‘Free-to-play’ has become a bit of a dirty word in gaming, mostly associated with rubbish smartphone apps and microtransactions designed to manipulate players into spending far more than they word on any other game.
Free games aren’t all bad though, and there are plenty that are worth a lot more than their non-existent price tag might suggest. Some still include microtransactions, while others are 100 percent free; some need to be installed, but there are plenty you can just play from within your browser.
These are our favourite free-to-play timewasters when we’re on a desktop, but we’re sure we’ve missed a few – let us know your favourites in the comments. And make sure to check out our favourite Android games – plenty of them are free too.
Described by the creators as a “competitive game of action and strategy,” Dota 2 is a hugely popular MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game that originated from the WarCraft III mod ‘DOTA’ (Defence of the Ancients).
In fact, the game maintains the title of having the biggest e-sports prize of any game on the planet, with ‘The International 6’ featuring a prize pool of a whopping $20 million.
The idea behind the game is pretty simple: players pick a hero and battle it out against the other team, and using tactical gameplay, bring down the enemy base. There are over one hundred heroes available and every hero has a variety of skills and abilities.
When combined with the skills of your teammates characters, the gameplay can be quite unexpected and ensures that no two games are ever alike.
Free to play and available for download via Steam.
League of Legends
Another hugely popular MOBA that’s free to play is League of Legends, a game that boasts a worldwide tournaments that fill arenas including Wembley with fans, and offer prizes in the millions.
The game is described by its developers as a “fast-paced, competitive online game that blends the speed and intensity of an RTS with RPG elements.” Two teams comprised of five players battle head-to-head across various battlefields and game modes, with the aim of destroying the enemy Nexus (which is pretty heavily protected as you might imagine).
However, the game isn’t over when the opposing team is wiped out – instead, players must think strategically to destroy the various inhibitors positioned throughout the map with the aim of wiping out the enemy Nexus. The inhibitors are protected by turrets which are best handled when you use minions to take the flack (top tip there), and if you attack a nearby Champion the turret will automatically focus on you.
There’s also a huge focus on customisation, as players are able to fully customise their champions to suit their style of gameplay – players can enhance their armour, magic resistance and health to take on the role of a tank, for example. It’s a game, like many other MOBAs, that won’t take long to learn but will take years to master.
Those interested in playing can sign up for free right here.
If free-to-play games in general get a bad rep, then no genre is regarded worse than the ‘clicker’. These simple games encourage minimum player interaction, maximum wait times, and are ruthless in their use of microtransactions.
This whimsical browser title (later expanded into more comprehensive app versions) sees you as an astronaut in orbit around a mysterious planet. With most of your systems damaged, the only thing you can do is click to build up power, repair your solar panels to generate more power automatically, and create potatoes.
Yup, that’s right. Potatoes. You’ll use them to build potato probes to explore the planet, potato satellites to map out the system (Spudnik, geddit?) and eventually just start lobbing potatoes into the Sun.
Along the way you’re treated to a minimalist electronic score, hilarious writing, and not a single request for money.
The original browser game is still available entirely for free, but if you’re a fan you can pick up the massively expanded version for PC, iOS, or Android.
Play Spaceplan for free now.
World of Tanks
World of Tanks is a popular MMO (massively multiplayer online) game featuring early to mid-20th Century fighting vehicles. Players find themselves browsing a selection of armoured vehicles before being dropped into an epic battle on a random map.
The player has complete control over the movement of the vehicle, as well as its weaponry, and players are able communicate with team mate via both text and voice chat. The aim of the game is, basically, to wipe out the other team or capture a base (though this isn’t present in every game mode).
You’ll find six types of battle in World of Tanks; random battles, team-training battles, tank-company battles, team battles, stronghold battles and special battles. Random battles also offer missions which, if completed, reward the player with credits, higher crew experience coefficients, or new vehicles.
Though the game is free to play, players can opt to pay for the use of ‘premium’ features (like additional tanks).
The game is free to play, and can be played here (once you sign up).
Warframe is a free-to-play third person shooter with co-operative capabilities, developed by Digital Extremes (and also available on PS4 and Xbox One).
Players are dropped into the virtual world as members of the Tenno, a race of ancient warriors (or space ninjas as we refer to them) at war with the Grineer, the Corpus, and the Infested.
The player characters are equipped with exo-armour called ‘Warframes’ and together with teams of up to four, the aim is to work together and complete missions. Missions vary from having to wipe out enemies to hacking terminals to retrieve data and even assassinating high ranking targets.
Players are equipped with three weapons; a primary weapon (rifle, shotgun, etc), a secondary weapon (usually a pistol but players can also opt for bladed weapons), and a melee weapon (again, bladed weapons including swords and axes).
Each piece of equipment can be upgraded, and these upgrades are usually found on the bodies of defeated enemies but can also be found by completing challenges and missions.
Warframe is free to play, and is available to download via Steam.
QWOP is super hard, super funny and super addictive. In this classic browser-based game you are Qwop, your small nation’s sole representative at the Olympic Games. It’s like an old-school athletics SIM in that you have to use the QWOP keys to move your athlete’s legs.
It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. And with around 30 million users around the globe it’s pretty popular. With justification.
Play QWOP via your browser here.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 is a hugely popular first person shooter developed by the creators of Steam, Valve. Though the game came out way back in 2007, it still receives regular updates to this day and is in fact the second most popular free-to-play game available on Steam right now.
The game is focused around two teams battling it out to achieve their primary objective, which is defined by game mode you’re playing.
If you think it’s simple, you’d be mistaken – players have a choice of nine character classes, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and weapons, which when coupled with the three weapons available to each character, makes gameplay a little hectic.
And that’s without mentioning that Team Fortress 2 features 16v16 matches that can be pretty intense, especially at first. The good thing is that whenever you reach a level/mission you’ve never played before, you’re shown a video on how to complete its objectives.
Team Fortress 2 is available to download via Steam.
We couldn’t have any sort of list of free games without including the Bejeweled franchise, for franchise it now is. Bejeweled Blitz, one of the more popular games in the series, is easily playable via Facebook, but you will find others.
In all the objective is to swap one gem with an adjacent gem to form a horizontal or vertical chain of three or more gems of the same colour. Bonus points are given when chains of more than three identical gems are formed and when two chains are formed in one swap.
Gems disappear when chains are formed and gems fall from the top to fill in gaps. Sometimes chain reactions, called cascades, are triggered, where chains are formed by the falling gems. Cascades are awarded with bonus points.
But really all you need to know is that swapping gems and making them disappear is simple, repetitive and a lot of satisfying fun.
Play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
For those looking for something slightly different, we offer Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Hearthstone is an online collectible card game developed by Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft.
Released back in 2014, the game is available to play on Windows, OS X, iOS and Android devices with cross-platform capabilities and progress syncing. This means that you can play on your PC, then carry on where you left off on your iPad while battling an opponent using a Mac.
The game is, essentially, a digital collectible card game that revolves around turn-based matches, with a variety of game modes. While players start the game with a collection of basic cards, players can come across rarer and more powerful cards by purchasing packs of cards, as well as a reward for completing various Arena runs.
Unlike with other playing card games, your opponent has no influence over your action during your turns – which is a huge plus – although your foe can play cards that’ll automatically respond to your actions.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is available to download via the Hearthstone website.
Marvel Heroes 2016
Marvel Heroes 2016 is another free-to-play MMORPG where players can take control of various characters from the Marvel universe (players can unlock the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Deadpool and Wolverine) and play in an open world environment.
Players need not spend money to access the full game, although micro-transactions are available for those that want to spend some (real) money. There are hundreds of missions and activities available to take part in, with a main plot revolving around the villainous Doctor Doom.
As your character gains levels, they gain stat increases which help them obtain power points, which can be used to define the character’s abilities. Each character has three ‘power trees’ focusing on specific mechanics or gameplay style, such as Iron Man’s shields or Deadpool’s guns, for example.
Players also have access to a crafting system that allows them to upgrade gear and costumes, craft consumables and artifacts – and if all that seems boring, there’s a bit of PvP action too.
Marvel Heroes 2016 is available to download via Steam, and is also available for Mac.
Tribes Ascend is a free-to-play first person shooter developed by Hi-Rez Studios and is available exclusively for Windows gamers.
The game features a class-based loadout system a la Battlefield, with each loadout offering different combinations of armour, weapons and items. Players can change loadouts when first joining a game, as well as when they respawn and when at an inventory station.
Like many games, Tribes Ascend features a level system but it isn’t based on performance, but instead is based on time spent on the game.
Interestingly, Hi-Rez haulted development back in 2013, and then released a new patch, the appropriately named “Out of the Blue” patch, on 10 December 2015. The patch brought with it dramatic changes to the underlying game, and hopefully symbolises a new era for the three-year-old game.
Tribes: Ascend is available to download from the Hi-Rez Studios website.
The great thing about playing Threes! online is that you can play even faster with keyboard arrows than you can on your phone. The aim of the game is to build numbers up, which is certainly no easy feat.
You’ll start with some low tiles like 1s and 2s, which you can slide in any direction (but not diagonally). When a 1 and a 2 touch, they combine to form a 3. After that, you join tiles of the same number to form multiples of 3: two 3s make a 6, two 6s make a 12, and so on.
As you move your tiles, even if you don’t manage to merge any in that move, new ones can appear on the grid. Run out of space and it’ll be game over.
The original app for Threes! proved so popular that countless clones appeared, including the arguably better known 2048, but we reckon you should support the original – which you can also grab on iOS or Android.
Play Threes! online here.
is incredibly simple to play, and is one of the most satisfying browser-based online games you’ll play.
You start off as a tiny cell, and by absorbing cells (both NPC and players) smaller than you, you gain size and become more of a threat to those around you.
When combined with mechanics that’ll let you split in two or shoot off excess cells (to help speed yourself up), you’re left with a game that’s can be both simple to play, yet incredibly strategic. Plus, XP and reward systems will make you come back time and time again.