the newbie dungeons timing every named spawn, nuking them with a smite, stealing the kill from low-level players who were trying to take the monster down, just to loot basic magic trinkets to sell at auction.
The thing is, this guy’s time would have been so much better spent actually going and earning experience points in level-appropriate dungeons, levelling up quicker to be able to access better loot that way, rather than scraping together platinum pieces to purchase his higher-end items. But he just loved infuriating the lowbie population, and that was the real point, we’re sure (yes, he took what should have been our first Shiny Brass Shield, harrumph).
So, we’d argue that sometimes the dirtiest PC gaming villain – the biggest, most odious, and often most vocal scoundrel – you face will be called KillaDethLord666, or some equally inventively named opponent. There’s certainly nothing scripted about these bad guys, and the only way you can hope to bring an end to their particular reign of terror is by reporting them, and praying the devs get handy with the ban stick, pronto.
TechRadar’s PC Gaming Week 2020 is celebrating the most powerful gaming platform on Earth with articles, interviews and essential buying guides that showcase how diverse, imaginative, and remarkable PC games – and gamers – can be. Visit our PC Gaming Week 2020 page to see all our coverage in one place.
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Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).