The best games for your MacBook and iMac
If there’s one good thing about the relative scarcity of games on the Mac, it’s that we often get the best games when we do get them. Sure, you’ll find a few stinkers, but the fact remains that many developers don’t even consider porting their creations—and they’re almost always ports—over to Apple’s desktop system unless they think they have a chance of surviving between brushed aluminum and a Retina display. In fact, there are enough quality games on Mac that I could easily rattle out a list with 30 more, but ain’t nobody got time for that. For our money (and yours), these are the best.
Rocket League sounds like a cynical European’s attempt to get Americans interested in Europe’s favorite pastime. “It’s soccer…with muscle cars in a caged arena!” And yes, that’s essentially Rocket League in a nutshell. But, oh, it’s so worth it. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes the game so irresistible: Is it the speedy matches, awarding thrills to the victors and quick chances for redemption for the losers? Is it the colorful cars themselves, which range from Mario-themed roadsters to the Batmobile? Or is it the gameplay itself, which sends your car careening through the air and up walls to better bump a ball into a distant goal? I’m still not sure. Join me as I play a few dozen more rounds to figure it out.
Fortnite: Battle Royale
There’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of Fortnite. It’s about as popular as air in younger circles, and there’s an addictive quality about it that ensnares even older players. The basic concept of the acclaimed (and free) Battle Royale mode? You’re tossed out of a floating bus along with 99 other players, and then you land on an island and scrounge for weapons and supplies for defenses so you can kill everyone else until you’re the last person standing. Yeah, it’s kind of brutal, but it delivers an undeniable thrill of victory, and its Pixar-like aesthetic does a lot to soften the edge. For that matter, its matches last only a handful of minutes and actually playing it costs nothing. Developer Epic Games won’t complain if you drop some cash on cosmetic items, though.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited
We may not have The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim on Mac—one of the most popular (and ported) RPGs of all time—but by gosh, we have The Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a sprawling MMORPG that’s set in Skyrim’s same universe and features many of the same locations—yes, including Skyrim—and it’s remarkable among modern MMORPGs for its freedom. Unlike, say, World of Warcraft (which is still a fine alternative after all these years), you’re not forced to quest through zones in a particular orde. Instead, ESO adjusts itself to your level. If you have the proper expansion, you can hop into brand-new content with everyone else right from the start. It’s respectful of your time, too, as far as MMOs go, as it lets you drop in and out at will. ESO also requires no subscription past the initial purchase (although there's a cash shop with loot boxes), and you can simply enjoy the entertaining quests and never group with another player if you so wish.
Don’t like puzzles? Stay far away from The Witness. At its core, it’s about nothing so much as walking around an island with 11 widely varying regions and solving mazes that pop up on screens powered by cords that snake mysteriously through ruins and forests. And yet, much as in Myst that inspired it, there are greater mysteries to unravel lurking in the shadows beyond, countered both through intellectual dexterity and revisiting previous areas. It’s probably the quietest game on this list, but it’s also one of the best.
Few developers commit to porting games to Mac quite as enthusiastically as Blizzard Entertainment, which makes the absence of its smash hit Overwatch on the platform all the more disappointing. But that’s all right, because we have Hearthstone. Hearthstone is basically Magic: The Gathering for folks in a hurry, as it scraps Magic’s labyrinthine rules in favorite of relatively intuitive cards and decks styled after heroes from Blizzard’s popular Warcraft universe. Nor is it just a Mac game. Part of the beauty of Hearthstone is that it plays just as well with the same account from your iPhone or iPad as on a Mac, thus freeing you to take your card battles from your desk at home to the city bus. You’ll probably have to spend some cash on some card packs in order to get the most out of it—which has always been the trap of collectible card games, be they real or virtual—but as its enduring popularity and expansion packs show, millions of people think it’s more than worth it.
Portal 2 may be the perfect game. It’s a puzzler at heart, but it injects those puzzles—which involve the best placement of the titular portals, which you create with a gun—into a masterful concoction of science fiction, memorable characters, and even a catchy song. It’s both memorable and challenging, and those challenges are designed in such a way that you feel triumphant when you finish. It’s also darkly relevant these days, centered as it is on a struggle with a malevolent A.I. whose passion for her work goes to inhuman extremes. Also a standout: the voice acting of J.K. Simmons as the facility’s founder.
Many games are full of action and fury, but Stardew Valley takes a different tack by riffing off of Harvest Moon from the late ‘90s. It’s a game about farming (if you want it to be), but it’s also a game about chatting and possibly dating some of the locals in the sleepy little town you’ve chosen to call home. It’s a game about rival factions and small-town politics. It can also be a game about exploring a mysterious cave if you wish, but first and foremost it’s a relaxing and emotionally rewarding game about the ups and downs of life. Stardew Valley may look like a cousin of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but in practice few games veer so far from fantasy as to capture the quiet delights or tragedies of reality.
“One more turn,” as the Civilization diehards like to say, and now we have one more game in this beloved strategy series that stretches back for decades. Some of those diehards will tell you that Civ V is the better game, but Civilization VI stands out for providing a smoother path to entry for newcomers and a host of experimental new concepts. Some work better than others, no doubt, it’s fun to try out each in the shoes of some of the most celebrated nations and figured of history. You’ll design cities, smartly placing key district next to each other on a gridded play area resembling a board game. You’ll raise armies. You’ll spread religions and dominate with science. And if you do well, you’ll bend other civilizations (and your friends, in multiplayer) to your will.
You see the word “assassin” thrown around a lot in games, but few games do a good job of capturing the tension of a flawless assassination. Stealth is barely a thing anymore in the popular Assassin’s Creed series, and these days it feels more like a hack ’n’ slash. But the episodic Hitman drips with tension. It also gives you multiple means of going about your dirty business, each with different probabilities of success. It’s also beautiful, frankly, both in the costumes Agent 47 dons to get closer to his targets and the settings that range from Parisian streets to sweaty Moroccan markets. As an extra bonus, the first episode is free.
Tomb Raider (2013)
Lara Croft isn’t as recognizable as Mario in the pantheon of gaming greats, but she comes pretty darn close. In the past, though, she had little in the way of personality. Tomb Raider remedied that by presenting us with a harrowing origin story where Lara starts out both vulnerable and human, and over the course of several bloody hours we see how she morphs from a humble scholar and into the strong-willed fighter we know today. Filled with beautiful locations and elements of survival games (though without the drudgery), it’s one of the more successful reboots in gaming memory. And while the newly ported Rise of the Tomb Raider has better gameplay and better tombs to explore, it never reaches the emotional highs and clear character development of the first game.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a strange beast. It insists on that lowercase “e” in the title, and yet it plays so fast and loose with the lore of J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe that the man himself must be getting uncomfortable from all that spinning in his grave. And yet for all that, it’s glorious fun. It’s a tale about an elf and a human ranger in the same body. Together, they fight crime! Or more specifically, they parkour over the spiky towers of Mordor, kicking orcish butt and forcefully recruiting orcs to their cause. (I told you it plays fast and loose, didn’t I?) But it’s most remarkable for how it goes about it. Shadow of Mordor boasts a “Nemesis” system in which the orcs you fail to beat grow stronger with each fight. Even more impressively, they remember you, and they refer to your prior encounters with shocking specificity the next time you see them in the field. It all goes a long way to making Shadow of Mordor feel more “real” than other games before it. It gets a little repetitive at times, but the sheer force of its personality makes it hard to forget.
Kerbal Space Program
Even if you think you “get” how difficult space travel is, there’s a good chance you’ve never been hammered by its complexities so forcefully as you’ll be in Kerbal Space Program. Miraculously, this quirky simulation manages to be fun, rewarding, and occasionally hilarious. Your mission? To get the little green kernels to the moon and beyond using real-world physics (more or less), and these concepts are presented in such a way that you’ll likely learn the basic ideas behind space flight here far more clearly than you will from a book. Beyond that, you can capture asteroids and monitor them using a mission pack from NASA itself. Some players have been inspired into careers in astrophysics and aerodynamics through KSP, but it’s still plenty of plenty of fun if you’d prefer to keep your space-traveling ambitions limited to a Mac screen. It’s a rare example of educational games being done right.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty takes place in space as well, but it takes a — shall we say — slightly less authentic approach to space travel and exploration. (For now, anyway.) It’s still one of the best real-time strategy games on any system, and the South Koreans loved it so much that it practically defined a generation at its height. Part of its appeal lies in its memorable cast of characters, no doubt, but the bulk of its reputation rests on the satisfying differences between the Terran, Protoss, and Zerg factions, as well as the satisfying juggle of multiple priorities. If all of that doesn’t convince you to try it out, then consider this: It’s now totally free. You can buy the fantastic expansions if you wish, but the low price of nothing gets you both StarCraft II’s campaign as well as the addicting multiplayer component that still thrives today.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire
The Baldur’s Gate Dungeons & Dragons RPGs of the early 2000s laid the foundation for much of what we associate with story-driven games today, and in 2015 Pillars of Eternity revived that text-heavy, isometric style in order to remind us it still has power in this age of movie-quality production values. Problem is, the first Pillars of Eternity clung a little too closely to that formula. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire charts a slightly new course by introducing ship battles across an archipelago that breaks with predictable fantasy. Most of these merely involve picking choices as in choose-your-own adventure storybook style, but the need to keep track of your crew’s mood and cheer them up with fruit and rum allows for a more engaging experience. And fortunately, someone clearly told the team of Obsidian to lighten up. Pillars of Eternity was a little too glum for its own good, but Deadfire wisely remembers to sprinkle in some wisecracks among the wizardry. (It’s new, so watch out for some remaining bugs.)
Minecraft, if you haven’t heard, is essentially Lego for the digital generation. At its best, it’s about little more than digging for resources throughout a fully interactive landscape and building massive projects with them, whether those be simple houses or skyscraper-sized recreations of the original iMac. In the most common mode, creatures come out at night and attack you for a bit of extra excitement, but you can do away with that and simply focus on the building you wish. It’s an appealing concept that’s made Minecraft a winner among adults and children alike. In concept, it’s one of the simplest games on this list, but it’s also one of the most timeless.
In this quiet indie game, you’re a ranger in a remote forest, keeping an eye out for potential wildfires. Knowing games, you’re probably expecting me to tell you that zombies come out at night and it’s your job to use your trusty shotgun to—nah, there’s none of that. Instead, it’s real forest ranger work. You spend a lot of time looking for kids who left their junk littered around a scenic swimming hole, and all the while chitchatting (and sort of flirting) with another ranger in a distant tower. Creepy shenanigans are indeed afoot, but Firewatch is more remarkable for its sense of place and characterization, to say nothing about its gorgeous settings and artwork that straddle the line between realism and impressionism. As much as it’s a store about finding answers to a local mystery, it’s a tale about finding oneself at the height of middle age. It’s art.
Life is Strange
Life is certainly strange even in the most mundane situations, but that statement especially rings true when you’re a teenager with superpowers, as you are here. If Firewatch was art because of how accurately it caught the uncertainties of middle age, Life is Strange is remarkable for capturing the ups and downs of adolescence. It’s also a sharp lesson in the Butterfly Effect. The key power in play here is the ability to rewind time, and Life is Strange proves that having the ability to go back and right past wrongs doesn’t always result in a happy ending. In fact, it sometimes makes things worse. But not to worry, O ye of ample faith in humanity: It’s possible for things to work out for the best as well. Do you dare risk everything for a second chance? That’s the question Life is Strange constantly asks, if you’re anything like me, you might be surprised at the answer you choose.
Half-Life 2 is old. Heck, it’s older than the iPhone. But its presence on this list isn’t so much of sign of the small library of Mac games as it is of the scale of developer Valve’s achievement back in 2004. You play as Gordon Freeman, a scientist who clobbers his foes with a crowbar rather than facts and research. The foes in this case are aliens (once again), who’ve taken over the planet and turned it into an inescapable internment camp of sorts. This was one of the first “modern” games, but it’s amazing how well its various elements hold up today, whether it’s the physics engine (made more awesome with a gravity gun), the memorable characters, or the pervasive and haunting sense of dread. And maybe—just maybe—it’s not the end of the saga. The wait for a Half-Life 3 that never comes is one of the great inside jokes of gaming, and the faithful find supposed clues in every little thing. Play Half-Life 2, and you’ll understand the passion.
Diablo III is an action RPG about kicking butt and collecting loot, and often as quickly as possible. Oh, and there’s a whole bit about going into Hell and having a strongly worded conversation with the biggest bad guy himself. Diablo III had a bit of a rough start thanks to a real-money auction house that kind of defeated the whole appeal of the core experience, but Blizzard at last excised that particular blight and replaced it with better classes, a free-form exploration mode, and a phenomenal expansion. It’s now a devilish bit of fun.
Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition
Along with Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin was one of the great new games of this decade that attempted to revive the old “cRPGs” of years past for modern audiences. But while Pillars of Eternity followed the old templates almost to a fault, Divinity: Original Sin felt fresh and lively—a modern game that merely had a clear lineage. That’s remarkable, considering that it stuck to true turn-based combat while Pillars of Eternity championed real-time-with-pause. But everything about D:OS was a joy to experience, whether it was the often funny dialogue, the richly colored environments, the surprisingly adept gamepad controls, or the ability to play with friends in co-op. There’s even a sequel, and it easily ranks among the greatest RPGs of all time. It’s not yet out on Mac, though, so use this opportunity to immerse yourself in Divinity’s world while you wait. You won’t regret it.