Here, we selected 10 of the best PvE games and split them into two groups: the top 5 very best and the best of the rest.
Man versus wild is a tale as old as storytelling itself. Consider the movie Castaway — Tom Hanks’ character carried an entire film on his back (with very little dialogue) by simply living as a castaway on an uncharted island. It’s an intense, gripping narrative. There’s something fascinating about the resilience of the human spirit, our ability to conquer the untamed and forge something new. We create homes, towns, and entire civilizations from bare earth and simple resources. We establish places of peace and plenty where once was barren land. We beat back the darkness to etch out dots on the map, like the twinkling lights of a city after nightfall.
And then, once in a while, we must remind the monsters in the dark who’s boss.
Player vs. Environment (PvE) games capture this pursuit of bringing order to chaos, of the raw, primal triumph of the human spirit. Sometimes they offer a solitary experience, like Castaway. Sometimes they invite you to group up and challenge the dark with your friends. And sometimes they offer the fantastic — like dinosaurs and zombies.
Let’s take a look at the best PvE Games for you or your next Discord get-together.
10 Best PvE Games in 2021
We’ve arranged this list by top 5 picks followed by 5 runners up, showing you a number of quality PvE titles to scratch any gaming itch you may have. Some of the games featured here also offer Player vs. Player (PvP) and other modes, but we’ve ranked them based on their predominant mode of play being PvE.
With the disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin with our pick for the best PvE survival game.
Our pick for the best PvE survival game
- Website: minecraft.net
- Developer: Mojang Studios
- Release Date: May 2009
- Genre: Sandbox
Minecraft at number one? Yes, absolutely. PvE has a few different meanings — more generally (and recently), it’s come to be known as pitting players against NPC opponents. In its purest sense, however, PvE pits players against the environment. Games like Minecraft, ARK: Survival Evolved, and Factorio do well at making the world itself a hazard that must be conquered.
Build a fort in the wilderness. Brave the Nether, especially after the most recent update. Plumb the depths of the oceans, swim with squids, and loot the Atlantean ruins that lie sleeping far below. Craft an arsenal of weapons, brew potions, or build an actual working CPU using redstone. And these are all things you can accomplish with the vanilla game.
Modding adds more content than I could reasonably enumerate within a single article. Just to name a few: you can add VR support to the Java version of Minecraft with Vivecraft, turn it into the procedural Pokémon MMO of your wildest dreams with Pixelmon, or add any number of tweaks and features through modding platforms like Bukkit. Part of what makes Minecraft the best PvE survival game is its versatility. It can be just about any game you want it to be. But for the past decade, the core game has been a way for players of all generations and skill levels to connect and build together.
Everyone has an opinion on Minecraft. Many feel that the block-based survival game has run its course or jumped the proverbial shark. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t play it much anymore. I started way back in Alpha, and it seemed like at least one person had a public server up during every block of free time in college. I’ve put in my time, and I suppose I’m content to leave it for the next generation.
That being said, Minecraft is one of the broadest, most robust PvE experiences you can have. Whether you play solo or multiplayer, vanilla or modded, there are thousands upon thousands of hours of content crammed into this superficially-simple procedural game.
With more content updates and new games in the franchise on the horizon, I see Minecraft’s dominance extending for many more years to come. But while Minecraft was the indie darling of the decade, there are plenty of top-tier indie games that don’t have the same level of recognition for their good work. Risk of Rain 2 is one such sleeper indie hit you absolutely have to try, and it’s our pick for the best co-op PvE game.
2. Risk of Rain 2
Our pick for the best Co-Op PvE game
- Website: riskofrain.com
- Developer: Hopoo Games
- Release Date: March 2019
- Genre: Roguelike
While Minecraft includes co-op, it simply isn’t built with co-op as a driving feature. Risk of Rain 2, by contrast, is a co-op game through and through. It isn’t simply the presence of cooperative play that earns Risk of Rain 2 our best co-op PvE game title. It stands on its own two feet with rock solid and frantic combat coupled with short-form loot progression all wrapped up in a “try to survive with your friends as long as you can” package.
Up to four players in a party find themselves on a partially procedurally-generated planet, populated with creative and aggressive monsters. Progressing through an area yields plenty of weird and whimsical items as loot, each one changing the way you play by granting new abilities like double jumps, finishing moves, and more. At the end of each randomized area lies a boss that will demand perfect coordination from you and your party members. Once it’s been eliminated, you all roll on to the next part of the planet like a ravenous horde of locusts whose meal of choice is sparkly, shimmering loot.
You can definitely try to play Risk of Rain 2 by yourself. Perhaps on an evening where your squad finds themselves otherwise occupied. You may benefit from the practice, but this game was built to be overwhelming. Even with an experienced and coordinated team, it’s only a matter of time before the game grinds you all into the dust. One wrong move on anyone’s part can spell disaster for a run. Fortunately, starting back from square one on a freshly randomized planet is just as much fun the hundredth time as it was the first. Watercooler moments abound with each playthrough of Risk of Rain 2, and you’ll always come away with a clear plan for what you could do better the next time. It’s simply the best co-op PvE game around. If you haven’t tried it yet, what are you waiting for?
3. Path of Exile
Our pick for the best free PvE game
- Website: pathofexile.com
- Developer: Grinding Gear Games
- Release Date: October 2013
- Genre: Hack and Slash
Risk of Rain 2 may be best described as a co-op action roguelike. Path of Exile, on the other hand, is an action RPG in its purest form. Obviously inspired by the classic Diablo franchise, Path of Exile places you in a dark fantasy world beset by monsters, demons, and the undead. And you, dear player, are the righteous adventurer destined to set things right and redeem the world.
Just kidding — you and the other players are simply outcasts thrown into a land of eternal twilight where survival is your only goal. Survival and self-improvement, that is, as is often the case with action RPGs.
In keeping with the genre’s core gameplay loops, Path of Exile is predominantly a PvE-focused game. While you can engage in a bit of PvP if so desired, you can also form a party with other players and set out to conquer the wilds together. The world is filled with hordes of enemies, troves of treasure, legendary equipment, and plenty of opportunities to level up your character. Min-maxers rejoice — you’d do well taking a pencil and notepad with you when digging into the skill tree, which is one of the most robust and comprehensive in the genre.
“How much does a top-tier action RPG like this cost?” I hear you ask. Path of Exile offers a sprawling world and innovative mechanics all for the low, low price of free. It’s a screaming deal that simply can’t be beat. Even if you’re not a fan of Diablo, you might want to consider gathering your party for an excursion into Wraeclast. You may find something you like.
And if you don’t, at least you aren’t out any scratch.
4. Destiny 2
Our pick for the best multiplayer PvE game
- Website: bungie.net
- Developer: Bungie
- Release Date: September 2017
- Genre: MMO Shooter
Bungie has been making incredible shooters and generation-defining experiences longer than some players of Destiny 2 have been alive. I say this with certainty, as my son and I regularly form up as a fireteam to take the fight to the Darkness. How they went from Halo to a sprawling, silver-age sci-fi MMO with an ongoing story, eye-popping art direction, and short-but-sweet gameplay loops is anyone’s guess. By many measurements, Destiny 2 is the most ambitious game since the launch of World of Warcraft. But does it live up to its vast and hubristic vision?
Yes, it does. That fact alone makes Destiny 2 the best multiplayer PvE game of this generation, and perhaps generations to come.
Of course, the House of Halo wouldn’t be content if there weren’t top-tier PvP experiences in the multiplayer sandbox as well. But that’s not the true heart and soul of Destiny, which excels as a PvE experience. It welcomes you to ride into battle on your Sparrow solo (or beside a fireteam of other Guardians) to uncover the mysteries of the Darkness and save humanity from intergalactic threats.
Bungie has always innovated with regard to worldbuilding and lore in gaming, and Destiny is no exception. Whether you come to scour every scrap of Grimoire text and environmental storytelling or simply kit your Guardian with an astounding array of visually and mechanically satisfying gear, Destiny has the goods you’re looking for.
Hop across our solar system from planet to planet, grind loot in strikes, participate in public events, and be the Light that shines in Darkness. It’s worth restating — Destiny 2 is the best multiplayer PvE game you can play, especially without a monthly fee. With the latest expansion, Beyond Light, just around the corner, now is an excellent time to take your first steps amidst the ruins of humanity’s Golden Age. Eyes up, Guardian.
5. Left 4 Dead 2
Our pick for the best PvE zombie game
- Website: store.steampowered.com
- Developer: Valve
- Release Date: November 2018
- Genre: Zombie, Survival Horror
It’s been eleven years since Valve released Left 4 Dead 2, hot on the heels of the first game in the series just a year before. It was poorly received at first — players wondered why it wasn’t simply made an expansion to the original instead of a fully-fledged (and full-priced) entry to the series.
Then we all dug into the game and the complaints melted away.
When it comes to PvE zombie shooters, Valve has the market cornered. There might be other games that offer a “player versus the horde” zombie experience, but Left 4 Dead 2 does it better on almost all fronts. That immaterial Valve polish gleams in every facet of the experience. The gunplay is tight, the AI Director system ensures that every playthrough is intense and no two are the same, and the characterization present in the playable survivors has led to quotes my friends and I still use today.
The gameplay loop is remarkably airtight even more than a decade later, offering simple progression with the weapons you scavenge and intense gun battles when you summon the horde or a tank. Hearing the tell-tale musical cue of an approaching tank is still just as nerve-wracking as it was the first time I heard it.
If you love zombies and PvE experiences, you’ve probably already played Left 4 Dead 2. But if you haven’t, rest assured it has aged like fine wine. That’s why Left 4 Dead 2 is our choice for the best PvE zombie game.
Runners-Up: Best PvE Games
Now that we’ve got the top games in fan-favorite categories covered, let’s dig into the rest of the best.
There are a lot of other quality PvE games that didn’t quite beat out the ones above in their respective subcategories but are well worth mentioning nonetheless.
If you’re looking for a few more games to round out your PvE gaming library, I recommend checking out these titles:
6. Warhammer: Vermintide 2
- Website: vermintide.com
- Developer: Fatshark
- Release Date: February 2018
- Genre: Action
Rain runs in rivulets off burnished armor. The Skaven rat-men screech war cries in an adjoining alley. Chaos is coming for what remains of the world of Men, Elves, and Dwarves in the End Times. And it’s up to you and your rag-tag band of heroes to turn the Vermintide.
Warhammer: Vermintide II is the critically-acclaimed sequel to the breakout hit that marries the gameplay of Left 4 Dead with the dark and gritty fantasy of the Warhammer universe. Take up arms as a melee, ranged, or magic-focused hero and battle through procedurally enhanced levels. Grind for loot, level up, and make good on your newfound skills in the best step forward for the 4-player cooperative PvE genre.
7. Killing Floor 2
- Website: killingfloor2.com
- Developer: Tripwire Interactive
- Release Date: November 2016
- Genre: Survival Horror
Killing Floor was a LAN party staple in the mid-00s. It ran on just about anything, including dusty old laptops pulled from closets when more people joined the party than we had computers. And when it was Killing Floor time, there were lots of people who wanted their turn to survive.
Killing Floor 2 takes the same formula and transforms it into a modern gaming experience. It’s poetry in motion as you and your squad make your last stand behind welded doors and mow down seemingly endless hordes of zombies. It’s the perfect blend of wave-based PvE shooting and mild progression to keep you screaming for medical syringes when you aren’t being startled by Fleshpounds long into the night.
8. ARK: Survival Evolved
- Website: studiowildcard.com
- Developer: Studio Wildcard
- Release Date: June 2015
- Genre: Action-Adventure, Survival
Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? And if you played any games in the past decade or two, you likely played a good number of PvE survival games in the process. So it was only natural that Studio Wildcard identified an area of opportunity immersing players in the wild and prehistoric world of earth’s greatest reptiles (or birds or something; science is still trying to figure that out).
But it’s not all prehistory in ARK; there are plenty of sci-fi influences that will drive your band of tribal survivors in the endgame. Until you get there, however, you’ll carve out a home on an untamed island teeming with ancient predators and prey. Craft yourself a saddle, and you can even tame a few — for flight, for defense, or simply to fast-harvest an entire mountainside of berries. When it comes to PvE survival, it doesn’t get much better than this.
- Website: factorio.com
- Developer: Wube Software
- Release Date: February 2016
- Genre: Construction and Management Simulation
Look — no one likes pollution. It’s dirty and smelly, and it gets everywhere. But when you’re an alien on an uncharted world living your best alien life, the last thing you want is plumes of toxic fumes choking up your skyline from some mega factory that appeared overnight. This is the conflict at the heart of Factorio, the very best in PvE factory simulation.
As the player(s), you must forge a factory from the resources you scavenge with the ultimate goal of building a spaceship to return to the stars. But it isn’t so easy — once you really get going, the native alien fauna will take notice of your actions. To put it simply, they aren’t happy about your presence. Can you build a sprawling network of assembly lines, power stations, automated factories, and move quickly enough to escape? Or will you (like me) end up buried beneath a mountain of alien carapaces and spent brass? Good luck, you’re going to need it.
10. The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners
- Website: vrwalkingdead.com
- Developer: Skydance Interactive
- Release Date: January 2020
- Genre: Zombie, First-Person Shooter
I was walking the streets of New Orleans. Things were oddly quiet; normally I see a walker or two, but this stretch of road seemed empty. Then I spot a human figure in the distance. As I approach, I realize he isn’t undead.
I was hoping for a quest or perhaps some of the environmental storytelling The Walking Dead is known best for. It ended up being the latter, but I wasn’t prepared for what came next.
“Give me your food,” he said, pointing a gun in my face. I was on the hunt for food myself but he couldn’t have known. He insisted, and I could see him gradually growing more irate at my inaction. It wasn’t going to go down like this.
Turns out I can win a quickdraw duel, even with the handicap of my opponent having his gun already drawn and leveled. The gunshot echoed through the streets and alleys. A chorus of moans and halting gasps followed, and I realized the area wasn’t as empty as I thought. This is The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, and this is one of the most gripping PvE experiences around even without qualifying it as a VR title. If you have an HMD or are bound to pick one up, this game is a must-play. Just be forewarned — whether you stumble across the living or the undead, you’re all alone on the streets of post-apocalyptic New Orleans.