Not everyone has cash to spend on every new Steam game, and there are exceptional titles players miss out on because of the price. No, not because they’re so expensive, but because they don’t cost anything, and many players overlook what’s freely given. However, there are a lot of misfires among the wealth of no-charge games on Steam. Here’s a guide to help you find some of the best and most worthwhile.
Free games come in a few different flavors. Some are brave experiments or 10 minute pieces of art. Many are tech demos released by developers to help generate interest in a later game that will actually cost money. Still more are free to download and play, but are riddled with microtransactions that cost more than most full games. Let’s break it down into a few different categories.
If a game that takes dozens of hours to finish can tell an epic tale with the scope of a novel, these games that take less than 10 minutes to play are more focused on presenting a concise short story.
The Cat and the Coup is a light puzzle game that tells how an American-backed coup leads to the rise of Iran’s current leadership. You play the cat of Iran’s first democratically elected president, solving quick, physics-based puzzles that lead from scene to scene. You witness his overthrow by the CIA, learning the details as much through the game’s utterly beautiful artwork as you do through its text. It’s quick, it’s educational, it’s moving, and it feels like learning the context of a painting by stepping right into the frame.
The Plan is a similarly interactive artwork. You are a fly finding its way through a forest, interrupted by spider webs, falling leaves, and wind. It’s another game where the tremendously powerful art and its message overwhelm the gameplay itself. It took me seven minutes to play and I took my sweet time. It’s worth it.
The Static Speaks My Name is quite different. Thrust into the role of a character mere minutes from committing suicide, it asks you to wander a disturbing and surreal story about depression and obsession. It gets under the skin better than many two hour horror movies, and is filled with detail that gives you a bigger story to interpret. It also contains a chilling and unexpected ending.
Team Fortress 2 remains the king of all free shooters, and for good reason. If you have any interest in multiplayer shooters, you’ve probably played it already. It’s cartoonish, full of personality, features many different ways to use each unique character, and has game modes and level designs that are often asymmetric yet perfectly balanced. It’s harder to get into today than it used to be because of all the loot experienced players have, but it also possesses a friendly yet die-hard (and oftentimes generous) community. It’s still accessible, and it’s still easy to feel like a useful part of the team even as a beginner.
Robocraft feels like the spiritual successor to Unreal Tournament 2004 transformed into a pure vehicle shooter. You create your own vehicle block by block, with each mode of movement and separate weapon possessing advantages and disadvantages. Since competitors are matched up by the quality of components in their vehicles, there’s no pay-to-win element. You can pay to advance more quickly and face higher-level opponents more quickly, and you can pay for luxuries within the game. That’s it. The community is helpful and the developers are responsive, experimenting with the game and making regular improvements. Robocraft continues to improve, although community functions and the user interface could stand to be expanded upon.
Planetside 2 is a unique experience where thousands of players fight across a single strategic map. Choosing where to launch an attack and coordinating with other players becomes key to actually winning any battle. The only downside is the incredibly steep learning curve required to fully understand how various classes and vehicles work best together. In an odd way, it’s reminiscent of Skyrim as a world full of firefights. You’ll end up roaming around and deciding how and when you want to take part in battles.
For a change of pace, try DOTA 2. Ostensibly a MOBA game, or multiplayer online battle arena, Defense of the Ancients 2 essentially functions as a top-down, team-based cross between shooter and real-time tactics game. Beyond the early rankings, players are expected to know the nuances of each character they play, and how to coordinate specific powers with their teammates. The community can be helpful and harsh in equal measure, and matches can become incredibly fierce and rather long (up to an hour). Expect high levels of stress and reward if you devote true time to this game.
Of course, you can also play the newest Unreal Tournament for free as the developers work hand in hand with players to shape the game. It’s just not on Steam yet.
There are other quality multiplayer shooters like Super Monday Night Combat that simply lack the ongoing community to make the game sustainable, as well as exceptional fighting games like Archeblade that have been abandoned by the developers before they were perfected.
Massively Multiplayer Online games are really a matter of player taste. There are so many, catering to so many genres and gameplay styles, that the best advice is to research each one before committing. Will you hit an impenetrable pay-to-play wall that suddenly makes a free game cost $60? Will a Korean MMO install strange spyware on your machine without permission? Be exceptionally careful with MMOs, and make sure to read both good and bad user-reviews so you know what you’re getting into.
The two best free MMOs on Steam are the polished Rift and Tera. Rift relies on more classic World of Warcraft style power systems, meaning you press number keys to trigger attacks as if in a tactical game. Tera relies on more active combat, meaning maneuvering and timed strikes will help you succeed. Different players prefer different systems.
Star Trek Online is a great experience for Star Trek fans, and there’s no pay-to-play element. Most payments simply advance you faster or change aesthetic components of your ship and character. Staged after The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, the game’s space battles are exciting and accessible. While away missions are mediocre in terms of gameplay, their storylines are often steeped in and respectful of all things Trek.
Marvel Heroes 2015 is an isometric action game with polished gameplay, a good community, and solid superhero story. Just be warned that addictive personality types will face an OCD nightmare of playing paper doll with your character, encountering more meaningless +1 loot drops than you could possibly imagine. If that’s not a problem, this is one of the best games and friendliest communities on the MMO market.
This is the rarest beast in the free game jungle. A full-length game is difficult to make, most often requires a team of developers, and that can all become difficult to mount as something free. Most often, they come in the form of modifications (mods) for other games.
Spooky’s House of Jump Scares is truly one of the most ridiculous games ever made. You must make it through 1,000 rooms in a haunted mansion, only being able to save progress every 50. It starts simply and adorably, as cute wooden cut-outs pop out at you and other survival horror games are spoofed. That cuteness quickly turns to some of the most terrifying don’t-look-behind-you mechanics in video game history. What’s remarkable is how Spooky’s House of Jump Scares uses simple but well-implemented gameplay and level design to create a cute spoof of horror games that’s also more terrifying than 90 percent of its more costly competitors. If any game on this list is worth a play, it’s this one.
Cry of Fear is a standalone mod of the original Half-Life. Yes, the 1998 game. It looks far better than you’d expect. What its developers pull out of the engine is remarkable, especially in creating an atmospheric and detailed psychological horror game. The gameplay is decidedly old-school, and will require you to search the game’s environs well. You might even have to hit the occasional walkthrough, but Cry of Fear is a complete and compelling experience.
Portal Stories: Mel is a tricky mod for Portal 2 (though free, it does require the base game) that tells a new story in the Portal universe. The 22 puzzles are more stripped down and brainteaser-oriented than some of the busier elements in Valve’s Portal series. The atmosphere and level design are top-notch. It’s more or less an expansion pack for Portal 2. If you enjoyed either of the Portal games, consider this one part of the experience you’re missing.
Floating Point has to be mentioned. A scoreless platforming puzzle, you use momentum in a two-gravity space to swing a single, floating point around the map. The faster you go, the further the bars you collect extend and the quicker you can go to the next screen. Because there are no scores and no win- or fail-states, it becomes a game about fully understanding the game’s physics and your own timing. Exceptionally relaxing in quick bursts, the game can get your mind off a stressful day in a heartbeat.
Also try out Minerva, which is free but requires Half-Life 2: Episode One. Developer Adam Foster challenged himself to create more realistic architecture and level design than he saw in Half-Life 2, so he created a story within the Half-Life universe that was so well executed Valve not only endorsed Minerva as canon to their universe, but hired him on the spot to become part of Valve.
There are other quality games that simply lack stability. Their gameplay is fresh or their atmosphere is inventive, but they will crash and encounter bugs that make playing a chore. If you can get adventure game All is Dust, Half-Life themed strategy game Lambda Wars, or 2D platformer Super Crate Box to work reliably, you’ll have a good time. If you can’t, you’ll tear your hair out.
There are also a number of visual novels on Steam. Some are focused on story, while others are focused on titillation. Check the comments to be sure you’re getting into something worthwhile. For those who like visual novels, Steam offers some complex and profound stories about struggling with disease, trying to become an artist, and dealing with loss.