The 30 best FREE games to play now
14th Dec 2012 | 17:00
When we say Free-to-Play most of you think of throw-away browser games like QWOP, Canabalt or One Button Bob; or money-grabbing Facebook titles like Farmville. And there is, admittedly, a lot of free clag out there. However, Free-to-Play has come on leaps and bounds in 2012 - free games are pushing close to AAA standards in some cases, and there are loads of 'full games' you can play in your browser - or via a reasonably small download - for little or no investment.
So, with money tight around Christmas, and with the economy flatter than month-old Tizer, here's our guide to the 30 of the best free games available right now. 10 of them require a download, 10 of them are playable in your browser, and 10 are free for mobile phones and tablets. Have we missed your favourite? Share it in the comments.
1-5 - Full games
1. Planetside 2
What is it? MMO first-person shooter
Part MMO, part FPS, all awesome - Planetside 2 is the standard all new Free-to-Play games will need to meet. It takes the Team Fortress 2 approach of giving players the whole game for free, then charging for quicker unlocks or more specialist kit. Not better kit - just different. Crucially, this means you can get stuck in and really find your feet in the game without feeling like a second-class citizen, and chances are you'll want to spend a bit of cash after that to make your experience truly unique. The only real problem is that the barrier to entry is high. The war here is vast and intimidating, so our advice is to take a few friends with you. It won't cost them a thing either...
What is it? Mech shooter
When you think 'mech shooter' the first words that spring to mind are 'lumbering' and / or 'slow'. Hawken changes that, by offering the customisation and versatility of walking tanks and combining them with the pace of a proper PC shooter. It's lead many people to dub the game 'Walking World of Tanks'. That's definitely a compliment, by the way. It's in open Beta now, and there's plenty of game to play through before you need to spend a penny.
3. Star Wars: The Old Republic
What is it? Sci-fi RPG
This online RPG - which cost millions to make - was subscription-based for a year. However, following a relatively underwhelming number of sign-ups, it's now free. Well, to an extent. To get the full experience (which includes modern marvels like the 'sprint' ability) you need to pay, but crucially the story missions can be tackled for nothing. This isn't the totally free fix you're looking for, but as a low-investment entry into a massive, involving MMO that you'll probably enjoy... it's a bargain.
4. League of Legends
What is it? Arena battler
It's the biggest game in the world, so you've probably heard of it. It's also hugely competitive, and very strategic, attracting pro-gamers from all around the world. What that means for new comers is a huge amount of choice (there are currently 107 champions to choose from) and an intimidating array of options. Still, with so many players, there are always people to compete against at any skill level, so you can ease in gently. Ish.
5. World of Tanks
What is it? Multiplayer vehicle combat
WOT succeeds because it's simple. Pick a vehicle, join a team, rumble into some standard deathmatch modes. The more you win, the more you can upgrade your machine. This is basically Pimp My Ride, only with huge mechanised vehicles that can destroy small towns. And, of course, you can always spend money to get better parts and accessories quicker, or access different types of tanks.
6-10 - Full games
6. Lord of the Rings Online
What is it? Fantasy RPG
Fancy a bit of Balrog-bothering before you watch The Hobbit? LOTR online is - as you'd expect - an RPG, and one of the better ones. It feels very Tolkein, and there's a decent selection of races and classes to choose from. Yes, you can even choose to play as a minstrel and wield a lute. Ahem. You can play for 100s of hours without spending a penny, although some of the best stuff is squirreled away for purchase or VIP membership. You shall /definitely pass...
7. World of Warcraft
What is it? Seriously - do you not know?
Ah, the classic online RPG. In a similar vein to Star Wars: Old Republic, this is free up to a point, but it's far more generous than most. You can play up to level 20 for no money, experiencing the vast majority of the game's content - including the new Mists of Pandaria expansion. Cleverly, level 20 is when you unlock your first mount - a big moment in WoW - so you'll probably want to subscribe after the free period.
8. APB Reloaded
What is it? Cops vs Crims MMO
Fancy a bit of cops vs insane criminals action? This is for you. Don't expect a recreation of Heat, though, this is more Naked Gun. The community has taken customisation to heart, so expect to see lots of Saints Row style messing about. Underneath the madness, though, it's a decent shooter with plenty of missions and shooting to chew through. You will, however, have a pay a little to get in on the character customisation insanity, if you stick around.
9. Team Fortress 2
What is it? Class-based FPS
One of the first true free-to-play games, TF2 is a class-based shooter from Valve. It's a straight forward, but perfectly balanced FPS with plenty of genuine funnies and a dedicated community. You can grab it from Steam and never pay a penny, unless you're partial to silly custom outfits and hats... and you will be, once this game gets its teeth into you.
10. Tribes: Ascend
What is it? Sci-fi FPS
Want a bit of hardcore with your shooter? Chances are you're already playing this game, but if not - get involved. Three classes are open for free, and you can easily get by without spending cash - especially with the game's matchmaking system, which ensures you don't get chucked in with the best players at the start. There's a rank system that allows you to show off your achievements too, and a decent selection of customisation options to buy.
11 - 15 - Play right now in your browser
11. The Settlers Online
What is it? Civilisation sim
You'll be genuinely impressed that this super-deep empire building game actually runs in your browser. But it does, and you can lose hours to it if you're not careful. The opening few hours will bombard you with quests that help you learn the intricacies of building a civilisation, and there are surprisingly few demands on you to part with real cash. There's a even a neat community feel to the game, as a chat feed runs in the corner at all times, letting you jump in and out as you please.
12. Neptune's Pride
What is it? Space strategy
How close are you to your friends? Strong bonds? Neptune's Pride will test these bonds to the limit. It's a space-based strategy, and the pace is slow and deliberate. The first half of each session is dominated by an initial territory grab, and the forging of alliances between players. The second half is pure conquest, by whatever means. Brute force can win it for you, but stabbing friends in the back while they're vulnerable is the real key to success. Addictive, but possibly friendship-smashing.
13. Fallen London
What is it? Text adventure RPG
A high-budget text adventure set in an alternative Victorian era, Fallen London starts you in a prison and tasks you with escaping and discovering the mysteries of the Lovecraft-inspired city below. There's character progression and plenty of player choices, and unlike most beetle-browed text adventures, it doesn't take itself too seriously. One option early on lets you give up on tasks and just head to the pub to get drunk. Downside? Although it's free to play, you only get 10 actions per session. You can top up your actions using 'Nex', which of course costs real money.
14. Battlestar Galactica Online
What is it? TV show tie-in
We'll say this for BSG Online - it's authentic, and it's popular. For the first few hours, you'll be awed by being inside the universe, checking out all the iconic ships and hearing all the BSG banter. After that it descends into a bit of a generic MMO grind, but if you're a fan of the show the nerdy content will reward persistence.
15. World Golf Tour
What is it? Seriously...
Pretty self-explanatory - it's a golf game. And there are hundreds out there. However, this is one of the best, with stunning courses and some great tutorials that teach you not just how to play, but play well. There's a virtual US Open to take part in, and the ads (you get ads, because it's free) are actually less intrusive than they are on actual golf coverage.
15 - 20 - Play right now in your browser
16. Robot Unicorn Attack
What is it? Side-scrolling platformer
Bit silly this one, but considering it's a 30 second, throw-away game, you'll likely be playing it for hours. It's essentially Canabalt with a magic horse - you jump and charge through a scrolling landscape until you hit an obstacle. If you last 60 seconds, you're doing well. It looks beautiful, and the soundtrack is inspired (there's a metal version if you're not into the game's electro beats) - it's a game you want to keep playing in spite of the simplicity. BECAUSE IT HAS A ROBOT UNICORN IN IT.
17. GoodGame Empire
What is it? Castle combat
Build castles, raise armies, fight evil knights. If you're not looking for something as in depth as Settlers or Age of Empires, this simpler strategy game has you covered. The larger, more colourful art style makes things easy to interact with, and the strategy elements are easy to understand. Lacks a bit of depth perhaps, and isn't all that edgy, but it's still better than reading emails from Quentin in marketing about 'sell-through'.
18. Quake Live
What is it? Classic FPS multiplayer
Ok, you do need to download a small client for this, but once it's running you essentially play Quake 3 Arena - one of the best multiplayer shooters ever - in your browser. It's still an incredible, competitive shooter, and there's plenty of classic stuff in the free version. The only downside is that it's very competitive, so unless you bring your A game, expect to get slaughtered repeatedly.
19. Age of Empires Online
What is it? Empire building sim
Like your strategy gaming served with a side of war? Maybe you should give this a try instead of The Settlers Online. It's almost as deep, although there's less of a focus on resource management and more on raising armies to attack enemies. Again, it's real time-hoover once you get past the intro, so kiss goodbye to your productivity.
What is it? Stylish indie adventure
A charming flash-based adventure that channels games like Limbo and Braid to tell the story of a boy trying to wake up from his coma. As you travel through Pete's subconscious world, helping people out and solving little puzzles, you'll uncover a delightful, fantastical world well worth spending time in... regardless of whether or not you're supposed to be working.
21 - 25 - Free for tablets and phones
What is it? What is it? Tetris-style puzzler
On the surface it looks like a simple Tetris / Lumines clone, but it's got depth. You need a bit of maths smarts to start clocking up high scores, because you're strategically placing numbered discs to eliminate grey ones, but it all starts to 'click' soon after you start. Even better, the game saves your progress whenever you minimise the app, so you don't need to restart your levels.
22. Jetpack Joyride
What is it? Side-scrolling shooter
The king of side-scrolling shooters - on mobile at least - and it's free. The touch controls really work for both shooting and movement, and the coin-collecting brings an extra dimension to the action. It's available on iOS and Android, and if you want to pay money for it (because you're a 21 century Croesus), you can grab it on PSN too.
23. Simpsons Tapped Out
What is it? City management sim
When it works, Tapped Out is one of the best games on iPad. It's a little like Sim City, except your city is Springfield - which you rebuild after Homer triggers a nuclear meltdown. The beauty is in the details, and here there are stacks of authentic Simpsons stuff to play with. It's free for a few hours, but you'll need to invest cash to really get involved. On the plus side, you can also visit your friends' Springfields and either help out or - more fun - wreck up the place.
24. Clash Of Clans
What is it? God sim
It's a little like Age of Empires Online, but for your phone or tablet. There are plenty of strategy games on the App Store and Marketplace, but this one gets things just right because it creates a great mix between building, grinding and multiplayer combat. You can do well for free, or boost your resources with gems.
25. Draw Something
What is it? Social quiz
Simple idea. You draw something suggested to you by the game, then someone else (friend / total stranger / enemy) guesses what it is by unscrambling a simple anagram. Amazingly, you don't see many comedy penises here, which speaks volumes for the sensible community you get matched up with. One caveat - it's easier to 'win' on iPad than iPhone because you're given more room to draw using your massive sausage-fingers, obviously.
25 - 30 - Free for tablets and phones
26. Triple Town
What is it? Town-building puzzler
This is a strange combination of city-building sim and strategic puzzle game. Here everything is made in threes. Combine three bits of grass to make a bush. Combine three bushes to make a tree, and so on. It's hugely addictive, and to keep things interesting, you'll be cock-blocked by giant bears as they try to spoil your building efforts. It's probably a meta-comment on urbanisation. Or something. Whatever, Triple Town is brilliant.
27. Flick Kick Football Kickoff
What is it? Goal scoring sim
Again, there are loads of flick to kick / bat / lob / swipe games out there, and most of them are bum. This, however, is great because it adds loads of variations to the basic flicking and wraps it up in - totally out of date reference alert - Roy of the Rovers-era presentation. There are multiplayer and practice modes too, once / if you get bored of scoring goals on the bog.
28. Agent Dash
What is it? Scrolling action game
The simplicity of Agent Dash (you're essentially running forward and avoiding obstacles) is masked by gorgeous visuals, and some cute in-game animations. Each level sees you escaping a crumbling Bond-villain-style lair - often with laser traps and gaping chasms. Finger swipes send your Agent left or right, or make him jump. Actually better than recent atrocity 007 Legends.
29. CSR Racing
What is it? Street-racing sim
Instead of trying to be a fully-fledged racer on mobile, CSR keeps it relatively simple. This is about city-street drag racing, and you control the acceleration of your insanely expensive car. You tap to take it through the gears, and decide when to deploy the nitrous - so it's all about timing rather than actual racing skill.
30. Candy Crush Saga
What is it? Match three puzzler
Very soon, there will be more 'match three' puzzlers on the App Store than there are human beings to download them. Which will make them mandatory. And when that happens you should head straight for Candy Crush Saga, possibly the most colourful and deep of the lot. It's free, it looks great, and your other half will definitely approve - get involved.