The free-to-play genre gets a bad rap, and rightfully so. In its early years, free-to-play games were littered with paywalls, allowing only those with the deepest pockets to win the day. However, games like Warframe and Destiny 2 prove that it’s possible to sustain a free-to-play game without an endless onslaught of microtransactions. In this guide, we’re going to talk about the best free-to-play games that you can download right now.
Combining the futuristic science-fiction aesthetic of games such as Mass Effect and Halo with slick, martial arts-inspired combat, Warframe is one of the most impressive action games available right now, and you can play it on both consoles and PC. It launched in 2013 and has only seen its player-base grow substantially over the last few years — more than 26 million people have played it so far — and though it’s free-to-play, Warframe still serves as an excellent example of the technical capabilities of both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. It should be among the first games you try when you get your new console.
Warframe also includes a remarkable number of customization options, which allow you to modify your weapons and “Warframe” exo-armor, thus letting you better cater your gear toward your specific playstyle. You even have access to your own personal spaceship, which you’ll use as your base when between missions. Once you touch down on foot, however, your mobility won’t be limited; seven different parkour moves allow you to navigate hard-to-reach areas and get the drop on enemies.
World of Tanks
It has spawned spin-off games focusing on ferocious naval and air battles, but nothing can top the intense warfare offered in the original World of Tanks. Featuring armored destroyers from America, England, Germany, China, France, and the Soviet Union (among other nations), World of Tanks’ multiplayer matches are absolutely massive, with teams constantly vying to gain tactical positions over one another as they fire long-range shots, flank enemies, and protect their allies. Tanks have roughly a dozen different armored plates, too, each with their own level of protection against incoming fire.
For those willing to risk their skin a little bit more, the “self-propelled gun” class will allow you to take out a large number of enemies, provided they don’t immediately spot you and blow you to oblivion. A detailed guide — available on the game’s official website — will get you started with your first tank from any of the available classes, and it offers some additional tips to keep your tank in one piece during your first few matches. Once you’re feeling comfortable with the game’s combat, you can join a clan and attempt to take control of the “global map,” which not only earns you bragging rights but also special vehicles and in-game currency.
World of Warships
World of Tanks with naval ship combat is an accurate description of World of Warships. Featuring four types of ships — cruisers, battleships, destroyers, and aircraft carriers — and multiple game modes, World of Warships is a strategic open water combat simulator with deep customization options. Whether you’re playing the PvE Operations mode or squaring off against a real opponent in PvP, World of Warships should satisfy anyone looking for great ship combat. It’s available on PC. Also, if you aren’t a fan of naval combat or tanks, perhaps check out World of Warplanes, another quality free-to-play combat simulator that takes players to the skies.
Set during World War II, this combat-oriented flight simulator lets players enter the cockpit of planes hailing from five world powers. If you want a serious simulation, where controlling a plane is a complicated endeavor, you can do that in War Thunder. But if you want to play it more as an arcade game, you can do that, too. Once you’re confident with your skills, you can jump online and compete in epic 16v16 dogfights or objective-based missions. While planes are the focal point here, War Thunder also has anti-aircraft vehicles and tanks. As a free-to-play game, many of the planes and perks are locked behind paywalls. You can, however, unlock new content without dropping a dime, though it will take you longer.
Let It Die
From Grasshopper Manufacture, Let it Die is one of the most hardcore games on this list. It’s a grueling hack-and-slash game with a premise as weird as you’d expect from the development studio behind the No More Heroes series. It’s 2026 and Tokyo has split in half. A tower has ascended from the depths of the ocean. Uncle Death, a version of the grim reaper with a penchant for skateboarding, compels you to head to the tower to find out what’s at the very top. What follows is an addicting but challenging tower run that sees you fighting through floor after floor of nefarious creatures and enemies. When you die, and you will, your play data is shared with other players, adding yourself into their games as enemies (and vice versa). Free-to-play action games like Let it Die or somewhat rare, so if you have a PS4 you should definitely give it a go.
Call of Duty: Warzone
Warzone isn’t Call of Duty’s first foray into the battle royale genre, but it is the best. Formally, Activision left the battle royale duties to Call of Duty: Blackout, which would be a competent enough battle royale game if it weren’t hidden behind the $60 paywall that is Black Ops 4. Warzone is not only a better battle royale game, it’s also a free-to-play and cross-platform game.
Those two things are what sell Warzone. The game functions as an extension to 2019’s Modern Warfare, utilizing the same excellent engine and matchmaking capabilities. As long as you have a PC, Xbox One, or PS4, and you can download Warzone and play with your friends, regardless of what system they’re on.
Warzone evolves the battle royale formula, too. The biggest change is the Gulag. If you die, you’re sent to the Gulag once for a one-on-one showdown. If you win, you redeploy for free, and if you lose, your teammates will have to buy you back. This mechanic removes any feel-bad moments from Warzone where you happen to fall into an area with no loot and someone kills you before you can get your bearings.
The Xbox One and PC versions of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds aren’t free-to-play, but if you want to enjoy some strategic battle royale action on the go and aren’t in the mood for Fortnite, PUBG Mobile is a great alternative. The game is based on the PC version, and includes touch controls so you can still aim down your weapon’s sights, loot buildings, drive across the game’s enormous map, and whack people with a frying pan. For running long distances, a simple virtual stick lock lets you essentially “set it and forget it,” and there’s even voice chat support for your squad-based games so you can coordinate with your teammates before going in for the kill.
PUBG Mobile isn’t a hastily-built cash-in, either. The game has been optimized for mobile devices, running at a framerate that can often put the Xbox One version to shame. Depending on your device — iPhone 6s is the oldest supported phone — the game will automatically pick graphical settings, but you can change them at any time in order to maximize detail or improve performance. A recent update also added the desert map “Miramar” to the game, and new missions and activities give you reasons to keep playing beyond just the coveted chicken dinner.
Fortnite: Battle Royale
Following in the footsteps of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds comes Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free player-versus-player chunk of Epic Games’ zombie defense shooter. Like PUBG, the goal in Fortnite: Battle Royale is to take down all the other players in the game and be the last one standing. But Fortnite‘s cartoonish take on shooting mechanics means you get an alternative to PUBG‘s more militaristic (and somewhat more realistic) shooter.
There’s another aspect to Fortnite that sets it apart from PUBG — building. You can construct walls, structures, and objects that can give you a leg-up in a fight, or leave you vulnerable to ambush. Either way, the addition of creating your own battleground and fortifications can alter the last players standing rules significantly.
Set in the world of Titanfall but without titans or wall-running, Apex Legends is Respawn’s take on the battle royale genre. Apex Legends is all about teamwork, with 20 three-person teams vying to be the last team standing. The progression of a match will be familiar to anyone who has played a battle royale: Drop from the sky, scavenge for gear, make it inside the circle before the playable area shrinks. Where Apex Legends differs is that it also has hero shooter elements. Each of the eight characters has their own unique abilities and ultimate moves ranging from defensive moves to portal warping to all-out mortar strikes. And death isn’t permanent. You can revive fallen teammates and even resurrect them by bringing their dog tags to a beacon.
Apex Legends is a polished experience with excellent gunplay, a great map, and a fun roster of characters. It’s one of the best free-to-play shooters around and is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
H1Z1 stands somewhere in the middle between PUBG and Fortnite in terms of realism. Its aesthetic hues closer to PUBG, but it plays with more of an arcade vibe. This battle royale game features 150 players fighting to the death either solo, in a duo, or as a squad of five players. While it plays out much like it’s more popular rivals, H1Z1 has a crafting system that lets you make armor and healing items. On PC, H1Z1 also boasts Auto Royale, a battle royale with H1Z1‘s vehicles. Think Burnout’s Takedown mode on a larger scale. Auto Royale isn’t yet available on PS4, but it’s on the way. An Xbox One version of H1Z1 is also in the works. If you’re tired of PUBG or Fortnite, H1Z1 is solid and worth a try.
In the increasingly crowded battle royale genre, Darwin Project stands out. Ten players drop in the snowcapped Canadian Rockies at the dawn of the next Ice Age. The name of the game is survival. You have to keep warm by setting fires, scavenging for resources, and crafting. Of course, the elements aren’t all you have to worry about. You want to outlive your fellow competitors, and in order to do so, you must track them, set traps, and become adept at bow combat.
The big twist is that an eleventh player, dubbed the Show Director, sees all that is happening. They choose when and where to send supply drops, along with shutting down zones across the map. This role can be solely filled by one person, or the director can crowdsource the direction to viewers on Twitch and Mixer. Darwin Project is a strategic battle royale experience that feels like the next evolution of multiplayer survival games. It’s available in early access on PC and through Xbox Game Preview.
Collectible card game (CCG)
Blizzard is the master of polish, and this was never more apparent than when the developer released Hearthstone in 2014. Taking fan-favorite characters from the Warcraft series (Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore, and many more) players battle in a Magic: The Gathering-style card duel to the virtual death, using a variety of spells and minions — including Murlocs — in an effort to lower their opponent’s health to zero.
It’s a deceptively simple premise. Aside from “mana crystals,” which determine how many cards — and which cards — you can play in any one turn, there aren’t many unique game mechanics to Hearthstone. Yet the game’s brisk matches and wide range of strategies will keep you itching to play one more game.
New cards, which can be purchased using gold earned through normal play, help you develop your own custom decks. You can also get cards more quickly by spending real money, though gold is given out at such a liberal rate that you can stick with playing free if you hone in on a single competitive deck.
Magic: The Gathering Arena
Hearthstone is like Magic: The Gathering, but Arena is Magic: The Gathering. Known for popularizing, if not straight up creating, the collectible card game genre, Magic has a storied history. Although more involved than the other card games listed here, the core premise of Magic is simple. Lands produce mana, which you can use to cast spells, and you can play one land per turn. It’s identical to Hearthstone in that regard, with the only difference being resource management.
You actually have to have a land in hand in order to get mana for that turn, whereas most other digital card games handle the mana scaling automatically. Although that may seem like a downside, it really isn’t. The variance in Magic is one of its core tenets, allowing players with a very weak deck to win against very powerful decks if they have the right draw.
Like other digital CCGs, Arena is free-to-play, though you’ll have to spend some money to get a proper deck. The best course of action is to choose which format you want to play most. If you’re interested in drafting, you’ll slowly build a collection to put together a competitive deck or two. If you only want to play constructed, where you build a deck from whatever cards you want, it’s best just to buy some packs. Thankfully, Arena dishes out free packs left and right, and with the wildcard system, you can craft whatever extra cards you need. Although buying a competitive deck can get expensive, it’s much cheaper than buying that deck physically, where cards can cost $60 or more a piece.
Expanded from the addicting mini-game within The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Gwent is a deep trading card game that pits two players against one another in a best two-out-of-three battle of wit and skill. Gwent doesn’t use a mana system, so careful and calculated deck-building is what leads to success.
Each card that is played can lead to earning points. The player with the most points at the end of a round wins. It’s a different style of card game than traditional CCGs like Hearthstone, but that’s not a bad thing.
Gwent is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Gwent’s stand-alone single-player Thronebreaker mode turns the game into a lengthy, 30-hour RPG.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
The Elder Scrolls: Legends is ostensibly similar to Hearthstone in that it’s a turn-based CCG that relies on attacking your opponent and their cards. You gain one Magicka each turn, as well.
Where it differs is its lane system. The board is split into two sides. After placing a card, you can only attack cards on the same side of the board or your opponent directly. This subtle twist makes a big difference, adding a layer of strategy unique to The Elder Scrolls: Legends. It’s currently available on PC, iOS, and Android. Console versions for PS4, Xbox One, and Switch are expected to launch later this year.
The downside of Legends, like Hearthstone, is that earning new cards can take time. That is, unless you pay for packs and purchase expansions.
Nearly two decades after the release of the original game, Microsoft and Double Helix relaunched Killer Instinct as a tough-as-nails fighter with enough style to give Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter a run for their money. Classic characters such as Jago, TJ Combo, and Sabrewulf make their return, and the game has remained a staple in the competitive fighting scene since it launched in 2013. Developer Iron Galaxy has improved upon the formula in the last few years, too, and the addition of awesome combatants like Spinal and Battletoads’ Rash add variety and a healthy dose of nostalgia.
All modes are available in Killer Instinct without paying a dime, but you’re limited to just one character at a time. However, Xbox Live Gold subscribers have received the “Ultra Edition” of the game’s first season for free in the past, and a forthcoming Games With Gold giveaway includes free access to the second season’s characters.
After spending a couple of years in early access, Brawhlhalla, a fighting game that can only really be compared to Super Smash Bros., released as a free-to-play title in 2017. In 2018, Blue Mammoth Games, the studio behind the peculiar brawler, was acquired by Ubisoft. Brawlhalla‘s ascent to landing with one of the biggest video game studios in the world means that the game will reach new heights. Currently, it’s available on PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC. Ubisoft’s spunky mascot Rayman will enter the fight then, too.
From a core gameplay perspective, Brawlhalla mirrors Smash in that the goal is to knock other fighters off the map. It features a simple control scheme that lets new players jump in quickly, which is perfect for a free-to-play game. Additionally, a myriad of interesting game modes, a plethora of maps, and a robust roster of fighters keep the experience fresh. And yes, weapons fall from the sky just like in Smash. In the free-to-play model, Brawlhalla lets players play as six different fighters each week. If you spend $20, you unlock all 41 fighters and all future fighters, including Rayman. It’s fast, easy to play, and has an engaging progression system.
Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA)
League of Legends
No free-to-play list would be complete without League of Legends. The MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) was nothing short of a revolutionary when it first landed on PC in 2009, and it has only improved in the years since its original release. The game is free to play with a limited number of heroes, called Champions, and more can be purchased using either real money or “IP,” which is earned through normal play. Though the genre has never been particularly inviting to new players, Riot has created a more newbie-friendly multiplayer experience than some of its contemporaries, and if you’re just getting started, there is almost a 100% chance that one of your friends already plays League of Legends.
Though it’s harder to learn than League of Legends and Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, Dota 2 players will accept no substitute. Unlike League, all 113 heroes are available for free in Dota 2, including the melee-focused Earth Spirit, who resembles an odd mix of the Iron Giant and the Incredible Hulk, and the Invoker, whose appearance is similar to the elves seen in the Warcraft franchise. The game’s combat is hectic and you’re likely to get beaten into oblivion during your first round, but should the addiction take hold, you might not need to play another game for months to come. The highlight of the game is the massive competitive championship called The International, where players battle for millions of dollars in prize money. You could win. Well, if you spend your entire life playing the game.
Heroes of the Storm
Although not directly advertised or viewed internally as a MOBA, Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm has all the trappings of a MOBA. It’s 5-on-5 and features a wide array of heroes (currently 80) split into four roles: Specialist, Warrior, Support, and Assassin. Heroes of the Storm hasn’t achieved the same level of notoriety as League of Legends or Dota 2, but it’s a satisfying and deep experience in its own right. With 15 maps and a slew of game modes, including ranked, unranked, and even CPU battles, Heroes of the Storm has enough content to keep you playing for the long haul. Of course, you have to have an affinity for MOBAs, but we’ve found that Heroes of the Storm is a bit easier to get into than League and Dota.
Smite has been a mainstay in the MOBA genre since 2014. It stands out for its third-person presentation, differentiating itself from League, Heroes of the Storm, and Dota 2. The change in perspective also alters the play style, changing the traditionally strategic MOBA formula to action-oriented gameplay. The game’s heroes are all gods modeled after real ones across twelve different pantheons. As of now, there are nearly 100 playable characters, each with their own abilities. Smite‘s 5-on-5 contests are always interesting, as it’s not uncommon to see CPU-controlled enemies crop up across the battlefields. Smite is available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.
Cube Escape: Paradox
Since 2015, Rusty Lake has released a startling number of under-the-radar games in the Cube Escape franchise. Cube Escape: Paradox is the tenth entry in the series already, and it happens to be one of the very best. The series stars detective Dale Vandermeer on his quest to figure out the mysterious death of a woman. You don’t need to play the other titles to jump into Paradox, as each one works well as a stand-alone. In Paradox, Vandermeer wakes up without memories in a strange room. Think Saw but less nefarious. Vandermeer must then solve a series of puzzles to escape. Like other Cube Escape games, Paradox combines film and video games to create an enthralling, novel experience. While you can only play the first episode for free, we wholly recommend checking out this great series, especially if you like weird, experimental games.
Tetris 99 mashes the iconic puzzle game with the hottest genre around: Battle royale. Can you outlast 98 other Tetris players? Armed with four different attack commands that direct your garbage to other players, Tetris 99 adds an extra layer of strategy to the most expertly designed puzzle game ever created. It can be overwhelming dealing with attacks from several players at once, but the relentless pace at which Tetris 99 forces you to play at makes for a constantly invigorating experience. Who would have thought that a classic game like Tetris would make for one of the best battle royale games available today? Tetris 99 is exclusive to Nintendo Switch, specifically Nintendo Switch Online subscribers.
EVE Online is arguably the most storied massively multiplayer online game in existence. The huge space exploration title sees rising and falling empires and allegiances as players wage war on each other. Players fly around a galaxy in spaceships, mining resources, getting into scuffles, trading with one another, and basically playing whatever role they want. The best rewards require the biggest risks, and you’re not always safe when other players want what you have.
Though it’s notoriously difficult to get into, EVE Online is a huge, deep game with a big following of dedicated players. It’s so involved that it’s quickly spawning its own history, and every so often, players turn its inky void into a giant battlefield where whole armadas wage war on one another. And now that the game is free, it’s possible to find out what the deal is with EVE Online with minimal investment.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Like many MMOs, Star Wars: The Old Republic started as a subscription-based experience before floundering and turning free-to-play. That’s not to say The Old Republic is a bad game in the slightest. In fact, from a production value standpoint, BioWare’s The Old Republic is one of the most impressive games on this list. With excellent writing and fully voiced dialogue, lots of Star Wars lore, and differentiated storylines based on classes, The Old Republic offers a deep experience that demands to be played and revisited from multiple vantage points. The gameplay, which is real-time combat similar to the other Old Republic games, is serviceable throughout both mainline quests and the PvP mode. You can play as either the Republic or Empire and choose between four classes on each side of the struggle. For fans of Star Wars, The Old Republic offers one of the most narratively ambitious stories in the galaxy far, far away. If you haven’t tried it yet, you can play a sizable amount of content for free on PC.
A delightful combination of Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons, Neverwinter is a streamlined RPG with a satisfying loop. Like D&D, combat is determined by dice rolls which determine how many hits (or misses) each attack will dole out. Neverwinter has 10 PvE campaigns and a neat PvP campaign as well. A welcoming new player experience makes Neverwinter feel right at home on PS4 and Xbox One. Whether you’re into Dungeons & Dragons or not, Neverwinter is a fun experience that offers a more approachable RPG experience than many of its peers.
Path of Exile
Heavily inspired by the Diablo series, Path of Exile is an excellent online action RPG with a great loop and tons of fun (and free!) content. Designed by Grinding Gear Games, Path of Exile released in 2013 to positive critical reception, but it has only improved since with new expansions, adding new items, skills, and story content.
Players pick between one of six classes — Witch, Shadow, Ranger, Marauder, Duelist, Templar — each of which has their own movesets, strengths, and weaknesses.
Path of Exile plays top-down just like Diablo, along with having a similar interface and default control scheme. The main difference, which helps give Path of Exile its legs, is the random generation. Besides camps, all of the dungeons and open areas are randomly generated, so each time you replay a section, it will be set up differently. Path of Exile is available on PC and Xbox One.
DC Universe Online
Since 2011, DC Universe Online has offered users the ability to play as their favorite DC superheroes or even create their own. An MMORPG that quickly dropped its subscription model to go free-to-play, DC Universe Online features a series of quests across Metropolis and Gotham City.
Fast-paced combat, interesting end-game raids, and surprisingly fun PvP matches make for a diverse experience across dozens of hours. Besides daily quests and new storylines, DC Universe Online still receives regular updates. Earlier this year, an update added the “Death of Superman” arc which ends with you squaring off against Doomsday. If you’re into superheroes, DC Universe Online is certainly worth trying out on PS4, Xbox One, or PC.
Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 is one of the largest and most successful MMOs of the modern era. So successful in fact that it was able to drop its subscription model three years after release and go free-to-play. With a fast-paced, action-oriented combat system, it’s a blast in moment-to-moment action, and you don’t necessarily need friends alongside you to be successful, provided that you’re skilled.
An in-game gem store keeps the money coming in while ArenaNet consistently adds new content to the experience through seasonal events and new story quests. A recent expansion, Path of Fire, added even more story content and cool player mounts.
Pokémon Go was nothing short of a phenomenon when it launched in 2016. Unlike the other games on our list, it actively encourages you to get out of your house and go explore your neighborhood, city, and even other countries in order to catch Pokémon. The allure of capturing a rare monster so that you can show it off to your friends has kept us playing for months, as has the Instinct, Valor, and Mystic teams’ ongoing battle for world supremacy. Given there are so many Pokémon masters in the wild now, it will be a little bit of a struggle for a newcomer to make a name for themselves, but with a little luck and a whole lot of walking, you can be the “very best.”
Substantial updates released following the game’s initial launch have only improved the experience. Additional Pokémon, interface and performance improvements, and holiday events have helped keep the game feeling fresh, even following the release of Pokémon Sun and Moon. Once trainer battles and trading make their way to the game, Pokémon Go will be absolutely extraordinary.
For Pokémon fans looking for a bit more story and a lot less walking in their free-to-play games, Pokémon Masters is a great choice. Rather than put the emphasis on the monsters themselves, the game includes all of the famous human Pokémon masters from the games and anime over the years. You select several of these to take into battle with you, each of whom is armed with one Pokémon. A cooldown-based battle system forces you to rely on weaknesses and coordination in order to keep your party alive.
As you progress in Pokémon Masters, you’ll unlock new missions and story-focused content that gives you insight into the different trainers. It’s a take on the franchise we have never seen before, and it’s the perfect time-killer for Pokémon fans.
The sequel to the popular but average MMO has a few significant improvements. Whereas the first game demanded excessive grinding, the sequel has a much speedier progression system and plenty of different types of quests to keep the experience fresh. MapleStory 2 has a sprawling world filled with bright, cartoon visuals, making it an MMO that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Looks can deceive though.
In MapleStory 2‘s case, you’ll find a role-playing game that is as complex and rewarding as the more “mature” competition. The story quests are far more exciting this time around, the dungeons are well-designed, and the boss fights can be pretty epic. If you’re looking for a new MMO to play with friends, MapleStory 2 is sure to be supported well for the foreseeable future.
Porting the precise mechanics of Ubisoft and RedLynx’s motorbike series to a touchscreen device should have been a massive failure, but Trials Frontier manages to not only replicate the motorcycle-platforming formula but serve as a respectable entry in the series, one that can stand alongside games such as Trials Fusion and Trials HD. Using virtual buttons to learn and move forward and backward, you guide your oft-doomed rider through a variety of Old West-themed courses, completing missions for townsfolk and collecting items that allow you to upgrade your bikes.
Trials Frontier does have more egregious microtransactions than other games on our list — “fuel” is needed to complete courses, and it’s available for purchase should you run out — but as a quick, five or 10-minute distraction when you’re bored, the game is almost perfect. You can also earn exclusive outfits for the console game by clearing specific tracks in both Frontier and Fusion.
The only virtual reality game on this list, Rec Room demonstrates what makes the technology so cool. It’s a social experience that lets users relax, chat, and play mini-games with each other on PSVR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift. As it stands, you can play soccer, paddleball, disc golf, dodgeball, charades, paintball, and less traditional games like a MOBA version of Laser Tag, a battle royale variant, and narrative quests with friends. While the visuals are rudimentary and blocky, the mini-games themselves are a lot of fun. Rec Room offers a great way to relax and unwind with its casual games.
There are plenty of free-to-play tower defense games to choose from, but none of them have as much personality and charm as Kingdom Rush. The gameplay is simple, with the player building archer towers, barracks, and other defensive structures at fixed locations to hold off waves of incoming foes, along with the help of an upgradeable hero character. By calling for reinforcements, you can create enormous melees that play out in adorable, cartoonish fashion.
Like all worthwhile tower defense games, Kingdom Rush also features an excellent, gradually increasing difficulty that tasks you with perfect time and resource management. Building the right mix of structures is absolutely crucial for success, but if you find yourself in a pickle, being able to rain down hellfire on invaders from above can quickly turn the tides back in your favor.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
In 2017, one of the best real-time strategy games went free-to-play roughly seven years after launch. If you haven’t played StarCraft II before, what are you waiting for? You can download it for free and play through the excellent Wings of Liberty campaign, then jump online and test your skills. The game’s two expansion packs, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, still cost money, but you can get dozens of hours of play with one of the best strategy games ever made without spending a dime. What a bargain.
Fallout Shelter is such an addictive, charming take on Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic series that it nearly overshadowed the launch of Fallout 4 in 2015. The premise is simple — attract survivors to your vault, then protect them against invading forces, and the ever-present threat of starvation and thirst. At the same time, you must keep them happy enough to reproduce and rebuild humanity.
It’s a game that only requires a few minutes of your time, but often encourages you to send survivors on various missions, defend against raids, and build new rooms in your vault. The game also opts for a cartoonish art style that translates the signature Vault Boy into a charming — and borderline creepy — family of diligent vault-dwellers. The game is now available on PC, consoles, and mobile devices, and given it has no links to the aforementioned Fallout 4, you’re left with nothing to worry about other than the survival of your people. Well, that and radroaches.
In the last few months, we’ve seen two newcomers to the free-to-play shooter genre: Valorant and Crucible. The latter didn’t even survive a full launch. Valorant, thankfully, did. In short, Valorant is a competitive online shooter where you play Counter-Strike-like matches. There are two teams: One has the goal of planting the bomb (the “spike”), and the other is trying to diffuse it. On top of that, though, Valorant adds a roster of MOBA-like heroes.
Valorant combines so many elements from other genres that it creates something new entirely. The game plays like CS:GO, sure, but after a few rounds, it’s clear that Valorant is operating on a different level. It’s engrossing, complex, and, best of all, free-to-play. Unfortunately, though, it’s only available on PC.
Call of Duty: Mobile
We didn’t think a Call of Duty game on mobile devices would be worth playing, but after the success of games like PUBG Mobile, we were willing to give Activision and Tencent the benefit of the doubt with Call of Duty: Mobile. We’re glad we did, because it’s one of the best first-person shooters we’ve ever played on a phone, and arguably even more addicting than some of the series’ console and PC games. Comprised of Zombies, traditional multiplayer, and battle royale, it offers a ton of variety and doesn’t feature any pay-to-win mechanics.
What’s most surprising about Call of Duty: Mobile is just how good it feels to fire weapons. Taking down a series of enemies with headshots feels great, as does getting to use your well-earned kill-streak rewards to drop a turret down or send a missile plummeting toward Earth. It’s the perfect substitute for Modern Warfare when you’re out and about, and even features some of its maps.
Team Fortress 2
Originally packaged inside The Orange Box in 2007, Valve’s Team Fortress 2 was an instant success in the multiplayer shooter realm. The class-based shooter with nine differentiated classes featured a slew of competitive game modes upon release, including Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, and several other objective-based modes. Although more than a decade old and overshadowed by a hero shooter called Overwatch, Valve has continued to support the PC version of the game in recent years.
It went free-to-play in 2011 and now supports both ranked play and casual matches. Team Fortress 2 is not only a great game today, but it’s an important part of video game history. You can enjoy the whole experience for free. If you so choose, though, you can purchase cosmetic items in-game.
Paladins: Champions of the Realm
A hero-shooter from the makers of Smite, Paladins: Champions of the Realm plays a lot like Overwatch. With four character classes — Front Line, Damage, Flank, and Support — and a unique card-based loadout system, Paladins manages to differentiate itself from the popular Blizzard FPS just enough to not be seen as a mere clone. The card-based loadout system adds strategic depth, giving you perks like cooldown reductions for charge weapons, all of which are customizable.
Each of the three game modes — Siege, Onslaught, and team deathmatch — work well, the maps are varied and interesting. The best part about Paladins is that it’s available on all major platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.
Planetside 2‘s massive battles make Battlefield’s spacious maps look rather tiny. This intergalactic FPS has a unique system in that everything you do affects your faction rating. Three factions duke it out to control important territories and take over needed resources. What’s most interesting about Planetside 2 is that battles can often take days, even weeks. They are simply on such a large scale that when you log off, other faction members will pick up where you left off. With a deep customization system, an intricate skill tree, and a wide array of combat scenarios, Planetside 2 rarely feels anything but fresh. Planetside 2 is available on PC and PS4.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is, really, the first proper Counter-Strike game. CS 1.6 and Source are both great, but Global Offensive is the game that has stuck, and it’s easy to see why. Everything about CS:GO is tight, from the gunplay to the map designs. It’s a proper compeitive shooter, and although Valve sold it as such for a mere $14.99 for a long time, it’s now totally free to play.
“Totally” is the best way to describe it, too. Unlike most other free-to-play games, there is absolutely no advantage to spending money in CS:GO. If you’re good enough, you can play ranked matches as often as you want while staying on a level playing field. In the world of free-to-play games, that’s a feat.
Text adventure/visual novel
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a completely free-to-play narrative experience from Dontnod, the studio behind Life is Strange. It’s set within the same universe and takes place three years after the first game. Chris Eriksen, a boy who recently lost his mother, creates a superhero alter ego, Captain Spirit, to help himself work through the loss. Beware: Captain Spirit is a tearjerker.
With great writing, a compelling story, and a lot of heart, Captain Spirit is a moving experience that fans of the Telltale formula should definitely play. Your choices made in the game can carry over into Life is Strange 2 since Chris will be a character in the highly anticipated sequel. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Doki Doki Literature Club
It’s hard to write about Doki Doki Literature Club without spoiling anything, but here we go.
A teenage girl invites her male friend to join the school’s literature club. At first, it seems that the game is a funny dating simulator. But throughout this visual novel, which sometimes involves player choice, Doki Doki Literature Club takes a sly and dark turn.
The game will mess with your head. It’s unnerving, mesmerizing, and wholly engrossing. It’s available as free experience on PC and Mac, though you can donate to its creators. A $10 donation gets you concept art and the game’s soundtrack.
For a free browser game, Fallen London has some phenomenally fun and often spooky storytelling. The text-based title takes place in an alternate version of Victorian London, which has fallen into a giant cave beneath the Earth. The place is filled with shady characters and strange sights, literal demons (though they’re not all so bad), and plenty of tasteful madness to go around. The entire game is about making choices as you weave your own story in the weird, perpetually dark city.
You can play Fallen London in any browser, but it also now has a mobile version for iOS and Android that works somewhat better than the mobile browser version. Fallen London also ties directly into the top-down exploration game Sunless Sea on Steam, so if you’re looking to expand the experience, you can link your accounts and turn your London story into one of a ship captain of the Unterzee.