Amanda Ripley (Alien Isolation)
Cowering in a corner isn't the typical behavior of an inspirational hero, and since Amanda Ripley spends a whole lot of time doing just that, you'd think that would get her disqualified from joining from the Badass Heroes club. Sorry, let me rephrase: you'd think that if you knew nothing about Ripley and her terrifying adventures in Sevastopol, where staying hidden for a second more can be the difference between making it to the exit and being eaten alive. When Ripley takes cover, it's not a sign of weakness, but a will to survive, and she's got plenty of it to make it through that hellhole.
Not that all Ripley has on her side is non-squeak soles and a compact frame. She also has the intelligence and skills of a master engineer, and knows how to use any scrap of material she can find to her advantage. MacGuyvering weapons and tools on the fly while being mercilessly hunted, she survives on the back of her own brilliance and ability to keep her cool, even when she's staring at a murderous android through the slits in a locker door. The next time you're taking a tough exam or preparing for an interview or defusing a bomb, just ask yourself What Would Ripley Do?
Commander Shepard (Mass Effect)
In a way, Shepard is the ultimate example of equality in games. Regardless of gender, Shep is offered the same options and takes the same route towards saving man-kind from the Reapers during the course of Mass Effects story. The choices aren't made on Shepard's behalf by gender stereotypes--they're made by the player. Even character design presents a level playing field--each female Shepard is unique.
This equality would be nothing if Shep was a total weasel, but he / she constantly shows strength and endurance in the face of adversity. In fact adversity is too soft a term: 'catastrophe' is often closer to the truth. Shepard experiences loss, betrayal, bad press, and even death during Mass Effect, but fights through it to the bitter end. Regardless of gender, Shep is a proper gaming hero.
Titanfall pilots (Titanfall)
Most of the wondrous women are on this list because of how much they stand out. Titanfall's female pilots, on the other hand, are here for the opposite reason: they perfectly blend in. In a world where chainmail bras and armor-free midriffs are Still A Thing, a well-dressed and capable soldier who just happens to be female is a breath of fresh ozone, and they can bring the pain just like anyone else.
While that isn't to say that a lady can't be powerful and feminine - I refer you again to Aveline's assassination by parasol - it's all about the context in which she exists. Is she hunting down a mark in a dance club and has to look the part? Belly shirts and high heels all the way! But in a warzone where the bulkiness of your armor is directly proportional to how strong you are, metal go-go boots and form-fitting chest plates just say you're not meant to be taken seriously. Titanfall knows that and outfits its incredible ladies accordingly, proving that what's below your belt buckle has nothing to do with your military skill. It makes you wish you were nearly as cool as them, and isn't that kind of what inspirational means?
Major Greenland (Battlefield 4)
Hang on who the hell is Major Greenland? I hear you ask. Shes the commander of the US base in the Old Town (Tashgar) level, and she appears for all of 3 minutes in a couple of separate cut-scenes. In that time, though, she steals the show by demonstrating how completely in control of her own troops she is. Shes probably the toughest, most commanding character in a game full of ridiculously macho men.
Its not just cheap stereotyping either. Greenland isn't over-written or grotesquely butch--she's just an unfortunate officer who has been handed another shitty, under-resourced assignment. The fact that she does her duty with a foul-mouth and lashings of dry humour is the icing on the cake.
GlaDos (Portal 2)
While Chell is the female hero of the Portal series, its GlaDos who stands out as the stronger character. Look, Chell doesn't even speak. Yes, you can interpret her actions as strong given that she defies instruction in both games and acts on survival instinct, but that just makes her human. GlaDos, on the other hand, gives us more to admire.
GlaDos is smart enough to bide her time when shes turned into a potato-clock by Wheatley, and rebellious enough to go against her programming when its needed. Between both GlaDos and Chell, Portal sends the message that its only human to challenge norms and authority, and that makes the pair of them a very compelling female duo.
Faith (Mirror's Edge)
Faith is a character of few words, but plenty of actions usually involving death-defying free-running that would make most people feel a little queasy with vertigo. There's little doubting her physical strength and toughness, and its telling that DICE chose to make her gender a non-issue by making the game first-person. While playing Mirrors Edge, you could equally be controlling a man.
Throw in Faith's healthy disrespect for a corrupt government, and her willingness to stick up for weaker characters while putting her own life at risk, and its safe to say she's a first-class female protagonist.
Emily Kaldwin (Dishonored 2)
Originally appearing as a young child in the original Dishonored, developer Arkane Studios decided to make her one of the two playable characters for the sequel, Dishonored 2. And for women, that was an important statement. The game is best played through the eyes of its banished queen, as this is very much her story. She's a woman who was thrust onto the throne after her mother's murder, and although she's a kickass action hero, she's also doubtful of her capabilities as a political leader. She's layered and relatable, and marked a clear break from the female game character stereotypes. If we could channel her steely determination in the face of hesitation and inexperience, we'd all be a little bit better.
Samus Aran (Metroid)
One of the greatest tricks Nintendo ever pulled was convincing the world it doesn't exist. Hang on, wrong cultural reference. One of the greatest tricks it did pull was keeping Samus' gender a total secret right until the end of Metroid. And not just the regular ending either--you need to finish the game under pretty harsh conditions to earn the knowledge. Or you can just look on YouTube, I guess.
Back in 1986, female protagonists were super-scarce, which perhaps explains why Nintendo kept Samus gender ambiguous. On the one hand, it could be a statement about how women shouldn't be treated differently to men in games. On the other, it could well have been a ploy to avoid alienating a group of players accustomed to seeing leading men in games. In reality, its probably a mixture of both.
The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3)
The Boss is on this list because she's one of the most compelling and intriguing antagonists in gaming history. She's eventually revealed as the one responsible for most of the major plot points in the game, and is even secreting training her own disciple, Snake, to eventually kill her. The Boss' control is so overarching that she's also the one responsible for ensuring that future generations won't be at each other's throats. Multi-faceted, complex and just downright interesting, The Boss should be going down in the book as one of the best.
Kate Archer (No One Lives Forever)
There is no shortage of girly tropes in No One Lives Forever (lipstick explosive devices, anyone?), but protagonist Kate Archer proves that female leads don't need to ditch their femininity to be taken seriously. She's a strangely comfortable half-way house between James Bond and Austin Powers, meaning she can quite happily mix the light hearted stuff with more serious terrorist-fragging.
By more modern gaming standards, No One Lives Forever is a little hammy. Itd be great to see the series revived with a more up-to-date reboot, much like the latest Tomb Raider game. Sadly, thats hugely unlikely to happen.