The free-to-play PC rush – your guide to the best games

Thursday, 30 June 2011 07:07 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Some of the best experiences in gaming can be had, right now, on your PC, absolutely gratis. It’s the brave new world. Why pay for anything ever again?

World of Warcraft. Why would you not want to
play this for nothing?

This week, one of the biggest games in the world went free-to-play. Yes, we know it’s only to level 20, but that’s a lot of levels for absolutely no money, and an enormous amount of accessible content.

World of Warcraft is, uncharacteristically, actually behind the times with this one. There’s already enough top quality, absorbing and completely free gaming out there to keep you busy for the rest of your life.

Shooters

It’s been a busy few weeks for free-to-play games, with Valve finally arriving at the obvious conclusion and giving Team Fortress 2 away for the princely sum of zero cashmoney.

Team Fortress 2 is hailed as one of the best class-based multiplayer games ever made. It’s loads of fun jumping on with other newbs and blasting away, with the cartoon aesthetic taking the sting out of your inevitable deaths. But spend some time in the training modules, equip yourself with a mic and a troop of compatriots, and you’ll unlock a deeper game where tactical play and teamwork are rewards in and of themselves, regardless of the final score.

The game is supported by microtransactions, but the items available – alternate weapons, the famous hats – don’t unbalance the game; there’s no pay-to-win button. You can score items from drops, and craft them yourself, too. So if you never want to give Valve a cent, that’s your prerogative, although if you let yourself be sucked in, you’ll probably want to. You can grab it on Steam for both PC and Mac.

The alternative for the Steam-less is Battlefield Heroes, which takes itself about as seriously as a rubber hotdog while building the framework laid out by DICE’s franchise. You can see for yourself on its website.

If you like your shooters more serious, it’s worthwhile taking a look at Alliance of Valiant Arms. This modern-day combat title takes a more realistic approach comparable to Valve’s other eternal shooter, Counter-Strike. It’s not surpassingly lovely to look at; AVA doesn’t look like a game someone gave you out of the goodness of their heart, although that’s precisely what it is. It plays the microtransaction game quite well, offering you enough decent options up front to keep you busy trying new things. You can hop on board at IJJI.

Another Valve title, Alien Swarm, breaks the mould by being a top-down shooter – not your usual F2P fare. The smaller number of classes and straightforward presentation make coming to grips with the tactical play easier, although this means your enemies are likely to be as cunning as you. Think Left 4 Dead without the possibility of being snuck up on from behind, and you’re part way there. This one’s another Steam favourite, along with Global Agenda. This third-person effort has a vocal following for good reason. It’s one of the few free-to-play shooters to choose a sci-fi setting, and there’s something so satisfying about taking out an enemy while hovering with a jetpack. There’s real personality there.

Alliance of Valiant Arms. Think Counter-Strike.
But for absolutely no money at all.

APB: Reloaded is the free-to-play attempt to resurrect the Realtime Worlds crime MMO that went utterly pancake the first time around. Response has been mixed so far, and it looks like the new development team is still struggling to iron out some of the problems caused by the sheer ambition of the open-world shooter, but Gamersfirst is throwing a lot of resources at it. Definitely one to watch when it comes out of beta.

Also in the near future, Tribes Ascend, Battlefield Play4Free and Ghost Recon Online all look set to add to an already impressive line-up of free shooters.

You really can shoot things in the face in genuinely good games all day for absolutely nothing.

MMORPGs

I am afraid of joining an MMORPG in case it eats my life, but if it’s going to leave my wallet alone then maybe we can talk. The go-to free-to-play genre has its share of big names in the freemium leagues.

City of Heroes (and its now-included sister title City of Villains) was the first game to really tap the superhero fascination, spawning dozens of action games and a comic book revival. Another recent addition to the freemium family, City of Heroes has optional subscriptions for those with the cash and the desire for status, but also offers microtransactions. These cast a bit of a cloud over things, as you’ll soon see how often NCsoft tries to wheedle some cash out of you. But if you can face the nagging, the game itself has plenty of fans.

Cryptic’s second go, Champions Online, has the distinction of being redundant in two directions. Based on the Marvel role-playing property, it doesn’t do a lot that City of Heroes hadn’t already achieved, and with Marvel Universe Online on the way it has lost its claim to uniqueness. On the other hand, it’s still a big-budget game managed by a dedicated team of experienced professionals, and the subscription requirement has been waived. You’ll need to hand over your credit card to get access to Adventure Packs, but otherwise, the entire game is offered for free.

If success is any measure of quality, both Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online have improved phenomenally since dropping their subscription requirements. The old “good enough to play, not good enough to pay for” criticism doesn’t seem to apply, because the incredible increase in revenue both games have seen suggests both are good enough to pay for – but people like to choose when, and for what, they pay.

Here’s one you probably haven’t considered yet: Free Realms. Now hear me out – family friendly doesn’t always mean “bad”. Free Realms is bursting with content, combining RPG-lite gameplay with virtual world playgrounds. It might not offer the strategic depth of WoW, but, for many of us, not having to use acronyms and spreadsheets when choosing gear is a good thing.

League of Legends leads the free action-RPGs.

A new contender, Spiral Knights was selected by Valve to be showcased in its initial freemium offering because, basically, it’s pretty damn good. Published by Sega but with some serious indie chops behind it, some of the frankly adorable design hails from the webcomics community. You can slaughter things and eat them, and even play it on your Mac. That’s good enough for me.

Other

Massively multiplayer online arena-based real time strategy is a genre someone made up before we ended up calling a whole slew of games DotA clones. Defence of the Ancients itself, a Warcraft III mod joining the hallowed halls of games which launched entirely new kinds of gaming, is probably going to make a free-to-play appearance soon, but in the meantime, there are plenty of quality alternatives to check out.

The current top dog among these is definitely League of Legends. Riot’s offering is drawing serious attention among the eSports crowd as well as a fanatical fanbase. Frequent updating has done much to improve the game since launch, making it worth a second look if you peeked in during its early days.

Competition is fierce enough that you’re probably going to wish for a pay-to-win option, but your micro-funds will mainly go on new champions. These regular new characters offer unique abilities and balancing that keep the game constantly fresh.

On the more Diablo-like end of things, Mytheon offers just three classes but plenty of scope for customisation with its power stones. The game’s ambitious lore sees you battling the Olympian gods, which is rather jolly, and the “just one more loot” compulsion is strong with this one.

Free-to-play gaming has come a long way since the low-quality grind-fest many of us experienced in the Internet’s infancy. We’ve barely scraped the surface to produce this collection of games, and there’s plenty more where that came from. Take the day off work and try a few out – you don’t need the money, obviously, and we think you’ll be stunned by the quality.

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