There are some games you just can’t play any other way.
XCOM 2 strikes a perfect balance between tactical combat, macro planning, and resource management, creating an insanely compelling strategy game.
The ascendant MMORPG seems to capture more and more fans with its deep lore and tie-ins to the greater Final Fantasy universe and Square Enix RPGs like Nier: Automata.
The Civilization series has long been one of the most fun and infinitely exciting game franchises. The most recent entry, Civilization VI, is the pinnacle of the series to date.
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There are games that you can (and maybe should) play on a PC, and then there are games that you need to play on a PC. Strategy games, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), old-school isometric role-playing games (RPGs), multiplayer online battle arenas, (MOBAs)—some of the best PC games rely so heavily on the free movement of a mouse or the extended range of inputs on your keyboard that it feels like it would be impossible to play them with a controller. Whether you’re a prospective PC player looking for reasons to invest in a gaming rig, or a seasoned PC builder looking to commune with the platform’s roots. These games are at the heart of PC gaming, in part because the experience of playing them is so specifically tied to its traditional tools.
As a former game critic, I’ve played a lot of games on many platforms. That means I have a better-than-average knowledge of the games out there. I’ve also reviewed lots of gaming peripherals—including mice, keyboards, and controllers—so I have a strong understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. All of the games on this list feature interfaces that require either the ability to point and click or a higher number of gameplay-focused buttons than on a controller. In many cases, these games are available on PC and consoles, but playing them with a controller feels like a compromise.
Some PC games feel better with a mouse and keyboard. Others feel better with a controller. That PC gives you the option to easily choose between the two is one of its great strengths. While this list focuses on games that are entrenched on the mouse and keyboard side of that line, it can sometimes be tough to see the difference.
Usually, you need a keyboard in games that have lots of commands and inputs. Both the PS5 and Xbox controller have 10 gameplay-facing inputs: For games like MOBAs and MMOs, where you have lots of actions and abilities, designers often have to design menus for you to dig through. On a keyboard, you can easily assign every input you need to a different key. Keyboards also open the door for hotkeys and “macros,” custom combos you activate with a single key. The more complicated a game gets, the more useful your keyboard becomes.
The mouse frequently feels vital because it gives you the ability to move a cursor very quickly and precisely interact with a game. In strategy games, the mouse becomes a dynamic tool that lets you highlight specific characters or buildings, move around a map freely, or interact with digital buttons on-screen. Many games attempt to simulate this with an analog stick, but it never offers the same level of control. In first-person games, moving your mouse to control your field of view allows for more situational awareness. In first-person shooters, specifically, a mouse lets you move your reticle to a very specific spot (like an enemy’s head) far quicker and with much greater accuracy than an analog stick.
PC gamers have long claimed the first-person shooter as a PC-first genre because of the advantages from using a mouse and keyboard. While it’s true that you should definitely play a first-person shooter with a mouse and keyboard on PC, I don’t believe they’re absolutely necessary. Playing a first-person shooter on consoles with a controller can be just as fun as using a mouse and keyboard, just as long as everyone you’re playing is doing the same. Sure, you may not turn or aim quite as fast, but the action still feels smooth and the game is still fun. With the games on this list, I find playing controller actively detracts from the experience.
Of course, like everything else on this, this is ultimately a matter of personal taste. I know there are PC players who would rather die than play Call of Duty with a controller, and they’re fine to continue doing so. No harm, no foul.
Character action games like Grand Theft Auto V or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla generally feel much better on a controller. With an analog stick, you have a means of directly controlling your character with nuanced 360-degree movement. I’ve never seen a mouse and keyboard layout that could achieve similar results. It may come down to personal preference, but I also find that platformers also work best with a controller, as they also require more nuanced movement.
Now that we know the distinction between a “controller game” and a “mouse and keyboard game,” let’s take a quick look at some amazing games that you should absolutely always play with mouse and keyboard, regardless of whether or not you technically have other options.
Why it made the cut: XCOM 2 strikes a perfect balance between tactical combat, macro planning, and resource management, creating an insanely compelling strategy game.
XCOM 2 has a lot of layers. A strategy game where you command humanity’s resistance force fighting a powerful alien army that’s taken control of Earth, XCOM 2 forces you to make macro- and micro-decisions to outsmart and defeat an army much larger and deadlier than yours. Your resources are always limited, including your soldiers, who are permanently killed when they fall in battle. (Coincidentally, this leads to lots of fun runs where you name your troops after friends, family, pets, whatever.) Alternating between base-building and squad-based tactics gameplay, you will need skill and luck to complete each mission.
As a tactics game, XCOM 2 benefits heavily from mouse and keyboard controls. Each soldier has a fairly wide range of actions they can do each turn, which are mapped to the number keys. A mouse also allows you to quickly move your characters, scroll to look around each level, and navigate menus around your ship more efficiently than if you used a gamepad.
Why it made the cut: The Civilization series has long been one of the most fun and infinitely exciting game franchises. The most recent entry, Civilization VI, is the pinnacle of the series to date.
The Civilization series has been the apex of the empire-building “4X” genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) for more than 20 years. Though the most recent entry in the series, Civilization VI, is already more than five years old, it remains a rare revelation. You control the resources of an entire civilization, from the first humans to the near future. Over the span of human history, you must grow your “Civ” and become the most successful empire in the world, whether by conquest, cultural influence, or technological supremacy, to name just a few.
Though there are console versions of Civilization VI that work surprisingly well, the text-heavy menus and wide world that you must scan each turn makes the PC, and a mouse, absolutely essential. It also features plenty of hotkeys for assigning and automating the many tasks your settlers, workers, and warriors carry out. Civilization is among the most accessible 4X games, but it’s a genre defined by complexity. The more complex the game, the more important it is to have a mouse and keyboard.
Why it made the cut: Aside from being one of the most popular competitive games in the world, Dota 2 is a deeply tactical squad-based action game that grows and evolves over time to stay fresh.
Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, commonly referred to as “MOBAs,” are the pinnacle of competitive and “esports” popularity. These 5-on-5 third-person RPG-infused action games—including League of Legends, Dota 2, and, most recently Pokemon Unite on the Nintendo Switch—look simple on the surface: Two teams fight to level up to gain ground and ultimately destroy your opponent’s base structure. (That’s the “ancient” in Dota 2). Though it appears to be relatively simple at a glance, there is immense variety among the many characters’ abilities and specs. There is a lot to learn, but the experience can be very rewarding for players who are willing to put in the time and find a squad to play with.
Though MOBAs can be built for a controller or phone, the PC is still the home base for MOBAs like Dota 2. The genre was originally created as an alternate mode in Warcraft III and its click to move gameplay reflects that lineage. You also benefit from having a keyboard with a number/function row to quickly access all your abilities. While there are mobile and console MOBAs that are worth playing, the core MOBA experience happens on a PC with a mouse and keyboard.
Why it made the cut: The ascendant MMORPG seems to capture more and more fans with its deep lore and tie-ins to the greater Final Fantasy universe and Square Enix RPGs like Nier: Automata.
Depending on what gaming publications you read, Final Fantasy XIV feels like the video game of the moment in 2022. Though it’s been around since 2013, the second MMORPG take on Final Fantasy seems to be attracting new fans all the time at a time when most MMOs, including World of Warcraft, seem to have fallen back into place as a niche RPG sub-genre.
FFXIV is a pure MMO at heart, which means fans come to it for an epic, sweeping story … and that you need a lot of hotkeys. Despite attracting a notable PlayStation community, there are many mechanics that fit better with a keyboard, from the aforementioned range of abilities to text chat, to an ungodly amount of small text that would be easier to read on a monitor that’s directly in front of your face.
Why it made the cut: The Starcraft II didn’t crave out the same cultural legacy as the original, but it’s still an epic standout among real-time strategy games.
I can’t think of a game more emblematic of real-time strategy (RTS) than Starcraft II. The sweeping, three-part successor to one of the original esports, Starcraft II still offers the best balance between classic RTS gameplay and modern visuals. After more than years since the first part, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, launched, the series shows its age. Still, after all this time, I can’t think of a better introduction to the genre. (On the other hand, after 10 years new players may have a hard time finding someone to play with who won’t destroy them).
More than any genre on this list, RTS needs a mouse and keyboard. From scrolling around the map to wrangling specific groups of units and setting hotkeys to swap among squads, there is a tremendously high ceiling for increasing your abilities as a player through shortcuts and macros. I can’t imagine even trying to play Starcraft II with a control.
Why it made the cut Divinity: Original Sin 2 is an incredibly open role-playing game known for its great writing and an old-school isometric “CRPG” gameplay-style that’s made for mouse and keyboard.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the very model of modern major isometric western RPG. (Sometimes called a computer RPG or “CRPG.”) It is the largest and most nuanced attempt to transpose the wondrous experience of tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons into video game form. Universally lauded for tremendous writing and the ability to do, seemingly, whatever you want in its sprawling open world, Original Sin 2 is a testament to the fact that some older gaming traditions stand the test of time.
Like tactics games, CRPGs have a lot going on. There are two types of movement, a long list of abilities to choose from for each character, and tons of text to highlight and click on. All of these mechanics are made for mouse and keyboard: It’s easier to scroll, to click, and to hotkey with mouse and keyboard. As with some games on this list, you can play Original Sin 2 on consoles, but the controller-based experience will move much slower than playing with mouse and keyboard. Since the game can already take upwards of 100 hours to finish, I wouldn’t want to waste any time.
There’s a wide world of gaming mice and gaming keyboards out there. Various manufacturers make different kinds of gaming keyboards to suit the varying needs and tastes of players based on whether they value comfort, speed, performance, or bells and whistles related to the games they play. While I can’t tell you exactly what to buy, Popular Science does have stories dedicated to the best gaming mice and the best gaming keyboards, which can help you pick out new gear that’s right for you.
Absolutely. There are tons of games that are designed to work specifically with a mouse and keyboard. All PC games will default to using mouse and keyboard controls until you plug in a controller, so if you’re having trouble deciding between a gamepad or M+K, just start playing and see how it feels! In some cases, PC games will go out of their way to tell you that they feel better with a controller, but the decision is ultimately up to you.
There are many great PC games out there that you can play with just a mouse. Point-and-click adventure games, many city-builders, and “auto-chess” games all rely primarily on pointing and clicking, rather than using keyboard inputs or shortcuts. Keyboard-only games, however, are rare: You can technically play fighting games and many platformers with just a keyboard, though most games benefit from using a mouse a little bit to navigate their menus.
As fewer and fewer games get designed for specific platforms, games that rely on a mouse and keyboard increasingly feel more and more distinctive from their less demanding cross-platform peers. Many of the PC games on this list represent genres that are deeply connected with PC gaming’s history, dating back to when the platform used to feel completely separate from what was happening on consoles. There are lots of arguments among PC players about whether it’s better to play with a mouse and keyboard or a controller. For me, these games highlight the more important truth, that playing with a mouse and keyboard opens the door for new types of games that wouldn’t make sense without this combo’s unique capabilities.
As Reviews Editor, Mike Epstein helps shape Popular Science’s gear-focused coverage, including product reviews and roundups. He’s covered the consumer technology and video games industry for over ten years, writing reviews and service-focused articles for sites like IGN, Gamespot, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, PCMag, LaptopMag, Variety, and more.
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There are some games you just can’t play any other way.