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, the interstellar Planetside followup, and the rebooted Unreal Tournament. They may not offer the same production values as Call of Duty: WWII, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, or Overwatch, but then again, they won’t cost you upward of $60. Here are our top picks for the best free first-person shooters, so you can frag fools and save money.
Apex Legends (Xbox One, PS4, Windows)
It has been more than two years since Respawn Entertainment launched the excellent Titanfall 2, a full-priced multiplayer shooter that mixed brilliant on-foot gunplay with hulking, walking tanks that delivered deadly firepower. Rather than create a full sequel, the studio instead developed the free-to-play Apex Legends, a battle royale game cut from the same cloth as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s “Blackout” mode.
Set on an enormous map and currently limited to several dozen players divided into three-person squads, Apex Legends feels like a battle royale game made for people who don’t typically enjoy the genre. There is still a circle that closes in on your position, but if you don’t like where you spawned, you can find a device that flings you back into the air. If you happen to get killed early on, your teammates still have a chance to recover your “banner” and revive you at a special medical station.
These tweaks are placed on top of a gorgeous and varied map, and Respawn’s signature snappy weapon controls are back in full force. It isn’t Titanfall 3, but it’s a spinoff that has already attracted more than 50 million players in a month.
PUBG Mobile and PUBG Lite (iOS, Android)
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds first amassed a huge following on PC and later Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but the free-to-play PUBG Mobile offers a great alternative version for anyone itching to get their battle royale fix on the go. The game uses a combination of virtual buttons and sticks to create a shooting experience much better than it has any right to be, and with optional motion controls, you can even fine-tune your shot to take out the most distant targets with a sniper rifle. As with its big siblings, PUBG Mobile supports duo and team-based matches, and built-in voice chat allows you to coordinate with your teammates before you approach a new area.
You can actually play PUBG Mobile in either first-person or third-person perspectives, and you don’t even have to have a mobile device to get in on the action. Publisher Tencent developed its own emulation tool so you can play the game from your PC with a mouse and keyboard setup. It won’t have the same fidelity as the full PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, but it’s completely free to play and just as addicting.
Additionally, certain regions currently have access to a beta version of PUBG Lite, a free-to-play game designed to run on less powerful PCs. The beta is being offered in South Asia and Latin America at the moment and has the potential to expand to other regions.
Call to Arms (Windows)
Its name certainly evokes images of Activision’s Call of Duty series, and its setting isn’t that far off from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but Digitalmindsoft’s Call to Arms is a very different beast. At its core, it’s a real-time strategy military game with destructible environments and offers a ton of control over how you complete a mission, but this is a “best free first-person shooters” list, and the game offers plenty of that, as well. Want to put your boots on the ground and fight with one of your soldiers in direct combat? Go right ahead, and you’ll still be free to destroy environments in order to get the jump on your enemies.
There are paid versions of Call to Arms that offer additional downloadable content as well as single-player content, but the free version gives you access to the multiplayer mode, and you can progress just like you would in the full version. If you do decide to make the jump and purchase a paid package, you’ll be able to transfer all your progress, too.
Quake Champions (Windows)
Id Software is the king of first-person shooters, playing a pivotal role in their development in the ’90s, and few games were more influential during that time than Quake. The lightning-fast shooter put reflexes and skill above all else, becoming a popular early esport and spawning several sequels. With Quake Champions, which went free-to-play in August 2018, Id delivers classic Quake action at a speed you can only get on PC — unlike most of the studio’s recent work, it isn’t available on consoles. You’ll need a capable system to run it too, with Id Software recommending at least 16GB of RAM and an AMD R9 290 GPU. You can spend the money to upgrade your computer with the cash you didn’t have to spend on the game!
Quake Champions features a variety of different game modes, including traditional deathmatch and both 1v1 and 2v2 duels, and it includes a mix of classic and brand new weapons. If you’re a fan of Id’s other games, you can even play as the Doom series’ Doomslayer and the Wolfenstein series’ B.J. Blazkowicz. The game also recently received a full soundtrack overhaul, courtesy of Brutal Doom composer Andrew Hulshult, because you need some roaring tunes in the background as you blast your opponents apart.
Paladins: Champions of the Realm (Xbox One, PS4, Windows, MacOS, Nintendo Switch)
Blizzard’s Overwatch remains the king of the “hero shooter” multiplayer genre, but Hi-Rez Studios’ Paladins: Champions of the Realm is a great alternative for those who don’t want to sink $40 before they’ve even begun playing. Much like in Overwatch, you select from dozens of different characters spread across multiple classes such as “damage,” “flanker,” “support,” and “front line,” each offering a different style of play that can help your team to victory. The tree-like Grover, for instance, can deal out heavy damage with his ax while also healing nearby allies, and the crafty Pip makes use of explosive potions to catch enemies off-guard.
Unlike the set classes and abilities offered in Overwatch, Paladins allows you to customize your heroes using a deck building system. There are also pre-built deck loadouts for those looking to jump into a match with a solid chance of contributing, and with three different modes – Siege, Onslaught, and Team Deathmatch — you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try the abilities out.
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 in which every one of the game’s nine classes exhibits its 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 relishes a stylized brand of humor that has become iconic for the Team Fortress brand. Few games have held up as well over the years, and to be honest, few probably will.
Black Squad (Windows)
Sometimes, you just want to get down to the nitty-gritty fundamentals of first-person shooters: the shooting. With Black Squad, NS Studio has created a relentlessly twitchy and precise multiplayer experience that should feel right at home for fans of earlier Call of Duty titles and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The game offers enough variety for players of all styles and ability to feel like they’re making progress and contributing to their team. Getting a kill results in a gloriously over-the-top sound effect and a hefty splatter of blood on nearby walls, so there will never be any doubt whether your target is down.
Black Squad promises absolutely zero “pay to win” mechanics, with no gameplay-focused microtransactions available. Instead, you can earn everything through in-game currency or spend extra cash to buy certain cosmetic items, such as weapon skins, before other players. With only 4GB of recommended RAM and a minimum spec that calls for the aging GTX 560 GPU, you’ll be able to run the game on all but the very oldest machines.
Crytek has been developing first-person shooters for nearly two decades, and the company’s experience has shown with polished and flashy games that feel just as good on console as they do on PC. The free-to-play Warface is currently available on PC and will be coming to both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year, and its class-based approach forces teams to work together. Engineers, for instance, are capable of repairing their teammates’ armor, while Medics can heal and dish out heavy damage with a shotgun from close-range.
Most free-to-play first-person shooters focus exclusively on competitive multiplayer, but Warface also features a cooperative mode that rewards you for completing missions and playing well as a team. This mode has a tutorial for newer players to learn the classes. If you do decide to face off against other players online, you’ll be able to do so in traditional kill-based and objective-based modes, and a battle royale mode was added in an update in late 2017. Powered by Crytek’s CryEngine, it’s one of the most attractive free-to-play games around, yet its recommended PC specifications are modest.
Planetside 2 (Windows, PS4)
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 weeklong battles. Turning the tide takes teamwork — and sometimes being a cog in the machine isn’t so bad.
MechWarrior Online (Windows)
The overwhelming trend in modern shooters is speed. Series’ such as Call of Duty have been doing everything they can to speed up gameplay, giving players the ability to run on walls and snipe opponents while backflipping through the air. This makes MechWarrior Online’s almost chess-like pace all the more refreshing. The latest in the long-running MechWarrior series, Online is a free-to-play vehicular combat game in which players plod about in massive robot suits.
There are dozens of mechs spread out across four different weight classes, and those weight classes factor heavily into the playstyle. Light mechs are nimble and stealthy, but can’t carry much in the way of weaponry, while the massive assault classes can shoulder entire arsenals. Players can also customize their mechs with weapons, but the sheer variety of mechs comes at a price. Although MechWarrior Online is technically free to play, mechs must be purchased for use, either with in-game currency or with microtransactions. Mechs get more expensive with size, with some of the heavier mechs exceeding $20. It’s an annoying hurdle in an otherwise very fun game.
Ring of Elysium (Windows)
Battle royale games are a dime a dozen these days, but Tencent mixes up the formula in Ring of Elysium by providing another option for those not interested in mowing down other players: Escape. Set on a snowy mountain in the middle of a massive storm, you and up to three other players can survive certain death — either by the weather or other players — by boarding a rescue helicopter. To brave the storm, you can even snowboard or hang-glide to your destination, but you have to watch out for the dropping temperature that can send you to an early grave.
Tencent is no stranger to battle royale games, as the company is responsible for publishing PUBG Mobile, and it shows in Ring of Elysium. Snappy, satisfying gunplay and a simple inventory system help keep you in the action and away from menus, and the game’s gorgeous buildings and environments are far different from the urban and forest-heavy places we’ve seen in similar battle royale games. As of now, it’s only available on PC.
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