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Free to Play

The nine best free games on Steam

Planetside 2: a giant among shooters.

Why nine? Whyever not? Tim and I sorted through the many free-to-play games that Steam had to offer and we didn't just pick our favourites, we also looked at just how "free" these free-to-play games really are. In other words, does opening your wallet cut corners or grant you special favours?

Planetside 2 - First-person shooter

Tim: This was an easy choice for my game of the year: a continent-spanning massively multiplyer class-based shooter in which you shoot men, drive tanks, shoot more men, drive planes, shoot even more men, and occasionally jetpack over walls en masse.

It’s not a friendly game to get into: the learning curve is pretty tough. Your first few hours will be spent wildly clicking on the slightly rubbish interface, trying to work out what exactly it is you need to do. Also, it’s best played with friends, where you can team up and try different tactics. Playing alone can be a frustrating and lonely experience.

However, when it clicks, there’s just nothing like Planetside 2 right now. You will see incredible things: vast columns of tanks, amazing sky battles, and massed infantry clustered and killing.

How "free" is it?

All the base weapons and vehicles are available to play from the off. But new weapons are essential as you progress, and these have to be bought with Sony Online Entertainment’s (SOE) ‘Station Cash’ virtual currency. For instance: the standard air fighter comes with a cannon that’s okay for taking out infantry and tanks. But experienced pilots will want to buy the heat-seeking missiles and ground to air dumb-fire missiles. Similarly, the heavy weapons class gets a dumb-fire rocket: but if you specialise in playing that class, you’ll want to invest in a rocket launcher that can lock onto air and ground targets.

These weapons can be unlocked via ‘certification points’. These are earned via kills and attacking or defending objectives. However, they can also be spent on upgrades alongside entirely new pieces of kit.

You can also purchase XP boosts and vanity upgrades.

SOE have previously run promotions where the cost of station cash has been dramatically reduced: if you’re broke, play Planetside2 and wait for a promotional period.

Dota 2 - MOBA, still in beta

Paul: Dota 2’s strength is that same thing that makes it such a challenge: it’s asymmetry. Dota 2 is a game of characters, hundreds of characters, and two teams of five players each pick just one of these to take into battle against one another. They set out from their bases at opposite ends of the map, along with endlessly spawning waves of AI-controlled creatures, to fight their way past their enemy’s defensive towers and eventually crash through into their base and smash its heart. It's not a quick process and games can easily take 45 minutes or more.

Dota 2, with its bases and its top-down unit control, is built upon RTS and RPG mechanics, but it’s so far removed from these that it sits in a genre all of its own, becoming a game that is primarily about those characters and the unique special abilities that each one has. There’s tremendous variety amongst them. Some just happen to be extremely good against other characters, others provide an excellent complement to one another, allowing you to set up downright deadly two- or three-player combinations.

It’s certainly true that Dota 2 is not an easy game and even though I’ve sunk 40 hours into it, it’s still not a game I can claim to have a grasp on or that I’d necessarily recommend to anyone. It says a lot about the game’s difficulty curve that I’m still terrible at it, even after all that time.

That’s because there’s so much to learn about Dota 2, so much to try and so much to see. I’m not surprised that it’s still a daunting experience for new players and that there are still people out there telling me, even after hundreds of hours, that they don’t feel confident playing the game yet. Valve’s challenge has always been making this extremely complex game both accessible and friendly, and they’ve been working hard to build both a community and a set of resources that new players can use. They’re making progress, too, and while I think the game is still an acquired taste and certainly not for everyone, it has hooked millions and you should at least give it a try.

How "free" is it?

Dota 2 is still in beta right now and if you want to play it early it will cost you, but many players already in the beta have been granted gift copies of the game that they can pass on to others. If you know a Dota 2 player, they may well have one, two or even half a dozen gift passes in their account. Pester them and remind them that the best way to play this often downright difficult game is with friends who can coordinate with one another.

Super Crate Box - Arcade

Paul: This is nothing but a high-speed, single-screen platform game with quite a lot of shooting and quite a lot of stress. But I should clarify that it’s the good sort of stress.

Endless hordes of dangerous critters fall from a hole at the top of the screen and bounce their way down the platforms to another hole at the bottom of the screen. If they reach this hole, they respawn at the top of the screen once again, but much redder, much faster, much angrier. Meanwhile, your task is to score points not by killing opponents, but by picking up the crates that randomly spawn around the screen. Each of these is worth one point and, when you collect them, each gives you a new weapon, replacing whatever you were using before.

I think it’s fair to say that, while you’ll surely have your own favourites, some of this weapons are better than others. The pistols are a bit weak, the bazooka is bloody dangerous and, when I’ve got hordes of green things charging toward me, I’d rather have anything in my hands than a samurai sword. But if that is the case, all you need to do is dash across to the next crate, without getting killed, and grab whatever’s in there. And then grab the next crate. And the next. And it’s all bloody good fun.

How "free" is it?

I’m delighted to report that it’s completely free. Super Crate Box doesn’t cost a penny, it’s a tiny download and it can give you hours of hair-tearing, high speed action. There’s absolutely no reason why you should try it so, seriously, what’re you waiting for? Well? Well?

Tribes: Ascend - First-person shooter

Paul: Whenever I think of Tribes: Ascend, it’s the jetpacks that immediately come to mind. There aren’t very many first-person shooters where you can claim to soar across the battlefield, but Tribes is definitely a game that’s all about the soaring and, when you’re not soaring, the skiing. While Planetside 2 and Firefall give players certain class loadouts that include jetpacks, Tribes if far more generous. It’s philosophy is, quite simply, jetpacks for everyone. There’s no more stylish way to travel into battle.

And those battlefields are huge, too. There are enormous expanses of hills and valleys for players leap and blast across and between, scenery designed precisely to take advantage of those jetpacks and that skiing ability, both of which give the game a particular sense of not only speed, but momentum. There’s dozens of maps to fight across in Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, Arena, Capture and Hold and CTF Blitz game modes.

This is a game of character development and customisation. Just like Planetside 2, as you play you’ll earn experience points which can be used to unlock new classes, new weapons and a selection of upgrades. There are also tanks, combat bikes and fighter craft just waiting for drivers and pilots, though Tribes has a far more modest selection of vehicles in comparison to Planetside 2.

How "free" is it, really?

Almost everything in the game is free as long as you’re willing to earn the XP required to buy it, though there are cosmetic customisation options, like voice packs and skins, that can only be bought with real-world cash. As is the case with Planetside 2, you can turn your money into in-game XP and use a few pounds to fast track your way towards new weapons and equipment but, in the interests of fairness, your cash won’t win you anything that you couldn’t earn simply by playing.

Lord of the Rings Online - MMORPG

Tim: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my time in Lord of the Rings Online. Ostensibly, it’s a World of Warcraft-esque MMO set in the lands of Middle Earth, but it’s polished and extremely accessible. Lord of the Rings: Online started life as a full priced MMO, and you can see the investment Turbine put in. What works, most of all, is the setting: Lord of the Rings Online has easily the best version of Hobbiton ever seen in a game of film and exploring its nooks and crannies is a delightful way to spend the afternoon.

Best of all is the idea of a personal story running through the game: every few levels you’ll catch up with the Fellowship and aid/and or abet them.

The only criticism I have is that it can be a little po-faced, and the quest design is relatively simplistic. But it’s definitely worth tinkering with.

How "free" is it, really?

It’s complicated. Free players in Lord of the Rings Online face considerable restrictions: there’s a miserly gold cap in place of two gold, and you’re unable to buy a mount until you cough up. Similarly, you’re extremely limited in the number of characters you can create. You even have to pay to use the auction house.

The good news is that any purchase will loosen some of those restrictions: buy some of Lord of Rings Online’s virtual currency Turbine Points, and you’ll be upgraded to a ‘Premium Player’.

That’s not all. Once you’re out of the starting areas, you can continue to level up, but only by grinding monsters. Quests vanish unless you cough up for quest packs.

If you like the game, I suggest spending cash on the “Mithril Edition.” This version comes with the quests from the original game and should give easily give you a month’s worth of content. Once you’re through with it, you can decide whether to continue on with the Mines of Moria quests and beyond.

Realm of the Mad God - MMORPG

Tim: The rise and rise of Realm of the Mad God has been heartening to watch: it started off as a browser game, a kind of fantasy twin stick shooter, in which hundreds of players can fight together at any one time. There’s little structure of goals: just to kill and grow your character across a 2D, pixellated landscape.

Which sounds okay... The fun in Realm of the Mad God comes with joining in the crazy. Every so often, a player will yell “Train!” at which point all players nearby congregate into a snake, and completely batter the surrounding creatures: it’s nothing less that pixellated genocide.

It’s about the simplest game here, but it’s absolutely worth downloading and playing. It might not hold your attention for that long, but you’ll think fondly of every minute you played it.

How "free" is it, really?

It’s free until you decide to cough up, basically. New items and loot can be bought with in-game gold, while the wealthy can throw $70 on a pack with gold and vanity items. If you fall in love with Realm, expect it to become a cash sink. But a charming one.

Star Trek Online - MMORPG/Space stuff

Paul: This is your chance to command a Federation starship on the final frontier, specialising in either military tactics, science or engineering. Like the Starfleet captains of legend, you’ll explore space, visit planets with away teams and engage in ship-to-ship combat with dangerous alien races, though there doesn't seem to be much kissing to do. Still, as you complete missions, you’ll gradually gain skill points that you can put toward promotions, and with higher ranks come bigger, sexier spaceships.

This being the Federation, there are plenty of opportunities for you to team up with other captains and work together for the greater good or, just as often, simply because it’s very cool to send a bunch of starships into battle together, firing phasers willy-nilly. If you fancy something a little more antagonistic, you can set course for the neutral zone and engage in some PvP and there are also player-created missions being created in The Foundry.

A captain’s work is never done, and you’ll be busy managing and promoting your crew (who can command the ship for your while you’re offline), as well as developing your own skills. Your journeys through space also give you the opportunity to collect data which enable you to craft new equipment and upgrade ships systems such as engines and shields. Should you reach level 25, you’ll unlock the Klingon faction, which introduces a host of new races. Ah yes, I should mention the races too, as being a member of the Federation, you have the chance to play as one of several slightly different-headed aliens, including Vulcans, Bajorans and the blue-faced Andorians.

How "free" is it, really?

While the basic game is completely free, a lot of the coolest stuff costs money. The in-game Cryptic Store allows players to purchase ZEN currency which can be spent on a dilithium crystals, themselves be exchanged for rare items, or you can shop for a host of special items and vanity purchases, from pet tribbles (which can actually boost your stats) to special NX ship registrations, the stellar equivalent of a custom license plate.

Most significant are the dozens of starships only available through the Cryptic Store, which includes many of the most iconic Star Trek vessels. Still, you can get your Galaxy Class and pretend to be Jean-Luc Picard without spending any money at all.

Certain races are only available to the player if they spend ZEN, such as the cat-like Caitian, and you can also buy new bridge layouts or customise your crew.

Airmech - Strategy/action

Tim: Airmech is mostly unsung but brilliant: it’s a top-down shooter in which you play a robot tank thing able to transform into a jet. It pulls influences from everywhere: it’s as fast paced as any twin stick shooter you care to name, but adds some light Dota/League of Legends style creep farming and pushing: you’re able to pick up other units and drop them into position: giving them orders to attack the enemy base.

In 1v1 mode it’s a fun, fast paced diversion. In 3v3, it’s an unbelievably tactical riot: in which strategies are formed and reformed where victory entirely depends on co-ordinating with your team. If you’re nervous about playing online, there are a smattering of offline practice modes: but the AI isn’t  up to much.

How free is it, really?

As free as you want it to be: if you’re just after a fun diversion, you won’t need to spend a penny. But there’s a $30 bundle that unlocks all the mechs (they can also be purchased individually). That’s pretty tempting.

Team Fortress 2 - First-person shooter

Tim: Team Fortress 2 is astonishing and you should play it immediately. It’s a team based first person shooter set in a cartoon, exaggerated, baffling world. A world where logic dictates that men in hats should fire rockets at each-other simply because one side is blue and the other red.

It’s also hilarious. There are nine classes and not only does each have a distinctive role, they’ve got a very, very distinctive personality. The Soldier is a grizzled WW2 era angry officer type. The Heavy is pure Eastern European beef and muscle, while the Scout is a mouthy, skinny, overconfident teenager.

The basic game sees you fighting across capture the flag or territory control maps. Last year, Valve also added the Mann vs Machine horde mode, which let players fight wave after wave of angry silver robots.

Sounds ridiculous? Now meet the hats. Built into TF2 is a long-term meta-game in which players can craft new weapons and vanity items like the aforementioned headwear. New weapons are given to players by the game at random intervals, and there are hundreds available. Any duplicates can be smelted and re-forged into new weapons or hats. But it’s a long process.

How "free" is it really?

Exceptionally. All of the game is available to all players: you can play on any map, and with any class, without spending a penny. You can craft any items that you feel you need if you save up materials, but expect that to be a long process.

TF2 gets you in other ways: it appeals to your vanity with amazing headwear. It appeals to your generosity with gifts that can donate new items to everyone on the server. And it appeals to your OCD with locked crates that have to be opened by buying a key from the in-game store, or paying to be guaranteed an unlock when you complete a campaign on Mann vs Machine.

My advice: new players shouldn’t open crates, but if they find a role they enjoy, the class starter packs contain useful sidegrade weapons.

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I've played Realm of the Mad God since early 2011. If you're good enough at WASD dodging and you grasp the keys to progressing in the game--one that is permadeath--you'll learn to make quick decisions, balance risk:reward, and achieve great things. It's a source of hours, days, weeks, months of gameplay if you get into it. You can do it completely free (I've never bought weapons/armor), but in order to support the game I gladly bought vanity items (dyes/cloth, skins, etc.) and ease-of-use features (e.g. more character slots, vault chests for storage, etc.). The game is down for security maintenance now, but come join us when it's back up! It's certainly the best flash-based, in-browser top-down rogue-like-like twitch WASD dodge-n-shoot MMO I've ever played. ;)

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