By Gabe Gurwin
The landscape for free-to-play shooters is more robust and impressive than ever before, lined with an assortment of notable hits likeTeam Fortress 2,the interstellarPlanetsidefollowup, and the rebooted Unreal Tournament. They may not offer the same production values as Call of Duty: WWII, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, or Overwatch, but then again, they won’t cost you upwards of $60.Here are our top picks for the best free first-person shooters, so you can frag fools and save money.
‘Paladins: Champions of the Realm’ (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows, MacOS, Nintendo Switch)
Blizzard’s Overwatch remains the king of the “hero shooter” multiplayer genre, but Hi-Rez Studios’ Paladins: Champions of the Realm is a great alternative for those who don’t want to sink $40 before they’ve even begun playing. Much like in Overwatch, you select from dozens of different characters spread across multiple classes such as “damage,” “flanker,” “support,” and “front line,” each offering a different style of play that can help your team to victory. The tree-like Grover, for instance, can deal out heavy damage with his axe while also healing nearby allies, and the crafty Pip makes use of explosive potions to catch enemies off-guard.
Unlike the set classes and abilities offered in Overwatch, Paladins allows you to customize your heroes using a deckbuilding system. There are also pre-build deck loadouts for those looking to jump into a match with a solid chance of contributing, and with three different modes “Siege,” “Onslaught,” and “Team Deathmatch,” you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try the abilities out.
‘Team Fortress 2’ (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)
Boasting beautifully-rendered graphics and a well-balanced class system, the lauded Team Fortress 2still appeals to casual gamers and pros alike, garnering what is stillone of the largest player bases on the Steam marketplace more than seven years after its initial debut. The game is a steadfast hybrid of fast-paced combat and intense strategy in which every one of the game’s nine classes exhibits its own powerful strengths and crippling weaknesses.
Game modes are straightforward, primarily pitting two teams against one another in an effort to move a cart, capture select points, or steal a briefcase. It’s highly competitive in nature, but it still caters to all skill levels.Like most multiplayer titles, it’s about exploiting the Achilles heel of your enemies while protecting your own, but it relishes a stylized brand of humor that has become iconicforthe Team Fortress brand. Few games have held up as well over the years, and to be honest, few probably will.
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‘Black Squad’ (Windows)
Sometimes, you just want to get down to the nitty gritty fundamentals of first-person shooters: the shooting. With Black Squad, NS Studio has created a relentlessly twitchy and precise multiplayer experience that should feel right at home for fans of earlier Call of Duty titles and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The game offers enough variety for players of all styles and ability to feel like they’re making progress and contributing to their team. Getting a kill results in a gloriously over-the-top sound effect and a hefty splatter of blood on nearby walls, so there will never be any doubt whether your target is down.
Black Squad promises absolutely zero “pay to win” mechanics, with no gameplay-focused microtransactions available. Instead, you can earn everything through in-game currency or spend extra cash to buy certain cosmetic items, such as weapon skins, before other players. With only 4GB of recommended RAM and a minimum spec that calls for the aging GTX 560 GPU, you’ll be able to run the game on all but the very oldest machines.
Crytek has been developing first-person shooters for nearly two decades, and the company’s experience has shown with polished and flashy games that feel just as good on console as they do on PC. The free-to-play Warface is currently available on PC and will be coming to both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year, and its class-based approach forces teams to work together. Engineers, for instance, are capable of repairing their teammates’ armor, while Medics can heal and dish out heavy damage with a shotgun from close-range.
Most free-to-play first-person shooters focus exclusively on competitive multiplayer, but Warface also features a cooperative mode that rewards you for completing missions and playing well as a team. This mode has a tutorial for newer players to learn the classes. If you do decide to face off against other players online, you’ll be able do so in traditional kill-based and objective-based modes, and a battle royale mode was added in an update in late 2017. Powered by Crytek’s CryEngine, it’s one of the most attractive free-to-play games around, yet its recommended PC specifications are modest.
‘Unreal Tournament’ (Windows)
Epic Games’Fortnite is the biggest game in the world right now, but the studio is still working on other games, and the rebooted Unreal Tournament is among them. Free to play on PC, it’s currently in development and can be played in early access, with Epic even publishing the source code so you can quickly get access to the latest builds and see how the fast-paced multiplayer shooter is being changed.
Unreal Tournament aims to bring the intense PC shooting action of the original games into the modern age, and it features an impressive array of maps that will take you into outer space, or a fortress made of metal and stone. Classic power-ups and powerful weapons like the rocket launcher are here, and several different game modes are available to choose from. Perhaps the most intense is “Duel,” which puts two players against each other in a battle to rack up the most kills before time expires. With 2016’s Doom reboot earnings praise, and Bethesda’s new Quake Champions in development, it seems old-school shooters are seeing a resurgence. Unreal Tournament, however, is the only game among that group you can immediately play without paying a buck.
‘Planetside 2’ (Windows, PlayStation 4)
With planet-spanning battles and three diverse factions, Planetside 2ups the ante on everyday first-person shooters. Everything the player does affects their faction’s success in battle, from killing enemies to buying vehicles and taking enemy control points, all of which takes place on a massive scale featuring lean animation and exceptional skill trees. The diverse combat ensures no two matches are ever the same, placing players against one another in custom tank battles one minute, and urban firefights and aerial onslaughts the next. It all gives players the opportunity to unlock weapons, attachments, skills, and other components through the game’s intuitive leveling system.
The core of Planetside 2revolves around holding crucial territories and claiming key resources, with hundreds of players fighting it out over the course of multi-day and week-long battles.Turning the tide takes teamwork — and sometimes being a cog in the machine isn’t so bad.
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‘MechWarrior Online‘ (Windows)
The overwhelming trend in modern shooters is speed. Series such asCall of Duty have been doing everything they can to speed up gameplay, giving players the ability to run on walls and snipe opponents while backflipping through the air. This makes MechWarrior Online’s almost chess-like pace all the more refreshing. The latest in the long-running MechWarrior series, Online is a free-to-play vehicular combat game in which players plod about in massive robot suits.
There are dozens of mechs spread out across four different weight classes, and those weight classes factor heavily into theplaystyle. Light mechs are nimble and stealthy, but can’t carry much in the way of weaponry, while the massive assault classes can shoulder entire arsenals. Players can also customize their mechs with weapons, but the sheer variety of mechs comes at a price. Although MechWarrior Online is technically free to play, mechs must be purchased for use, either with in-game currency or with microtransactions. Mechs get more expensive with size, with some of the heavier mechs exceeding $20. It’s an annoying hurdle in an otherwise very fun game.
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‘Hawken’ (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
WhileMechwarrior Online takes a plodding approach to first-person armored combat, Hawkensets itself apart with simpler, quicker gameplay. It feels more like a hybrid between an old-school first shooter and a traditional ‘mech combat game. That’s good, because ‘mech games have a reputation for overbearing complexity. Hawken also puts more focus on vertical movement and quick dashes in and out of cover.
The freemium model in Hawken has been met with some community resistance, with players complaining that pay-per-use items cause an unfair balance. In response, the creators have continually tweaked the prices and effects of these items to avoid pay-to-win accusations. The different mech classes are unique and interesting, packing different special abilities and movement limitations, as well as the ability to customize and upgrade your mech to demolish the competition. Only the most basic classes are unlocked to begin with, but with a couple hours of play or a few dollar investment, you can upgrade to sweet new mechs like the Rocketeer or the Brawler.
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Updated on 6-27-2018: Added Paladins, Black Squad, Warface, and Unreal Tournament.