In 2020, you can play some of the best games in the world without paying a dime. "Freemium" gaming has been thriving for the last couple of years, with everything from triple-A newcomers to old classics becoming available for zero money down. Here's what to check out now if you're looking to have fun on a budget.
The Best Free-to-Play Games In 2020
Not that long ago, "free-to-play" in the American video game market mostly meant "we got an intern to translate this grindy click-to-move MMO." A few of them took off, sure, like Ragnarok Online, but the "freemium" sales model got a bad reputation back then that it still hasn't entirely shaken off.
Over the course of the last few years, though, some of the biggest games in the world have gone free-to-play in one way or another. On any given platform, there are a handful of genuine hits, in every genre you'd care to name, that you don't need to buy to play. The mobile games market runs off this sort of thing, sure, but we're focusing here on other available platforms. Here are some of the best games out there with zero entry cost.
Dungeon Crawler: Path of Exile
Seven years and 10 expansions later, Path of Exile has probably earned the right to stop being referred to as a "Diablo clone." It's deviated quite a long way from its roots as what essentially amounts to a fan game, and now has an empire all its own. The ingredients are all here, like a top-down perspective and a dark fantasy world that absolutely nobody would ever want to live in, but Path of Exile's randomly-generated maps, crafting systems, elaborate skill trees, and unhurried overall pace combine to make it distinct from its inspirations. While you can put down some real money, the microtransactions in PoE are all admirably inobtrusive. The base game by itself can keep you busy for days at a time... or at least until Path of Exile 2 finally comes out.
MOBA: League of Legends
League of Legends is free-to-play, in the same sense that you are technically able to eat just one potato chip at a time. Upon first downloading League, you get just enough of the base game to whet your appetite, and the next thing you know, you spent your rent money on the K/DA skins. It's still a good game and it's still free, but... be careful, okay?
While most of the attention might be going towards League's baby sibling Valorant right now, League is still out here defining the modern MOBA. With dozens of champions, hundreds of skins, a playerbase larger than some countries, and a weird newfound love of generating original K-pop bangers, League will probably outlive us all.
Card Game: Hearthstone
Most of the fun left in Warcraft seems to have ended up laser-focused on Hearthstone. It generated a lot of bad press for Blizzard late last year thanks to the Blitzchung incident, and frankly it's still worth side-eying Blizzard over that debacle, but Hearthstone's goofy self-parody, notoriously addictive gameplay, and the entire production team's obvious love of Broadway musicals have combined to earn it tens of millions of players.
There's also something to be said about how easy Hearthstone is to follow compared to a lot of other online CCGs. Magic: The Gathering Arena is pretty but mostly meaningless if you aren't actually one of the players (and playing against the Merfolk starter deck makes me want to punch the next fish I see), Gwent's rules are like Sumerian stereo instructions for the first 10 hours, and Teppen is a bunch of flashy noise, but you can pick up the basics of Hearthstone from context very quickly. It's an underrated quality.
MMO Shooter: Destiny 2
I never feel like enough people are talking about the ground-up reinvention of Destiny 2 that happened once Bungie went independent. The various disparate versions of the game were refined into a single product, the base game went free-to-play, and the whole thing suddenly felt markedly less corporate. Downloading Destiny 2 now gets you the base game, the Curse of Osiris and Warmind expansions, and a power boost to 750 all totally free, with money only changing hands for cosmetics, Forsaken, or Shadowkeep. Destiny 2 under Activision felt like a semi-regular shakedown for cash; Destiny 2 with Bungie as a publisher feels like they're actively trying not to make money. I mean, they are, they must be, but there's a peculiar and laudable lack of interest in monetizing the product compared to many other shooters at this level. It's just interested in being fun, and occasionally silly.
In its best moments, Destiny 2 plays like an itemized list of reasons why Halo took over the universe in the 2000s. Bungie is very good at doing moment-to-moment high-stakes gunfights, with a broad scope, epic vistas, and a genuine sense of challenge. There are certainly elements of Destiny 2 that fall flat on their face, and which appear to be doomed to continue to do so for as long as Destiny 2 keeps going (the entire Destiny plot feels like something out of a high school AD&D campaign), but it's all worth it once the gunplay kicks into high gear.
Hack and Slash: Let It Die
Available on both Steam and PlayStation 4, Grasshopper Manufacture's notoriously strange Let It Die is still out here stabbing fools in its underwear in 2020. The aesthetic says "sticker machine in a skateboard shop," but the gameplay is a brutal, murderous romp through a mysterious tower in search of enemies, weapons, and a decent pair of pants.
This is what you get when Suda 51 (No More Heroes, Lollipop Chainsaw) decides to make a Dark Souls clone. Its essential weirdness is what makes it worth a first look, but if your problem with Bloodborne was always how seriously it took itself, Let It Die might be your jam.
Fighting Game: Killer Instinct (2013)
Get caught up now before Evolution Online this summer. Microsoft's 2013 reboot of Killer Instinct has the same approach as League of Legends does. You can download just about the entirety of KI for free, but you can only use one character at a time, which rotates weekly, unless you drop some cash on the deal.
As a fighting game, Killer Instinct still feels remarkably faithful to its roots in the '90s, complete with one of the most bizarre cast of characters in a mainstream fighting game. The real standout is Mick Gordon's dynamic soundtrack, which swells and mutates in response to the onscreen action, providing a weirdly well-suited backdrop to KI's trademark minutes-long combo strings.
Strategy: Starcraft II
Anyone with the Battle.net client can download and play Starcraft II's base campaign for free. You do have to pay later if you want the two expansion packs, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, but Wings of Liberty is worth a couple of weeks of entertainment all by itself. There's not much else to say about it. It's Starcraft II. The entire population of South Korea can't all be wrong.
MMORPG: Guild Wars 2
The base edition of Guild Wars 2 has been free-to-play since August of 2015. It's never featured a subscription fee, but there's an in-game gem shop for cosmetics, and its later expansions like Heart of Thorns and Path of Fire are only accessible via one-time cash purchases. Also, there are a ton of giant cats now.
There's a lot of Guild Wars 2 that feels like a genial reaction to the most annoying parts of the typical MMO's structure. The combat is fast-paced, without relying on the typical tank-healer-DPS "triangle" for party composition; the world is enormous and lush, where a city actually looks like a city rather than four square blocks occupied by a hundred people. If you burned out on Old Republic or World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 was built to welcome you back to the MMO world.
Battle Royale: Apex Legends
No, not Fortnite. There's a lot about Apex Legends that you could point at here, but what I keep coming back to is how hard you are to kill. There's an emphasis on teamwork and strategy here that's largely absent from a lot of the other big-dog battle royales, where your choice of Legend and willingness to cooperate count for more than having a teenager's reflexes or a killstreak banked. It's still a fast-paced, highly mobile first-person shooter, but being able to survive past the first five seconds of an encounter makes Apex Legends more forgiving and easier to learn than its competition.
Hat Simulator: Team Fortress 2
There are times where actually playing Team Fortress 2 feels like it's unnecessary. From the moment it first showed up in 2007, TF2 has been one of the Internet's favorite sources of running jokes, with every character's trailer and dialogue instantly hitting eternal meme status. The last things to survive on Earth will be cockroaches, Keith Richards, and a single battered cell phone playing the "Meet the Spy" video on loop.
Even so, Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play in 2011 and has been the reliable backbone of the Steam community ever since, with thousands of people playing it at any given time. It's even got a co-op mode in the criminally underrated Mann vs. Machine. In retrospect, TF2's more influential on the first-person shooter as a genre than it gets credit for, and still holds up today. Yeah, the modern version of the game may be half-invisible underneath a thick coat of grinding for hats and the arcane mysteries of the Steam marketplace, but at the end of the day it's still great fun to run around like a maniac shooting at people. Now if only they'd get around to completing the official comic...
These should keep you busy for a while, but when you're looking for some new games to play, come on back to Prima. We post new stories, guides, and tips every weekday, including:
- The PlayStation 5 reveal event in June is sounding increasingly hype
- The new Call of Duty for 2020 is apparently called Cold War
- Geralt, TV version, is now a DLC character for Total War: Warhammer II
Other great free-to-play games that didn't quite make our list include Fortnite, Planetside 2, Warframe, and World of Tanks. Tell us all about your personal favorite free games by checking in at our official Twitter, @PrimaGames.