Stunning Graphics Through the Ages
Graphics aren't the only thing that make a game good, but they sure can count for a lot. Video games have come far in the past 20 years, and there's a rich field of pioneering games that are artistic milestones. From technical innovators to striking stylistics, check out this list of 10 graphically stunning PC games.
In this 1993 puzzle/adventure game, players find themselves transported to a mysterious island, where they have to solve difficult riddles and uncover the island's secrets. The game's 3D graphics were so intricate that it had to come on a CD-ROM instead of a floppy disk, which was rare for the time. But "Myst" was so popular that, along with fellow video game "The 7th Guest," it's considered largely responsible for the subsequent adoption of CD-ROMs as a primary means of distributing software.
This futuristic first-person shooter by studio Crytek looked good on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but the PC version was so robust that in 2007, there were no commercially available computers that could run it at its highest setting. For years after the game came out, graphics cards were assessed by their ability to run "Crysis," and the game is still considered a benchmark for assessing PC performance.
"L.A. Noire" (2011)
Inspired by the film-noir detective movies of the 1940s and '50s, "L.A. Noire" has players take the role of the fedora-wearing police-officer-turned-private-eye Cole Phelps. As you travel through 1940s Los Angeles solving cases, Phelps often has to interrogate suspects for clues, which is where the game's stunning graphics truly shine: Characters' richly animated faces are detailed enough to betray a stray wince or nervous glance, all of which Phelps must use to determine what line of questioning to pursue and ultimately whom to accuse of the crime.
"Max Payne 3" (2012)
While the the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) that powers Max Payne 3 is nearly a decade old, it's proven to be a rock solid foundation for the company's latest games. The third installment in this iconic shooter series is a great showcase of this technology, presenting levels of tessellation, reflection, as well as shadows enhanced by ambient occlusion. But even without tech, the Max Payne games have always had style. Max Payne 3 traded the New York noir of its predecessors for the aesthetic diversity of Brazil's slums and jungles, nightclubs and offices, as well as the chromatically distorted world of Max's mind, perpetually soaked as it is by alcohol and disillusionment.
"Bioshock Infinite" (2013)
While it's set within the familiar trappings of first person shooters, Bioshock Infinite's visuals are remarkable. That's not because of the technology that powers them but the startling originality behind them. Creative director Ken Levine and art director Scott Sinclair conceptualized the floating city of Columbia, populated with beautiful monuments to American exceptionalism and plazas celebrating pseudo-Christian utopianism. It's stunning to behold this idyllic surface, even as it hides the sociopolitical tensions between the haves and the have-nots.
More often than not, much liberty needs to be taken in video games to transition from concept art to final render. That's not the case Transistor, an isometric brawler from Supergiant Games that takes the sketches of art director Jen Zee and elevates them directly into its world. Zee cites the work of Gustav Klimt and John William Waterhouse as influences in creating Cloudbank City. The result is a game that evokes the art noveau of Eastern Europe and the Art Deco influences which permeated 20th century cyberpunk. But art appreciation pedantry aside, Transistor is basically a game that revels in the less than glamorous yet asset intensive art of traditional 2D graphics with dripping style.
"Life Is Strange" (2015)
Truth be told, Life is Strange doesn't have the same kind of technical flair as some of the other entries in this list. But developer Dontnod Entertainment make smart choices to transcend the limitations of a technical budget reduced from their last project: the cyberpunk beat-em-up adventure Remember Me. They achieve a singular look by casting the entire experience under an impressionistic watercolor aesthetic. That's fitting given Life is Strange's focus on the misadventures of a time-rewinding teen, as the game's final look captures the dream-like nature of memory, and the uncertainty that hides behind nostalgia.
"The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt" (2015)
Polish developer CD Projekt RED outdoes itself in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt with a lavish attention to detail that most fantasy films and movies would envy. Every costume and every cobblestone looks uniquely handcrafted. But the game's most stunning technical achievement is its hair modeling, whether its on the various fantastical creatures that protagonist Geralt encounters or the very beard that grows on his face as the adventure progresses.
Batman: Arkham Knight (2015)
With hundreds of established versions of The Dark Knight between comics, cartoons and films, there's no shortage of looks for any Batman project to choose from. For Batman: Arkham Knight, developer Rocksteady chose a combination of Burton-esque grandiosity and Nolan-esque paramilitary fetishism. When combined with a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3, the final installment of the Arkham series pushes graphics processing to the limit. The entirety of Gotham city features complex lighting arrays, tangible weather effects, reflective surfaces and interactive smoke and fog. It's a vivid adventure for the Dark Knight, marred by a shoddy PC release.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015)
While originally developed for the less-than-bleeding-edge Xbox One, Rise of the Tomb Raider astounds with an array of technical bedazzlements. Lara Croft and other characters are animated with stunning motion capture that permits the kind of emotionally charged performances you don't often see in action adventure games. There's also the realistic hair, eyes and skin that respond visually to temperature, moisture and light. When they all come together to respond to some of the most chaotic action set pieces ever, you get the most realistic expression yet of one of gaming's most iconic action heroes.
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.
Good list... very subjective topic and my list would be nearly completely different but there are some good choices here. My list would have a lot fewer console games (most of the pre-ps3/360 consoles couldn't make stunning graphics to save their lives)... except maybe in the racing genre (where consoles have GT and Forza, both prettier than any PC racing game). It would have one of the early fps's (Quake probably... stunning in it's dynamic/interactive quality) and may even include the odd Amiga game (which had STUNNING graphics for it's day)Reply
@d_kuhn, Thanks for your comment! It is a pretty subjective topic but I stand by my list :)Reply
That said, you make a good point about racing games. An Amiga game would be a good choice too, if just to get some 80s gaming on th elist.
I agree with a couple on this list, but i duno about a lot of em. I guess mainly because im not big on consoles, and half of these are console games.Reply
Pretty much every game from the myst series would make the list. For each of their times they had more stunning graphics then anything else on the market.
Id also put oblivion on the list, for its time the graphics were quite good along with the open world.
Dont see how you could not include Oblivion.Reply
Hello! Unreal anybody? Tell me that wasnt the most gorgeous scene when you first peered over the edge of Nyleve falls with a Voodoo 1 card.Reply
Me thinks GTA V might have a spot on this list in the future.Reply
While Jill points out that graphics being stunning is subjective I feel the list or approach is too broad. If you are over 30 and grew up on atari 2600, when you upgraded to a nintendo super mario bros would be visually stunning. Upgrade to a SNES or Genesis and again almost any new game is mind blowing. Maybe the list should be top 10 graphically stunning games since the year 2000. You know sort of limit yourself to the past 2 or 3 generations of consoles or 8 or 10 generations of DX and/or GPUs on PC. Like compare jak and daxter or banjo kazooie with crysis (all 3 made the list but you cant say that the first 2 are stunning if you have the third in there as well). Might even be a better idea to limit it to consoles or pc Because if you dont set a limit to it everyone will argue over ones you forgot. How about this do a list called "top 10 visually stunning games of current gen consoles". Or do one for "top 10 pc visually stunning pc games since y2k". Something to carve out a small niche to be able to compare games to other games in that same time frame due to that subjectivity. Like Blppt pointed out unreal was mindblowing when you first saw it... unreal tournament 1, UT 2003/4, and UT3 are all amazing graphically and were a huge leap forward in gaming graphics compared to the games that were out at the times. Compare ut1 with quake3. Hell quake 1 was amazing because it was one of the first true 3d FPS games people had seen. So you see there's too wide of an array to just say these are the top ten most beautiful games of all time. There's an entire channel on youtube dedicated to top tens in gaming and they have to limit themselves to things like "top 10 NPCs" or "top 10 bad ass chicks" or whatever.Reply
... Continuation 11-20Reply
11. Doom 3
12. Bioshock series
13. Assassins Creed 2 series
14. Bullet storm
15. Witcher 2
16. Dirt 3
18 Devil may Cry 2 and 3
19. Far Cry 1 and 3
20. Modern Warfare 3
Only three games have ever made me stop for a moment while playing to enjoy the world / art and stand in awe.Reply
1 - World of Warcraft in the dwarven kingdom where the statues stand guard over a valley (I had been playing mostly stragedy games, it was the first modern 3d game I played and I was just stunned, that probably was due to me avoiding fps at the time. I was just stunned by how much 3d modeling in games advanced
2 - Battlefield Bad Company 2, one of the first missions where you come over a hill and look at a forest canopy covered base. The view on a 1920x1200 monitor looked so much like a picture I was stunned. And then after playing the level you realize nearly everything ya saw at the start was destroyable, absolutely unbelievable.
3 - Skyrim... A lot...