A whole lot of PC games these days are never really finished. Elder PC gamers can grouch about the good old days, where there was no such thing as a day-one patch or a season pass. Back then games just kinda worked, and I already feel like a grandpa for saying that. Then again, sometimes they didn’t, and a broken game couldn’t be fixed, or a bad game couldn’t become a great one over years of updates and improvements.
So there are some positives about this era of endless post-release maintenance. In 2019 there are tons of success stories of games that were either ignored or derided at launch, and have since found an ironclad community thanks to some expertly deployed patches and updates. No game is beyond saving anymore, and I will be completely unsurprised if, in 2020, Fallout 76 is tearing up Twitch.
With that in mind, I’ve gone in search of the updates from this always-online era that truly transformed their games. Here are the eight best patches in modern PC gaming history.
Hearthstone patch 5.0: Whispers of the Old Gods
Date: April 2016
It took a while for Blizzard to establish a baseline power-level for its ludicrously popular card game, and after two supremely overpowered sets in Goblins vs. Gnomes and the Curse of Naxxramas (and a comparatively weaker set with The Grand Tournament), the company finally arrived at a happy medium with Whispers of the Old Gods. The Hearthstone team smartly integrated a rotation system that banished old uber-strong cards to the ether, letting the players mess around with the tastefully effective, unoppressive sets left over.
Ask any Hearthstone lifer, and they’ll point to Old Gods as the best meta the game has ever nurtured. My only complaint is that Hearthstone was never this good again.
Rainbow Six Siege patch 2.1: Velvet Shell
Date: February 2017
I remember Velvet Shell as Rainbow Six Siege’s victory lap. After a widely-ignored launch and persistent issues with cheaters and server lag, Siege rose from the ashes as the FPS du jour for millions of players. Seemingly out of nowhere, it was huge. In reality, of course, that growth took many months, but this was the turning point.
Velvet Shell marked the beginning of Ubisoft’s second year of content for the game, which seemed liked a pipedream in 2016. The operators, Jackal and Mira, showed that the developers had plenty of good character designs left in the tank, and Coastline is probably still my favorite map on the servers.
Team Fortress 2 patch: Love And War
Date: June 2014
Have you booted up Team Fortress 2 recently? It is incomprehensible. The vast majority of my playtime was back with the Orange Box, when the game was a meat-and-potatoes class-based shooter, with all the extremities dutifully cut back till it was lean and mean. Now there’s crafting, and lootboxes, and costumes, and alternative weapons, and… I don’t know. It’s bizarre.
The June 2014 patch is perhaps the best example of that giddy excess. Not only did it add new weapons (the Heavy can punch with a mutated sandwich now!), it also gave us some of the most memorable taunts in the game with the conga, the square dance, and the rock, paper, scissors.
This year marks the 12th year of Team Fortress 2. Will it ever slow down?
The Division patch 1.4
Date: October 2016
I have a soft spot for the first Division. It launched in such a beguiling unfinished state. (Remember what the endgame was like after launch?) 1.4 didn’t add a bunch of new content like the other entries on this list, but it did make the game way more palatable to anyone interested in playing it casually. Loot rates were juiced, and the World Tier system flattened enemy levels in a vaguely Skyrim-esque way.
As has become customary in loot shooters, Ubisoft figured out exactly how their game should work a few months after launch. It’s a lesson well-earned. I don’t think I’ve heard a single “this game is broken” complaint about The Division 2 since it dropped.
No Man’s Sky patch 1.5: No Man’s Sky Next
Date: July 2018
What will the legacy of No Man’s Sky be 10 years from now? There was a fanatical scrutiny of the game’s promises (some of which was self-inflicted by the developers, some not) and a wild backlash at launch that it failed to deliver the infinitely playable ur-game. Still, Hello Games kept plugging away, even after the outcry, and No Man’s Sky Next got the team pretty close to what that infamous Game Awards trailer promised. Simplified resources, multiplayer, expanded base-building, and a general blanket of new stuff to support that latent space-faring wanderlust deep within you. It sure is nice that we’ve arrived at a place where we can feel good about No Man’s Sky.
World of Warcraft patch 1.9: The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj
Date: January 2006
This might be a controversial choice, given how many memorable patches World of Warcraft has received, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Vanilla 1.9. Not only did it introduce two new raids, a whole batch of Old Gods lore, and a revamped zone, we also got the realm-wide supplies grind. Basically, a server couldn’t gain access to the raids until the denizens contributed enough bandages, potions, and foodstuffs to the war effort.
It wasn’t exactly the smartest design—I mean, what was there really to gain for the non-raiders of Azeroth?—but it was an daring idea that was representative of the strong, localized identities of World of Warcraft before the multiverse collapsed.
Warframe update 24: Fortuna
Date: November 2018
When Fortuna hit servers last November, Warframe broke 100,000 concurrent players. Somehow, the little MMO shooter that had flown under the radar since 2013 had grown into one of the most popular games in the world. Fortuna gave players hoverboards, a delightfully ersatz Venus map, and a genuinely provocative story set around a bunch of thugs running a debt-slavery ring, in a beautiful Blade Runner colony.
Warframe’s been a great free-to-play experience for a good long while, but Fortuna really feels like Digital Extremes at the top of its game. Out of every entry on this list, I don’t think there’s an argument that Warframe has been improved by patches the most.
Fortnite patch 1.6: Battle Royale
Date: September 2017
No patch has ever turned around the fortunes of a game faster, and with more earth-shaking ferocity than this Fortnite patch. The story goes that in the middle of the summer of 2017, as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was tearing up Twitch, a small team at Epic threw together a simple battle royale module in two months. That mode was launched onto the live servers with patch 1.6, and the rest is history.
No content update has had a more spectacular impact on the culture, and honestly, it’s kind of strange to think of something as massive as Fortnite Battle Royale in the context of the usual bug-squashing and quality-of-life improvements that define most video game patches. It’s living proof that it doesn’t matter how moribund a game looks. One brilliant pivot is all you need to survive. Sorry, Fortnite: Save The World fans.