The landscape for free-to-play shooters is more robust and impressive than ever before, lined with an assortment of notable hits like Team Fortress 2 and the interstellar Planetside followup. They may not offer the same production values as the newest Call of Duty or Halo release, but then again they won’t cost you upwards of $60 either. Here are our top picks for the best free shooters, so you can spend less time entering payment options and more time getting your frag on.
Team Fortress 2 (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux)
Boasting beautifully-rendered graphics and a well-balanced class system, the lauded Team Fortress 2 still appeals to casual gamers and pros alike, garnering what is still one of the largest player bases on the Steam marketplace more than seven years after its initial debut. The game is a steadfast hybrid of fast-paced combat and intense strategy, one in which every one of the game’s nine classes exhibits it’s own powerful strengths and crippling weaknesses.
Game modes are straightforward, primarily pitting two teams against one another in an effort to move a cart, capture select points, or steal a briefcase. It’s highly competitive in nature, but it still caters to all skill levels. Like most multiplayer titles, it’s about exploiting the Achilles heel of your enemies while protecting your own, but it still relishes a stylized brand of humor that’s become iconic with the Team Fortress brand. Few games have held up as well over the years, and to be honest, few probably will.
America’s Army (Windows)
Although the U.S. Army originally designed America’s Army as a simple public relations and recruiting tool, the tactical first person shooter series developed enough popular support through the years to warrant multiple sequels and earn community praise. It’s deeply tactical, placing players into small fireteams, while reveling in the modern weaponry and tactical outfits of the day. Instead of offering a bevy of commonplace game modes like free-for-all, the title’s assorted game modes are grounded in squad-based combat.
The game still has a slew of bugs, but the utter realism and authenticity of the game’s missions easily belie any qualms regarding the subpar visuals and limited map set. America’s Army also requires that players train, use certain weapons, and learn real-world first aid, the latter of which players must properly implement to heal teammates within the title.
Tribes Ascend (Windows)
In Tribes Ascend, players maneuver using a jetpack and skis, traversing massive environments at breakneck speeds whether by their own accord or using a variety of in-game vehicles. The game features a wide variety of modes, and nine unlockable classes, each of which offers its own distinct set of weaponry and skills obtainable through the game’s progression system.
The enormous maps are also great fit for the objective and defense-based game modes, focusing on a breadth of aerial dogfights and mid-air explosions, instead of emphasizing cover and well-rehearsed strategy like most titles. Furthermore, the character models are finely polished, and the gameplay allows up to 32 players to compete in hallmark game modes such as capture the flag, team deathmatch, and five-on-five arena battles. The menu navigation and feature set may not define it, but the high-speed combat and Tribe Ascend‘s consistently-expansive updates certainly do.
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux)
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory picked up quite a bit of steam since it was originally released as a multiplayer-only title in 2003. It picked up considerable support for its classic ranking and experience system, die-hard community, and innovative class system – even though the graphics were never quite on par with competitive offerings even then.
Easy to play but difficult to master, the title places allows players to take on the role of either Axis or Allies, pitting them in team-based combat spanning a variety of objective-based scenarios. Up to 32 players can chose from one of five distinct classes and compete over the course of three maps, each of which is linked to an over-arching campaign that ultimately quells the single-map victories. However, the title’s true lasting appeal lies within the aforementioned class system, providing a welcome set of battlefield promotions that come coupled with enhanced skills and additional weaponry such as land mines and the mobile MG-42. Moreover, what Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory lacks in coordination, it makes up with Nazis.
Planetside 2 (Windows)
With planet-spanning battles and three diverse factions, Planetside 2 ups the ante on everyday first person shooters. Everything the player does affects their faction’s success in battle, from killing enemies to buying vehicles and taking enemy control points, all of which takes place on a massive scale featuring lean animation and exceptional skill trees. The diverse combat ensures no two matches are ever the same, placing players against one another in custom tank battles one minute, and urban firefights and aerial onslaughts the next. It all gives players the opportunity to unlock weapons, attachments, skills, and other components through the game’s intuitive leveling system.
The core of Planetside 2 revolves around holding crucial territories and claiming key resources, with hundreds of players fighting it out over the course of multi-day and week-long battles. Turning the tide takes teamwork — and sometimes being a cog in the machine isn’t so bad.
Blacklight Retribution (PlayStation 4, Windows)
lacklight Retribution offers the simple perk to every player right out of the gates. Among its novel features, the game also offers a wide variety of intense game modes, highly customizable weapons and armor, and futuristic technology that will keep you playing and upgrading for a long time. The visual and graphical interface are gorgeous, while the convenient weapon depots and hulking hardsuits provide additional means of playing the title’s nine maps and seven classic game modes.
Players also earn points in a variety of ways throughout matches to enable in-game perks, such as health replenishment and heavy artillery, furthering the gameplay alongside the thousands of available gun combinations and mod attachments. However, permanently earning in-game bonuses takes time, so simplicity will have to do for a good while.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Phantoms (Windows)
Building on the successful single-player campaigns of the Ghost Recon series, Ghost Recon Phantoms relies more upon complex teamwork than it does simple run-and-gun gameplay. The title’s three classes — assault, support, and recon — need to work together in an impeccably balanced fashion, while the dynamic cover system and dozen of unlockables add to the squad-based fanfare in a unique way. Unlike the rest of the games on this list, much of the movement and covering is done from a third-person perspective. When looking down the scope or completing objectives, however, the camera switches to first person mode, allowing more immersive gameplay and tighter aiming.
The maps and game modes are sprawling, offering a network of weaving pathways and sniper beds from which players can defend and capture pivotal points through the maps. Additionally, the active user base remains robust, and players can earn bonus contents. Ghost Recon Phantoms isn’t without its downfalls — blame it on severely unbalanced teams and floundering matchmaking — but like most free-to-play shooters, it gets better with every update and subsequent expansion.
Gotham City Impostors (Windows)
Take on the streets of Gotham as a masked supporter of either Batman or the Joker. Gotham City Impostors is a little on the silly side, packed full of humorous one-liners and bright, colorful artwork; fans of the comics will find satisfaction in the sheer number of masks, weapons, clothing, and hairdos you can adorn your playable character with. A handful of creative game types, most notably classic iterations of deathmatch and capture the flag, support more than 100 levels of player advancement and extensive upgrading, along with the ability to unlock new abilities and powers in the process.
Unique movement abilities also add to the title’s frantic demeanor and fast-paced combat, allowing players to glide and roller skate throughout Gotham’s exceptionally-designed city streets. The title’s mechanics and core game gameplay are unoriginal, so bank on its personality instead.
Set in the middle of a near-future capitalist war between Warface and Blackwood factions, the Web-based game revels in sharp visuals and team-based combat. Players can slide and climb with ease, as well as lift teammates onto higher ledges, all of which adds unique strategic elements and reward program without slowing down the fast-paced dynamics.
Although the title sports a healthy offering of standard versus modes (team deathmatch, plant the bomb, free for all), its most intriguing facet lies within the varied co-op missions, in which players combat laboring hordes of AI opponents and mechanized suits in multiple campaign-esque stages. Players also gain XP and level up to unlock new abilities and weapon upgrades akin to most shooters, and though the distinctive character classes are limited, the crucial interplay between the four gives them game notable depth and a strategic core. If one person falters, so does the whole team.
Bigger is always better, and Hawken sets itself apart by taking the familiar first person shooter genre and supersizing it. Each player is in control of a mech, stomping around at breakneck speeds while firing the largest weapons imaginable. Rocket launchers that twist and follow enemies, violent machine guns that tear armor apart, and splashy lasers that turn metal to liquid. The industrial maps fit the theme of the game, but can cause problems with identifying enemies when the action gets hectic. A little bit of practice and concentration will reward you greatly in this fast-paced shooter.
The freemium model in Hawken has been met with some community resistance, with players complaining that pay-per-use items cause an unfair balance. In response, the creators have continually tweaked the prices and effects of these items to avoid pay-to-win accusations. The different mech classes are unique and interesting, packing different special abilities and movement limitations, as well as the ability to customize and upgrade your mech to demolish the competition. Only the most basic classes are unlocked to begin with, but with a couple hours of play or a few dollar investment, you can upgrade to sweet new mechs like the rocketeer or the brawler.
Digital Trends’ staff writer Brandon Widder contributed to this article.
What do you think of our selection of the best FPS titles? Did we omit your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.