The initial lineup of Steam free-to-play games covers familiar territory: two multiplayer shooters, two MMOs, and two games that blur genre lines. Since you could potentially try all of these out yourself, don't think of these write-ups as reviews -- rather, think of them as guide to spending your time, since it happens to be your most valuable resource.
What is it? Alliance of Valiant Arms -- or AVA, as the game likes to show you time and again -- is an online shooter in the vein of Call of Duty. It looks like an late-era PS2 game and doesn't veer far from the modern multiplayer shooter path (rank up through online matches to earn better stuff to fight with), but its array of both competitive and cooperative offerings might just be enough to kill a few afternoons on the cheap.
What can I do for free? You can play most of AVA without having to drop a dime. Both cooperative and competitive sessions are free, and you earn points to unlock the game's myriad weapons and gear through enemy kills and winning matches. Think of Black Ops' system of choosing which weapons to unlock and you've got a good idea of how AVA works.
What do I pay for? Essentially, you're paying for the privilege to unlock cooler stuff and doing it more quickly. You can pay for guns you'd unlock through regular play, as well as more colorful versions of regular guns that can only be bought through a random pot. A better pistol, for example, ends up being five bucks. A little expensive, but it seems like the value proposition gets better the more you pay.
What's the estimated shelf-life? That depends on how much you can stand another brown-and-boring shooter, and considering there are better alternatives, you might have a tough time justifying your time with it either way. Still, it might be worth a look for those with ancient hardware.
What is it? Champions Online adds some action to the usually strategically-minded MMORPG genre. Replacing the common fantasy aesthetic with a comic book-inspired art style, Champions focuses on things looking cool rather than what's doing what. My short time with it didn't convince me that it's too different from other MMOG in anything but its style and emphasis on timing your attacks, but the changes might be enough to entice those put off by Tolkien-inspired fantasies.
What can I do for free? The world of Millennium City is open to the public, with all the chatting, questing, and grinding you could possibly want, and then some.
What do I pay for? If you're willing to pony up some cash, class selection expands from eight to fourteen, and slots for creating more heroes open up, among other things. You can pay for these à la carte, (after exchanging real money for Atari Tokens, character classes are $12.50) or go the old-fashioned MMO route by subscribing for fifteen dollars a month, with the additional option of paying $300 for a lifetime subscription.
What's the estimated shelf-life? Champions' payment options turn it into an MMO that you can try for as long as you want before you buy. If you're interested, I'd recommend playing until you know whether you like it or not, and then seeing if you're ready to pay for the expanded options; subscribing doesn't seem like it'll be much of a benefit in the long run.
What is it? Champions Online at least makes the effort of changing its context and methods to differentiate itself from other MMO's -- Forsaken World does not. Those not dedicated to World of Warcraft might have a tough time telling the imitator and its clear "inspiration" apart at first glance. And even beyond the superficial, I can't speak to much that makes Forsaken World special aside from its price and a few minor changes to the class/race lineup. It does do a few things differently, though; "Revelations" give you a random item every few minutes to incentivize you to keep playing, while auto-pathing take the guesswork out of finding your objective -- tap the objective and your dwarf/elf/rock monster will walk right to it.
What can I do for free? Harping on Forsaken World for being a knockoff product is both fun and easy, but it's important to point it out that it's free, so if you were enraptured during your first 20 levels of WoW but couldn't pay up when it came time to venture further on your new mount, it might be worth looking at Forsaken World for your role-playing fix. Aside from a chat timer that prevents you (and other players) from spamming, you'll have much the same experience as you would in other MMO's, at least in the early stages.
What do I pay for? Buying Zen, a universal currency for all of developer Perfect World's games, lets you buy innocuous things like freedom from the chat cooldown and just-for-looks Fashion sets, as well as more meaningful things like stat buffs for your fantasy archetype's gear.
What's the estimated Shelf-life? Buying weapons might break the endgame for hardcore players, but those just looking for something to do with friends could do worse than see if Forsaken World is for them.