Worth the price of admission
There was a time when “free-to-play” was a dirty term in the games industry. There are still terrible, exploitative free-to-play games on the market—more every day, in fact.
But occasionally—occasionally—we get something...miraculous. We get a free-to-play game that doesn’t try to con players out of money or make the design intentionally boring in order to make those purchasable unlocks more exciting.
Here, you’ll find a list of games so good the developers could’ve charged money (or, in some cases, did charge money) before going free-to-play. These aren’t just good free-to-play games, they’re good games, full stop.
UPDATED January, 2018: Added several games and updated text on the others.
Fortnite: Battle Royale
I didn’t think we’d be talking about Fortnite much in 2018. Its original setup—a combination horde mode, Minecraft-style builder, and survival game—was convoluted, spent years in development hell, and yet still somehow felt unfinished and uninteresting upon release last summer.
And then Epic added a battle royale mode—a battle royale mode that’s free-to-play, even though the base game isn’t. No surprise, those who wanted to play Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds but didn’t want to pay $30 flocked to Fortnite, and what started as a spin-off mode now touts 40 million players or some absurd number. It’s enough that development’s all but ceased on Epic’s other free-to-play game, the MOBA Paragon, as that team’s been rushed onto Fortnite too.
As for the game itself? It’s pretty decent, with a few twists that make it an interesting PUBG competitor. Fortnite’s crafting foundation remains intact, for instance, so there’s a base-building component that can make for unique strategies and gives players something to do besides loot and move on. Let’s be clear, though: The main draw is it’s PUBG, but free.
Warframe should be one of the bad free-to-play games. It gets repetitive. It’s a grind at times. There are major balance issues. There’s a lot of waiting around, which can be “solved” by dumping money into the game. It is, in other words, a predatory free-to-play game.
But for some reason none of that matters. In many ways, Warframe fulfills the promise of Destiny—excellent mechanics supporting an excellent feedback loop. You grind, sure. It’s a Skinner box. But it’s a Skinner box where you play as a space ninja, and the minute-to-minute game is so fun it’s easy to find yourself hundreds of hours down the hole even after acknowledging the game’s faults.
Credit to Digital Extremes for supporting the game, too. Last year’s Plains of Eidolon expansion added a whole open-world area to Warframe, completely changing the way you interact with the world. Pretty impressive for a game about to hit its fifth anniversary.
Path of Exile
If you want a free-to-play game done right, it's Path of Exile. To start with, it's one of the best action-RPGs in recent memory. Its convoluted class/leveling system gets talked about most, but the whole point-and-click-on-things-until-they-die aspect has a great feel to it, the loot drops are satisfying, and the world itself fascinating.
But even more impressive is that developer Grinding Gear continues to add a staggering amount of content to the game. The studio gets in touch with me about another expansion once or twice a year. The game's sixth expansion, The Fall of Oriath, released in 2017 and added six new acts to the game, essentially doubling the size of the game four years after its initial release.
As I said: It's a pretty incredible action-RPG. Highly recommended for fans of click-click-click combat.
It's been four or five years since I first wrote this list, and MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) are still king of the free-to-play pile. Not only do they have a staggering number of users, but Dota 2 maintains the record for biggest e-sports prize on the planet: The International 7 featured a prize pool of $24.7 million this year. It’s huge.
If you've still never dipped your toe in the MOBA waters, just know that Dota 2 is the successor to the WarCraft III mod DOTA, or Defense of the Ancients, the grandpappy of the whole genre. Players pick a hero and battle it out against the other team, competing to bring down the enemy base by out-maneuvering foes with skillful tactics. Or, if you're like me, you pick a hero and mess something up five minutes in, and your entire team gets angry because they know you just lost them the game.
League of Legends
We can't mention Dota 2 without mentioning its counterpart, League of Legends. League is yet another MOBA, again inspired by the original DOTA mod.
So why choose League of Legends over Dota 2? Now we're getting into dangerous "Mac versus PC" or "Schwarzenegger versus Stallone" arguments—the type where nobody wins. The truth is you should just pick whichever one your friends are playing or whichever looks best to you, and jump in. The differences when you're starting are minimal—you probably won't even notice most until you've reached an advanced skill level in one or the other.
Heroes of the Storm
There are a few other MOBAs of note, though none have reached the same heights as Dota 2 and League. Heroes of the Storm probably takes third place, benefiting from Blizzard’s usual attention to detail and a certain willingness to experiment—a hero controlled by two players for example, or a hero that’s actually three heroes in one.
Smite also has its share of fans, though, taking the usual MOBA routine and pairing it with a more action-oriented camera, like a third-person shooter. And Battlerite is worth checking out if you want something more streamlined. It’s just hero-versus-hero action, without mob enemies and all the other stuff that’s come to define the Dota-style games.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 is the first non-MMO, big-budget game I remember transitioning from “You pay for this” to “This is free.” Whatever deal with the devil Valve made to turn Team Fortress 2 into a free-to-play shooter/hat simulator, it clearly worked: A decade after its initial release it’s still one of the top five most-played games on Steam on any given day, still receiving updates (the latest major additions came just this past October), and still kicking my ass.
Fighting games are another genre typically underrepresented in the free-to-play category, so it’s refreshing to see Brawlhalla, a free-to-play fighter that’s kinda, sorta reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. if you squint at it real hard. The art style’s underwhelming to me, but it has that same frenzied feel to it, and thus makes for a great party game. Download, grab a few friends, enjoy. Matches support up to eight players, which is suitably chaotic.
Those who want to go deeper? Good luck. Like any fighting game (and most multiplayer games, really), the community can be unwelcoming at times. “Toxic” is thrown around in more than a few Steam reviews, probably for good reason. I’ll stick to treating it like a fun party game, I think.
I'm a bit torn about throwing EVE: Online on this list. CCP’s loosened up the restrictions on free-to-play users a bit since last year, but it’s still very much a try-before-you-buy situation. Free-to-play users, or “Alpha Clones,” are restricted to battleships and battlecruisers, can only train a subset of skills, and so on. If you want the full EVE experience, you’ll probably end up paying eventually.
But for a game that's traditionally been near-impossible for newcomers to get into, free-to-play might be a good thing. Once you get through its impenetrable spreadsheet-style interface you'll find EVE can be excellent, full of backroom politics and betrayals and friendships so strong they translate over to the real world. But that's only after you get past its spreadsheet-style interface.
It's as fascinating as it is intimidating. If you've read any stories about EVE's amazing battles and wanted to check out the rest of the game for yourself without committing to a monthly subscription, now's your chance.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty turns eight this year, a fact that’s both horrifying and...well, just horrifying. (For reference: Brood War was twelve when Wings of Liberty released.)
Those of you who’ve been very patient are in luck though, as Blizzard celebrated StarCraft II’s longevity by making Wings of Liberty free this year. Both the campaign as well as pieces of the multiplayer experience are now freely accessible through Battle.net, making StarCraft II probably the best free-to-play RTS available. The custom game mode (Arcade) is still free too, for those who prefer a less serious version of StarCraft II.
And if you already own Wings of Liberty but not the expansions? Blizzard will give you a copy of follow-up Heart of the Swarm instead. You’ll still need to purchase the grand finale Legacy of the Void, though.
Fallout Shelter is proof that an excellent brand and/or aesthetic can make a game a hit, even if the game itself is lackluster. Your goal is to build and populate a Fallout Vault-Tec Vault and keep the survivors alive in the post-apocalypse. Rome wasn't built in a day, though, and your Vault's no different. This is one of those "waiting"-style free-to-play games where you queue up some actions and then just let it sit for (real-world) hours as you wait for things to unfold.
As I said: It's not an incredible game, but the Fallout hook is a lot of fun. Plus the PC version is a hell of a lot prettier (and easier to navigate) than the mobile version.
You'll hear some people refer to Paladins as an "Overwatch clone," and that's understandable. It's a hero-based shooter, with the same somewhat-cartoony aesthetic and even some ability overlaps, like the guy who wields a transparent blue shield.
But Paladins is also its own thing. It was made by Hi-Rez (of Tribes: Ascend fame/infamy) and has a unique card-based loadout system, mix-and-match skins, and more. It's Overwatch-esque, sure, but also an excellent game in its own right—maybe a bit less balanced, and with fewer interesting champions. But for anyone who lacks the scratch to try out Overwatch or wants to give Blizzard's shooter a break, Paladins is a solid option.
Also, they’re...adding a Battle Royale mode? No idea how that’ll work, but I guess it’s now a Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds alternative as well as an Overwatch alternative.
Like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and other physical collectible card games (CCGs) of old, your task in Hearthstone is to create the most advantageous deck and battle it against your opponent’s. The key difference? Hearthstone is made by Blizzard, and based off the Warcraft license.
And it's pretty good, though it's suffered from growing pains lately. People seem more and more dissatisfied with the rate of card drops and other free-to-play aspects, as each new expansion makes the game a bit more expensive to play. It's also much harder to get into nowadays, given the number of cards in use, though Blizzard's at least taken some steps to address that issue.
From what I can tell it’s still the most popular digital collectible card game though, regardless of how much its fans complain. If you're looking for a CCG to get into, Hearthstone's a good place to start.
Star Trek Online and Lord of the Rings Online
As far as “Older, free-to-play MMOs” go, Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online are both worth a nod. Both still have fairly active communities, both continue to receive updates, and both are based on (and make use of!) great licenses. That’s more than I can say of most MMOs that arrived in the post-World of Warcraft gold rush. Star Trek in particular is fascinating, with fan-made missions that recreate many of the series’ best TV episodes.
On the other hand, they’re definitely MMOs from the World of Warcraft era—and in-line with early free-to-play trends to boot. That means they’re a bit more finicky than modern games, and can skew a bit more toward the pay-to-win side of the equation. Still, if you’re ready to kill hundreds of hours? You could do worse.
World of Tanks
Wargaming has built up quite a catalog of games in the past few years, but it’s still World of Tanks that gets most of the attention. It’s simple: All tanks, all the time. A veritable planet full of tanks.
But it’s just one slice of Wargaming’s ever-expanding combat empire. If you get tired of the ground you can always check out World of Warplanes, and old salts can sail to their heart’s content in World of Warships. Maybe you’ll see my colleague Gordon Mah Ung out there on the seven seas—it’s basically the only game he plays.
Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club is a bit different from the other games on this list, insofar as it’s a small, story-heavy singleplayer experience in a category (free-to-play) dominated by multiplayer titles. On the surface, it’s a visual novel about teenagers in the titular literature club. One of those types of visual novels, where all the ladies want to date you.
But uh...suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to Doki Doki Literature Club. Saying more would spoil it, so I’ll leave it at that, but if you have even a passing interest in visual novels you should probably check this one out. I mean, it’s free so there’s not a huge investment on your part.
But for those who do own a VR headset, VRChat is one of the best things to hit the platform so far. It’s the promise of Neuromancer and Snow Crash’s virtual hangout spaces, except it turns out the reality is more like the world’s stupidest message board than the slick cyberpunk future people expected. Think Second Life except somehow...weirder.
And if that’s still not painting a vivid enough picture, just watch this video. That should do it.
Level up your graphics firepower
Most of these free PC games should run just fine on a wide spectrum of hardware, but if you find frame rates lagging, an upgrade might be in order. PCWorld’s guide to the best graphics cards for PC gaming can help you find the best option no matter what resolution you’re running or how much cash you have in your pocket.