Free has become a bit of a dirty word in gaming lately—especially if you value your time more than your dollar. It can be hard not to equate free with crap when you’re looking at all the nonsense clogging the arteries of Apple’s app store. But don’t let the bottom of the barrel fool you—free-to-play games have the potential to offer you a stellar experience on a slim budget, and just because you might have had your heart broken by one or two exploitative titles doesn’t mean you should write them off altogether.
But time is money, I get that. No one wants to spend a few hours and precious hard drive space just to find out which games are worth it and which ones aren’t. So sit back and give your wallet a well deserved rest. Here, in no particular order, are some of the greatest free to play games available on consoles and PC today—games that, despite what you may fear, won’t try to rob you blind.
Whether you love it or hate it, Destiny continues to hypnotize vast swathes of the population with its endless carrot-on-a-stick gameplay. But if you’re looking for something akin to Bungie’s massive success without the steep upfront cost, then look no further than Warframe. Putting you behind the katana of the universe’s most deadly space ninjas, Warframe is all about slicing and shooting your way through hordes of cybernetic bad guys.
Destiny and Warframe share a lot in common, which is a great thing if you’re desperate for some loot-driven action but want to avoid paying top dollar for it. Even better, Warframe offers a metric ton of content to play through, and most of it is entirely free. Of course, Warframe does have its share of microtransactions which might become more lucrative the more demanding the game becomes of your time in order to progress—but it’ll take some time before you feel the need to break out the wallet.
There was a time when card games were for family road trips and evenings when the power went out unexpectedly. That time is no more. Hearthstone has breathed new life into the genre by introducing it to millions of people who can appreciate a complex and fun card game without all the hassle of actually carrying decks of cards around (or paying top dollar for them).
Blizzard’s take on the formula is perfect if you just want something occupy only a few minutes at a time. Just don’t be surprised if the addicting strategy element ends up making your evening disappear like some sort of nefarious magic trick. Working with hundreds of cards, you’ll assemble decks inspired by Blizzard’s popular Warcraft franchise and then battle against other players in a variety of different game modes. New cards are released fairly frequently, and the Tavern Brawl mode, which throws out the rulebook each week to offer something entirely different, will make this a game that will quickly soar to your most frequently used apps.
Hearthstone’s only real weakness is the random nature of acquiring new cards. If you’re looking to be competitive without investing plenty of hours, you’ll definitely want to spend some money to help round out your deck.
There is no hiding from the new craze in gaming: eSports. With the Dota 2 tournament The International offering a $16 million prize pool, multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) have become a pretty big deal. But getting into these games isn’t easy. There is a lot to learn and understand before you even come to grips with the game on a basic level. Smite is looking to bridge that gap by taking the foundation so popular in professional gaming, and slapping it in a setting more familiar to a wider range of players: third-person action.
By offering a range of different multiplayer game types that mix up the standard formula of other MOBAs, Smite’s heavier emphasis on variety and action make it a blast to play, alone or with some friends. Even better, the game just recently entered into open beta for the Xbox One, making it the first game of this genre available on consoles. Each week, a new selection of heroes are made free to play. Others can be purchased by saving up in-game currency or dropping few dollars if you’re too impatient. It’s a pretty standard financial model for the genre, but also doesn’t really impede your ability to stay competitive—an absolute must.
'MARVEL HEROES 2015’
With all the craze surrounding the never-ending lineup of Marvel movies, who hasn’t been feeling the itch to don a cape and fight a few villains? Fortunately, your heroic dreams can come true in Marvel Heroes 2015, which blends everything awesome about the Marvel universe with the frantic click-fest of action RPGs like Diablo 3.
Choosing one of the dozens of heroes from the movies and comics (yes, even Squirrel Girl is there), you and a group of friends can set out to retrieve ancient celestial artifacts, punch bad guys, and whatever else super heroes do all day long. There is a ton to see and do in this game, and a constant string of upgrades will keep you clicking well into the evening if you aren’t careful. Even better, the free to play microtransactions are rather unintrusive, and with a little dedication (and some luck) you can unlock more heroes without the need to dust off the credit card to do so.
Free to play is quickly becoming the new trend with massively multiplayer online games and if you’re looking for one to sink potentially hundreds of hours into, Neverwinter is a good place to start. It bears mentioning that, unlike others on this list, Neverwinter favors players who pay over those who don’t. You can still enjoy a large portion of what the game has to offer, but if you’re hoping to be the best you can be, especially in player versus player combat, you should expect to reach for the wallet occasionally.
Neverwinter has solid enough foundations that will help you forget any of these potential woes, however. Combat, for instance, is fast and exciting, and makes wonderful use of the Xbox’s gamepad. If you’re just wanting to grind through Neverwinter’s story and dungeon content, there is plenty to see and do, making Neverwinter a great way to make hours disappear.
Few games on this list command the kind of loyal devotion that Dota 2 has from its audience. Fewer still are as intimidating and demanding to get into, but, as any player will tell you, once Dota 2 grabs a hold of your life, it will never let go. It’s a complicated game, one that will take you thousands of hours to fully master, but it’s an exceptional free to play title worthy of every hour you’ll spend.
The only reason Dota 2 manages to just barely beat out its main rival, League of Legends is because of the great financial model behind it. Unlike League, Dota 2 gives you every one of its hundred-something heroes for free. The only thing that will ever cost money are the alternate costumes and various cosmetic customizations you can buy to tailor the experience. If you’ve been on the outside looking in at the esports craze, Dota 2 might intimidate you, but with a few friends and enough persistence, it will likely make you rethink the need to ever buy another game again.
Planetside 2 is a massively multiplayer shooter all about throwing you into massive battles involving land and air vehicles. If you’re a fan of the Battlefield franchise, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Planetside 2’s chaotic, yet strategic take on futuristic warfare. Joining one of three factions, you’ll battle for supremacy over four massive continents in an endless attempt to control various points of interest.
Planetside 2 is for those wanting a more open approach to shooting. Maps are huge, and the battles that unfold dynamically across them can, at times, be truly epic. Even better, as a free to play game, many of the combat classes you can fight as already start with their best gun, allowing you to worry less about the microtransactions and more about the killing. Working with a squad of other players to infiltrate and capture enemy compounds is a blast, and Planetside 2 runs remarkably well considering how ambitious it is by design. Fans of multiplayer shooters should absolutely give this one a chance.
Spending money sucks, but so does wasting your time. The market of free to play games can be a weird place full of shallow nonsense that only wants to make a quick buck without giving much in return. Fortunately, the games above are all capable of providing the exact opposite. If you’re pinching pennies, give one of the above a try. You might just find them far more satisfying than anything you could have paid top-dollar for.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.
RELATED: The most violent retro video games of all time