Games are expensive. Want to play the latest headline-grabbing entry from EA or Activision? Be prepared to shell out $60…or $100 for the real version with a name like “Ultimate Edition.” Maybe that’s why so many developers are extending their horizons into the free-to-play arena. Here are ten online multiplayer shooters you can play without spending a dime.
Team Fortress 2: Windows, macOS, and Linux
Valve’s commercial sequel to a beloved Quake mod has become synonymous with team-based first-person shooters. After a decade in active development, Team Fortress 2 is still extremely popular, and the small smattering of initial modes has been expanded to an incredible variety of play styles. Nine classes ooze with Pixar-style personality (if Pixar made R-Rated video games), and the graphics are simple enough that the game can run quite well even on most laptops.
Team Fortress 2 started out as a paid game, but it’s now free and supported by purchases of in-game weapons, cosmetic items, and keys for randomized crates. All items can be earned randomly through playing, or by crafting from other items or trading with players. Sadly, the free-to-play update was not made available to console players, so only PC players get in for free.
Warframe: Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One
Warframe is a different take on modern shooters, with a third-person perspective and a unique sci-fi art style for characters and environments. Players customize their avatars with different mods for agility, defense, and attack, and collect new weapons and modifications through multiplayer combat or co-op missions versus computer-controlled bots. Warframe is visually striking with an action-oriented movement system and a focus on flexible customizations over rigid classes. It remains popular with frequent content updates.
Players can buy new guns, mods, and other customizations with in-game currency or credits purchased with real money. DLC packs on Steam bundle themed upgrades together.
Unreal Tournament: Windows, macOS, and Linux
The name “Unreal Tournament” should make little bells go off in the head of anyone who remembers the early days of online shooters. The latest release in the long-running series keeps the fast-paced, big-gun FPS deathmatch action, but switches to a free-to-play format. The current version of the game is still in pre-alpha, but it already has a healthy and growing population of players. The game brings new weapons and interesting powers to the arena-based format of the original, while focusing on classic modes like capture the flag and base assault.
The game is in continual development with help from the community, and right now all modes and in-game items are free. After the full release a marketplace for mods and add-ons will help to support its continued upkeep.
Blacklight: Retribution: Windows and PlayStation 4
Fans of modern military shooters will find a lot to like in Blacklight: Retribution. The near-future setting is fodder for some fun weapon and armor designs, but the slower and more precise pace makes this game kin to the likes of Modern Warfare. Most of the included modes are team-based player-versus-player affairs, but those looking for less confrontational action can shoot hordes of zombies in co-op or AI opponents for practice. A short power-up allows players to instantly hone in on objectives and see enemies through walls.
Retribution is quite popular, with an install base at over a million, but its monetization system has been criticized. Free players have to pay real money for “Z Coins” to unlock special weapons, but a one-time $5 payment for a Prime account can make most items attainable with in-game currency.
Tribes Ascend: Windows Only
The Tribes series is famous for its jetpacks and skis that make rocket-powered matches fast and frantic. Ascend brings it all to gamers for free. The high speed, huge environments, and plentiful vehicles should be familiar territory for Halo fans, and character mods like stealth or jetpacks keep extended matches interesting. It’s not the most visually demanding game, but that means it should be playable on older systems, too.
Weapons and cosmetic items can be purchased with real money or in-game currency. The $10 Ultimate Weapons pack adds a variety of weapons featured in previous DLC packs.
Planetside 2: Windows and PlayStation 4
If you prefer your shooters with a little MMO on the side, this game can throw you into a server with thousands of other players at once. The central conflict in Planetside 2 is persistent: the kills and victories you win for your side will help it defeat the other two game-spanning factions. An RPG-style progression system rewards players who are in it for the long haul, specializing in specific combat roles.
Gameplay upgrades and cosmetic items can be purchased directly with real money, or players can earn experience points and upgrades faster with a $15 per month subscription, very much like a conventional MMO.
Warface: Windows and Xbox 360
Warface is kind of like a blue-blooded aristocrat: it has a slightly ridiculous name, but you can’t argue with the pedigree. It’s developed by Crytek, the same people behind the Crysis and Far Cry series, making it one of the most visually impressive free-to-play games on the market. Far Cry players will feel right at home with the realistic conventional weapons and fluid movement system, including vertical climbs and slides through the small team-based deathmatch arenas. Four classes duke it out in player-versus-player or player-versus-environment modes.
Players and weapons have cosmetic skins. Weapons can be upgraded via attachments, which can be rented or purchased with in-game credits and premium currency bought with real money. There are also experience boosters and permanent paid DLC upgrades available on steam.
Gigantic: Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One
This colorful free-to-play shooter places the action in third person, to better enable its MOBA-style elements. That means that two separate teams in Gigantic duke it out for control of a medium-sized maps, upgrading specific points to spawn creatures or give stat bonuses to the team. Each team has a computer-controlled giant monster that functions as both its home base to be defended and its ultimate attack weapon. If you want to play a shooter with unique character designs, distinct combat roles, and a focus on strategy over pure combat, this is it.
Gigantic uses a MOBA-style payment system: its various heroes are on a rotating trial, and you have to pay with either in-game experience or real money to unlock each one permanently. Cosmetic skins can also be purchased in the same way.
Paladins: Windows, macOS, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One
Paladins is known in the gaming community as “the free-to-play Overwatch.” That might be a bit unfair, but it’s hard to deny that the colorful heroes and team-based shooter gameplay have a lot in common with Blizzard’s smash hit. The characters have distinct powers but separate into broad roles. But in addition to king of the hill, payload, and control point maps, Paladins includes deathmatches, and co-op player-versus-environment modes. The cartoony characters are charming, even when they’re blowing your face off, and a card system adds an element of unpredictability to the multiplayer brawls.
Characters must be unlocked in-game with currency, but a $20 “Founder’s Pack” purchase will unlock all current and future “Champions” and a few other goodies. Additional characters, cosmetics, and cards can be purchased with premium currency. The game is in beta at the moment.
Toxikk: Windows Only
The developers of Toxikk say that it’s designed to hearken back to a simpler time, with small arenas, fast action, big guns, and all the corners cut off. The game looks and moves really well, with maps designed for fast, vertical combat. Unfortunately it’s experiencing something of a player drought at the moment: the public servers available to free players are often empty.
The game’s complete complement of guns, maps, and vehicles are all included in the free version, but a $15 upgrade unlocks the server browser, bot play, player bounties, character customization, mod support, and a map editor. After the upgrade there are no more in-game micropayments.
Honorable Mention: Hawken: Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One
Hawken isn’t a conventional shooter, since all of the player combat takes place within giant futuristic mechs. But the action is much faster than simulator-style games like Mechwarrior, making it much more of a shooter experience. The small maps (you know, for giant robots) and customizable vehicles and weapons keeps the combat fresh, and the gritty, high-powered graphics should satisfy gamers looking for a visual treat.
The mechs, weapons, cosmetics, and mods can all be purchased with in-game currency, which can be boosted with infusions of real money. Some premium cosmetics can only be bought with real money, but all competitive elements are available to all free players.