Everybody loves free things, right? Well when you’re a student that love affair becomes more of a necessity than a casual convenience. With often less money and more free time than they care to admit, many students enjoy spending their days-off playing video games only to find that the top video games of the year are just a little out of their price range. Most of us have always had access to things that are free, but through experience we tend to associate free things with a reduction in quality- sleeping on a sofa versus in a comfy hotel bed, for example- but in this day and age some of the best video games I’ve had the pleasure of playing have cost me absolutely nothing, so listen up and I’ll provide you with my personal list of top 5 free video games.
Standing for ‘Defense of the Ancients’, DotA is the game that is hailed as the most significant inspiration for the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre. The original ran as a mod for Warcraft III, but its success led to a stand-alone sequel developed by Valve that is 100% free-to-play. It holds true to its predecessor and delivers thrilling, combat-driven gameplay with a production quality that puts even some of the most expensive games of the time to shame.
Dota 2 is fun, there’s no questioning that, but it does suffer from the MOBA flaw of a steep learning curve and unforgiving player community that can make new players feel unwelcome and even hated. The term ‘noob’ is a pretty common insult, among other, less kind things. If you can swim against the tide at the beginning, however, you can find yourself welcomed into a sea of fun experiences with generally friendly players (so long as you find the right ones).
I couldn’t write an article about free video games without mentioning a tower defense game. They aren’t to everyone’s liking, but with enough people continuing to play and support them over the years they’ve developed into an entirely separate genre of games. Kingdom Rush is arguably one of the best tower defense games available, let alone one of the best free ones, so it’s an obvious choice for me to include in this list.
Like most tower defense games, Kingdom Rush involves strategic placement of towers to halt an enemy’s advance down a lane. It’s a flash game, available for download to most devices for a price, but freely playable on Kingdom Rush’s own website, as well as other free-to-play game sites, such as Armor Games (see above photo for some more blatant Armor Games advertising). There isn’t any one thing that sets it apart from others of its kind, but a genuinely well-written story, well-crafted unlockables and upgrades and a finely-honed difficulty progression make this my favourite tower defense game to-date (second only, perhaps, to its sequels).
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Developed by Blizzard, creators of the Warcraft and Diablo series of games, Hearthstone is a digital collectable card game. Like most other card games it involves strategy, deck-building and card-collecting, and while you can pay for the packs of cards with real money, you can also earn them by simply playing the game. As its name implies, Hearthstone is centered around Blizzard’s popular Warcraft franchise, and a lot of the cards are references to the games therein, but I don’t think you have to be familiar with the series to enjoy pitting your deck against those of the computer or of other players.
The sheer number of people on Hearthstone make the game-play suitable for people of almost any skill-level in strategy-based, card-collecting games. Even though players can pay money to buy cards, and often get an advantage because of that, it’s still easy enough to compete in the rankings without a single purchase necessary, and it’s all the more satisfying when you do win- knowing you didn’t pay to be better, you just are.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out
South Park recently aired an episode all about ‘freemium’ gaming, making light of the fact that people end up spending a lot of money on a game that is, supposedly, free. In particular they made fun of games like The Simpsons: Tapped Out, wherein the player spends time collecting digital money to spend on little digital buildings and inhabitants for their very own digital Springfield. While it is true that you can end up getting sucked into paying actual money for it, most people enjoy playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out without any payments at all, content to watch and wait as their little Springfield slowly builds up over time.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out isn’t the kind of game you can spend hours on, as within a few minutes you usually find that you’ve done everything there is to be done, but it’s something that can be fun to go back to every now and then, picking it up for a few minutes every day. The clever writing and addictive collectables make this game well-worth the money you pay for it, even if you do end up paying a couple pounds to get that building you really wanted.
I know it’s an MMORPG, and I know there are other MMORPGs that are free-to-play and so much better in so many ways (LOTRO, GW2, SWTOR), but RuneScape manages to hang on to that old-school RPG feel while still remaining relevant today. The player community for RuneScape is enormous, and even though a large portion of the game is only available to paying ‘members’, there’s still a huge amount to explore and do without paying a penny.
There’s a lot of grinding involved in RuneScape, but that’s almost part of the fun. Unlike other MMORPGs, the grinding isn’t too bad, and it always feels like you’re gaining something by doing it. From mining and woodcutting to runecrafting and prayer, RuneScape’s range of options for playing the game has never been replicated by any other MMORPG to-date. Sure you can mine ore in World of Warcraft, but in RuneScape that can be the only thing you do and yet somehow have it still feel satisfying. To me RuneScape was, and in many ways still is, the quintessential example of its genre, and it’ll always have a special place in my heart.
I’m pretty aware that most of the games I’ve mentioned in this list have been online, usually with at least some aspect of multiplayer. I’m also very aware that not everybody likes multiplayer games or has constant internet access, but the truth of the matter is that there are very few decent video games (if any) that you can play for free without being a part of a greater online community. That’s probably because good video games need to be paid for one way or another, and if you’re not charging for any initial purchase or subscription fees then one of the only options you have left to get people to pay is to introduce competition among players. There are a lot of things that people can pay for in games like these, both cosmetic and practical, but often these features are available for free to all players if they wait long enough and work hard enough to get them. The one thing that keeps players paying real money for these things is the thought that they would be ahead of the curve if they did- but for that you need some sort of online multiplayer aspect to catalyse the comparison with other players.
The moral of this story is that free games always come at a cost (kind of a juxtaposition, I know). Ultimately all of these games are fun and free, but under each one there is a fine-print text line that reads something like: “this game may be more expensive than it initially appears”. So just remember to have fun, play safe, and keep your bank information to yourself… unless you really can’t live without that fancy new virtual hat.