The best free games offer players a lot of content without charging anything, with some ethical microtransactions for super-fans. We’ve rounded up the best free-to-play games that hold true to that, including free FPS games and MMORPGs. With everything from genre-bending games like Frog Fractions to open-world JRPGs like Genshin Impact, there’s something for everyone.
Although the free-to-play group gets a bad rap, there are plenty of games that offer dozens (and even hundreds) of hours of gameplay without asking for a dime. There are a few options on Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, but most of the titles below are free PC games. Thankfully, quite a few of them are from a few years ago, so you should be able to run them without a full gaming PC.
Cheap isn’t necessarily free, but if you’re looking for steep discounts on consoles and accessories, take a look at the best gaming deals available now.
What are the best free-to-play first-person shooter games?
Halo Infinite (PC, Xbox)
While you will either need a Game Pass subscription or a retail copy of Halo Infinite to play the game’s campaign, the multiplayer component of the Microsoft-exclusive shooter is completely free to play on PC and all Xbox platforms. This latest Halo game from developer 343 takes the game back to the type of tactical, positioning, and skill-based multiplayer that made the older games so beloved. Throwing in some more modern mechanics, like sprint, plus a host of new tools like the incredibly fun grappling hook, this is the perfect way to get back into the Halo experience.
Being free to play but also fully cross-platform play means that Halo Infinite‘s player base is incredibly healthy already. You won’t have any trouble finding a match in any of the major game modes, of which all the old favorites are making a return. The battle pass offers tons of reasons to get invested, but even without it the core game just feels so solid and addictive you will want to keep going match after match. Once forge mode gets introduced later in the game’s life, the amount of content will essentially be … well … infinite.
Splitgate (PC, Xbox, PlayStation)
Splitgate has quickly jumped from indie darling to mainstream mainstay. In fact, the game grew so rapidly that the developer struggled to get enough servers online to handle the influx of players. As for how it plays, imagine the offspring of Portal and Halo — and you’re not far off the mark.
Splitgate is unabashedly old-school, with fans of the original Halo loving its “retro” mentality. The biggest wrinkle to the FPS is the ability to open portals and quickly move about the map. If you’re trying to be sneaky, you can also use them to snipe players in completely different locations before closing your portal and fleeing to safety.
Destiny 2 (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
Destiny 2 is the poster child for the games-as-a-service model, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. Far from it, in fact — Destiny 2 is a sprawling online shooter with ultra-tight gun mechanics and some of the most intense combat encounters in gaming. Although originally released for a full $60, Destiny 2 is now one of the best free-to-play games available. Even better, Bungie overhauled the leveling system once the game’s price fell away, so you don’t need to worry about hundreds of hours of grinding.
Like a lot of games-as-a-service titles, though, Destiny 2 is what you make of it. The visuals are stunning and the mechanics are world-class, but tackling the world alone is a lonely experience — even with the best Destiny 2 weapons. It’s a game best played with friends, where the driving forces of progression are the wild experiences you’ll have during missions. If playing solo is more your speed, you can always grind matches in Destiny 2′s Crucible PvP mode.
Team Fortress 2 (PC)
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.
This year, 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.
Paladins: Champions of the Realm (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch)
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 — works well, and 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 (PC, PlayStation)
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 (PC)
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 competitive shooter, and although Valve sold it as such for a mere $14.99 for a long time, it’s now one of the best free-to-play games.
“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.
What are the best free-to-play MMORPG games?
Runescape (PC, iOS, Android)
Runescape is one of the most iconic free-to-play games there is, and 20 years after launch, it’s still going strong. Developer Jagex has continued to update the game over the past 20 years, offering literally thousands of hours of gameplay. If you haven’t played Runescape, it’s a high-fantasy MMORPG with varied weapon types and a long list of skills to master. Questing with friends is where Runescape is at its best, but you can also take things slow and hone your farming, fishing, and cooking skills.
Old School Runescape is available, too. It’s based on the 2007 build of Runescape that shot it into the limelight, featuring the same charming graphics, quests, bosses, and economy. Unlike the base game, Old School Runescape requires a monthly membership. However, you can share your membership across both versions of the game — it unlocks some exclusive skills and quests — and you can pay with either cash or Bonds that you can earn in-game.
Lord of the Rings Online (PC)
Amazon may have canceled its Lord of the Rings MMO, but there’s still Lord of the Rings Online. The game just passed its 14th anniversary, and it’s still receiving content updates. In Lord of the Rings Online, you create your own character to explore Middle-earth. You can outfit your characters in countless different ways, choosing between four races, nine classes, 10 professions, and more than 1,000 skills and traits. As you play, you can take part in solo or cooperative skirmishes and explorations to gather materials to craft new gear.
You can even play the role of a servant in Sauron’s army in PvMP encounters. All of that, and Lord of the Rings Online is completely free to play, no monthly fee required. Although you can play for free, the game has a VIP program that gives you access to more inventory slots, monthly points to use in the shop, and access to all quests, skirmishes, monster classes, and crafting guilds.
Neverwinter (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
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.
DC Universe Online (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
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. If you’re into superheroes, DC Universe Online is certainly worth trying out on PS4, Xbox One, or PC.
Bless Unleashed (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
A reboot of the middling Bless Online, Bless Unleashed fixes many of its predecessor’s flaws. Combat is faster, overall performance has been improved, and the game benefits from huge graphical updates across all available platforms. The game comes with the usual MMO tropes — such as a sprawling story, hundreds of side quests, and crafting — but the main draw is that reworked, action-based combat system.
Unlike tab targeting seen in most titles in the genre, Bless Unleashed requires careful timing and precision before launching your attack. You’ll also need to block and evade incoming attacks — making this one of the most active combat systems in any free-to-play game on the market. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but if it clicks there’s a massive world just waiting for you to explore.
Albion Online (PC, iOS, Android)
Albion Online went free-to-play in 2019 and never looked back. In the years since, Albion has even launched a mobile version that’s fully cross-play compatible with its PC sibling. Albion isn’t the most newcomer-friendly of titles on this list, but if you manage to break through the steep learning curve, there’s a huge reward on the other side.
As a sandbox MMO, Albion doesn’t hold your hand for very long. Once you’ve battled through the tutorial, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Crafting is at the heart of the experience — in fact, the entire marketplace is practically driven by player-created gear — although PvP tends to take up the majority of players’ time. Its stylized graphics make it easy to get lost in the dangerous world, and its numbers have only grown in recent years — now is a great time to join in on the free adventure.
Phantasy Star Online 2 (PC, Xbox)
Phantasy Star Online 2 was released in 2012, but it didn’t come to the U.S. until 2020. You play as an ARKs operative, which is an elite group of fighters that explores dangerous planets looking for a dark corruption called the Falspawn. You can choose from several unique classes to take on quests, and after leveling up a bit, you can assign another class as a sub-class to inherit special abilities.
Instead of a unified world, Phantasy Star Online 2 focuses on quests. You can join a party that’s appropriate for your level to take on small missions with a limited number of other players, allowing you to easily jump into the game without dedicating a few hours. On quests, you’ll earn random loot drops. These drops give you new combat skills to use with your weapon, aiding the passive skills you can unlock in the skill tree. The game recently saw a massive rework in the form of New Genesis — which offers up improved graphics and a whole new story to explore.
Although Phantasy Star Online 2 has some paid content, you can play through all of the story content for free.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
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.
Blade & Soul (PC)
Blade & Soul has grown immensely since launching in 2016. New classes, zones, and frequent events have kept the free-to-play community busy, although 2021 will likely be its best year in recent memory. September brings with it a huge overhaul to Blade & Soul, as the aptly named “Unreal Engine 4” update will provide players with improved graphics, new mechanics, and a new playable class.
As a free title, Blade & Soul makes liberal use of microtransactions — typically in the form of cosmetics — although you can also sign up for Premium Membership to earn extra login rewards, remote storage, and increased Gold and XP gain rates. Even if you don’t spring for the membership, you’ll be treated to a unique MMO experience, with fast-paced action and a gorgeous anime-inspired setting.
What are the best free-to-play battle royale games?
Fortnite: Battle Royale (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, Android)
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.
Spellbreak (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch)
Despite being another entry in the saturated battle royale genre, Spellbreak couldn’t be more different from the competition. Gone are the guns, vehicles, and building mechanics you’ve grown accustomed to — instead, you’re given gauntlets that let you cast colorful spells and quickly travel across the map.
Battles eventually evolve into a kaleidoscope of colors, with fiery tornadoes, poisonous clouds, and destructive earthquakes pock-marking the environment. If your battle royale of choice has grown stale, consider giving Spellbreak a shot. Not only is it free, but microtransactions are incredibly free-to-play friendly, with only select cosmetics locked behind a paywall.
Call of Duty: Warzone (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
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.
Apex Legends (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch)
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 its 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 as a PS4 game, Xbox One game, and one of the best free PC games.
What are the best free-to-play action games?
Genshin Impact (PC, PlayStation, iOS, Android)
When Genshin Impact was first revealed, many wrote it off as a Breath of the Wild clone and nothing more. But tunes quickly changed when the game launched. Genshin Impact certainly borrows a lot from Breath of the Wild, from the art style to the stamina-based climbing. However, in almost every other way, it separates itself with deep RPG systems, a diverse roster of 23 characters, and hundreds of hours of gameplay.
And it’s free. Genshin Impact offers a full-action RPG experience in a beautiful open world without asking for a dime. There are microtransactions in the game, but thankfully, they never feel unfair. Buying a few key items may help you level up your character faster, for example, but you can still get through all of the content in the game without resorting to mindless grinding.
Warframe (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch)
Combining the futuristic science-fiction aesthetic of Mass Effect and Halo games 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 the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.
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 (PC)
It has spawned spinoff 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.
Pinball FX3 (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, iOS, Android)
The name Pinball FX3 says it all. This virtual pinball game doesn’t rely on generic machines but has a range of accurately modeled machines recreated by developer Zen Studios. The free version of the game offers the well-known Fish Tales pinball board for download. After you’ve played a few rounds of free pinball, you’ll be hungry to explore the massive variety of pinball boards you’ll have to purchase to play. You can buy additional machines from Zen Studios, usually in sets of three, for around $10. In total, there’s nearly $300 worth of DLC, so Pinball FX3 can get costly after a while. But frequent sales bring down the price of the most popular packs to only a few dollars.
Pinball FX3 is a proper simulator, fitted with leagues, one-on-one multiplayer, and community-generated tournaments. For occasional players who want to play recreationally in their spare time, FX3 offers traditional single-player games as well. Every pinball simulator is distinct, with a unique course of obstacles and different ways to earn points, so you’ll never get tired of gaming.
Path of Exile (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
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 was 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 seven classes — Witch, Shadow, Ranger, Marauder, Duelist, Templar, and Scion — each of which has its own movesets, strengths, and weaknesses.
Path of Exile plays with an isometric 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, PS4, and Xbox One.
Dauntless (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch)
Take the tense battles of Monster Hunter, strip away many of its complex systems, throw a colorful coat of paint on everything, and you’re pretty close to getting Dauntless. Unlike its older rival, Dauntless is a much more accessible title — instead of spending hours pouring of stats and customizing your inventory, this free-to-play game offers a streamlined monster hunting experience.
You’ll still be heading out as a group to slay some of the largest beasts ever seen in a video game, but it’s a much more casual-friendly experience than Monster Hunter. Beyond offering a streamlined hunting experience, Dauntless also gives you a quirky cast of characters to learn about, along with a fair monetization scheme that lets you enjoy much of what it has to offer without dropping a dime.
Killer Instinct (PC, Xbox)
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.
Brawlhalla (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, iOS, Android)
After spending a couple of years in early access, Brawhlhalla, a fighting game that can only really be compared to Super Smash Bros., was 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, iOS, and Android — and it’s a mobile game that you won’t want to miss out on. 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.
Among Us (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, iOS, Android)
This entry is cheating just a bit. Technically, Among Us costs $5 on Steam. However, it’s a free game on Android and iOS, and all three platforms support crossplay with each other. Among Us is one of the most popular games in the U.S. right now, topping Steam charts with concurrent player counts reaching near 500,000. It’s easy to see why, too.
Among Us is a simple social deduction game where up to 10 players team up to complete a range of small tasks. The kicker: There’s an imposter among the group. As a crew member, it’s your job to not only sniff out who the imposter is but also complete your tasks before the imposter can snuff you out. Among Us offers endless hours of fun, and with its pick-up-and-play design, anyone can jump in on the action.
Pokémon Go (iOS, Android)
Pokémon Go was nothing short of a phenomenon when it launched in 2016 as a mobile Pokémon game. 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 Sword and Pokémon Shield. As far as F2P games are concerned, it’s hard to beat Pokémon Go.
What are the best free-to-play strategy games?
Hearthstone (PC, iOS, Android)
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 (PC, iOS, Android)
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 apiece.
Gwent (PC, iOS, Android)
If you’re a fan of card games, you’re in luck — many of the genre’s most popular titles are available for free, including the ever-popular Gwent. Pulled straight from The Witcher universe and developed by CD Projekt Red itself, Gwent takes the iconic mini-game and gives it the attention it deserves.
The PvP card battler will see you piecing together your very own deck (composed of classic characters such as Geralt and Ciri) before heading online for a variety of unique game modes. No good card game is complete without a bevy of gorgeous graphical effects, and Gwent has those in spades. If you’re in the market for a massive time sink, look no further than this.
League of Legends (PC)
No free-to-play list would be complete without League of Legends. The MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) was nothing short of 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.
Dota 2 (PC)
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 119 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, that is.
Pokémon Unite (Switch, iOS, Android)
Who would have thought that the casual-friendly world of Pokémon would be such a perfect fit for the hardcore MOBA genre? Many of the genre tropes are present — including jungling, a variety of class types, equipable items, and a steep learning curve — yet somehow, Pokémon Unite manages to be a great game for players of all types. Whether you’re grouping up with a few friends in ranked or just taking on a few casual games with random players, there are hundreds of hours of fun to be had with this unique spinoff.
New content is being added at a regular pace, with a variety of unlockable items and new characters launched just weeks after its arrival — and much more planned for the coming months. It’s nothing like the slow-paced mainline entries we’ve seen over the past few years, but it’s arguably one of the best Pokémon games we’ve seen in a very long time and among the best F2P games of 2021.
Heroes of the Storm (PC)
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 five-on-five and features a wide array of heroes (currently 89) 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 — making it one of the best free games on the market.
Smite (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch)
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 playstyle, changing the traditionally strategic MOBA formula to action-oriented gameplay. The game’s heroes are all gods modeled after real ones across 12 different pantheons. As of now, there are 110 playable characters, each with its 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.
Tetris 99 (Switch)
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 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 (PC)
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.
Crusader Kings II (PC)
After several years as a paid title, Paradox moved Crusader Kings II to a free-to-play model late last year. It makes sense, too, with over $300 worth of downloadable content (not microtransactions; these grand strategy types just have a long shelf life). If you’ve never played a Paradox game, know this: People play these games religiously. Only two years after the initial release of Crusader Kings II, the game was constantly hitting over 10,000 concurrent players each day with an average playtime of 99 hours. That’s because Crusader Kings II is one of the best strategy games of all time.
It earns the “grand” in grand strategy, too. A single game takes upwards of 50 hours to complete, and it’s easy to see why. Mechanics like religion are deeper than most other strategy games, with each religious group having multiple subdivisions (Orthodox and Messalian in the Christian category, for example). This kind of depth is echoed throughout all of Crusader Kings II.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (PC)
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 (PC, iOS, Android)
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.
The best free-to-play adventure games
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
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 is a character in the sequel. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Doki Doki Literature Club (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)
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 a 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.