Published: November 7, 2021
As an avid gamer and indie game developer looking ahead to the inevitable future of gaming that is photorealism, I'm always curious which titles are pushing the boundaries of 3D graphics and how they're doing so. Naturally, games on the bleeding edge are also likely to be among the most graphically demanding games on hardware that can really push graphics cards to their limit and bring weaker ones to their knees. For fun and to learn some things along the way, I wanted to compile this list containing some of the current most GPU demanding games out there right now for either PC or VR, based on both personal experience and studying benchmarks around the web.
See Also: Most CPU Intensive Games
Just 'cause a game is very demanding doesn't necessarily mean it's also a thing of beauty, but the two are heavily linked and therefore many of the games I hand-picked below boast some of the most impressive, realistic, immersive graphics in video games today. Also please keep in mind this isn't meant to be an all encompassing exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be a precise ordered ranking. But I have tried my best to sift through the ginormous PC market - at least within the AAA quality field - to pinpoint some of the absolute most graphically demanding games or mods you can get your hands on and also rank them as best I could.
Vanilla Skyrim (without mods) will unsurprisingly run flawlessly on even a potato PC given it's now a decade old, but thanks to its thriving modding community, if you download some of the best Skyrim graphics mods out there and stack them together, the legendary adventure visually transforms from majorly dated to modern-day marvel that'll whack that GPU of yours considerably more than before. Even an RTX 3090 dips under 60FPS when you run a ton of beautiful mods in 4K as shown here.
Skyrim running 1200 mods looks amazing (check it out)
Valve did a fantastic job optimizing their VR masterpiece to run surprisingly well on less powerful hardware, but if you crank up the settings to Ultra and/or increase resolution scaling it can give your GPU a serious workout and will eat up your card's VRAM like no tomorrow.
But when you play some of the awesome mod campaigns created by the community, that's where the game can go from somewhat demanding to very demanding. Understandably, indie modders often don't have the time nor world-class polish that Valve does when it comes to utilizing the Source 2 engine and optimizing performance to the Nth degree.
I've played a ton of Alyx mods and many of them ran at much lower, choppier FPS than the game's main campaign, and I can't wait to revisit some of them once I upgrade my GPU in 2074 once the chip shortage finally ends.
The Division 2 is Ubisoft's open-world, co-op looter shooter set on the highly detailed streets of Washington DC that boasts some very impressive graphics, including top notch realistic weather effects with a day/night cycle and cool, atmospheric thunderstorms. Based on my research it also seems to have been well optimized by the devs. So, like most games on this list, you can run the game fine on a mid-range GPU if you lower or tweak the settings, and assuming you stick to 1080p, but at maxed settings at 1440p or 4K it'll take a fairly high-end GPU to run at or near 60FPS or higher.
On a monitor - even at 4K - Squadrons isn't that demanding. But in VR, I've personally found it to be very demanding on the GPU, and much more so than most other VR titles I've played (and as a VR dev myself, I've played a lot). Other people's experiences confirm this, such as this guy only getting around 85FPS average in VR on a RTX 3090.
To run Squadrons smoothly at maxed settings, and without reprojection which can be annoying to some, unfortunately you will need a RTX 3080 or RX 6800 XT (especially at 90Hz, or at 120Hz using a Valve Index). Lower the settings and you'll be just fine with a RTX 3070 or RX 6800 though.
At this stage in its early-access state, surprisingly, to my understanding as an outside observer Star Citizen is quite CPU-bound and your frame rate can be limited to a certain degree by your processing power in many situations (even at higher resolutions). That said, it can also be quite demanding on the GPU. Once the full version releases, it may become more forgiving on mid-range hardware due to further optimizations, but I wouldn't count on it.
Roberts Space Industries has a pretty cool, handy real-time hardware performance chart showing the average FPS of different specs, and a quick look over the stats for the mainstay resolutions (1080p, 1440p, 4K) makes it pretty clear how demanding the game is. But technical charts aside, just watching some cool gameplay footage such as this breathtaking flight takeoff scene will make it fairly obvious that your dusty old GTX 1050 Ti ain't going to have a good time.
A somewhat controversial game due to its approach to development and funding, whatever your opinion there's no denying Star Citizen looks absolutely amazing and sci-fi fans like myself are keeping an eye on how this monster of a game progresses over time. One of the developers also stated that VR support is in mind for the future, so if that ever happens it will be an instant buy for me.
Known for its vast, beautiful open worlds, the Far Cry series has always been demanding on hardware and the latest 6th instalment is unsurprisingly the most demanding on the GPU of all, especially if you enable real-time ray traced shadows and reflections (which the title officially supports from launch). Benchmarks show the game running decently on a variety of hardware, but crank up the settings and enable real-time ray tracing and you'll need a solid card at 1440p, and at 4K with ray tracing you won't be hitting 60FPS unless you have an RTX 3080 or RX 6800 XT (though a RTX 3070 will do it if you turn off ray tracing).
Arguably the best looking and most demanding PC racing series, numero 5 just released in early access to great feedback and does not stray from the series' formula of fantastic visuals along with beefy hardware requirements if you want to run high resolutions and high settings. Though the game is a lot less forgiving on lesser hardware if all you want is 60FPS at 1080p on average settings. See the Forza 5 hardware guide for more.
No Man's Sky on a monitor isn't hugely demanding, but in VR it becomes one of the most demanding games out there which hits both your GPU and CPU quite hard. The first time I tried it was with an RTX 2060 Super and even on low settings the game was very choppy and borderline unplayable. So, to fully enjoy NMS in VR you're going to need a beefy card like a RTX 3070, RX 6700 XT, or better. Thankfully, DLSS was added for RTX card owners to gain a bunch of FPS.
A controversial VR game with a boatload of critics for not living up to high expectations, whether you like the game or not one thing is for certain: it's one of the most demanding VR games out there. Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond has some pretty lofty minimum requirements (i7 9700K and GTX 1080 - yes, that's the minimum, not recommended specs). Based on my research, at high settings anything less than a RTX 3070 or equivalent is going to produce a whole bunch of stuttering and a lot of dropped frames (reprojections). Even a mighty RTX 3080 struggles to create a flawlessly smooth experience.
Valhalla is the latest in the vast series that is Assassin's Creed. As mentioned in the list of most CPU intensive games, thanks to DX12 support, Valhalla is less strenuous on the CPU than previous entries like Odyssey and Origins which both hit the CPU harder than most titles. But when it comes to graphics, Valhalla is the most demanding on GPUs. Whether or not Valhalla is the best looking Assassin's Creed is up for debate, but there's no denying it looks great and is a good modern showcase of cutting edge graphics minus the rendering flavor of the year that is of course real-time ray tracing (Valhalla does not support it and sticks to traditional lighting methods).
Project Cars 2 on flatscreen is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of hardware requirements for great performance. But strap on a VR headset - far and away the most immersive way to play - and the game becomes significantly more taxing on hardware, with only high-end cards like the RTX 3080 really doing it any justice.
As just one random benchmark example, see this RTX 3080 Ti test which does okay at times but struggles more than you'd think for such a fast GPU. Modern VR headsets typically have a refresh rate of 90Hz, meaning that you need 90FPS or higher for super smooth performance, and ideally higher than that to avoid dropped frames (which is much more noticeable in VR).
In other words, getting less frames than your target refresh rate is crucial in VR for the full experience, whereas dipping under your refresh rate on a regular gaming monitor (such as hitting 40-50FPS on a 60Hz display) is much less jarring/noticeable.
Control was one of the first games to include real-time ray tracing when it released a couple years back, and to this day it's still a great example of how fantastic this revolutionary new feature can look like in action. But fancy lighting aside, the game just looks fantastic in general with some pretty insane attention to detail.
A couple years on it's also still one of the absolute most demanding PC games on the market to date, and at high settings and/or high resolutions will need serious GPU power to get anywhere near that magical 60FPS. Thankfully the game supports DLSS for NVidia RTX card owners, which basically 100% needs to be turned on if you want smooth performance with ray tracing.
The detailed open-world of Watch Dogs Legion makes for a super demanding game whether you enable its ray tracing support or not. With it turned on, using DLSS (which is supported) is a must, even on top of the range cards like the RTX 3080 and 3090. At least if you want a smooth experience at 4K or 1440p. At 1080p, the game can be quite CPU limited as explained in the article on the most CPU demanding games.
A contender for best graphics of all time in a PC game so far, the Metro series and its in-house 4A game engine developed by 4A games is known for pushing the boundaries. With Metro Exodus, their latest release, it's no different, and the game is easily up there as the best looking game out there right now bar none. The realism and level of detail within its semi-open world environments is truly next-gen. Great thing is, the visuals aren't letdown by the gameplay, and it stands as a fantastic FPS overall.
A mod done well is still a game, so no reason not to include them in a list like this. Resident Evil and VR are a match made in, well, hell. First we saw Resident Evil 7 VR for PSVR, then just recently Resident Evil 4 VR on the Oculus Quest, and now an unofficial yet relatively well executed Resident Evil 2 VR mod has just starting making the rounds in the VR community and will be released soon.
Resident Evil 2 is a very old game, however the mod is of the completely refreshed 2019 Resident Evil 2 remake, so the graphics are amazing with high attention to detail and quality textures. The fidelity means its requirements will be higher than your typical PC VR game, as confirmed by Beardo Benjo in his entertaining playthrough with an RTX 2080 (see part 2 here) and by others (Upload VR etc).
Red Dead Redemption 2 is many things. One of the most graphically demanding games, another contender of best looking game of all time, and arguably one of the best games of all time full stop. But staying on topic, the graphics in RDR2 can be truly breathtaking, even seeming well ahead of its time despite not having ray tracing. The game features some of the most stunning, life-like outdoor environments seen in a video game to date, including some very immersive weather effects.
At 1440p or 4K ultra settings, good luck getting 60FPS. Even 60FPS at 1080p will be a struggle for most GPUs on the market. You can also throw some visual mods to the mix if you feel like punishing your graphics card even further, which lifts the visuals from mighty good to mesmerizing, and possibly the closest thing you can get to photorealism right now.
No list of graphically demanding games would be complete without mentioning the beloved immortal meme that is Crysis. Remasters of Crysis 1, 2, and 3 were all released recently, and though controversial (just check Steam reviews of the original remaster to see what I mean), what cannot be argued is that these remasters make these already notoriously demanding games just that little bit more hazardous to hardware. 60FPS at maxed settings at 1440p or 4K is still a pipedream for most. Looks like we'll all still be asking "Can it run Crysis" for a while longer, because "Can it run Cyberpunk" has not caught on. Speaking of the devil.
I don't care what the many critics say, I've played Cyberpunk 2077 and it's a great game despite its shortcomings and rocky, bug-filled launch (that has been somewhat smoothed out to a certain extent). If you're into futuristic settings and sci-fi, love a deep (ish) story-driven campaign, and like open-world games with a real sense of scale, exploring Night City is a joy. At least to me. But staying on topic 'cause I ain't no game reviewer and never plan to be, the graphics are some of the best you'll see in a PC game. Next-gen lighting via ray tracing adds an extra fine touch to bring everything to life, but it also looks fantastic even without ray tracing.
Like Metro Exodus and RDR2, some scenes are as close to photorealistic as you can get in a video game, but all this beauty comes at a cost of course, and your GPU can take a serious battering if you crank up the settings. Reaching 60FPs is an achievement - even at 1080p. And if you want the full Cyberpunk 2077 experience by playing on a glorious 4K, 1440p, or ultra-wide monitor, nothing but a high-end GPU will do it full justice.
Wait, what? Quake 2? Isn't that like 100 years old? The game recently got an official remaster to showcase ray tracing, which for those out of the know is a next-gen rendering technique that simulates the most realistic lighting conditions possible. It's easy to imagine such a makeover to the graphics would make the old classic a little harder on hardware, but I don't think many predicted just how much of an impact it ended up having - Quake 2 RTX is now literally one of the most GPU demanding games on the market today. That doesn't mean it now looks modern and better than most games - it still looks and feels like a very old title since the clunky, blocky 3D models and animations are still present.
And now, the number one most GPU demanding game of all time, at least at the time of me writing this. Won't come as a surprise to most, as everyone knows how demanding MSFS 2020 is - on both the GPU and CPU. At 4K or in VR, it becomes an untamable wild beast of a game that won't allow anything close to a consistent 60FPS at high settings (or 90FPS for VR) - no matter your specs. Even a RTX 3090 struggles for flawless performance. At 1440p or 1080p you'll also need a relatively beefy PC, but the good news is that in slower paced genres like this there's no crucial need to hit 60FPS anyway.
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Indie game programmer currently working on my first official game release (after years of hobby projects), an atmospheric story-driven VR FPS built with Unreal Engine (to be announced once I'm ready here and here for anyone into VR FPS's). Also likes writing these articles about tech, which helps to fund development of the game (bringing on help from talented artists and modelers is not cheap).
My favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1 and 2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, HL1, WC3, Vice City, and KOTOR, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece Half Life Alyx. Thanks for visiting, hope the site helps, and if you want a second opinion on your PC build feel free to ask a question over on the main PC builds guide. I try to respond to every comment. - Julz