Everyone loves a good action game. It’s the driving force behind so many of our favourite PC games, but only a few can lay claim to being the best action games of all time. That’s why we’ve compiled this list – to sort the pulled punches from the bestest biffs that PC has to offer. Whether it’s the joy of pulling off a perfect combo, riding the wave of an explosive set-piece or the hair-raising thrill of dodging enemy attacks in slow-motion that gets you going, there’s an action game here for you.
As usual, we’re keeping our definition of ‘action’ fairly broad, but there are a few hard and fast rules we’re sticking to here. We’re not including any FPS games in this list, but third-person shooters are fair game, as are RPGs. You won’t find any platformers in here, though, or any Metroidvanias, as we already have dedicated lists for both of those.
We’ve also focused on action games that we’d recommend you still play today. Indeed, in this particular iteration of our best action games list, you’ll find that several entries are for games that have been released in the last five years. That’s partly because a lot of action games don’t tend to age very well, but the key thing we’re looking for is how they feel under your fingers and thumbs. A great action game, after all, isn’t just about looking handsome; it’s about having controls and systems that are just as fun to play today as they were when they first came out.
1.Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
You might think that Max Payne’s superpower is being able to slip into slow-motion, but really it’s his ability to repeatedly leap onto his sides without bruising his shoulders or jabbing the house keys in his pocket into his thigh. In any case, it’s these moves combined that make Max Payne a great action game. You’ll leap around corners, shift into slow motion as you sail through the air, and unload akimbo pistols into one mobster after another on the rain-soaked streets of New York.
The first Max Payne let you pull off these stunts first, but it’s Max Payne 2 we’d suggest you return to today. The first game is visually dated and lumbered with regrettable hallucinated platforming sequences, while the sequel still looks decent, is a tight six hours of leaping and blasting, and has the same dark comedy and purple prose. It also added a new technological marvel between the first game in 2001 and this 2003 successor: physics. It’s old hat now, but spraying bullets everywhere is undeniably more satisfying – and more reminiscent of the John Woo movies which inspired it – when there are cardboard boxes and old buckets to send spilling from shelves.
2. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed had got a bit samey over the years, so when the series got a bit of a reboot with Assassin’s Creed: Oranges, everyone felt invigorated. Ubisoft took the new template and improved upon it for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the story of a lone but preternaturally badass mercenary having jollies around Ancient Greece.
The ongoing AC lore about computer-wizard-aliens technically and sinister cults is, technically, still going, but who cares when you can sail a boat across the Aegean, meet the minotaur, kill the minotaur, and then head to Olympia for lunch. The breadth of the world in Odyssey is extraordinary. Ubisoft managed to recreate an entire country. So many treasures from Greece have been lost, but even the least Classics-y nerd will be impressed by the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, or the giant Athena overlooking Athens from the acropolis.
Importantly, Odyssey continued the trend of harder combat, gear mattering more and stealth being your best option, which makes it feel less like busy work and more like an actual challenge. Most importantly, Kassandra, the female player character, is the best thing to happen to games for actual years.
3. Ape Out
There are some amongst you who will dispute that Ape Out is an action game, and to those I say, “Try saying that to a gorilla punching armed guards to death!” You couldn’t of course, because you’d only have time to open your mouth before it knuckled over and exploded you with its fists, too. Even if you could speak, gorillas famously do not understand the English language.
Ape Out is absolutely an action game, with the clarity of purpose and perfect design of a silverbacks noble fist. Played top down, Ape Out is vaguely reminiscent of other Devolver Digital favourite Hotline Miami, except instead of a man in an animal mask you are a giant furious ball of furry hominid, and instead of guns and bats and that you use your furious hominid limbs.
As the titular Ape who is trying to get Out, you speed through different floors of buildings (a science lab, a military base, an office block) to make your escape. The world is painted in vivid blocks of expressive colour: angry reds, cold unforgiving blues, bruised purples. Soldiers with different weapons try to stop you, but cannot. They have body armour, shotguns and explosives. But you are an ape.
Your controls are move, hit, and grab, so while you technically don’t have any weapons, you also very much do. You can hold on to a man with a machine gun and aim him at your buddies! A lad with dynamite is basically a grenade the size of a person! All this is without even mentioning the soundtrack, a masterpiece of procedural jazz drumming that matches pace with your orgy or destruction. Ape Out is so much one whole, perfect thing that isn’t like playing a game so much as it is like having a profoundly beautiful, violent, synaesthetic thought.
4. Yakuza 0
Sega’s open-world brawler RPG series about the Tokyo underworld finally branched out onto PC in 2018, and its prequel Yakuza 0 remains both the best entry in the series, and the best starting-point for wannabe crime dads. Its two protagonists Kiryu and Majima are quite different in tone and style, but they’re both absolutely delightful. What good boys, and what excellent thugs.
Yakuza 0 has something for everyone. It’s like a smaller scale GTA set in the backstreets of Tokyo (its beautifully detailed city of Kamurocho is modeled after Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district) where you can thunk punks with your fists, bicycles, baseball bats or whatever manner of destructible street furniture you can lay your hands on, while also busting out dance moves, play arcade mini-games, help a floundering dominatrix believe in herself, befriend Michael Jackson, hire a chicken to be a property manager at your real estate business, and loads more. It’s melodrama in video game form, and it fully commits to turning you into both Japan’s meanest, toughest mob man and its nicest uncle.
It’s just such a lovely place to be, too. It’s warm and funny yet still an interesting crime drama, and its cities are chock full of diversions that make them feel like real, living places. Outside of its raucous brawls, its action is pretty low-key compared to other games on this list, including designer Toshihiro Nagoshi’s other big work, Binary Domain (which we’ve put next door to this entry), but it’s also something we’ll never get bored of. More please.
5. Binary Domain
On paper, this doesn’t sound great. It’s called Binary Domain, for starters, features a hero whose design brief was “draw a man with muscles” and attempts a misjudged voice system that sees you bellowing ignored orders at belligerent companions like an angry dog-owner in the park. But! Binary Domain might be the greatest 7/10 of all time. A 7/10 so potent, that it becomes a 9/10, purely on the sheer force of its seven-out-of-ten-ness.
Binary Domain is what happened when the Yakuza team attempted to muscle in on the cover shooter craze of the early 2010s: leaving behind Kamurocho, albeit for a different, futuristic Tokyo, and flooding it with hostile robots. And giant robot animals. And a friendly French robot who wears a trendy scarf. It feels like a cynical bid for a western audience, but one that can’t stop the teams bizarro energy bubbling up.
And if sticky cover mechanics and dubious AI allies speak to the team’s lack of experience in the genre, they get the most important bit right: shooting things feels great. This is down to the nature of the enemy: armoured robots that shatter like ceramics as you chew through their outer layers and eventually sever limbs and heads. A decapitated robot will go haywire and blast its pals in the perfect payoff for your accuracy; legless droids pull themselves along the floor, creating hectic action where the damn things never stop coming.
6. Red Dead Redemption 2
We’ve written a fair bit about The Cowboy Game by now – and yet, it never gets any easier to resist the urge to open with some kind of deadpan variant on “yee haw” or the likes. In fact, we’ve only avoided succumbing to the temptation now by confessing to it instead. The reason it’s so hard not to yee or haw, of course, is that RDR2 really is as good a distillation of Western cliches as you could hope to find in a game – it’s not called The Cowboy Game for nothing.
It is an enormous playground in which to be a cowboy, where you can hunt, gamble, gunfight, camp, bean-chug, fish, rustle, mosey, bank-rob, train-rob, blackjack, horse-groom, bird-burst and swamp-trudge to your heart’s content. If you could feasibly imagine a cowboy doing it, it’s probably possible to do in the game. You can even go to a crap late-Victorian cinema, or just have a relaxing bath.
For what it’s worth, the game has a much more engrossing story than it needs to, as well. In fact, we rate the characters pretty highly – not least the main lad Arthur Morgan, who is a genuinely thoughtful take on the classic ‘morally ambiguous outlaw’ trope. He’s a bruiser who’s not afraid to talk about his feelings, even though he doesn’t always know what his feelings are. He’s a killer, but his heart isn’t entirely in it. It’s a big heart, is Arthur’s. But it’s got stubble all over it.
It’s a bit of a shame, in fact, that to make his story play out, you have no choice but to constantly make him do massacres. There’s only ever one way through any given mission, and since that way usually takes Arthur through a lake of spilled blood, you often feel completely at odds with the impression you’ve built of him in your head. So take him off on an endless, aimless odyssey of vague Cowboy activities instead – as with the best of open-world games, there’s so much in this digital West that you’ll never find yourself short of something to do, even if you abandon the narrative completely.
7. Rise of the Tomb Raider
Following on from the 2013 reboot, Rise Of The Tomb Raider felt like the new series of Lara Croft’s ruff, tuff survival adventures really found its footing. While 2018’s Shadow Of The Tomb Raider had some good puzzle-and-platforming tombs, Rise combines the traditional Croftian theft of ancient artefacts with some really splendid survival and action bits, which is why it’s our pick of the bunch.
Perhaps the feeling of danger and isolation is enhanced because it’s so bloody cold. For much of Rise, Lara is on the back foot and stranded in Siberia, so scavenging and hunting to enhance your gear feels extra essential. Those moments where she can warm herself next to a pitiful little fire seem like an actual reprieve for Lara.
Lara is packing a lot more metaphorical heat in Rise, though, with a buncha guns as well as the quieter stealth options. In Shadow the emphasis is much more on the latter, but Rise is a lot of fun precisely because you know that if things go south and you get spotted by the Trinity goons, at least you’ve got a massive shotgun backing you up. There are a lot more tense animal encounters in Rise, too, which channels the spirit of the classic Tomb Raider games. If you’re not sure where to start with the reboot, popping on a parka and joining Lara in the frozen wastes of Russia is probably the way to go.
8. Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow
Look, we know we said no Metroidvanias on this list, but hear us out. Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow is not what you think it is. While its name may have become entangled with Nintendo’s twisty-turny space blaster series over the years, Lords of Shadow is as linear as they come. And by golly what a corker it is, too. Once again, it’s a classic clash between the Belmonts and the big king Drac. This time, it’s Gabriel B stepping up to the Belmont plate, and armed with his trusty Combat Cross, he must wade through swamps, temples, forests, lakes and all manner of dungeons before he can finally confront his arch nemesis.
It’s as broad and cliched as they come, but it’s also deliciously retro-feeling in its style and structure, drawing on the DNA of Super Castlevania IV and re-shaping it into the grand 3D adventure you’ve always dreamed of. Indeed, with developers Mercurysteam going all in on the type of wild creature design you might expect from a Guillermo del Toro film, Lords of Shadow continues to have a wonderfully ethereal kind of beauty about it even today.
Of course, thanks to Gabriel’s lethal Combat Cross, it’s not long before those cooing ‘ahhhh’s turn into ghoulish ‘uhhhh’s. This retractable chain whip swishes and slashes with deadly precision, and it’s probably the closest thing PC has to God of War’s Blades of Chaos, which, let’s not forget, is arguably one of the most satisfying hack and slash weapons of all time. The Combat Cross isn’t just good for skewering demons and doing your best “GET OVER HERE!” impression from Mortal Kombat, though. It also doubles up as a grappling hook, letting Gabriel soar to ever greater heights as he heads towards Dracula’s castle looming forever on the horizon, whether it’s taking down the game’s Shadow of the Colossus-style Titan bosses or sniffing out secret areas in the world around him.
Lords of Shadow can be a bit serious at times, and there are other games on this list that do the whole ‘evil, screen-hogging demon’ thing with a bit more style and sense of playfulness. In terms of epic scale and thrilling set-pieces, though, Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow still holds up as one of today’s action greats. Plus, you’ve got Sir Patrick Stewart hamming it up as both the game’s narrator and Gabriel’s mate Zobek, which way more enjoyable than anything you’ll hear in Rise Of The Tomb Raider. Just a shame about the sequel, eh?
9. Nuclear Throne
Nuclear Throne is crunchier than a box of cornflakes. Nothing dies in its wasteland without going splat, no gun fires without a reverberating thud. Of all the things to praise about Vlambeer’s roguelike, the noises come out on top.
There’s the twang of the crossbow, the thwump of the wrench. The deep wailing of the big robotic dog, moments before it vapourises you. Every enemy is a joy to disintegrate, providing they don’t disintegrate you first. Disaster lurks behind a moment’s hesitation, or a split-second misjudgement. Then you’re right back at the start, clawing your way towards the throne once more.
The path there is paved with ignoble deaths. You’ll blow yourself up with your own bazooka. You’ll shoot a monument, and accidentally summon the extra-dimensional police. You’ll be eaten by a maggot. You’ll keep coming back, though. You’ll keep unlocking characters, each with their own distinctive styles. You’ll turn back bullets using the telekinesis powers of a creature made of eyes, explode corpses as a melting mutant, eat guns as a robot. The throne will get a little closer with each attempt, and one day you’ll sit atop it.
We think we all knew that we needed an action adventure version of The X-Files, didn’t we? Jesse Faden is drawn to the Federal Bureau of Control (essentially what would happen if Mulder and Scully were given an entire clandestine wing of government) and accidentally becomes the head of the entire place by picking up a magic gun.
At the same time, the building is being attacked by an entity called The Hiss, a malevolent energy seeping from another dimension. Mondays, am I right? What follows is an original and satisfying shooty action game, because you don’t have to just shoot bad guys – you can also hurl fire extinguishers at them. And fly, as well.
Control has been compared to things like Twin Peaks, because of the general tone. The Oldest House, the building the FBC is in, moves around Jesse. Walls shift. New areas reveal option extras, like a kind of pan-dimensional fungus. You don’t have a mini-map, but you do have a map you can bring up sometimes, and cross reference with the helpful signs on the walls. It’s like having a telekinetic firefight in an NHS hospital, but if the hospital was a concrete brutalist beauty, and it absolutely owns.
11. Katana Zero
The best thing about Katana Zero is the way it displays text by popping character dialogue out one letter at a time or slamming down whole words communicate pace, and making letters shake and shatter as make people angry and interrupt them. The reason for so many people being angry around you is because of the second best thing in the game: its action, in which you’re an urban samurai with a sword and a time-rewind ability hacking your way through neon-lit 2D platformer levels.
Each of those levels is short – maybe 4 or 6 enemies, and finishable in under 30 seconds. The trick is that it’s a try-die-retry process to get to the point where you can finish it without dying. You’ll smash through a door, knocking down the enemy standing behind it, and be immediately shot by a second enemy at the other side of the room. Try again. Smash; knock down; this time, use your sword to deflect the bullet that killed you last time. Throw a knife in his head and move on.
Restarts are instant and your incrementally gained mastery of each micro-level causes you to slip into a flow state. You can’t help but feel like a whiz when a set of enemies who each killed you the first time you encountered them fall by your sword based on muscle memory alone. There is much in Katana Zero that’s familiar, narratively and aesthetically, but it hardly matters when it feels so good to play.
Judge a man not by his words, but by his dodge roll. That’s the core of any good top-down basher, and Hades is a roguelike that knows it and nails it. You swoosh between the tortured souls of the underworld, dashing and whacking your way to the surface. Few attempts will feel the same.
On one run, Aphrodite might imbue that dash with a charm effect, weakening the blows of your enemies. Dionysis might make them drunk, or Zeus might help you call down lightning blasts. Those buffs build up and over each other, changing the fundamentals of your attacks, twirling you towards a different strategy for every escape. It’s a fractal of firepower, branching out from five different starting weapons. You can play for dozens of hours and Hades will still feel fresh.
It’s also a Supergiant game, so of course you can judge it by its words too. The gods offer patter with their abilities, commenting on your foolishness over accepting help from their peers. Supergiant haven’t just successfully woven a story into a roguelike, they’ve entwined it with the nature of early access development. The last time we played, a newly-added Hermes apologised for showing up late. Hades is impressively cohesive, and tied to some of the best dodging money can buy.
13. Grand Theft Auto V
Judged purely by its punching and shooting, GTA V is lackluster compared to many of the other games on this list, but there’s more to action than just propelling objects into flesh. GTA V excels both in creating cinematic action set-pieces, and in wild and unpredictable physics chicanery.
On the one end of that scale, you’ve got the scripted story missions. There’s an early mission in which have you to catch your son on the hood of your car as he hangs from the back of a boat careening down a freeway, which is pure Michael Bay. There’s also the bank heists, which are pure Michael Mann. They are the highlight of the story, and each requires you to sync the actions of the game’s three protagonists in order to break in, complete your objective, and make a messy getaway.
At the other end of the scale is the open world, with all its pedestrians, cars, planes, explosives, and ingredients for mayhem. In single-player, it’s a playground in which you can wreak havoc. Hop into GTA Online and it’s even better, brought alive by the chaos of other players with whom you can cooperate to complete stunts, heists, or just to tool around, making your own fun.
14. Nier Automata
Nier: Automata is a game of many faces. One minute it’s a bullet hell shmup, the next you’re riding around on the back of a moose in an open world RPG smashing in the faces of sentient tin cans. It’s a hard game to boil down, but at the core of this action-packed sci-fi story about reclaiming the earth from destructive robots (or is it?) lies a pure, PlatinumGames spectacle fighter in the same vein as Vanquish and Bayonetta.
Like all of Platinum’s games, Nier: Automata’s stylish combat is simple to execute but tricky to master. The important thing, though, is that every button tap makes you feel like a seasoned badass, whether you’re slicing and dicing your way to victory or hacking and slashing through the robotic hordes. It’s also the glue that holds this thousand-ideas-a-minute game together, uniting its ambitious story-telling with its deep role-playing elements. There’s simply nothing else like it.
15. Hyper Light Drifter
Hyper Light Drifter is one of the best action games, and it contains maybe the best single action of any game on this list. It’s not the sword swipes or freezing blasts or any of the other enemy-popping actions you can perform in this beautiful hack-and-slash Zelda-like. It’s the simple, short distance dash you use to dodge those enemies and to chain your attacking flurries together.
Dash once and you’ll think: ooh. Dash again and you realise that you need never take another ordinary step again – walking is for chumps. Dash a few more times and you realise that the world is designed to encourage your newfound haste, with frequent secret areas only reachable via speculative dashes beyond the edges of the floor. Dash your way through a portion of the game and you realise the best thing of all: there’s an update that allows you, with the correct timing, to chain your dashes together, accelerate and maintain top speed forevermore.
Hyper Light Drifter contains mainly delights, and its mixture of action, exploration and story is never less than satisfying. You should dash, not walk, to play it.
16. TowerFall: Ascension
TowerFall has this feature where the arrows, when fired, will home in on their assumed target just a little. With this, arrows will bend around corners, duck under platforms, and otherwise nail targets who would have been missed. You can turn it off but won’t: it’s simply another rule in this competitive and cooperative arrow shooter, and it allows for the most spectacular moments of skill to be performed by even the most fat-fingered players.
You’ll leap through the bottom of the screen, exploiting the screenwrap to appear back at the top, and fire an arrow directly down and into the head of an enemy that just a moment ago seemed to be pursuing you. You’ll be leaping through the air when an arrow is about to hit you, and you’ll perform a dash move, not to dodge it, but to catch and steal that arrow in mid-air for yourself. You’ll fire it back at your opponent and use it to pin them to a wall. You’ll perform these actions with a mixture of panic and intent, your fingers leading your brain by a couple of seconds as the cramped levels shrink smaller as the time limit approaches.
Or you’ll work together with friends in the fabulous cooperative campaign, in which you fight through progressively more difficult waves of enemies in progressively more difficult levels. The same satisfying combat carries over and enemy movements and AI are a fair replacement for most humans, but what’s new is that you and your friend(s) will naturally take roles within each challenge: one person handling the top of the screen, the other handling the bottom; or both sticking close together, covering each other’s backs and trying not to fall victim to friendly fire.
In whatever mode you play, TowerFall is a delight. It’s an action game that makes you feel precise even when you’re a fool like us, and that alone is a marvel.
17. Resident Evil 2 (2019)
When Capcom gave the first Resident Evil a fresh lick of paint back in 2015, a lot of its old survival DNA was left in tact. We assumed they’d do the same when it came to re-animating the dead corpse of Resident Evil 2, but this 2019 remake ended up being far more substantial – and was all the better for it. Instead of sticking doggedly to its ageing source material, Capcom had the guts to completely turn everything on its head, merely using the events of the game as a stage for its own, fresh brand of horror.
It’s still the same game underneath, of course, but the 2019 remake is just so damn good at being scary. Zombies that were once a bit of a joke back in the day are now bitey, gnashing menaces that gave us the heebie jeebies. A lot of this is down to the game’s new perspective. Instead of fixed cameras, the game hugs the backs of Leon and Claire like Resident Evil 7. Tight corners can now hide nasty surprises more organically, and that in turn is far scarier than it was before. The puzzles may be a relic of their time, but when you’re being pursued by Mr. X – a hulking giant of a monster man who likes to forcefully introduce his fists to faces – they’re a welcome respite.
Resident Evil 2 didn’t have to be as ambitious as it was, but the end result has clearly paid off – so much so that Capcom are giving their upcoming Resident Evil 3 remake the same treatment. Only time will tell which one gives worse nightmares.
It may seem a little dated by today’s standards, but Vanquish remains the definitive third-person shooter on PC. Made by the action wizards over at PlatinumGames, Vanquish might look like your average sci-fi cover shooter on the surface, but underneath it’s an athletic, bumsliding rollercoaster of a game that makes moving through its striking space station environments just as important as lining up your reticule. Yes, you have the option of playing it like a Gears Of War-style cover-shooter, but to do so would mean missing out on all the fun, because when Vanquish gets down to business, it really goes all-in.
It’s all down to those beautiful bumslides, too. Sliding underneath a wall of bullets at the speed of a fighter jet, those bumslides give Vanquish a forward sense of momentum like no other, allowing you to ping-pong from enemy to enemy like a cybernetic ninja, smashing them to pieces in gorgeous slow-motion. What’s more, it’s the mastery of said bumsliding that gives the game its sense of challenge, too. Instead of relying on ever fancier weapons or late-game special powers, Vanquish is all about engaging with the systems at hand (or should that be butt?) to really make it sing. You may begin the game as a cautious, cover-hugging novice, but by the end of it you’ll be a full throttle, bumsliding master.
19. Monster Hunter World
Monster Hunter: World is part action game, part dinosaur hat-making sim. Or should that be monster pants-crafting sim, or scaley kneepad-assembler? Whatever bit of gear you’ve got your eye on, all of it involves tracking down gargantuan beasts through huge open jungles, whacking them with swords, hammers, axes and rudimentary guns before feasting upon their corpses for bones, teeth and scales so you can craft even stronger, more fashionable bits of kit and do it all over again, only this time so you can hunt down the fire-breathing T-Rex instead of the poison-belching lizard rhino.
It’s by far the most spectacular entry in the series yet, opening up its previously cordoned-off playpens into dense, sprawling locales that really let you hunt, chase and corner your prey in dramatic fashion. Best of all, its 14 different weapon types allow you to radically change the way you play from hunt to hunt, giving you plenty to master if you ever feel like its constant gear-chasing is getting a bit stale. It gets even better when you team up with a pal, too, as its breadth of playstyles opens up even more possibilities for strategic takedowns and co-ordinated capture battles. With Capcom delivering fresh quests all the time, too, this is one action adventure that will keep you coming back for months and months.
20. Devil May Cry 5
Nobody is as good at swords as Dante. Nor are they as good at spikey gloves, boots, motorcycle maces or hats that fire XP. He’s one of the most versatile fighters to ever grace a video game, and his appearance in Devil May Cry 5 is one of his best. You could celebrate the world of Devil May Cry, with its outlandish demons and plot points that revolve around people turning into swords. It’s how you use those swords that really matters, though. The cutscenes are a chance to down popcorn between fights.
You’re given so much to think about at once. As Dante, you flow between four different stances, chaining teleports into blocks into gun-tricks into extra-snazzy strikes. Survival is secondary to your score, a giant blazing grade that gets bigger and fierier with every blow. It’s a performance, an arena where your enemies are set up to fall, and your job is to ensure they fall with style. It’s a bit contrived to compare combat to dancing, but Dante leaves me no choice. He channels disco with every strike. So do the two other characters, though they’re never quite as vibrant. You’ll enjoy yourself until the halfway mark in DMC 5, but when Dante appears you’ll want to sing.
On this list you’ll find the best PC games we’re playing right now—recent singleplayer hits, thriving esports, and a few modern classics that would improve any library. We’ll continue to update this list as new games release, removing older favorites and replacing them with our latest obsessions.