There was a time when playing free games online required you to wade through pounds of text in a multi-user dungeon (MUD) or else involved clicking aimlessly on a virtual pet for hours. But over the past few years, the free-to-play online game market has blossomed into a huge industry, with several offerings that are as detailed and complex as some of the full-price console games available at retail.
With so many free games up for grabs, it can be difficult to determine what’s worthwhile. Here are some of the most solid free-to-play picks available, sorted by genre.
TOP 5 FREE ACTION/ARCADE/SHOOTER GAMES
Plants vs Zombies — Plants vs Zombies is one of the most popular tower defense games of all time, and it’s definitely the most charming. All that stands between you and hordes of the shambling undead is your garden. Good luck with that. PopCap has a free web-based trial of the game up on its website. It’s more than enough to get you hooked.
Team Fortress 2 — Valve’s Team Fortress 2 isn’t simply the most enjoyable team-based shooter available online: it also has far more character, humor and charm than most video games on the market. And now that it’s free-to-play, you have no excuse not to wreak havoc with–or against–your friends.
Cursed Treasure: Don’t Touch My Gems — This tower defense game casts you as a demon overlord who builds temples and crypts to protect his store of jewels from sticky-fingered heroes. Cursed Treasure: Don’t Touch My Gems boasts fast-paced gameplay, a great soundtrack, and the fun of a slightly suggestive game title.
Battlefield Heroes — Battlefield Heroes is a third-person, free-to-play adaptation of EA’s popular Battlefield franchise. If you’ve played the Battlefield games, you already know the score. If you haven’t played a Battlefield game, the rules are pretty simple to grasp: Choose your class (Soldier, Gunner, or Commando), march on the enemy, and conquer.
Savage 2 — Savage 2 is subtitled “A Tortured Soul,” and it’s appropriate: The game combines sci-fi and fantasy themes with first-person shooter, role-playing, and real-time strategy gameplay elements. Two teams face off against each other try to destroy the others’ Command Center. It sounds simple enough, but Savage 2 is an impressively detailed and involved game.
TOP 5 FREE ADVENTURE/ROLE-PLAYING GAMES
Adventure World — It’s adventure time with Zynga’s Adventure World. Adventure World is inspired by the whipping, chopping, and exploration that goes on in the “Indiana Jones” films (to the extent that Indy’s cartoon likeness was licensed to the game). Expect more action than what you’re used to with Zynga’s previous titles: Adventure World involves lots of walking, swinging, machete-wielding–and, of course, a little help from your Facebook friends.
NEStalgia — NEStalgia delivers what its name promises, and that’s a metric ton of NES-flavored game nostalgia. The game combines modern massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) elements with 8-bit visuals that recall the earliest DragonQuest and Final Fantasy titles. It’s one of those beautifully simple ideas that make you say, “Geez, why didn’t this happen sooner?”
Lord of Ultima — Lord of Ultima combines role-playing with real-time strategy, city-building, and military themes. Players build up their cities, erect castles, form alliances with other players, and conquer other players’ cities to attain the title of “Lord of Ultima,” which looks really good on a resume.
Beneath a Steel Sky — A game with a title like Beneath a Steel Sky is destined to have little in the way of happy, sunny themes. Sure enough, this classic point-and-click adventure game is set in grim post-apocalyptic Australia, and, like many games of its breed, it’s challenging, unforgiving, and uniquely fun.
Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die — You ought to download this free episode of the celebrated Sam & Max adventure series because its name is so beautiful, it deserves to exist on your computer. More importantly, Sam & Max is the definitive adventure game franchise, and Telltale Games is giving you a chance to discover why. For free. Don’t blow it.
TOP 5 FREE BOARD/CARD GAMES
Monopoly Classic — Monopoly’s popularity has endured for a reason, and the switch to online has only given us more reasons to love this board game classic. For one thing, players can’t cheat the bank, nor can they flip over the board to spare themselves a humiliating loss.
Solitaire — Despite all the glitz and glamor that online games are capable of providing these days, it seems the market for good ol’ Solitaire will never die. In fact, it might be stronger than ever. SoliTaire! Network has over 70 variations of the game available. Betchya didn’t know that there were ever that many.
Governor of Poker — Battle your way up the poker food chain. Win tournaments, clobber opponents, and claim the forever awesome title of “Governor of Poker.”
Scrabble — The board game classic thrives in our modern, constantly connected environment. Be warned, though: it’s harder to cheat the dictionary than it used to be. “Fokpoot” is not a legal word, so don’t try it.
Battleship — Hasbro’s classic lives on in digital form. Call out numbers and sink your opponents floating fortresses of death. All in the name of good fun and friendship.