It seems like only a few short years ago that 'free to play' meant dinky little Flash-based click-and-wait affairs on Facebook and other 'gaming' websites.
Times have changed, and for the better! Now, both indie and big-name game developers are cashing in on the freemium model, releasing fully realized games with AAA production values as free-to-play titles, usually supported by microtransactions.
The free-to-play model has proliferated across the genres. We bring you some of our favorites.
TERA, short for The Exiled Realm of Arborea (not that anyone calls it that), brings something new to the free to play MMO table by introducing bona fide action elements to combat.
Instead of just clicking buttons on your hotbar, waiting on cooldowns, then lathering, rinsing, and repeating, combat in TERA is a lot more, erm, action-y. You've still got your optimal rotations and cooldown management abilities, sure, but added to the milieu are numerous gameplay mechanics that one would normally expect to see in an action title like God of War, as opposed to War of Warcraft.
Ranged classes have AOEs that require you to 'paint' your targets in a limited time frame before unleashing a volley of obliterating fiery death. Tanks need to position themselves in front of the squishies to block a damaging dragon's breath from getting through and incinerating the back ranks, and there's always the ubiquitous dodge-roll to avoid getting liquefied by a giant bone-snapping ogre club to the ribs.
Mastering both your skills and optimal rotations as well as having quick reflexes means your character can effectively stand toe-to-toe with higher-leveled enemies, and leads to some seriously fun, fulfilling moments.
And it also doesn't hurt that everything in TERA looks good. No Rainbow Pants of the Wandering Transient, here. Monsters, for the most part, look impressive and hulking, and the environment, player models, weapons, mounts, and even your newbie gear look stunning. TERA is free-to-play, supported by a suite of in-game purchases like cosmetic items, mounts, and character-enhancing items. That's pretty much the standard in freemium MMOs these days.
2. DOTA 2
Originally designed by an indie development team of veteran Warcraft III modders, DOTA 2, short for Defense of The Ancients 2, ranks as possibly the quintessential MOBA of all time.
As one of the most actively played games on Steam, with peak players topping at 1 million concurrent users, fans of DOTA 2 never have to worry about long wait queues whenever they want to pop in for a quick match at any time of day. DOTA 2 also happens to be one of most-played PC games on the professional competition circuit, and its very name has become synonymous with professional video gaming.
And not without reason; DOTA 2's game mechanics are as refined as they are fun to play with. The game features a tight and impressive roster of Heroes, which span the gamut from centaurs to elven assassins and gallant knights, demons and clockwork robots, to elementals, werewolves, wyverns and giant walking trees.
Each Hero's ability loadouts are remarkably varied among brute force, hit-and-run and withering ranged attacks, to combat support and even terrain-deforming abilities. Expect your Heroes to rush your enemies head on, lob friends or foes across the battlefield, cave in chasms and ravines to really mix-up the playfield, or level an entire spellbook of curses and hexes and just generally make an utter mess out of your enemies' best-laid plans.
In spite of the simple DPS/Ranged/Support formula in character archetypes, and even on a simple playthrough, it's easy to see the depth of strategic possibilities each Hero affords. Even more remarkably, everything about DOTA 2—all its characters, game modes, and maps—is unlocked and completely free to play from the get-go; the only things you'll ever pay for are cosmetic items like different skins for your Heroes. And these cosmetics can be unlocked through regular gameplay.
Yup, DOTA 2's definitely got buckets of old-school freemium sensibilities to go with its style, and it's hard not to like their style!
Hearthstone is a deeply thematic turn-based, multiplayer Trading Card Game (TCG) that's real easy to get into, but rich and rewarding to master.
Unless you've never played a PC game before, you'd immediately recognize the monsters, characters and legendary relics that populate every card in your Hearthstone deck from the hugely successful Warcraft franchise of games, developed by Blizzard Entertainment. That's because Blizzard, the company behind the enduring MMO World of Warcraft, is also the creators of Hearthstone.
Capitalizing on the decades worth of lore and even fan-favorite memes surrounding their flagship MMO, Hearthstone brings to the table a hearty dose of fun, fast-paced and deep strategic play to the table.
Two players (or one player and an AI opponent) compete head-to-head using a deck of thirty cards along with a selected hero, who comes with their own unique special power. Players have a limited amount of mana crystals with which to play their cards and apply their effects, and win by whittling their opponent's health points to zero.
The cards have a wide range of effects, from Creature cards that deal and soak damage or apply a multitude of game-changing effects, to special abilities that restore or damage health, and even iconic items that can be equipped for persistent utility.
And being a Blizzard title, Warcraft's unique brand of self-referential humor is deeply embedded into Hearthstone's genetics. Longtime WoW players will no doubt recognize the gruff, manly “Handle it!” voiceover whenever someone lays down a Raid Leader card, and it's hard not to mentally relive those harrowing raid wipes in UBRS whenever Leeeeroy! Jenkins enters the field.
All silliness aside, Hearthstone's easy-to-learn mechanics and compelling “just one more turn” gameplay make for a solid free-to-play title. The game is free to download and comes with a respectable roster of starter heroes. Ability cards are available to be purchased or may be unlocked via regular gameplay. Microtransactions pay for special cards, cosmetic cardbacks, and limited-edition promo decks.
An action-RPG from the storied Korean development studio behind Mabinogi and published in North America by Nexon, Vindictus is a furious 3D hack-'em-up that can be just as punishing as Dark Souls, as epic as Dragon's Dogma, and as gloriously fulfilling as taking down a boss in God of War.
Most memorable about Vindictus is how cinematic the action is, from the sweeping stages replete with destructible environmental elements, to encounters with towering bosses that's both punishing and rewarding. The characters feel rock-solid, and each controls very differently to provide a varied and always-entertaining experience.
Vella, for example, is a dual-wielding whirling dervish of death.
Whereas Evie blasts her opponents at range and animates nearby ruins and debris into walking engines of destruction. Karok is a living mountain of muscle and brute force, as capable of lifting and smashing enemies to pieces against the scenery, or crushing them beneath his enormous weaponized pillar.
And did we mention that everything about Vindictus looks cinematic? Not only do your characters look great, but they look great mowing down legions of gnolls, goblins, skeleton warriors and whatever other horrors the Fomorian hordes have to throw at you.
From the way Fiona crouches and throws her shoulder behind her shield before taking the impact of a powerful blow, to how Evie snaps her fingers and magically detonates enemies she has Marked for Death…
...to how the screen shakes when Karok sucker punches a troll into orbit…
Vindictus is a game built for making you look as good as you'll feel about taking out the trash.
The full game of Vindictus is free to play, with purchases made for character boosts and cosmetics.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention sandvich—err, Team Fortress 2, Valve's classic team-based first-person shooter. Launched as part of Valve's critically-acclaimed game compilation The Orange Box in 2007, Team Fortress 2 is now free to play on Steam.
As one of nine over-the-top character classes, players join up as part of either the Blue or Red Teams and are thrown into a variety of game modes like King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and Control Point, where they summarily proceed to kill each other in the most violent and explosive ways imaginable.
What makes Team Fortress 2 such an enduring and stand-out title is its brilliant art direction, award-winning character designs, Looney Tunes levels of comic violence, and utterly unforgettable, spammable in-combat one-liners. (“They're gonna have to glue you back together! IN HELL!”)
The cast of characters look and feel like escaped mental patients from the Acme Asylum for the Violently Insane, and that's my favorite part of the game.
The Scout, for example, is a hyperactive, fast-talking street thug prone to bludgeoning people to death with his favorite aluminum baseball bat. The Pyro is a mentally-unreliable (or just misunderstood?) pyromaniac armed with a homemade flamethrower.
The Spy is a French double-agent equipped with a deadly butterfly knife and a device hidden in his cigarette case that allows him to disguise himself as an enemy player.
The Demoman is a black, eyepatch-wearing alcoholic Scotsman armed with more explosives than a man of his typical alcohol levels should ever be entrusted.
And my favorite, the Heavy, is a towering Russian with a thick accent and an unhealthy obsession with “Sasha”, his impossibly gargantuan minigun.
Team Fortress 2 is campy, zany, and brilliant enough not to take itself seriously, a tactic that's worked for the A-Team and pretty much the best action flicks ever, and it certainly works for TF2.
Team Fortress 2 is free to play on Steam, Valve's digital content delivery service, with paid content including unique in-game equipment and customizations.
Gone are the days when free gaming meant just watering your crops and feeding your cows and chickens every 19 hours.
We hope our list has enlightened you to the myriad of excellent games out there that offers great, no-frills pick-up and play experience, without costing you a cent.
Unless, of course, you're really wanting to get your in-game avatar a new seasonal hat. They've got those.