Rift was once a subscription-based fantasy MMO – like World of Warcraft in new trousers, essentially. It made its name by updating and improving itself at a ferocious pace, with new raids, new zones, new world events appearing on a monthly basis. Now it is entirely free-to-play: you can explore its colourful, exciting world without spending a penny. And when you consider how many hours you can sink into Rift, that’s not a bad deal at all.
Archeage is the closest thing we’ve got to a proper pirate MMO. You can try to master the endless sea as a notorious pirate or choose to be a humble peddler of crafted goods. The labour system – how ArcheAge gates its content – may take time to get used to, but nevertheless it is a really solid free-to-play experience.
If you’re not into piracy, there’s plenty of classic fantasy MMO elements to keep you happy. Yes, magical swords and fancy armour are still a huge part of ArcheAge. In fact, the Maelstrom update made dramatic improvements to item upgrades, so that you can now steer your equipment in more specific and exciting directions. Which is just as well, since Maelstrom also filled Bloodsalt Bay with massive, toothy monsters. Better bring the best equipment you’ve got.
Think Battlestar Galactica meets Dota, and you’ll be somewhere close to the award-winning Fractured Space. Control gigantic ships and shoot your intergalactic foes in intense battles as you use your tactical nous to capture bases.
The complexity of developer Edge Case Games’ meta has only grown deeper in the years since release - and that’s on top of the game’s time in early access, too. From solo scraps in PvE to 5v5 quickplay, there are plenty of modes to get your teeth into if you are low on time. But, if you’re looking to get into something meatier, Fractured Space has the tactical complexity to rival the best MOBAs.
Trove is an MMO with a level of creativity to rival Minecraft, and is exactly as good as that sounds. Set in huge, blocky voxel worlds, there is an emphasis on exploration and discovering new loot. What is neat is just how much you can customise the look of your character: every item dropped can be used to change your style or design something new.
Normally if you want to take charge of massive airships, you’ll need a fair amount of cash and hours of training. With Dreadnought, a team-based dogfighter from Yager Development, you can pilot massive spaceships across the skies of many different planets for absolutely zero cost.
Dreadnought gives you access to a variety of ships equipped with massive, earth-shattering weapons that you can customise down to the last thermal exhaust port. The combat is a tactical affair, with a combination of slow methodical broadside assaults and rapid, piercing strikes. There are several game modes to choose from, and doing well in the tactical team-based warfare will reward you with an ever-growing fleet of ships.
Lots of people like to play golf, and many of them like to play golf videogames, too. MMOs are designed for lots of people. Therefore the two should combine, and they do in Winning Putt. The good news is that this free PC game has all the trappings you would expect from that genre, wrapped around a perfectly serviceable set of thwack-the-ball-into-the-hole mechanics. There are plenty of upgrades and wardrobe items to be had, plus all kinds of friendly and competitive play options. And a man with a really nice voice gently encourages you throughout – something which, frankly, more games should have.
Combining the turn-based tactics of XCOM and the Pixar-like characters of Overwatch, Atlas Reactor is a PvP game unlike any you have played before. Across a series of discrete phases, players must make simultaneous turns involving movement, dodges and attacks. There is no point firing at an enemy's current position because the moment the action starts they will have dived out the way. Mix this novel method of strategy with the kind of glitzy abilities you would expect of a MOBA, and you have got one of the most compelling and intriguing free games on PC.
Path of Exile
An action-RPG in the mould of Diablo, Path of Exile is one of the most polished, well-executed games on this list. Adventure with a friend or two through hundreds of areas in a dark fantasy world that provides a dizzying collection of monsters to repeatedly click on until they squish. Path of Exile does feature a microtransaction system but it’s admirably unobtrusive.
Lord of the Rings Online
Turbine’s free-to-play MMO transports you to perhaps the most famous fantasy setting there has ever been. Explore Tolkien’s Middle-earth, from The Shire to Mordor, and build up a character than will be worthy of 1v1ing Sauron himself. The LOTRO Store is where premium players can drop pennies, but frugal adventurers can lose themselves in Middle-earth just as easily.
Hex: Shards of Fate
At its heart, Hex is a two-player card game. Hex’s rules are a little more complex than Hearthstone’s but we found it to be a more rewarding game. Both players have 20 health and draw cards from their decks to summon creatures and cast spells against each other. The spells and creatures can weave their abilities together to make powerful combinations. Hex is free on Steam right now, and with hundreds of different cards available, players are still finding new ways to combine them.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
After a long, slow start, Star Wars: The Old Republic is now a stellar MMO – particularly thanks to the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, which is basically 'BioWare does a proper KOTOR sequel'. It is a fast-paced action-RPG with lightsabers and space combat and Jedi houses and bounty hunters and, if you go full dark side, you can fire lightning from your fingertips. Really.
Wildstar is built for lapsed World of Warcraft players. It's a sci-fi MMO that looks and feels like a Blizzard game, but with one important difference: it's for the hardcore. Ignore the cutesy looks as, at the top end of the game, you'll find raids that make Warcraft's easy-mode dungeons look like something for kids.
Battle has never been so big. Imagine entire continents at war, with tanks, trucks, and fighter craft alongside hordes of infantry. Throw that into the far future and you’ve got PlanetSide 2, a never-ending conflict on an incredible scale that’s pretty damn good-looking to boot. There is nothing else quite like this out there.
Pledge your loyalty to a great house or sign up for a mercenary company in this mech simulation. Whether you’re piloting a light or heavy mech, you’ll have to manage your weaponry and keep an eye on your system temperature. In the Mechwarrior universe, piloting a giant robot can be a technical and rather nuanced occupation. There is also stomping for the more violently-inclined player.
Dungeons & Dragons Online
Do you want a chance to adventure in some of the most famous fantasy worlds there ever were? With D&D Online you can set foot in the Forgotten Realms and the land of Eberron, stepping into the well-worn boots of a thief or a spellcaster as you fight dragons and demons. It’s not often you get high fantasy for free.
Tribes is probably the fastest FPS in the world. It’s set across huge levels of open valleys and leafy forests: you zip through them by skiing down mountains and jetting up hillsides. Just be aware that success comes from both ultra-fast reactions and clever teamwork.
Revelation Online may look overly familiar at first thanks to its classic eastern visuals, but there is one very specific feature that sets it apart from the likes of ArcheAge and Blade & Soul: flight. Your champion, rather than being chained to the floor by gravity, can simply spread their wings and soar through the skies of Nuanor. The seamless open world is yours to explore on your terms, with nothing deemed out of bounds. Flying is not just for exploration, either. The numerous PvP modes include an aerial combat arena, adding a new dimension to multiplayer battles.
World of Warplanes
Seize the free-to-play concepts behind World of Tanks, take them to the skies, and you have World of Warplanes, a game of whirling dogfights and nail-biting bombing runs for teams of jet bombers and biplanes alike. It’s getting sleeker and shinier with every release.
Heroes & Generals
Do you want to shoot all the guns and make all the decisions? War isn’t all about what happens on the front line, but nor is it about the decisions made back at headquarters, so Heroes & Generals is the perfect game for players who want to try a bit of both.
Turn to Page 3 to find more games for $0 - and let us know about your own favourites in the comments.