It's been two years (!) since I've had a blog post dedicated to video games, and I don't think that I've ever had one dedicated to some of my favorite games: Freebies! Free games, commonly referred to as "Free-to-Play," and sometimes derisively as "Pay-to-Win" games, have mixed reviews among the gaming community. It's a fine line for developers to walk without building a game that's neither too financially weak to be compelling nor too greedy to be fun.
One prolific example of a game who failed to walk this tight rope was Orcs Must Die! Unchained whose reviews were so overwhelmingly negative during its initial release into Open Beta that it nearly destroyed the otherwise insanely popular franchise. In the beginning, during its "Closed Beta," reviewers lamented the extremely barren and unimaginative content, citing that not only had the game lost its way, but it simply refused to allow the gamer to explore the world beyond the most limited fashion. While some reviewers enjoyed the game, most left comments like this one:
"By contrast, Unchained! strips away everything that made OMD gameplay unique, and feeds it into generic MOBA play. Traps spit out generic DPS and occasionally provide bonuses to heroes' generic weapon damage. Enemy types that once required wildly different response strategies are now indistinguishable buckets of hit points."
"It's telling that ninety percent of any Unchained! map is MOBA-only dead space with no traps allowed. The large majority of the game is set up to exclude Orcs Must Die gameplay completely. Running endlessly back and forth between the tiny areas where trap setups are allowed is excruciating, especially with the sprint option removed."
The developers, responding to this outcry, changed course by looking to infuse content into the game through increased funding. Unfortunately, they did so by swinging the complete opposite direction and converting the game into a "Pay-to-Win" scenario.
"Want a new trap? Better hope you have either a padded wallet or 30 hours of grinding on your hand. A new character? Well that costs even more, better pick which arm and leg you want to give up. The costs are absolutely astronomical and brutally punishing."
While most games don't run the entire gambit between "dead content" and "pay-to-win" competitions, they tend to fall on at least one end on the spectrum. A few games break that mold, and while I can't list all of them out in one blog post, I opted to pick my favorite five. They were selected because either: (a) I had spent no money on them, or (b) I had spent fewer than $1 for every 5 hours played on cosmetic or convenience products.
Dungeon Defenders 2
With Orcs Must Die (OMD), and Orcs Must Die 2, becoming a thing of the past, Dungeon Defenders quickly fulfills the role of a visceral, in-your-face, tower defense. Its monetization is through unlocking cosmetics and characters, with the latter being done with a gentle touch. Given the the number of free characters, and the relative power of those you unlock, makes unlocking these pay-to-play characters a choice that not every gamer needs to entertain. So, while I typically shy away from games (like Warframe) that strongly incentivize unlocking new characters through microtransactions, Dungeon Defenders breaks the mold.
The premise of the game is identical to that of OMD and just about every other tower-defense game made: Build towers and obstacles to stop orcs, goblins, and trolls from reaching your treasure; assist your towers by bludgeoning orcs to death with your character's weapon. Repeat ad nauseum.
It is a multiplayer game, but most maps can be beaten by cycling through four (you can purchase more) characters that you have in between rounds. Need a fire breathing tower? Switch to your mage and build one. Want to slice goblins to pieces? Bust out the Paladin. Want to play more socially? Invite a friend over for a LAN party, or hook up Ventrillo and get a party going.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
While I did eventually leave this game about a year after it released, during its subscription based model, it will always have a soft spot in my heart as one of my all-time favorite gaming experiences.
While, at the time, it did little to justify $8/mo after having beaten all of the content, its adoption of the free-to-play model has been met with high reviews and the content remains as compelling as ever. True to Bioware's strengths, the game is a fantastic story-driven saga set within the world following Knights of the Old Republic.
With the new expansion pack, Knights of the Eternal Throne, set to release on 2 December, the game has proven that it's neither down nor out in the last four years. I can't promise that the new expansion pack will be amazing, but it'll certainly bring back a lot of us who ditched the game at the end of its subscription-based model.
Survive is a simplistic survival game that was heavily influenced by Oregon Trail and The Hatchet, except instead of travelling west or surviving a plane crash, your car gets stuck in the mud and you inexplicably decide to abandon it in favor of trekking 60 miles through the woods back to town.
Spoiler Alert: You still die of dysentery.
It is surprisingly difficult, and the game can be punishing at times, but overall the game is fairly well balanced. While I am quick to walk away in disgust after having died to some "unfair" element, I'm quick to return realizing that, yeah, maybe I shouldn't have ate those unidentified berries. I'm honestly not sure how they monetize the game, since I've seen neither advertisements nor purchase options.
Air Control Lite is a simulated air traffic control game that monetizes with advertisements, or by purchasing the full game for a couple of bucks. It's as addicting as it is brutally unforgiving, and well worth shelling out a few dollars to get rid of the moderately intrusive advertisements once you've wasted your first afternoon on the free version.
The premise of the game is simple: Certain aircraft can only land on certain runways, and it's your job to guide them onto the correct runway without them colliding with one another. However, every aircraft flies at the exact same altitude, but varying speeds, so juggling the the 30+ prop-wing, jet engine, and helicopter aircraft can become impossibly difficult.
With no in-game purchases, this game is hard to pass up. It also has the added bonus of not requiring internet connection, making it ideal for those times you want to play something ironic during on your flight from Denver to Miami.
Developed by Arc Games, Neverwinter is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) set in the Forgotten Realms world that's available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Not only can you expect to see a return to things like Paladins fighting dragons, but you'll battle alongside Drizzt; conquer regions in Icewind Dale, and pick up tales of heroism from your deeds in Baulder's Gate, making it an excellent nostalgic throwback to our first LAN parties and our Surge drinking benders as we ran from the Ogre in inexplicably in the path of a level 2.
It is a challenging game, but it isn't without its flaws. As an MMO, it leaves a lot to be desired (I barely interacted with anyone during my six months playing the game), but as a single player game it is a fantastic way to kill some time wondering why no one has come out with a World of Warcraft killer so you can finally scratch that MMO itch that's been left untouched since you flushed your subscription down the toilet.
InfiniRunner2D isn't free, but at only $0.99, its addictive concept makes it a slam dunk choice for a bonus inclusion to this post. Its premise is ridiculously, almost absurdly, simple: Tap once to jump, and twice to double jump; avoid falling into the water, and collect coins. You do this until you mistime a jump, fall in the water, and die.
That sounds pretty boring, and it can get a little repetitive after a few hours, but the extreme simplicity of the game has some appeal for times when you're looking for something a little less. Add in the nostalgic art work that clearly drew inspiration from Mario, and you can spend an hour or two trying to beat your high score before you stop to wonder what you're doing with your life.
Just don't pull at that thread too hard.
What games do you think I missed? What should I include in my next roundup (that, I swear to God, won't be two years from now)? Leave me a link in the comments!