Even hardcore gamers might struggle to justify numerous $60 AAA game purchases these days, no matter how many 10/10s, updates, or generally-positive accolades they receive. Countless sales are around, too, but those can be as wallet-draining, when I see five of my most-wanted games on sale for up to 75 percent off, rational thought tends to go out the window.
Fortunately, there are alternatives that won't break the bank. The free-to-play gaming market, especially on PC, has grown substantially. Even expansive, high-budget gaming experiences can be enjoyed for free. On Steam alone, you'll find dozens upon dozens of no-cost MMOs, competitive shooters, MOBAs and more. However, wading through all that muck to find the gems can be difficult. There is no shortage of shovelware-tier free-to-play games, even on a platform like Steam.
To help you out with that process, we've used our collective experiences and the recommendations of other PC enthusiasts, to narrow your options down a bit.
In the list below, you'll find a non-comprehensive list of 11 fantastic free (or free-to-play) Steam games across a variety of genres. We haven't listed them in any particular order, but they're the kind of titles you won't regret spending time playing which is the whole idea behind this article, let's get started!
- Release Date: April 30, 2014
- Genre: Fighter
- Play if you like: Super Smash Bros, platform fighters
If you're a fan of platform-based fighters like Super Smash Bros but don't have the money (or interest) to snag yourself a Nintendo Switch, developer Blue Mammoth Games has you covered. The studio has been avidly supporting its ridiculously fun, cartoony battler Brawlhalla since 2014. Since then, the fighter has been completely free-to-play, with no pay-to-win mechanics -- its revenue comes through the purchase of character skins, special "KO effects," and other cosmetic items.
In terms of gameplay, Brawlhalla truly is about as close as any modern, widely-available PC title (well, technically cross-platform now) has come to emulating the style of Super Smash Bros. Like Nintendo's beloved fighting game, players choose from a massive roster of over 50 unlockable characters (9 of which are always available on a rotating basis) and take their unique skillsets into 1v1, 2v2, or 4-player free-for-all multiplayer matches. Players are dropped into a random map and then must duke it out with their enemies in an effort to come out on top.
There are options for casual play, ranked play, and even more chaotic custom modes, where you and up to 7 friends can participate in everything from 4v4s to 1v3s (if you really want to challenge each other). Though graphics aren't on the level of more recent SSB entries from Nintendo, Brawlhalla's art style and character designs are charming, fun, and easy to understand. Since there's no entry fee of any kind here, it's tough to ask for more.
- Release Date: March 2013
- Genre: Co-op third-person shooter
- Play if you like: Weird sci-fi worlds, Destiny 2
Warframe is best described as a third-person, pseudo-MMO action game, but even that overview feels insufficient. The amount of content and content variety on offer here is honestly mind-boggling.
Warframe is not the most accessible game for new players, but it's still considered one of the best examples of a consumer-friendly free-to-play game. There are no predatory loot boxes, and while it has its fair share of grinding, everything that you can pay for in the game can be earned through regular gameplay -- and it won't take you 40,000 hours (we're looking at you, Star Wars: Battlefront II).
You have your slightly generic (but entertaining) co-op hack-and-shoot missions that you undergo to gather crafting materials or experience the main story, but there are also massive, open-world zones, rideable mounts, craftable pets, PvP action, and player-controlled space combat sequences.
Then, of course, there's the Warframes themselves: instead of classes, you can collect dozens of these humanoid weapons systems, each with their own unique appearance and powers. With so many options, there will almost certainly be a Warframe that suits your playstyle, whether you prefer sneaking, shooting, or slicing.
- Release Date: January 4, 2001
- Genre: Sandbox MMORPG
- Play if you like: Old-school RPGs, grinding, long-term progression
RuneScape is one of the oldest and longest-running MMORPGs in the world, predating even World of Warcraft by roughly three years. What started as a simple 2D fantasy MMO that could run in a web browser, has evolved into two separate games.
RuneScape 3 is the current main offering. If you used to have an account way back in the day, RuneScape 3 is where you'll find all your equipment, stats, and friends -- it's the same game, just way more modern than you likely recall, with enhanced graphics, cutscenes, raids, dungeons, and more skills.
Old School RuneScape, on the other hand, launched in 2014, to offer players a separate, WoW Classic-like snapshot of the game's 2007 state. However, over the years, it's become a solid competitor to the main game with a dedicated userbase that actually dwarfs RuneScape 3's. Though its graphics are primitive and the gameplay is old-fashioned, OSRS has an entirely different dev team that creates fresh new content -- all using intentionally old-school graphics and design philosophies.
But... what even is RuneScape? In short, it's a sandbox MMO that won't push you in any particular direction. There is no main story to follow, and there are no grindy fetch quests to pursue. Every single quest in RuneScape is handcrafted. Though their length and focus will vary, you can think of them as self-contained adventures (with a few exceptions to account for the occasional quest series).
One moment, you might be helping a boy retrieve a rubber ball from a witch's backyard, but the next you might be saving an entire race from utter annihilation. Unlike WoW, finishing quests doesn't merely give you a small chunk of gold, XP, or a piece of crappy, low-level gear. Instead, finishing them can unlock entirely new regions of the map, or give you access to fancy new guilds, training areas, and incredibly powerful equipment.
Speaking of skills, RuneScape has an awful lot of them: 23 for OSRS and 28 for RS3. Aside from gear and quests, most of your in-game progression will come from advancing these stats. You'll level up skills like mining, fishing, hunting, woodcutting, strength, smiting, magic, dungeoneering, and even construction. Some skills are easier to level than others, but almost all of them offer massive boons to players that take the time to master them. Many of the game's best and most rewarding quests are gated off by high levels in various skills and the rarest gear will require specific skill levels to equip.
If you're the patient type who wants a rich, astonishingly in-depth game to sink your teeth into (even as a solo player), give either RuneScape a shot. Personally, I love the old school experience and recommend it to just about everyone I meet, but both games are excellent. They share a subscription, so you can jump in-between the two at any time if you don't feel like committing to one or the other. And since both games are on Steam, now's the perfect time to drag a few buddies with you and dive straight into the world of Gielinor.
Path of Exile
- Release Date: October 2013
- Genre: Action RPG
Play if you like: Diablo series, deep customization
If you're a fan of top-down action RPGs, there's a good chance you've heard of Path of Exile. It's a free-to-play, spiritual successor to the Diablo franchise, designed for those who have become disillusioned with the design direction of Blizzard's popular series.
Whereas Diablo has slowly been simplified over the years, Path of Exile revels in its depth and complexity. It offers players hundreds of active skills to choose from (by way of "skill gems" that you attach to various pieces of gear), 7 playable classes, multiple subclasses, over 1,300 passive perks to unlock, and of course, plenty of legendary equipment to strive for.
None of these rewards are handed to you on a silver platter. To earn them, you'll have to fight off hordes of enemies, big and small, throughout Path of Exile's lengthy story campaign. Once you've geared up, you can test your skills against other players in intense PvP tournaments, or simply kick back, relax, and customize your own personal Hideout.
Best of all, your progress in Path of Exile will carry over to its sequel, Path of Exile 2, when it releases in late 2020 or early 2021.
Crusader Kings 2
- Release Date: February 2012
- Genre: Grand strategy
- Play if you like: Europa Universalis, Stellaris
Some people prefer solving their problems using their wits instead of their brawn, and if that describes you, there's no better game for you than Crusader Kings 2.
This grand strategy title lets players take on the role of a famous ruler from medieval European history (or create their own, with the appropriate DLC), and carve out a path for their dynasty over several generations.
You can get married, have children (which you'll play as when your ruler inevitably kicks the bucket), acquire traits and skills, and manage your kingdom on both a micro and macro level. Get down into the nitty-gritty by keeping ambitious vassals in check and adjusting realm laws, or set your sights on world conquest through realm-spanning alliances and sheer ruthlessness.
Crusader Kings 2 is a reactive and multi-layered sandbox for those that enjoy complex diplomacy, skullduggery (including assassinations and kidnappings), and medieval role-playing.
- Release Date: March 2014
- Genre: MOBA
- Play if you like: DOTA 2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm
Given how long the MOBA market has been around, it can be challenging for developers to come up with something genuinely fresh that still feels like a part of the broader genre. Smite is an excellent example of a game that accomplishes this lofty feat.
In Smite, you and your teammates enter the fray as one of 109 gods from various worldwide mythologies. You can play as Thor and smite your foes using Mjolnir's power, or take up the mantle of Artemis and pepper the enemy team with rapid-fire arrows.
It's not just its unique cast of characters that help Smite stand out; the game's controls are another major selling point. Unlike most other MOBAs, Smite has a third-person camera, which lets you navigate the battlefield using the WASD keys for movement and your mouse for (horizontal) aiming.
This makes the game feel faster and a bit more action-oriented than its competitors, but don't think that makes the experience any less challenging. In true MOBA fashion, you'll still be pushing lanes, killing minions for XP, and stalking the jungle for enemy players; all tasks that will require proper communication and teamwork to accomplish.
- Release Date: February 4, 2019
- Genre: Battle royale
- Play if you like: Fortnite, Titanfall, tactical FPS
Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment launched battle royale game Apex Legends somewhat out of the blue in early 2019. Through a series of clever sponsorships with high-profile streamers, Apex Legends was able to shake up Fortnite's stranglehold on the market with its punchy combat and many twists on the genre -- including the ability to resurrect killed teammates and ping various points of interest.
Apex Legends pulled in a whopping 50 million players in its first month, which was quite a shock to many -- ourselves included. Fortnite and PUBG were so entrenched in the market that it didn't seem possible for a third competitor to enter the fray. And yet, that's precisely what Apex Legends has done, and has continued to do since. Apex Legends has 9 seasons of fantastic heroes, maps, and weapons under its belt now, as well as a plethora of cosmetic skins for Legends and equipment alike. As free-to-play games go, it's one of the best.
The game opened up to an entirely new audience when it launched on Steam last year. On Valve's platform alone, it reached an all-time peak of over 300,000 concurrent players, but that number now hovers around the ~200K range on any given day. Since there is cross-play between platforms, though, you aren't limited to playing with only other Steam users.
On the off chance that you've never seen Apex Legends in action, here's the basic gist of its gameplay: like in other battle royales, you and up to two teammates (friends or strangers) arrive in an arena by hovercraft. You can choose when and where to drop on the map, after which you'll be running around the massive, varied environments in search of top-tier equipment that suits your play style. Unlike other battle royales, though, Apex Legends gives each hero a passive, an active, and an ultimate ability to use as they please.
If you play as the combat medic Lifeline, you can put down a healing drone that can revive allies or restore health to allies for you. Alternatively, you could play as the tracker Bloodhound, whose "tactical" ability can mark enemies through walls for a short time. Or, if you want something completely different, you can try out the master thief Loba. With her ultimate, she can put down a "Black Market" shop terminal anywhere on the map. This terminal lets you and your allies instantly snag two pieces of equipment each from any loot source within a certain radius -- very handy in a Battle Royale, especially if you're looking for your favorite gun.
Whether you like supporting your allies, dealing damage, or confusing your enemies, there's almost certainly a Legend that will suit your style. Since Respawn's latest and greatest shooter is completely free to play, why not give it a shot?
- Release Date: October 2017
- Genre: Sci-fi FPS
- Play if you like: Looter shooters, Halo franchise
Destiny 2 was a solid first-person looter-shooter on release, but as is the case with many modern "live services," it's only gotten better with age. These days, it has several content-rich expansions (free and paid), raids, PvP modes, and a compelling main storyline, which can be completed solo or with up to two other friends.
Content variety aside, it's Destiny 2's fantastic combat system that keeps players hooked. It's fast-paced, and most guns in the game feel incredibly impactful, with meaty sounds effects and beautiful animations.
Fortunately, high-quality shooting mechanics don't come at the cost of weapon variety. As you progress through the game, you'll get your hands on SMGs, shotguns, sniper rifles, and more. Many of these guns possess their own passive abilities and elemental effects, which can add an absorbing tactical layer to Destiny 2's more challenging encounters.
Your character's progression doesn't just come from weapon or armor unlocks though. In Destiny 2, you choose from three distinct classes: the juggernaut-like Titan, the mystical Warlock, and the agile Hunter. You obtain a basic set of class-exclusive powers reasonably quickly, and can eventually expand upon them with more potent ultimate abilities gained through your chosen subclass.
Destiny 2 is a fantastic game for those who want a more accessible MMO-like experience, or those who just want to experience an exciting sci-fi world with their friends.
- Release Date: July 2015
- Genre: Action MMO
- Play if you like: Minecraft, World of Warcraft
Trove is a laid-back MMO for creative individuals or those who simply enjoy experiencing the creativity of others.
If you're tired of traditional MMOs like WoW or Guild Wars 2, but Destiny 2 isn't quite your thing? If so, consider taking a look at Trove, an action MMO from Trion Worlds. Its cutesy, block-based aesthetic might deter some, but make no mistake: Trove is just as content-rich and entertaining as any other game in this genre.
There are intense dungeons to delve into and bosses to defeat, which will inevitably reward you with new gear to equip for your chosen class out of the 16 available. These classes range from standard options like the Knight or Gunslinger, to far more unusual choices such as the Candy Barbarian (a brute with a penchant for sweets) or Dino Tamer.
If you get bored with Trove's more generic MMO features, there are plenty of distractions for you to pursue.
The game takes a page out of Minecraft's playbook by letting players build their own personal homes block-by-block, or even work with other players to create massive "Club Worlds." You can also make and submit your own 3D equipment, or snag gear made by others.
Gwent: The Witcher Card Game
- Release Date: October 2018
- Genre: Collectible card battler
- Play if you like: The Witcher 3's Gwent minigame, Hearthstone
When The Witcher 3 landed, fans didn't just get a fantastic, open-world RPG with well-written quests and solid combat. They also got Gwent, a surprisingly complex and entertaining card-based mini-game.
Gwent proved to be so popular, CDPR spun it off into its own standalone title, aptly named Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. It received plenty of tweaks to make it fit better as an independent experience, but the core gameplay mechanics remain intact.
You don't win matches of Gwent by dealing direct damage to your opponent. Instead, your goal is to build up a more powerful army of minions across two distinct "lanes." If your army score (the combined attack value of all your creatures) is higher than the enemy's when a round ends, you win that round. Win two out of three rounds and the match is yours.
To achieve victory in Gwent, you'll need to use your wits and your various card abilities, such as board clears, card draw, and debuffs. As an example of the former, since your goal isn't to zerg down your opponent directly, there are times when it's beneficial to intentionally throw a round. This can force opponents to waste their valuable cards early and give you an advantage in the long run.
- Release Date: September 2016
- Genre: Hero shooter
- Play if you like: Overwatch, Team Fortress 2
When we look at the hero-shooter genre, one thing is clear: Blizzard's Overwatch reigns supreme. It is a paid game however. That crown once belonged to Team Fortress 2, and while the game still retains a decent player base, it's lost much of its luster over the years for a variety of reasons.
But have you ever heard of Paladins? It's a free-to-play hero FPS developed by Evil Mojo, a subsidiary of Hi-Rez Studios (of Smite and Tribes: Ascend fame). It was released back in 2016 with very Overwatch-like gameplay. Some fans even accused it of being an Overwatch clone! While that may have been partially true at the time, Hi-Rez's shooter has truly come into its own in 2021.
Paladins lets you select a character from over 40 available options, each with unique weapons and abilities. The roster contains fleet-footed assassins equipped with kunai and sniper rifles, as well as bigger, burlier tank characters with mighty shields, powerful shotguns, and more. And then there's a mad scientist fox with the ability to polymorph his foes into harmless chickens. He's one of my favorites.
Regardless of your preferred play style, Paladins will likely have at least a handful of characters that suit your interests. Unlike Overwatch, Paladins offers players three secondary hero customization systems: Cards, Talents, and Items. Items and Talents both grant buffs that can have a wide range of effects. Some give your character lifesteal, some boost your movement speed, whereas others might give you additional charges of abilities or even offer trade-offs like faster attack speed at the cost of damage.
Talents are hero-specific, and chosen before each match begins. Items are generic pieces of equipment that you purchase using currency earned during your matches. Both your chosen Talent and Items go away at the end of each match, similar to a MOBA.
Then there's Cards. Every hero in Paladins has a special set of Cards that can be organized into loadouts outside of matches. Cards function similarly to Talents in that they tend to offer ability buffs and tweaks, but you can equip up to four of them in a single loadout, and their combined effects can be far more significant to your gameplay than a Talent alone. With Cards, you can create specialized builds that tend to switch up your play style, even if you're playing the same hero. In one match, you might be focusing solely on maximizing the potency of your healing and support abilities, but in another, you may choose to deal extra damage or crowd control your enemies.
Most importantly, no bonuses are locked behind a paywall. This lets everyone experiment with different loadouts for free, without the threat of buyer's remorse hanging over their heads.
Once you've picked a hero and customized them to your liking, you'll jump into one of 27 maps across three game modes: Onslaught, Team Deathmatch, and Payload. The latter two are pretty self-explanatory, but Onslaught operates on a ticket system. Every enemy slain earns your team three tickets, and controlling a capture point in the middle of a map will grant your side one additional ticket per second. The first team to reach 400 tickets (or simply have the most after 10 minutes have expired) will win the match. It's a cool concept, and it adds a much-needed spin on traditional cart-pushing or mindless shoot-em-up game modes.
All in all, Paladins is a great pick for anyone who enjoys the theme of Overwatch, but wants something they can play for free on Steam. As far as microtransactions go, Paladins' implementation of monetization doesn't go beyond cosmetic skins, sprays, and other, similar items -- there are no pay-to-win shenanigans to worry about.