Following on yesterday's post (Payment Plans) where I outlined some of the different pricing models that have been implemented in gaming, today I thought I would highlight some of the best free to play games available on the market. As always, this list is in no particular order and is far from exhaustive but should give an idea of the sheer variety free gaming out there.
Before jumping in, a few caveats to the titles I list below. First off, I am not including any browser-based games. Recently enough, in Browse This, I listed a bunch of great browser games and, while these games are almost always free, I don't feel that they quite fit in with the spirit of this post. Second, no demonstration or trial versions. While a case can be made that many free to play games amount to little more than extended demos, I am trying to highlight titles that offer up (almost) everything for free without the need to pay. Finally, no games where the design effectively requires payment to enjoy. While this criteria is subjective, if I feel that a game, even if ostensibly free, requires a year of grinding to unlock most features that can be instead purchased instantly then it has failed to offer a compelling free experience. With this in mind and without further ado, to the games!
Star Wars: The Old Republic
One of the points I failed to make in my Payment Plans post was that many free to play games initially started off as pay products. Star Wars: The Old Republic recently transitioned from a pay and subscribe model to a straight subscription model in the face of a waning user base. While there are a plethora of MMORPGs available as free to play, few come with the caché that comes with the Star Wars license and still fewer have been developed by a team as reputable as Bioware. Sporting a budget of over $100 million, The Old Republic is the first MMORPG to be fully voiced and features an expansive story worthy of a single player experience. While, mechanically, the game fits the mold of most traditional MMORPGs the sprawling main quest guides the player through a bevy of Star Wars lore capable of withstanding the scrutiny of even the most ardent fan. The Old Republic is a can't miss for anyone who has ever cupped their hand over their mouth and spoke at the bottom of their range in an effort to imitate James Earl Jones' unforgettable voicing of Darth Vader.
For no financial investment, players can play to the original level cap of 50 and have access to every dungeon along the way (although are limited to how many they can play a day). Some minor convenience features are limited to subscribers including a raised currency limit, full access to the auction house, and expanded chat, but none of these prevent a run through a thoroughly entertaining main quest that can easily take 20+ hours of gameplay to complete. Adding further value is the option to play as the opposing faction or class for, effectively, a new story. While serious top tier progression is limited to pay players, by the time most free players have reached this plateau I feel that the modest subscription of $15 a month has been more than earned in free content.
Neverwinter is another great free option for the MMORPG lover. While not quite as polished as The Old Republic, some players prefer the swords and magic of the Dungeons and Dragons license.
League of Legends
What can be said about League of Legends that hasn't already been said. Arguably the most popular online game across all genres, this MOBA is bright, fun, addicting, and is home to one of the most unforgiving communities in the internet. New players who can tough through the abuse are sure to be hooked by the gameplay. Fair warning, stories of all night play sessions are not uncommon and tales of League of Legends consuming all available playtime are the norm rather than the exception. While I have not personally explored the depths of this title, I would be remiss to not include it on this list.
Free players are granted access to a rotating stable of heroes and maps which is generally robust enough to provide plenty of options. Only those players who are absolutely dedicated to a particular character will feel the compulsion to pay.
The recent release of Defense of the Ancients 2 developed by Valve, seems poised to topple League of Legends as the MOBA of choice by further polishing the formula and committing to balanced matches.
Path of Exile
One of the few ARPG options available on a free to play plan, Path of Exile doesn't feature a well known license or even a big name developer (Grinding Gear Games). That said, the game is a high quality rendition of the genre which rightfully draws comparisons to Diablo 2. A massive skill tree dictates player customization instead of traditional class roles and can be a bit daunting to new comers. That said, a vibrant community is always willing to help and gameplay is forgiving to experimentation. For many players who were disappointed with the direction that Diablo 3 took, Path of Exile was the go-to alternative. While it may not look as flashy as more recent pay games, building a character is a deep and rewarding process and an interesting take on the loot hunt is a breath of fresh air. As an added bonus, the game doesn't require too powerful of a machine. Anyone who can't get enough of the ARPG click-fest should give this one a try.
The only pay features in the game are cosmetic effects and the developer has promised repeatedly that they will never implement anything that can actually impact gameplay in the cash shop. As such, I feel that the decision to purchase a cosmetic effect is explicitly a decision to reward the developer for providing content for free. It is an interesting pricing model and I hope the reliance on community generosity pays off.
While the 5.5/10 that I gave to Marvel Heroes in my review (Heroically Free) might be enough to turn people away immediately, I believe the game is constantly getting better. If you are a fan of the Marvel stable of heroes, it is worth a look.
Street Fighter X Megaman
Released by Capcom as part of the 25th anniversary of Mega Man, Street Fighter X Megaman offers classic 8bit platforming with the traditional robot masters being replaced by popular Street Fighters. A mashup that probably no one ever expected to be officially sanctioned, the full game is available for free and is a love letter to fans of both series. That's right, there is absolutely nothing to buy here; the game, in its full completeness, is available with no strings attached! While it may not be the best or most challenging Mega Man game released, it is not a throw away either and properly pays homage to the Blue Bomber's 8bit roots.
None. Seriously, if you are fan of Mega Man, you cannot find a better officially sanctioned free to play option out there!
Honorable Mention - Magic the Gathering: Online
This game doesn't quite meet the criteria for this list as it is technically a trial. This official online rendition of the popular trading card game starts you out with some very basic cards and allows you to play matches against players all over the world in an accurately adjudicated, if somewhat ugly, playing field. Players can purchase digital booster packs to expand their collection and even exchange the digital card for a real-world version. Fans of Magic who can't easily find live games should find satiation here.
Obviously, this is only scratching the surface of the free games on offer but I think it should be a good start to understanding just how much gaming entertainment can be had on the cheap. If your favourite game didn't make the cut, don't fret, I am sure to revisit this topic again in the future.