Pixel-pushing, PC-melting graphical firepower
So you built yourself a brand-new gaming rig, you’ve slotted your sweet new graphics card into the PCIe slot, you’ve sealed up the case, and you’ve heard it all POST—congrats! Now it’s time to throw games at your fresh build until it breaks, then cry at the thought that if you’d spent just 200 dollars more you could’ve played at 4K instead of a mere 1080p!
Don’t know what games to start with? No old favorites? We’ve got just the ticket when it comes to handing your computer a stack of heavy weights and saying, “Lift this.” These punishing PC games will bring even powerful rigs to their knees—but the eye candy is utterly delicious.
Editor’s note: This article is updated frequently with the latest, most potent games around.
Let’s face it: There’s probably always going to be a Battlefield game on this list. The Frostbite Engine was built for stunning scenery.
And Battlefield 1 ($40 on Amazon) uses Frostbite to its full potential, covering everything from the barren deserts of the Sinai Peninsula to the muddy trenches and lush forests of France to the craggy peaks of the Alps. It may present more of a Hollywood depiction of World War I, especially in multiplayer, but there’s certainly a gritty realism to how the war looks.
So DICE makes the list once again. War is ugly, sure, but it can still impress the hell out of us. And graphics are just part of the reason why Battlefield 1 was PCWorld’s favorite PC game of 2016. You can also get a look at Frostbite in Star Wars: Battlefront II ($60 on Amazon), but given that the game is otherwise a step down in every other regard...yeah, we’ll stick to Battlefield 1 instead.
Project Cars 2/Forza Motorsport 7
2017 was a crowded year for beautiful racing games, with Project Cars 2 ($60 on Steam) releasing in September and then Forza Motorsport 7 ($60 on Amazon) arriving on PC a few weeks later. There’s plenty to be said about both games, and I’m not here to critique tire models or whatever. Forza is a bit more arcade-sim, Project Cars 2 a bit more sim-sim.
Both look great in their own way though. I think Project Cars 2 looks more photorealistic, but Forza 7’s slightly stylized graphics are no slouch either—especially the incredible dynamic sky/weather tech used for last year’s Forza Horizon 3 and then again this year. It’s worth noting also that Project Cars 2 supports VR headsets, if you want that ultimate racing experience (or just really want to stress-test your PC).
I’ve called Destiny 2 “one of the best-looking shooters on PC” and I’m sticking by it. It’s not the most photorealistic—I’d probably give the edge to Battlefield 1 there. But Destiny 2 ($60 on Amazon) is packed with detail, from clothing textures to debris to water damage. I’ve spent a lot of time in Destiny 2, and a surprising amount of that time admiring small details like the way pebbles spill across a doorway. Weird, I know.
It can be beautiful on a macro level too, though. Lighting is one of Destiny 2’s strong suits, with some of its most incredible set piece moments bolstered by powerful mood lighting—neon hues, eerie and sterile white ambiance for Vex strongholds, or even something as subtle as a shift in color temperature from blue to amber as you cross a mountain peak and walk into the sunlight. The game’s not perfect by any means, but it does look consistently great.
Call of Duty: WWII
“A Call of Duty game on a Best Graphics list?” I know, surprising. The various Call of Duty studios have really stepped it up in the last few years though, and the results in both 2016’s Infinite Warfare and 2017’s WWII are pretty stunning.
You still get the occasional blurry texture or low-res model, but many of WWII’s scenes are downright stunning—from the requisite Omaha Beach mission to the way trees literally explode in the Hurtgen Forest.
But it’s the faces that are most impressive. We still haven’t quite escaped the uncanny valley, but Call of Duty: WWII ($60 on Humble) is still pretty damn impressive. Characters convey emotion with eyebrow-raises, grimaces, and other subtleties that were unheard of a few years ago. Well, unheard of aside from L.A. Noire.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Call of Duty: WWII’s not the only game to push facial tech forward in 2017. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ($30 on Humble) deserves to be on the list too. In fact, Senua’s probably the closest I’ve seen a game come to escaping the uncanny valley. We’re still not quite there—quality varies scene to scene, and her eyes still look like dead doll eyes—but wow it’s impressive. And done by a small team, too!
The rest of the game can be just as impressive. Senua fights her way through burning villages, rivers of blood, and more on this journey through Viking mythology. It’s jaw-dropping at times, and an excellent candidate if you own an Nvidia card and want to test out its game-agnostic photo mode, Ansel.
Assassin's Creed: Origins
I don’t know how many times I’ve said “look at the draw distance” to people since Assassin’s Creed: Origins ($60 on Amazon) released, but it’s a lot. After “going back to their roots” with 2014’s disastrous Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft has shaken up the series again and gone back to its...non-roots? I don’t know. Suffice it to say, Origins channels the spirit of Unity’s predecessor, the acclaimed pirate-centric Black Flag.
Origins heads to Ptolemaic Egypt instead of sailing the high seas, but the design is very similar, with an enormous map (the largest in the series) dotted with mid-size cities, small towns, oases, and so on. And if you look at screenshots, it might seem like a visual downgrade from Unity and the following year’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
But climb up to the top of a mountain peak, stare off into the distance, and marvel for a bit about how far you can see and how much detail remains. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is famous for the whole “See a green dot in the distance and when you get there it’s a tree” thing, but Origins takes that to a whole new level. You can pick out the Lighthouse at Alexandria from across the entire map if you have a sightline. That’s amazing.
Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt ($50 for GOTY Edition on Humble) wasn’t just our favorite game of 2015—it’s also a great candidate for testing a new setup. We can talk “downgraded graphics” until we’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day The Witcher 3 looks extremely pretty. And there’s quite a lot of it to look at.
And if you’re running an Nvidia card, The Witcher 3 is one of your best bets for testing out a bunch of GameWorks technology, from Geralt’s bouncy hair to HBAO+ (ambient occlusion).
Honorable mention still goes to The Witcher 2 with ubersampling turned on. It doesn’t look as pretty as The Witcher 3 but it’ll sure melt your graphics card.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
One thing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided ($30 on Humble) does right is look downright gorgeous. Sure, archaic “Just put vents everywhere” level design and a story that ends prematurely during the second act does the hallowed Deus Ex name some disservice—enough so that Square apparently isn’t funding a sequel. Sigh.
But its slivers of near-future Dubai, Prague, and London are stunning, especially the reflections that dot every inch of its chrome-covered cyberpunk world. The recommended spec of a Core i7-3770K and GeForce GTX 970 might not seem too crazy, but Square says those beefy specs are just to hit 1080p at 60 frames per second on High settings. Very High or Ultra? You’re going to need to invest in some hefty hardware. You won’t even hit 60fps at 1440p resolution with a ferocious GTX 1080 if you turn the graphics options up all the way.
Also worth noting: Square is one of the only big publishers whose games are pushing DirectX 12 at the moment—including Mankind Divided, which patched in support post-launch. The problem? It doesn’t work great. Performance is about the same on average between DirectX 11 and 12, with the latter actually doing worse in some circumstances.
Oh well. Maybe 2017 will finally be a big year for DirectX 12. [Note: It wasn’t. Fingers crossed for 2018 I guess.]
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
You want to know how DirectX 12 runs? Well, it’s time to buy a copy of Ashes of the Singularity. Stardock’s old-school real-time strategy game is built on one hell of an engine.
On a surface level, the Nitrous Engine makes it possible for Ashes of the Singularity Escalation ($40 on Humble) to have hundreds of ships on-screen at the same time, all doing their own thing, and with nary a hitch. Go under the hood and you see it’s because the game integrates pretty much every DirectX 12 development it could get its hands on. For instance, the game includes multi-GPU support even if you mix and match GeForce and Radeon cards, and DX12’s processor efficiencies bolster the game’s massive number of unit computations.
The future’s going to be wild. For now, Ashes of the Singularity is the clear DirectX 12 showcase—but it will absolutely murder your system if you enable the “Crazy” graphics preset, even if you’re running DX12.
Remember that first demo of The Division ($50 on Amazon) where people were so excited to see a character’s hands brush realistically against a car window? Okay, The Division may be just an okay game (though my colleague Brad Chacos loves its post-release “Survival” mode) and it may not look quite as good as those first E3 demos promised, but it’s still a damned luscious romp. Many of the E3 demo’s small flourishes survived the release version, and the quiet hush of snow-covered Manhattan is an excellent contrast to the constant threat of gunfights—though The Division will make your PC sweat if you crank all the options to 11.
For a long time the original Crysis was the frame-rate equivalent of Mike Tyson in Punch-Out. “Think you built a great new rig? Think again!” said Crysis, punching you in the face with a slideshow. Even now, thanks to a criminal number of particle effects, the original Crysis can make your machine sweat bullets.
Just Cause 3
There are certainly games that look more photorealistic than Just Cause 3 ($30 on Humble), but few as chaotic. Between the explosions, super-fast cars, the wingsuit, punting animals off cliffs, and...well, more explosions, Just Cause 3 is a concentrated dose of insanity.
And as it turns out, all that smoke and fire and debris takes a lot of power—from both your graphics card and your processor, thanks to the prevalence of physics objects in the world. Round up a bunch of fuel tanks, blow them sky-high, and watch your frame rate plummet.
There are two reasons Dishonored 2 ($40 on Humble) could make this list. One is rather ignominious: It may quite literally punish your PC. On release, Dishonored 2 was knocked for being poorly optimized, with the game suffering from all manner of stuttering and bugs. Those issues are mostly rectified, though you’ll still see scattered claims on Steam of poor performance—and the game can indeed be a bear if you try to run it maxed out.
Set aside the lackluster initial PC port, though, and Dishonored 2 is quite an impressive piece of work. Its missions attempt feats I’ve never seen before in any game, such as the Clockwork Mansion, a house that rearranges itself as you traverse through it, whole walls sliding into the floor and new passages appearing at the pull of a lever. The writing ain’t any better than the first Dishonored (and in some cases it’s worse), but the level design at least makes Deus Ex: Mankind Divided look archaic by comparison.
Arkane also released Prey ($40 on Humble) in 2017. It’s worth noting because the port runs (on average) quite a bit better than Dishonored 2 and looks just as visually stunning. If you prefer System Shock 2 to Thief, space vistas to pseudo-Victorian “whalepunk,” then be sure to check out Prey. It’s fantastic—probably one of 2017’s top games.
While Witcher 3’s draw distance is respectable, if you want the crowned champion look no further than Arma 3 ($40 on Steam). Go ahead, set the draw distance to 25 kilometers. I dare you.
Arma 3 also has some beautiful lighting and particle effects, and thanks to the fact that it’s pretty atrocious at utilizing multiple processor cores, you can stress-test your CPU at the same time. Tracking all those bullet physics and moving targets in real time can murder your processor, and you’ll have trouble breaking the 60fps mark in this 4-year-old game even with the most potent PC hardware if you have all the graphics options dialed up.
Virtual reality games
It almost feels like cheating to put virtual reality on this list. It’s a medium that asks for (at minimum) 90 frames per second, at a resolution of 2160x1200—pretty damn steep.
But maybe that’s why it’s such a satisfying system benchpress. The minimum VR spec these days might be a GTX 960, but you can do a lot better than that. If you can run something like Everest VR or Call of the Starseed or Trials on Tatooine or Lone Echo or Doom VFR or Google Earth VR at its full potential without a single hitch, you know you’ve got one hell of a system on your hands.
So yeah, maybe VR’s not the first thing you think of when you’re looking for modern-day “Can my PC run Crysis?” equivalents—but it might be the first thing you check with your next PC.