Honourable Mentions: There were far too many great Western-made RPGs to include them all on this list but, in the interests of keeping the peace and preventing comment thread bloodshed, here are the ones that didn’t quite make the cut: The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and most of the rest of the TES series, the Fable series (high expectations are a killer), the Neverwinter Nights series (because Bioware has enough space here already), the first Baldur’s Gate (ditto), the Ultima series, and Fallout 1 and 3. They may not have made the list but they’re all worth investing a few hundred hours in.
10. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (PC) – 2004You might be thinking ‘Wasn’t this game from White Wolf and Troika Games horribly broken? What the hell is it doing here?’ The massive, sometimes game-breaking glitches haven’t dented the charm of this deep vampire RPG which continues to be modded and updated by the community that loves it. Whether you’re playing as a visually unpleasant Nosferatu, a barking mad Malkavian or a snooty Venture, unravelling the mystery behind the Ankaran Sarcophagus while dodging or joining factions and ensuring your own survival is an incredible experience. The range of settings to explore and skills to utilise allow an open-ended approach to objectives that might reward an unconventional point of view. Besides, who can resist the charms of the insane Jeanette and her prim and proper other half?
9. The Witcher (PC) – 2007With a story taken from the brow of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher video game was the first outing by Polish devs CD Projekt RED. It may be a memory hog and prone to crashing in later areas but the RPG elements, interspersed with moral choices that could help or hinder later play, help this one to stand out. Navigating the amnesiac Geralt of Rivia though Vizima, picking up quests both marked and unmarked and eventually choosing sides in the brewing civil conflict is an immersive journey. The Witcher also scored extra points with the release of the free-to-anyone-who-paid-for-the-game Enhanced Edition, which included two extra adventures, and then a later patch that completely removed all of the game’s DRM.
8. Planescape Torment (PC) – 1999Planescape Torment is a plane-of-existence-hopping RPG from a time when gamers were actually expected to put some real effort into their playtime. Everything from the main character’s name and motivations to why exactly he has woken up in a morgue is a mystery and the only point of the game is to discover what is going on. Along the way gamers get to encounter some of the strangest stuff this side of M.C. Escher’s brain but a cast of odd support characters are along for the ride. Floating skull Morte, the flaming Ignus and chaos-being Fall-From-Grace (voiced by Mass Effect‘s FemShep Jennifer Hale) all join you on your quest. Maybe. Player interaction with NPCs and how quests are resolved influence the final outcome of this text-heavy isometric title.
7. Mass Effect 1&2 (PC, Xbox 360) – 2008, 2010. ME2 (PS3) – 2011Commander Shepard and Co. are on a mission that will have consequences for the entire universe. Just what those consequences are is a mystery since the third chapter of the tale will only be told in March. This is one of only two space operas in this list but it still conforms to the fantasy-based standards that the other titles display. Bioware are great at storytelling above all else and have managed hold player’s attention through two parts of a lengthy single-story trilogy. The RPG elements could be deeper but they get the job done. The final outing by the crew of the Normandy could still wreck everything but living in the world of Mass Effect has been pleasant enough so far, Reapers notwithstanding.
6. Diablo (PC) – 1997. (Mac, PS1) – 1998Diablo started the ball rolling for the series, the third instalment of which remains highly anticipated by legions of gamers who have given up a large portion of their lives in a LAN or online quest for awesome loot. The relatively simple point and click hack and slash combat mechanic is countered by the class, inventory and skills system and the huge amount of fun to be had in a multiplayer environment. Diablo laid the groundwork for later titles as well as for the BattleNet service. Taking two friends along to defeat Diablo, Lord of Terror, just compounded the amount of time that has been spent playing this one. Soloing the PS1 version was also an option for console nuts.
5. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC, Xbox) – 2003. (Mac) – 2004Just two words were needed to make sure that at least some people played KOTOR. Star Wars. It certainly didn’t hurt that it looked fantastic for its time and featured attention to detail that isn’t seen in RPGs enough. Even RPG fans with no interest in the Star Wars universe could see the value in a game that confronts players with ethical and moral choices covering almost everything from politics to racism. The storyline lets players explore both the Dark and Light perspectives of the Force with events altering according to player actions. KOTOR is some of the finest work to come from Bioware’s stable and the fact that Jedi were included with no extra charge just seals the deal.
4. Fallout 2 (PC) – 1998. (Mac) – 2002The sequel to the title that kickstarted the recently-revived Fallout series of games bears little resemblance to Fallout 3, which catapulted the series back onto RPG gamer’s radars. The story of The Chosen One and his search for the G.E.C.K is told from an isometric perspective, utilising turn-based combat to eradicate all of the nasties that have made their homes in the wastes. The in-game world is considerably larger than that of the series originator and players can use the perk and S.P.E.C.I.A.L system to craft an individual play-through of this story, from (mostly) peaceful diplomat to warrior to roguish conman. Increased NPC interaction, mature themes, grey areas and a world that responds to your actions have allowed this one to remain high on the list of must-play RPGs.
3. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) – 2011You had to suspect that this one was going to make the list somehow. As good as it is, providing endless distractions from a storyline featuring dragons and the end of the world, massive problems with the console versions (we’re looking at you PS3) prevented Skyrim from taking the second spot. If the depth of detail in the world, NPC interaction, quests and just plain stuff to do is an indication of the future of the RPG then tomorrow cannot come fast enough. Whether you’d like to be the dragon-guts-for-garters-wearing saviour of the country or a feared killer of all things with lower stats than you, Skyrim allows it. It immerses you in a fantasy world and lets you do whatever you’d like and that is pretty much the definition of a Role Playing Game.
2. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC) – 2000. (Mac) – 2001The sequel to Baldur’s Gate cast a shadow that stretched off into the future. Even today you’d be hard pressed to find a title to beat Shadows of Amn in the RPG stakes. A possible sixteen companion characters, each with their own motivations, assist players on a lengthy journey to defeat the elven mage Irenicus. Combat was improved over that of its predecessor, players were able to romance certain companion characters (a feature which has carried over to more recent Bioware titles since) and there is a degree of freedom contained within the game world that lets players explore without feeling confined to a linear plot line. Like many of the best RPGs, choices in Amn have consequences that may not be immediately seen.
1. Deus Ex (PC, PS2, Mac) – 2000Deus Ex makes the top of this list by virtue of being an all-in-one kind of game. Players are dropped into a cyberpunk future in the role of JC Denton, an anti-terrorist specialist for UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition). The plot revolves around a chemical compound call Ambrosia, which is a cure for a virus called the ‘grey death’. Like most cyberpunk tales the tale is filled with corporations and conspiracies and very little is what it appears to be on the surface.
At first glance Deus Ex is a first-person shooter but at its core it is an RPG. Players augment their cybernetic enhancements by spending experience points, which are awarded for quests, side quests or just exploring and interacting with the environment. The augmentations chosen let gamers play through Deus Ex the way they want to play. Total stealth is an option, as is rampant carnage. Objectives are given with no firm instructions on how to accomplish them, leaving players to attain their goals in any way that they see fit. Large-scale interaction with the setting lets players hack computers and bank accounts if they choose, pick locks or disable electronics.
Numerous plot twists, a high degree of optional exploration in the large open levels, the non-linear approach to objectives, and the possibility of something awesome hidden just out of reach combine to make Deus Ex an action-RPG-FPS hybrid that plays just as well today as it did twelve years ago.