Nothing beats the allure of a competitive game. Once you know your opponents are real, the artificiality of graphics and animations give way to real rivalries, alliances, and victories. And yet: the humble PvE mode can prove pretty special too. It might have been designed to divert or provide relief from the intensity of human competition, but sometimes the form is elevated into something worth celebrating in its own right.
Here they are - the times when scuffles with AI enemies turned out to be just as rewarding as fighting against flesh and blood.
Looking to hunt down your fellow players? Here are the best multiplayer games on PC.
Fortnite: Save the World
Ever wondered where Fortnite got its name? Given that Battle Royale often takes place during the day and doesn’t give you scope to build more than a six-storey shed? Well, back in the purple mists of 2017, Fortnite wasn’t a competitive game at all. Instead, it was a co-op adventure about scavenging a map for materials, putting together a fortress filled with traps, and calling in waves of zombies to test your defences.
Since then, of course, it’s been overshadowed by its more Drake-friendly counterpart - to the point where ‘Fortnite’ is shorthand for Battle Royale, and Save the World has been relegated to that weird mode you don’t play because it costs 30-odd quid to unlock. But trust us: it’s still worth shelling out for Save the World and pushing past the progression nonsense. This is one part of Fortnite that PUBG doesn’t have an answer for.
There must be a Hollywood agent out there who’s really into military shooters. John Malkovich, Ron Perlman, David Tennant, Jeff Goldblum - they’re all, improbably, in COD: Zombies. There’s little doubt this is the most expensive PvE mode ever conceived, and it’s probably the wildest, too.
Nowhere in a single-player COD campaign will you find barmaids, prospectors, or cowboys in a continentally-shifted Angola. In no other WWII shooter will you face dead crusaders and templars in occupied France. So popular is Zombies that its maps now total in the 20s; not bad for a horde mode first released as an end credits easter egg.
The best version remains Black Ops III’s take on the formula - the noirish Shadows of Evil. Gather components for a magic ritual to stop a Lovecraftian nightmare alongside - and I can’t stress this enough - Jeff Actual Goldblum. Even among the undead, life, uh, finds a way.
League of Legends: Doom Bots
You might better remember Doom Bots of Doom by another title: Nightmare mode. Oh yes, they know how to name ‘em. This was League of Legends’ first featured game mode to repurpose bots for a co-op mode, and it was ambitious. Each android had mutated, giving them strengthened abilities - and when playing on higher difficulties, could mutate further to pick up the abilities of other champions. It’s simply not LoL unless your opponents transform over the course of a match.
Other aspects of Doom Bots are barely recognisable as LoL. The spliced and spooky-skinned reimagining of Summoner’s Rift; the enemies who rush the lanes relentlessly, tactics be damned; and finally, 15 minutes in, a boss. The Evil Overlord of the Doom Bots is the mode’s final challenge, prompting a gloriously satisfying PvE push. Who knew the most competitive game in the world would be so well-suited to co-op?
Rainbow Six Siege: Terrorist Hunt
Rainbow Six Siege felt like a dramatic departure for the series, which had until then revolved primarily around elaborate single-player campaigns set in embassies and casinos. But, actually, one constant has remained across the reboots: Terrorist Hunt mode.
The premise is simple enough. You clear out a map filled with pesky radicals, creeping your way around corners and covering the backs of your teammates. A running total keeps track of how many terrorists are left - useful at first, but eventually unnerving when those last few elude you. It’s never as simple as turning the map upside down and shaking it to see who falls out.
You’d be surprised just how often a baddie manages to surprise you, from behind a barrier, in the shadows of a basement you were certain you’d cleared. And, on higher difficulties, Terrorist Hunt has the potential to get more alarming: enemies will guess-fire through walls, or flank you by going outside. Terrorists, eh? What are they like?
Mass Effect 3 multiplayer
Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer holds the secret to great, accessible PvE: waves. There are 11 wonderful waves of Reapers, Cerberus, Geth, and Collectors. Oh yes, they may live out beyond the Omega 4 Relay, but they’ll make a special trip to come and shoot you and your friends in the head.
The variety comes with the five different types of objective - devices, assassination, hacking, retrieval, and escort - and the battlefields scattered throughout the galaxy. Suddenly, you’re not just grinding for the best single-player ending - you’ve forgotten about the single-player altogether.