14 gorgeous PC games that will punish your graphics card

These graphically intense PC games crank the eye candy to 11—and make your PC sweat while they're at it.

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Rob Schultz/Gordon Mah Ung

Pixel-pushing, PC-melting graphical firepower

So you built yourself a brand-new gaming rig, you’ve slotted your sweet new graphics card into the PCIe slot, you’ve sealed up the case, and you’ve heard it all POST—congrats! Now it’s time to throw games at your fresh build until it breaks, then cry at the thought that if you’d spent just 200 dollars more you could’ve played at 4K instead of a mere 1080p!

Don’t know what games to start with? No old favorites? We’ve got just the ticket when it comes to handing your computer a stack of heavy weights and saying, “Lift this.” These punishing PC games will bring even powerful rigs to their knees—but the eye candy is utterly delicious.

Editor’s note: This article is updated yearly with the latest, most potent games around.

battlefield 1
Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1

Let’s face it: There’s probably always going to be a Battlefield game on this list. The Frostbite Engine was built for stunning scenery.

And Battlefield 1 uses Frostbite to its full potential, covering everything from the barren deserts of the Sinai Peninsula to the muddy trenches and lush forests of France to the craggy peaks of the Alps. It may present more of a Hollywood depiction of World War I, especially in multiplayer, but there’s certainly a gritty realism to how the war looks.

So DICE makes the list once again. War is ugly, sure, but it can still impress the hell out of us. And graphics are just part of the reason why Battlefield 1 was PCWorld’s favorite PC game of 2016.

deus ex mankind divided
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

One thing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided does right is look downright gorgeous. Sure, archaic “Just put vents everywhere” level design and a story that ends prematurely during the second act does the hallowed Deus Ex name some disservice—enough so that Square apparently isn’t funding a sequel. Sigh.

But its slivers of near-future Dubai, Prague, and London are stunning, especially the reflections that dot every inch of its chrome-covered cyberpunk world. The recommended spec of a Core i7-3770K and GeForce GTX 970 might not seem too crazy, but Square says those beefy specs are just to hit 1080p at 60 frames per second on High settings. Very High or Ultra? You’re going to need to invest in some hefty hardware. You won’t even hit 60fps at 1440p resolution with a ferocious GTX 1080 if you turn the graphics options up all the way.

Also worth noting: Square is one of the only big publishers whose games are pushing DirectX 12 at the moment—including Mankind Divided, which patched in support post-launch. The problem? It doesn’t work great. Performance is about the same on average between DirectX 11 and 12, with the latter actually doing worse in some circumstances.

Oh well. Maybe 2017 will finally be a big year for DirectX 12.

ashes of the singularity
Ashes of the Singularity

Ashes of the Singularity

You want to know how DirectX 12 runs? Well, it’s time to buy a copy of Ashes of the Singularity. Stardock’s old-school real-time strategy game is built on one hell of an engine.

On a surface level, the Nitrous Engine makes it possible for Ashes of the Singularity to have hundreds of ships on-screen at the same time, all doing their own thing, and with nary a hitch. Go under the hood and you see it’s because the game integrates pretty much every DirectX 12 development it could get its hands on. For instance, the game includes multi-GPU support even if you mix and match GeForce and Radeon cards, and DX12’s processor efficiencies bolster the game’s massive number of unit computations.

The future’s going to be wild. For now, Ashes of the Singularity is the clear DirectX 12 showcase—but it will absolutely murder your system if you enable the “Crazy” graphics preset, even if you’re running DX12.

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt wasn’t just our favorite game of 2015—it’s also a great candidate for testing a new setup. We can talk “downgraded graphics” until we’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day The Witcher 3 looks extremely pretty. And there’s quite a lot of it to look at.

And if you’re running an Nvidia card, The Witcher 3 is one of your best bets for testing out a bunch of GameWorks technology, from Geralt’s bouncy hair to HBAO+ (ambient occlusion).

Honorable mention still goes to The Witcher 2 with ubersampling turned on. It doesn’t look as pretty as The Witcher 3 but it’ll sure melt your graphics card.

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The Division

The Division

Remember that first demo of The Division where people were so excited to see a character’s hands brush realistically against a car window? Okay, The Division may be just an okay game (though my colleague Brad Chacos loves its post-release “Survival” mode) and it may not look quite as good as those first E3 demos promised, but it’s still a damned luscious romp. Many of the E3 demo’s small flourishes survived the release version, and the quiet hush of snow-covered Manhattan is an excellent contrast to the constant threat of gunfights—though The Division will make your PC sweat if you crank all the options to 11.

crysis 3

Crysis 3

For a long time the original Crysis was the frame-rate equivalent of Mike Tyson in Punch-Out. “Think you built a great new rig? Think again!” said Crysis, punching you in the face with a slideshow. Even now, thanks to a criminal number of particle effects, the original Crysis can make your machine sweat bullets.

Crysis 3, while not quite as absurdly future-proofed as its ancestor, inherits the same penchant for PC-punishing graphics. And it’s fun, too!

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Just Cause 3

There are certainly games that look more photorealistic than Just Cause 3, but few as chaotic. Between the explosions, super-fast cars, the wingsuit, punting animals off cliffs, and...well, more explosions, Just Cause 3 is a concentrated dose of insanity.

And as it turns out, all that smoke and fire and debris takes a lot of power—from both your graphics card and your processor, thanks to the prevalence of physics objects in the world. Round up a bunch of fuel tanks, blow them sky-high, and watch your frame rate plummet.

forza horizon 3
Forza Horizon 3

Forza Horizon 3

Forza Horizon has been the best arcade racing series for years now, but 2016 was special: It finally came to the PC, thanks to Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere program. Blasting through the Australian Outback at 60-plus frames per second, music blending with the growl of a well-tuned engine—Forza Horizon 3 on the PC is how racing games are meant to be played.

You’ll need an excellent PC though, at least to take full advantage. Streaming in the environment at 200 miles per hour takes some serious horsepower, especially with all the visual bells and whistles turned on. And did you see how the developers made the sky?

dishonored 2
Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2

There are two reasons Dishonored 2 could make this list. One is rather ignominious: It may quite literally punish your PC. On release, Dishonored 2 was knocked for being poorly optimized, with the game suffering from all manner of stuttering and bugs. Those issues are mostly rectified, though you’ll still see scattered claims on Steam of poor performance—and the game can indeed be a bear if you try to run it maxed out.

Set aside the lackluster initial PC port, though, and Dishonored 2 is quite an impressive piece of work. Its missions attempt feats I’ve never seen before in any game, such as the Clockwork Mansion, a house that rearranges itself as you traverse through it, whole walls sliding into the floor and new passages appearing at the pull of a lever. The writing ain’t any better than the first Dishonored (and in some cases it’s worse), but the level design at least makes Deus Ex: Mankind Divided look archaic by comparison.

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Grand Theft Auto V

It speaks to the quality of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V port that a 2-year-old game made for last-gen consoles can squeak onto a list of high-end PC games. It’s one hell of a PC port though, pushing everything from the draw distance to reflections to the quality of the grass—and scaling all the way up to 4K if you have a brute of a PC.

And if that’s not enough, there’s a whole world of mods out there to turn your gorgeous Grand Theft Auto V install into a 1-frame-per-second slideshow. But it’s worth it if a screenshot fools someone into thinking you’re a professional photographer, right?

project cars

Project CARS

Project CARS is a bit different than the rest of the games on this list, insofar as it’s more simulator than game. In other words, it has to do one thing really, really well.

And it does. Project CARS is a decent-ish racing sim in its own right (provided you have a racing wheel and can put up with some quirky AI), but the graphics are really what make it worth checking out. The game’s about as close to photorealistic as I’ve ever seen—not all the time, mind you, but when the lighting and circumstances are just right it’s enough to almost make you forget it’s animation. Simply stunning.

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Arma III

While Witcher 3’s draw distance is respectable, if you want the crowned champion look no further than Arma 3. Go ahead, set the draw distance to 25 kilometers. I dare you.

Arma 3 also has some beautiful lighting and particle effects, and thanks to the fact that it’s pretty atrocious at utilizing multiple processor cores, you can stress-test your CPU at the same time. Tracking all those bullet physics and moving targets in real time can murder your processor, and you’ll have trouble breaking the 60fps mark in this 4-year-old game even with the most potent PC hardware if you have all the graphics options dialed up.

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Fallout 4

Fallout 4 (with HD texture pack)

Fallout 4 is not a great-looking game. Oh, it certainly looks much better than its predecessors, and maybe better than I’d expect from the aging Creation Engine (which itself has roots in Gamebryo).

But regardless of how it looks, Bethesda’s at least put out an interesting proposition for those who like to push their systems: a high-resolution texture pack with a Core i7-5820K and GTX 1080 (or equivalent card with 8GB of VRAM) as the recommended spec. Oh, and the new textures take up an additional 58GB of storage space, on top of the 30GB-plus required for the game itself. Good thing hard drives are so cheap these days.

I don’t think it’ll do much to make Fallout 4 prettier, but it’ll certainly tax your PC. Best of luck.

trials on tatooine
Trials on Tatooine

Virtual reality games

It almost feels like cheating to put virtual reality on this list. It’s a medium that asks for (at minimum) 90 frames per second, at a resolution of 2160x1200—pretty damn steep.

But maybe that’s why it’s such a satisfying system benchpress. The minimum VR spec these days might be a GTX 960, but you can do a lot better than that. If you can run something like Everest VR or Call of the Starseed or Trials on Tatooine at its full potential without a single hitch, you know you’ve got one hell of a system on your hands.

So yeah, maybe VR’s not the first thing you think of when you’re looking for modern-day “Can my PC run Crysis?” equivalents—but it might be the first thing you check with your next PC.