With hundreds of great free-to-play games to choose from, it’s possible to never spend a nickel in your efforts to thwart alien invasions, destroy evil orcs, and deliver a beating to unsuspecting opponents. “Free-to-play” no longer indicates a low level of quality, either, and we’ve played plenty of titles that give full-priced video games a run for their money. Here are some of the best free-to-play games available right now, regardless of whether you’re a PC or console gamer.
‘League of Legends’ and ‘Dota 2’
No free-to-play list would be complete without League of Legends. The MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) was nothing short of a revolutionary when it first landed on PC in 2009, and it has only improved in the years since its original release. The game is free to play with a limited number of heroes, called “Champions,” and more can be purchased using either real money or “IP,” which is earned through normal play. Though the genre has never been particularly inviting to new players, Riot has created a more newbie-friendly multiplayer experience than some of its contemporaries, and if you’re just getting started, there is almost a 100-percent chance that one of your friends already plays League of Legends.
Though it’s harder to learn than League of Legends and Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, Dota 2 players will accept no substitute. Unlike League, all 113 heroes are available for free in Dota 2, including the melee-focused Earth Spirit, who resembles an odd mix of the Iron Giant and the Incredible Hulk, and the Invoker, whose appearance is similar to the elves seen in the Warcraft franchise. The game’s combat is hectic and you’re likely to get beaten into oblivion during your first round, but should the addiction take hold, you might not need to play another game for months to come. The good news is, there’s a massive competitive championship every year called The International, where you could potentially turn your Dota 2 obsession into cash — if you’re good enough.
Blizzard is the master of polish, and this was never more apparent than when the developer released Hearthstone in 2014. Taking fan-favorite characters from the Warcraft series (Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore, etc.) players battle in a Magic the Gathering-style card duel to the virtual death, using a variety of spells and minions — including Murlocs — in an effort to lower their opponent’s health to zero.
It’s a deceptively simple premise. Aside from “mana crystals,” which determine how many cards — and which cards — you can play in any one turn, there really aren’t very many unique game mechanics to Hearthstone. That said, Blizzard has balanced the game so perfectly that you’ll be saying “just one more game” for hours on end. New cards, which can be purchased using gold earned through normal play, help you develop your own custom decks, allowing for a range of strategies. You can also get cards more quickly by spending real money, though gold is given out at such a liberal rate that it rarely feels necessary.
Nearly two decades after the release of the original game, Microsoft and Double Helix relaunched Killer Instinct as a touch-as-nails fighter with enough style to give Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter a run for their money. Classic characters such as Jago, TJ Combo, and Sabrewulf make their return, and the game has remained a staple in the competitive fighting scene since it launched in 2013. Developer Iron Galaxy has improved upon the formula in the last few years, too, and the addition of awesome combatants like Spinal and Battletoads’ Rash add variety and a healthy dose of nostalgia.
All modes are available in Killer Instinct without paying a dime, but you’re limited to just one character at a time. However, Xbox Live Gold subscribers have received the “Ultra Edition” of the game’s first season for free in the past, and a forthcoming Games With Gold giveaway includes free access to the second season’s characters.
There are plenty of free-to-play tower defense games to choose from, but none of them have as much personality and charm as Kingdom Rush. The gameplay is simple, with the player building archer towers, barracks, and other defensive structures at fixed locations to hold off waves of incoming foes, along with the help of an upgradeable hero character. By calling for reinforcements, you can create enormous melees that play out in adorable, cartoonish fashion.
Like all worthwhile tower defense games, Kingdom Rush also features an excellent, gradually-increasing difficulty that tasks you with perfect time and resource management. Building the right mix of structures is absolutely crucial for success, but if you find yourself in a pickle, being able to rain down hellfire on invaders from above can quickly turn the tides back in your favor.
Combining the futuristic science-fiction aesthetic of games such as Mass Effect and Halo with slick, martial arts-inspired combat, Warframe is one of the most impressive action games available right now, and you can play it on both consoles and PC. It launched in 2013 and has only seen its player-base grow substantially over the last few years — more than 26 million people have played it so far — and though it’s free-to-play, Warframe still serves as an excellent example of the technical capabilities of both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. It should be among the first games you try when you get your new console.
Warframe also includes a remarkable number of customization options, which allow you to modify your weapons and “Warframe” exo-armor, thus letting you better cater your gear toward your specific playstyle. You even have access to your own personal spaceship, which you’ll use as your base when between missions. Once you touch down on-foot, however, your mobility won’t be limited; seven different parkour moves allow you to navigate hard-to-reach areas and get the drop on enemies.
‘World of Tanks’
It has spawned spin-off games focusing on ferocious naval and air battles, but nothing can top the intense warfare offered in the original World of Tanks. Featuring armored destroyers from America, England, Germany, China, France, and the Soviet Union (among other nations), World of Tanks’ multiplayer matches are absolutely massive, with team constantly vying to gain tactical positions over one another as they fire long-range shots, flank enemies, and protect their allies. Tanks have roughly a dozen different armored plates, too, each with their own level of protection against incoming fire.
For those willing to risk their skin a little bit more, the “self-propelled gun” class will allow you to take out a large number of enemies, provided they don’t immediately spot you and blow you to oblivion. A detailed guide — available on the game’s official website — will get you started with your first tank from any of the available classes, and it offers some additional tips to keep your tank in one piece during your first few matches. Once you’re feeling comfortable with the game’s combat, you can join a clan and attempt to take control of the “global map,” which not only earns you bragging rights, but also special vehicles and in-game currency.