In a world where you don’t have to pay a cent (pence) for amazing games that will last you hours on end, why would you pay full price? That’s the case for the best free games, a category shaped by a multitude of genres to make video games affordable again. Best of all, there’s no need to own an extravagant gaming PC to experience top free games for yourself.
Although you might think you have to be a pirate to play games for free, knowing your way around cracks and torrents and the sites that illegally host them, the truth is that you don’t have to risk jail time to save on games. In fact, we’ve played 45 free games for ourselves that were so good, we would have to classify them as the best.
From massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic to strategic collectible card games along the lines of The Elder Scrolls: Legends, there is a lot to love among our assimilation of the best free games that money can’t buy. Plus, given that we’ve invested time into each of these titles, you can – in good faith – trust our opinions.
1. Planetside 2
Two years before Destiny, back in 2012, we had Planetside 2. It's an epic, all-out first-person battle so impressive, you'll give yourself a quick pinch every time you remember it's completely free. There are in-game purchases of course, but you can still dive into gaming's biggest ever battlefield and be useful with just default gear.
There's simply nothing like taking part in a massed assault on an enemy base and coming out on top, or living in a world where an enemy convoy could appear on the horizon at any second. If you need any proof that 'free' doesn't mean uninspired, Planetside 2 will provide it.
The Dota universe may have derived from a Wacraft 3 mod, but Dota 2 is very much its own entity, not to mention one of the most popular free-to-play games.
This top-down arena battler is incredibly active, attracting multi-million dollar prize funds for serious tournament players. It's not just for obsessives, though.
A brief tutorial now points out the ropes, with the Steam Community stepping in to provide guides to the original MOBA. Don't expect a warm welcome or easy learning curve from its sophisticated gameplay mechanics, but bring a few friends and Dota 2 will have you hooked on one of the biggest crazes in PC history.
There's only one thing you can count on in life apart from death and taxes: jetpacks rule. And Tribes: Ascend is the world's premiere online jetpack shooter. Don your jetpack and launch into battle across huge maps, with weapons that take real skill just to land a hit – never mind a kill.
Tribes: Ascend is fast, furious, and absolutely brilliant, and there's no reason to spend any money in the in-game shop if you simply want to hold your own in battle. Though there's plenty of stuff to buy if you do fancy splashing some cash…
You can pay to unlock more classes, weapons and perks, but if you're going to keep it casual you can still have loads of fun with Tribes: Ascend.
In the style of Diablo III, Path of Exile is a free dungeon crawler that's a bit different from most free-to-play games out there. It's not just about whacking real life people until they scream at you in shrill pubescent tones through their Skype headsets.
It's more of a slow-burner than a multiplayer blaster, but give it time and you may well fall in love with this free-to-play loot-gathering hit. There are hidden depths that you only uncover after playing for hours (and hours), and a huge skill tree to slowly pick away at. There are no game-ruining things like real money auction houses here, either.
Instead, even basic loot can be useful because there's always an opportunity to enhance even the simplest weapon with magic. If you got tired of the grind of Diablo III, it's a good one to check out.
Taking over from the original Star Wars MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies in 2011, Star Wars: The Old Republic was not free at release at first. But it has since, like so many games of this kind, adopted the free-to-play model. If you want to get Sith kicks, this is the best way to get them for free.
However, subscriptions are still available, giving you more in-game potential. All the story missions are available without a sub – they just might take you that bit longer.
It's worth the download simply to experience the Star Wars universe from different perspectives, like the hyper-professional Imperial Agent and Bounty Hunter. If you want to go with the dull option and just have a generic Jedi Knight, though, that's fine too.
When Xbox head Phil Spencer said he was going to bring the console's best franchises to the PC, he wasn't joking around. Among these notable series is Forza Motorsport.
Shunned by petrol-heads and embraced by gamers, Forza Motorsport may seem like an arcadey offshoot of its biggest rival on PlayStation, but it consistently looks and feels superb nonetheless.
Apex in particular brings a complete Forza Motorsport game to PC players for the first time. Though it’s free-to-play, there is additional content that can be downloaded for a modest price. While it’s not quite the full-fledged experience you can expect on Xbox One, with support for 4K screens and racing wheels, Forza Motorsport 6 Apex is the free-to-play twist we’ve been craving from Microsoft’s long-standing racing series.
Rare's classic fighting series Killer Instinct may not be the household name it once was, but the ability to play one character for free is enticing nonetheless.
What's more, characters can be purchased a la carte as downloadable content, which means you don't have to shell out a wad of cash unnecessarily for characters you'll never play. And, for the Xbox fans out there, this game is essentially Microsoft's equivalent of Super Smash Bros. and PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale since you can pick up numerous Xbox mascots. These include Arbiter (Halo), Rash (Battletoads) and General RAAM (Gears of War) in addition to a growing catalog of Killer Instinct-specific characters.
While Killer Instinct isn't as popular with the Fighting Game Community, there is a certain novelty of being able to control these classic Xbox-derived characters, and on PC at that.
is a different kind of MMO – the clue being in the title. Team-based, massively multiplayer action with a huge range of war machines to drive into battle awaits, with new players able to join the action immediately.
An upgrade system adds a sense of personalization, while being surrounded by a whole army constantly reminds you that loners don't do well on the battlefield. Get sucked in, though, and you may find you end up spending a chunk of your wages on great big chunks of virtual metal.
While some premium tanks cost just a few dollars, others are more expensive. You can see where maker Wargaming is going to earn some cash from World of Tanks enthusiasts.
Think World of Tanks is a bit too arcade-like for your tastes? You need to try out the free game War Thunder. Despite being lesser-known, it's a great alternative to that tank battler. And for an extra sweetener, it throws airplanes into the mix too. As you might expect, they're a great deal of fun.
With a fast enough PC, War Thunder offers visual quality you don't see too often in free-to-play games. You will need to pay some cash to get hold of the more interesting planes and tanks early on, but getting Battlefield-like play for free sounds like a good deal to us.
There are arcade and historical battles on offer – the former is great for a more casual blast while historical battles are more for players with a few hours on their flight card.
While it's no World of Warcraft in terms of whether your friends are still playing it, the free game Rift had its moment – and it's still having it depending on who you ask. It added innovation in a genre that was experiencing little, letting you change your class whenever you feel like it.
The whole game is focused on separating giant boss battles and events that occupy entire zones. It's ambitious, exciting and huge with a dozen inter-dimensional rifts that keep things fresh and unique from other games in the genre.