Over the last couple of weeks, I put together lists of the most anticipated games of 2021, both with confirmed release dates and games that will hopefully arrive before year’s end. Don’t worry, this list isn’t another pile of games you will need to spend your hard-earned cash on. No, this is all about the best free games you can play right now. I mean, who doesn’t want a high-quality game for free? Although all of these free to play games have microtransactions to get your money, be it through cosmetics, boosters, or expansions, every single one of them can provide you hours upon hours of gaming fun without the need to ever crack open your wallet.
In World of Tanks, you will get to command some of the most iconic tanks of the mid 20th century in strategic team-based combat. With hundreds of armored beasts from 11 countries to choose and upgrade, including light, medium, and heavy tanks along with tank destroyers and self-propelled guns, WoT isn’t your typical deathmatch game. During each match you have but one life to give in service to your team, making strategy and coordinated attacks more lethal than any single shell you fire.
Although the pace of battle can be slower than run and gun games, battles in World of Tanks usually aren’t long, drawn-out affairs. The smallish sized maps are filled with plenty of choke points, ensuring that engagement with the enemy will occur shortly after a round starts. Matches rarely last until the timer runs out and are often over in a few minutes. Even if you die early you don’t have to wait until the match is over to play again. With multiple tanks in your livery, just jump into another match in a different tank immediately to keep the action going. If battling on land isn’t your thing, Wargaming.net has air and sea warfare covered with World of Warships or World of Warplanes.
As far as microtransactions go, WoT is full of them. XP boosts, premium ammo, and even cash exclusive tanks are up for grabs. That doesn’t mean a wise and patient commander can’t progress through the tech trees for free, just be prepared for a grind. In the end, a player using the proper tactics and skills can help their team achieve victory on the battlefield.
Some developers take an established AAA title, do their best to create a low budget clone, make it free to play to lure gamers in, then generate profit from microtransactions before players jump ship due to the low production quality. At first glance, many might think developer grinding gear games has done exactly that with its action RPG title, Path of Exile.
On the surface, Path of Exile looks very much like a Diablo clone. Both games have a central hub filled with NPC quest givers that feed you the main story, pushing you out to overland maps littered with underground dungeons to explore as you fill your inventory with a steady stream of loot from the multitude of monsters you kill along the way. However, a quick glance at PoE’s single skill tree should quickly dissuade any thoughts that GGG is merely trying to pull a quick cash grab. Each class has a different starting point within the web of skill nodes. From there, it’s up to the player to connect the dots as they level their character up, picking and choosing their upgrades as they grow in power.
While Path of Exile has a persistent server with a wealth of end-game content for all to enjoy, a lot of the replayability in PoE comes from the new leagues that GGG starts every few months. Each league is a fresh start with a new character as well as new game mechanics. Many of the mechanics introduced in a new league will find a permanent home in the core game while others will be replaced with something new the next go around.
One thing that won’t happen if you ask a veteran player about PoE is them complaining about a pay to win cash shop. Along with cosmetic items, you’ll find convenience items like additional character slots or bank tabs in PoE’s shop. What you won’t find are powerful cash-only items that allow players to surge ahead of the pack when a new league begins. I played the game casually for years before I ever spent any money in the cash shop. When I finally spent some money on some bank tabs to help keep my items sorted, it was more about giving back to the developers for all the hours of fun I’ve had playing PoE than anything else. That alone should be a testament to just how good Path of Exile is.
Battle Royales are a dime a dozen right now and many of them are free to play. For me, the one that stands out of the crowd is Call of Duty Warzone. You get the same design quality as the rest of the CoD franchise and Warzone even gives a nod to its ancestors by including facsimiles of old CoD maps on its battlefield. Matches can have up to 150 players, up from the standard 100, and the second chance afforded by surviving the Gulag is a nice addition to the genre.
If Call of Duty isn’t your cup of tea, you have other F2P options. You’ve probably already played at least one round in Fortnite, and Apex Legends is another popular battle royale. If you prefer a more classic deathmatch style of PVP, you can always jump into a CS: GO match or try out the newer Valorant. The nice thing about all of these games is the cash shop is focused on cosmetic skins.
Battle Royales may be all the rage right now but it wasn’t too long ago that MOBAs were the new kids on the block. All you have to do is look at the popularity of the decade-old League of Legends to realize MOBAs won’t be going away any time soon. The 5v5 battles start slowly as players work to level up their Champions, with cautious skirmishes turning into full-on assaults as the match progresses.
LoL launched with 40 champions. Riot Games has steadily added more champions over the years and the current roster is 153 champions strong. Beginning players have access to a randomly generated list of 15 champions that resets every week. To permanently unlock a champion, players must purchase them with Blue Essence, earned while playing LoL, or cough up some cash to buy them with Riots in-game currency, RP. RP can also be used to purchase additional champion skins and XP boosts. Don’t expect to buy your way to success in LoL, though. Victory in LoL comes from practice, patience, and knowledge of your champion’s strengths and weaknesses.
If you’ve exhausted every ounce of entertainment that Zelda: Breath of the Wild has to offer and need something to pass the time until BotW 2 comes out, then you might want to take a look at Genshin Impact. And for anyone who doesn’t have a Nintendo Switch, Genshin Impact is a fantastic (and free) alternative to BotW that can be played on PC, PS4, and mobile devices.
With Genshin Impact you’ll get to explore a large open world full of quests, dungeons, and secrets to unearth. You’ll have all the elemental forces at your command, with over 20 characters to unlock and swap in and out of your party. Once you reach level 16 (a few hours of play is all it takes) you can continue your solo adventure or group up with up to three of your friends in cross-platform co-op. There’s even cross-save between PC and mobile; sorry PS4 players, no such luck for you.
As for monetization, Genshin Impact uses a Gacha system to generate revenue. Unlocking characters through gameplay is a slow and arduous task and many players will resort to what is basically buying extra chances at getting a 5-star character. There is a Pity mechanic in place where you are guaranteed to get a 5-star drop after a specified number of unsuccessful draws. The real pity here is it still doesn’t guarantee the character or item you want. In all fairness, the drop percentage of each item available from each Banner (aka loot box) is clearly stated. Not to mention that collecting a specific character isn’t necessary as even the starting characters you acquire through the story will be strong enough to complete the game.
Hearthstone wasn’t the first collectible card game to hit the digital world, and it won’t be the last but, by tapping into the lore behind the Warcraft franchise, Blizzard practically guaranteed it would be an instant success. A slick interface and easy to learn mechanics has kept Hearthstone popular over the years. Players can hone their skills in the solo portion of the game. Along with the tutorials, players can duke it out against the AI in adventures and missions. There are also several multiplayer modes to partake in, ranging from causal duels to battling your way up the ranked ladders, with several other ‘special rule’ modes sprinkled in between.
Collectible card games are a perfect fit for the free to play model. You can play all day long in casual matches with the free starter cards and any booster packs you earn as you play, while players looking to move up the ranked ladders will support the developers with additional booster pack purchases. The question of whether Hearthstone is pay to win could be debated, and my take on the topic, well, it’s complicated. Like any trading card game, physical or digital, someone willing to sink hundreds or thousands of dollars into booster packs increases their chance of finding rare, ultra-powerful cards. On the flip side, the age-old argument that cash won’t buy you anything that sinking hour after hour grinding for in-game currency is true with Hearthstone, giving you plenty of opportunities to purchase cards without spending a real-world dime. Another bonus is the ability to disenchant unwanted cards to gather dust, which in turn can be used to craft the cards you want. So given a few months (or less if you play a lot), a non-paying player could potentially wield any deck in the game, gaining valuable insight into game mechanics and card synergies along the way.
If you’re looking for some multiplayer action that doesn’t involve guns and ever-shrinking maps, then you’ll be glad to know that esports hit Rocket League recently went free to play. If a mash-up between soccer and high-octane vehicular madness sounds strange you’d be correct. You also might be surprised by how well the two worlds collide to create a fun, fast-paced sport that requires equal amounts of teamwork and twitch reflexes to master.
The goal (pun intended) is simple: maneuver the oversized soccer ball around the arena with your vehicle and score more goals than your opponent in the 5-minute match. Grab a speed boost and take to the offensive, or hang back and defend your goal with well-timed jumps to deflect incoming balls. Or just ram your opponent’s car to make it explode and take them out of the game for a couple of seconds before they respawn, leaving an open field for an easy score.
The cash garage is full of customization options for your car. Even before going F2P Psyonix removed loot crates and replaced them with blueprints. These blueprints can be rewarded after a match, at which time a player can either create the item using credits or store it in their inventory for later. Blueprints, along with the items that are created from them, can be traded between players, making one person’s trash another person’s treasure. Psyonix received a lot of flack from players about the price of blueprints even though the potential cost of unlocking loot boxes to get a specific item could be considerably higher. Prices have been adjusted to a more palatable amount since the system launched last fall but I’m sure there’s still someone complaining about not being able to get everything they want for free.