Games the shaped a generation: PC

4. Half-Life 2
Valve | EA | 2004

Perhaps the most perfectly-crafted single-player shooter of our time: a frantic dash through a dystopian future Earth run by Nazi-like aliens

What made it so great?
The Gravity Gun would be the obvious choice, but in truth it was only one example of a larger and more important element of what made Half-Life 2 even more special than its gripping predecessor: fidelity. The Source engine isn't the most sophisticated ever built, but Valve's extraordinarily high production values in every area of game design makes City 17 feel more real than any other first-person shooter setting. The Gravity Gun just drives home how immaculately right everything feels: the objects you fling with it crush, slice, clang and bounce with the exact force, effect and sound you instinctively know they should. Bisecting a zombie by popping a circular saw blade through its stomach couldn't be more gruesomely satisfying than this, even in real life.

With far fewer polygons and specular trickery, Half-Life 2 manages to look more sumptuous and real today than anything that's come in the three years since its release. The film-quality art direction, photo-quality texture work and extraordinarily accomplished sound design bring that place to life in a way that underscores the thrill, intrigue and impact of everything you do there, whether you notice it or not.

Get ready to play
Nothing's required to enjoy Half-Life 2 to its fullest, it's not hard to come by because it's cheaply available on Valve's Steam service and the same program also ensures it's always patched to the latest version. The only thing that's changed about playing Half-Life 2 since it came out is what you do afterwards: we now have episode one of the three-part sequel to the game and it's every bit as good as the rest of this blistering crusade.

Been there, done that?
You can always revisit the past through the rose-tinted spectacles of the Source engine, by firing up Half-Life: Source (free with most Half-Life 2 packages). It's the original game remade without much improvement, except for the implementation of rag doll deaths for the enemies, who previously expired with melodramatic animations.