With the release of next gen consoles, we thought it would be a good time to establish which PC games stand out the most visually, from a technical standpoint. So this will be a very educational and informative article for many people, since most gamers seem to believe that brighter lights, more color, more bloom, and lens flare = better graphics. None of that nonsense here. We’re looking at technical graphics.
Every generation can be defined by one or two graphics features. Last generation might as well have been called the “dynamic light and shadow” generation, even though a lot of games are still lacking this. The current generation is the “tessellation” generation, a technology that finally made its presence known in two games which will be seen on this list.
Since we’re primarily a PC gaming site, we were considering mods when making this list. Everyone who games on PC should be looking for mods anyway. Special thanks to Aeneas2020, Enad, and Boombear for helping with this article, providing both screenshots and necessary insight.
Be sure to open all images in a new tab to view them in full size and full glory!
This page belongs to games that nearly made the list, and all the games that were once on the list, but fell off due to better looking games taking their spots. These games are listed in no particular order.
Serious Sam 3: BFE
Very underrated in terms of graphics. It has the best parallax mapping ever, and the best implemented anti-aliasing ever (several levels of FXAA, up to 8x MSAA, and up to 4x or 8x SGSSAA, so it can actually look better than these screenshots which have no supersampling).
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat + Misery 2 Mod
Forced supersampling is a must, which means you’re limited to DX9 mode. DX11 offers improved view distance, dynamic wet surfaces (DX10 has this too), and slightly better lighting, but the aliasing makes it look worse. Pictured below is DX9 mode with 2x FSSGSSAA.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha
Once again, to get the best visuals you have to run DX9 mode with forced supersampling. DX10 mode has slightly better lighting, better parallax mapping, and dynamic wet surfaces, but the aliasing makes it look like crap anyway.
Keep in mind that it is overrated both in graphics fidelity and as a game in general.
This game’s overall polygon count, texture quality, and view distance are second to none. Compared to ArmA 2 and Day Z, ArmA 3 brings a superior lighting system, vastly superior shadows, even better texture quality, and higher polygon and resolution vegetation. It’s also much easier to run. It used to be on the list, at some point as high as #7.
Thief used to hold a position on the list, but has recently been shoved off by newer games.. Strong on graphics and weak on everything else, Thief is one of the better looking Unreal Engine 3 games.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Another former entry on this list, but it has finally been retired. Mods are a requirement for it to be anywhere near this list. If you want the best looking and best playing Skyrim, use all of these mods, except for the Places and Quest mods, which make it potentially unstable.
Once you’ve got all mods up and running, the game looks very impressive. Great volumetric effects, amazing texture quality (average texture resolution is 2048 x 2048), some of the best vegetation, grass shadows, decent ambient occlusion, near-perfect anti-aliasing, amazing water, and the best object detail out there. You can go up to any object, and it will look incredible.
As of 2016 it finally got knocked off our list!
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux
Tom Clancy’s The Division has surprisingly good visual quality and thus earns spot on our list. It’s also well optimized and has an impressively designed world that’s very authentic. The result is excellent visual immersion.
Mass Effect: Andromeda has inconsistent graphics, but at its best surpasses even #4. At it’s worst, it doesn’t even deserve this spot, so it was hard to place.
Obduction is our next entry. It is an Unreal Engine 4 based puzzle adventure game from Cyan, the creators of Myst and Riven. Thus, state of the art visuals were expected, especially once it was revealed that it is built on Unreal Engine 4. It showcases some of the absolute best lighting, shadows, post-processing, particle effects, and materials processing gaming has to offer. Great view distance as well, and optimization is very good.
Homefront: The Revolution is a 2016 CryEngine game. Taking place in an urban setting, it looks like a more traditional urban Crysis 3; no vegetation overgrowth and not so futuristic.
Credit to the original uploader.
Metro Redux refers to both Metro 2033 Redux and Metro: Last Light Redux. These are remade versions of Metro 2033 and Last Light; we reviewed the latter here. Metro 2033 Redux shows noted improvement over the original in terms of visual fidelity. Last Light Redux on the other hand shows some downgrades, with some of the tessellation from the original being removed. On the other hand it has a small amount of global illumination that isn’t present in the original.
Crysis 3 begins our top 5. This game really showcases what CryEngine 3 is capable of and is visually outstanding in almost every single aspect, especially with small details. It’s a shame that the game itself is no good.
The only graphical letdown is the anti-aliasing: even though the game comes with four types of AA (including up to 8x MSAA), there is extremely visible aliasing no matter which setting you use. 4x TXAA achieves the least amount of aliasing, but both this and 8x MSAA have more aliasing than Metro: Last Light with only post-AA. But as the images below demonstrate, downsampling is a very valid solution… if you can run it. But even then, far from perfect.
It was closely contested, but Metro: Last Light takes our number four spot. You can check out our review here. We gave it the nod over Crysis 3 due to greatly superior anti-aliasing and slightly better overall texture quality, at the cost of inferior character models.
Like some of the other games in the list, Metro: Last Light is just packed with visual detail. It doesn’t rely on post-processing to mask anything, even though the post-processing is amazing.
Lots of tessellation, very impressive bump maps, parallax maps are used almost everywhere, vegetation quality is on par with modded Crysis, soft water with realistic reflections, mind-blowing ambient occlusion, great overall texture quality, in-game supersampling plus surprisingly good post-AA, amazing particle effects, the list goes on. It isn’t perfect, but it’s still jaw-dropping.
Metro: Last Light Redux uses global illumination on some light sources unlike this one, but the downgraded tessellation and textures work against it.
Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 is a 2017 CryEngine game, and it looks as incredible all around as one might expect. The screenshots below are official ones.
Star Wars: Battlefront is number two on our list, although it might be a tie with our #1 pick. Its visual quality is the thing most praised about it, since truth be told it is poor in every other regard besides sound quality and optimization.
It showcases impressive overall polygon count, the best lighting by far on Frostbite 3, very good post-processing in general, and high resolution textures. Object detail is generally through the roof. Everything about its visual fidelity is top notch. As a bonus, it is one of the absolute best optimized games on this list. Its multicore/multithreaded CPU optimization, its GPU optimization, and its scalability are outstanding.
Battlefield 1 gets our #1 spot. Graphics quality is just like the aforementioned Star Wars: Battlefront. Truly amazing outdoors, not quite as impressive indoors due to noticeable pre-baked shadows and static lights. Furthermore both of these games have a strong lack of volumetric effects, despite smoke and such appearing on the battlefield all the time. Said smoke isn’t much better than Call of Duty 3 and is still annihilated by the volumetric physics based smoke of Crysis, but then again DICE has been taking shortcuts in graphics fidelity while simultaneously emphasizing it since Battlefield 3.