Gaming can be a pretty expensive hobby. Top-selling game consoles such as the Sony PlayStation 4 and the Microsoft Xbox One cost $300 or more, and games for these systems cost around $50 apiece. Granted, a single game should provide many hours of entertainment, but even if you buy only five new games a year, that’s still a $250-a-year habit.
But high-priced console games aren’t the only games in town. If you care less about the technology than about the feeling being immersed in a virtual world, there are many on-screen games you can play right on your home computer for little or no money. Many of these games make their money by letting you play for free while giving you the option to pay for upgrades and in-game goodies. However, if you can resist this temptation, you can get hours of entertainment for nothing.
You’re not limited to casual games such as Candy Crush or Words With Friends either. There are also free versions of full-scale, immersive games that get top marks from serious gaming publications. Lists of the best free PC games at PCWorld and Extreme Tech include games in a variety of categories, including combat-based games, fantasy adventures, and massively multiplayer online games (MMOs).
The broad category of “war games” includes any game in which most of the action centers on combat. War games range from the highly popular first-person shooter (FPS), in which the player views the game world through the eyes of an armed soldier fighting through a field of enemies, to turn-based strategy games in which players pit entire armies against one other on a map.
Several of the games that earn top picks in both PCWorld and Extreme Tech fall into this category, including:
- Team Fortress 2. Extreme Tech describes Team Fortress 2 as a “class-based shooter” – a type of FPS in which you can choose different classes of characters to play, each with a particular set of skills. These different classes of characters can work together in teams to beat other teams at specific goals, such as stealing a briefcase. This popular game gets rave reviews from tech sites – Craig Pearson of PC Gamer says it’s simply “the best game I’ve ever played.” You can play it free on Steam, a free game platform available for Mac, Windows, and Linux.
- War Thunder. This Steam-based MMO game simulates land, sea, and air combat using the military machines of the World War II and Korean War eras. Dozens of players can throw their forces against each other at once on a single map. War Thunder is available for Windows, Linux, OS X, and the PS 4. You can play it for free, but you can also spend money on in-game currency and upgrades to your vehicles, which can cost as much as $80.
- StarCraft II. Starcraft II is a real-time military strategy game set in a sci-fi universe in which you must create a base, build structures, and train units to defeat your enemies. It’s the sequel to Starcraft, developed by Blizzard Entertainment, which Extreme Tech calls “the most popular real-time strategy franchise in existence.” When you download the free Starcraft II Starter Edition, you get access to four single-player missions and two challenges – plus you can play custom maps created by other players in Blizzard’s online Arcade, which also gives you access to an assortment of other free games. If you spend $20 to upgrade to the full version of the game, all your progress from the free version is saved, so you can pick up where you left off.
- Warframe. The Steam-based game Warframe is a third-person shooter in a sci-fi setting. It’s free to play, though you can spend money on in-game currency and other items. Hayden Dingman of PCWorld says the game has some annoying characteristics, but its “space ninja” concept is irresistible. Warframe is rated M for Mature (ages 17 and up) due to its violent content.
The lists of top games at PCWorld and Extreme Tech also include several games set in fantasy worlds, ranging from dark, demon-infested landscapes, to cities populated by comic-book heroes. A few games get the thumbs-up from both publications:
- Path of Exile. This free Steam-based game is a traditional swords-and-sorcery adventure in which your character explores a randomly generated map, battling monsters and looting their bodies. The game has a dark, broody atmosphere, with themes of struggle and revenge. Both publications say fans of the Diablo series of fantasy video games will love Path of Exile, which PCWorld calls “the best action-RPG of the last few years.”
- Marvel Heroes. In the free version of this game, you can play one of a limited selection of superhero characters, battling bad guys and collecting loot. If you don’t like any of the free characters, you can pay anywhere from $10 to $50 to pick your favorite classic Marvel character and customize your costume. You can also pay for upgrades with in-game currency that your character picks up in battle. You can play Marvel Heroes via Steam or download a version for Mac or Windows.
- Hearthstone. Blizzard has taken its popular Warcraft series and reinvented it as a turn-based collectible card game along the lines of Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering. Your goal is to put together the best possible deck of warriors and spells and pit it against opponents’ decks. All you need to get started is a free account on Blizzard’s online gaming site, Battle.net. You can spend extra cash on “booster packs” to upgrade your deck, or you can just play regularly and earn the good cards you need to fight effectively. You can play Hearthstone on PCs, Macs, phones, and tablets.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, are games in which your character can interact, team up with, or fight against other characters played by people all over the world. The first MMORPG was the fantasy-based Everquest, which originally charged a monthly subscription but is now free to play on Steam. There’s also a free starter edition of the popular World of Warcraft on Battle.net, though the full version costs $20 for the first month and $13 a month after that.
However, there are also several newer free MMORPGs that earn recommendations from both PCWorld and Extreme Tech:
- Dota 2. This free Steam-based game is the sequel to Defense of the Ancients, the first game in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre. In Dota 2, you choose from a pool of more than 100 hero characters, team up with four other heroes, and do battle against other teams. Like many online games, it’s free to play but also offers in-game loot in exchange for cash. PCWorld notes that the annual Dota 2 championship tournament, known as The International, offered a prize pool of more than $18 million in 2015 – the biggest in the world of online gaming.
- League of Legends. Created by Riot Games, League of Legends is an MOBA much like Dota 2. However, its pricing structure is different: You can choose from a limited number of characters and play them for free, but only for the first five levels. If you want to keep playing beyond that (or play a different character), you need to pay with either in-game currency or cold, hard cash. In terms of game play, PCWorld says League of Legends and Dota 2 are pretty similar – so the best way to choose between them is to pick whichever game your friends are playing.
- Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard games also offers an MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, which you can play for free on Battle.net – although you can, of course, pay cash for in-game purchases. Both PCWorld and Extreme Tech describe this game as more “approachable” than its competitors, but PCWorld warns that it also has a “lower skill ceiling.” It also has some amusing gimmicks the other games don’t offer, such as a two-headed ogre character that can be shared by two players.
In the 1970s, when computer gaming was in its infancy, a whole genre of games without graphics of any kind was created. These games, known as interactive fiction (IF) or text adventures, are stories that the player can steer in different directions, piloting a character through a series of events that could change the ultimate outcome. Classics of this genre include Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork.
Despite the lack of visuals, text adventures can be amazingly immersive. With no graphics, the setting and characters are limited only by the author’s descriptive abilities – and the best authors provide vivid written descriptions that cover not just sight and sound, but smell, taste, touch, and internal thoughts and emotions.
Today, even as new games boast more sophisticated graphics, interactive fiction is still very much alive. Fans of the genre are creating new games all the time, many of which are available for free. Some games can be played right in your browser window, while others can be downloaded and played with the help of an “interpreter” program, such as Gargoyle or Zoom. You can download free copies of these programs through IF Archive.
If you’ve never played an IF game before, one place to start is the History of Interactive Fiction by Jimmy Maher. In chapter 10, Maher recommends several IF works that he considers the best of the genre, dating from 1995 to 2006. His top picks range from Andrew Plotkin’s dark and complex Cold War adventure Spider and Web, to David Dyte’s A Bear’s Night Out, an interactive children’s story in which the player takes the role of a teddy bear.
For newer works, you can check out the Interactive Fiction Database, an extensive list of IF games sorted by genre. You can search the site for specific games, games with particular themes, or games by a particular author. You can also browse the lists of games that other users recommend, such as “games for beginners,” “funny games,” or “deep and long puzzle adventures.”
Of course, not everyone who likes video games is spending a fortune on them. But even if you don’t have a pricey game habit, these cheaper alternatives are still worth trying. After all, the whole point of gaming is to explore new and different worlds you don’t get to experience in real life – so the more kinds of games you try, the more you can expand your horizons. Once you discover the joys of fighting crime as a superhero, going into battle with a team of friends, or getting wrapped up in the world of a text adventure, you may never go want to back to the console.
What kinds of video games are your favorites?