Gaming on a PC is a wonderful thing. Should you both have the money and the time to spend, you can play the very best games on the very best tech and sit back while you face, heart and soul gently weep. However, investing in all that hardware can leave the ol’ bank balance looking a little penurious. Enter the wonderful world of free-to-play, via Steam.
And while F2P might come bounding into the room with the shadow of the microtransaction looming over it, that doesn’t mean you have to play any of these games with soul-selling agreement to spend money further down the line. Every ‘free’ game we’ve gathered together here can be enjoyed for hours on end, all without spending a dime.
1. Team Fortress 2
The game that defined the team-based shooter genre – still as smart and satisfying as ever
This year, Team Fortress 2 will celebrate its 10th anniversary. And yet, despite being a decade-old game from a developer that’s now more focused on delivery platforms and VR, it remains one of PC gaming's most popular and lauded titles. Log in on any given day and you’ll find almost every lobby full of players itching to show off their latest hat acquisition.
Sure, Team Fortress 2 is as old as the Earth itself, but there’s a reason so many developers have cited it as one of their favourite and most influential games. You can see its DNA in almost any team-based shooter – the quick rounds, the team-based objectives, the vastly different yet equally satisfying characters and more. Overwatch might be the current king of multiplayer shooters, but it owes its fealty to TF2. Quite frankly, your Steam Library is practically naked without this free-to-play gem among its number – get it downloaded now.
Download it here: Team Fortress 2
A delightfully eclectic fantasy MMO that doesn't skimp on the action
When it comes to the world of PC-based fantastical MMOs, chances are the words ‘World of Warcraft’ just popped immediately into your head. You’re not alone in that association – most of us think of WoW when it comes to popular yet ultimately waning genre. However, the online realm of Azeroth isn’t technically free-to-play, and it’s also not the only series proving its worth after many a year in operation. Take the wonderfully eclectic Neverwinter.
Drawing from the deep pool of lore that is Dungeons & Dragons, Neverwinter ticks all the boxes you’d expect from an action-heavy RPG: boundless quests, skill-focused combat and a shed load of microtransaction offers. You can easily ignore these as everything is unlockable via in-game progression – and that includes any major world updates and expansions, such as the brilliant Storm King’s Thunder that went live last year. Not bad for a game costing you a grand total of ‘free’.
Download here: Neverwinter
Fast-paced multiplayer mech battles with smart matchmaking
When it comes to the pure escapism of videogames, few things are as empowering as jumping into a powered-up mech and fighting it out with other players like a bunch of jacked-up gunslingers. Hawken has this cool factor in spades, with its mixture of classic match types (team death match, capture the flag, etc) all given a new lease of life thanks to the fast-paced action of Hawken’s mech-based firefights.
There are nine maps to choose from and a matchmaking system that slots you into lobbies full of players of similar experience level. However, the players at the top of the rankings have earned their lofty perches, so you’ll want to spend some time learning how to rack up kills with us mere mortals before testing your mettle against Hawken’s elite.
While its new developer Reloaded Games (the old one folded back in 2015) has been a little light on the foreseeable update front, Hawken still remains one of PC gaming’s most addictive and rewarding games in the free-to-play/freemium bracket.
Download here: Hawken
A unique and innovative take on the collectible card genre for PC, with a board that's an active, organic part of the game
CCGs (or collectible card games as they’re known to their respective mothers) are big business on PC. Games such as Hearthstone, Magic: The Gathering and Duel of Champions have proved there’s a huge market for virtual decks and card battles, but it’s the titles that innovate (like the tabletop-inspired Armello or the storytelling of Chronicle) that really grab our attention here at TechRadar.
The world of free-to-play also has plenty of CCGs to its name, and the relatively new Faeria (which arrived only last year) is easily one of the most intriguing and rewarding you can download today.
It has all your usual elements – including a heavy fantasy aesthetic and a treasure trove of cards to collect – but it’s the ability to actively build and shape the board on which you’re playing that really sets it apart. It brings a whole new dimension to tactics and makes for a CCG experience like no other.
Download here: Faeria
5. Clicker Heroes
A free-to-play game that shows the power of a simple premise well executed
Sometimes a game comes along with a concept so simple yet so ingenious it should probably have a massive sticker across its front that reads: “Beware, may take over entire life.” Okay, we may have spilled our morning mug of hyperbole over the keyboard, but that doesn’t mean Clicker Heroes is anything less than super addictive.
The goal is simple – simply hover over the enemy character to the right of your screen in Clicker Heroes and click them into oblivion. Each time you quell a foe they’ll drop gold, enabling you to unlock more heroes and swell your ranks. The more you kill, the greater your chance of picking up ‘hero souls’ (the most lucrative currency in the game), which enables you to buy super-powerful dudes called Ancients. It’s one of the mobile-orientated titles that somehow works perfectly on PC, despite its simple concept – not bad for a game about incessantly clicking.
Download here: Clicker Heroes
6. Path of Exile
A top-down procedurally-generated dungeon crawler that's brilliant whether played alone or with teammates
Bleak its story and world may be, but that doesn’t stop Path of Exile from being one of the best games on Steam. That it happens to be a free-to-play title where nothing is locked behind a paywall? Well, that’s just the icing on the blood-drenched cake. A game built in the top-down, dungeon crawling template of Diablo, Path of Exile’s action-RPG package has replayability by the bucketful – its outdoor areas and underground dungeons are procedurally generated, giving each time you load it up on Steam a unique flavour all its own.
Whether you’re playing alone in a party of friends/like-minded strangers, Path of Exile has so much going for it. Its combat system, which enables you to combine skills and effects into deadly combinations, feels as robust as anything its contemporaries have to offer (and maybe a little bit better, too), while the levelling system feels organic and endlessly rewarding to the dedicated player.
Download here: Path of Exile
7. Dota 2
Enormously popular and hugely addictive – a cornerstone of pro gaming
These days, MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) are big business. The team-based battlers are the genre that’s driving eSports into the mainstream at a deadly pace, and Valve’s tremendously rewarding offering is one of the best on the market today (second only to the stellar League of Legends). So what makes Dota 2 so popular? Why are millions of players taking to its cartoonish servers every single day?
]The answer is a set of champions that feel equally robust and rewarding and a heavy emphasis on skill that rewards players who study the game’s ever evolving metagame.
That metagame is one of the things that makes Dota 2 so unique, and the key to its longevity. Its community – one that embraces spectating matches as much as taking part in them – is constantly re-evaluating what skills and tactics it takes to overcome a particular scenario or set of champions during a phase, creating a perpetually shifting algorithm for success that’s almost as addictive as playing Dota 2 itself.
Download here: Dota 2
8. EVE Online
A sci-fi MMORPG of unrivalled scale and complexity
Much like World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2, EVE Online has become less of a game and more of a fundamental part of PC gaming’s DNA. The grand MMORPG is a space opera like no other, one that makes the likes of Mass Effect of anything with a Star Wars logo on it look like a kids TV show by comparison,
Being able to build your own fleet in real-time, entering into an entire galaxy filled alliances, wars, trade agreements and empires built entirely by players who traverse the stars of developer CCP’s virtual cosmos is a gaming experience like no other.
The fact you can download and play one of the industry’s greatest games right now still shocks us. Even if you’re not a fan of hard sci-fi or persistent worlds, EVE Online is a galaxy worth exploring with vigor. Get this free-to-play title in your Steam Library pronto.
Download here: EVE Online
9. Planetside 2
Sci-fi warfare writ large, with three massive factions battling for supremacy
There aren’t many shooters on this list of the best free-to-play games on Steam, mainly because the one’s you probably hear about most often are the ones with the loudest advertising campaigns (and price tags to match), but that doesn’t mean free automatically equals terrible. Take Planetside 2, one of the most ambitious shooters ever made, and it’s right here on PC just waiting to be played.
So what makes Planetside 2 so good? For a start it’s a game that manages to recreate the hectic, brutality of a battlefield by having thousands of players engaging one another on a single map. As one of three factions, the goal is simple: win territory and destroy your enemies.
With everything from jump packs to full-scale vehicles, Planetside 2 doesn’t do anything on a small scale. The game has a pretty steep learning curve, and a near non-existent tutorial, but stick with it and it's more empowering than any short-lived killstreak or overpriced DLC.
Download here: Planetside 2
10. War Thunder
Skilfully crafted combat, with vehicles cherry-picked from history
There are plenty of MMOs and battle simulators out there that are free-to-play on PC – World of Tanks being a very popular alternative - but there’s something about the vast spectacle of War Thunder's recreation of vehicular mayhem that feels that bit more real and believable. From battles on land to dogfights in the sky, all the way to duels across the swell of the ocean, War Thunder makes vehicular combat feel downright operatic.
You can adjust the controls of each WW2 and Korean War vehicle to increase varying levels of realism, enabling you to take to the skies, the seas or the churned mud of the battlefield and start trading shells with other players in huge maps filled with action. There’s plenty of fresh content too, from the addition of ships from the age of fighting sail to the expansion of forces such as the now complete Japanese Imperial Army. Now, stop reading and go enlist… for free!
Download here: War Thunder