Every month, we present you with a roundup of the best free PC games that have been recently released. What we haven't done before is sit down and think about all the best free PC games knocking around the internet at the moment, eventually formatting them into a big old list feature. We think it's about time we sorted that out.
Like PC Gamer's annual Top 100 , this isn't supposed to be a definitive declaration of the best games ever. It's a collection of titles that we think you should be playing right now. A snapshot in time, if you will. So at this moment, in May 2011, here's our favourite free or free-to-play games. Onwards!
Why it makes the list: Chris Sawyer's Transport Tycoon and Transport Tycoon Deluxe proved cult favourites when they were released in the 1990s. That might be why some dedicated fans took it upon themselves to remake the latter from scratch, making it open-source and adding a heap of features along the way. To this day OpenTTD continues to captivate its followers. Why not give it a go? You might happily become one of them.
Why it makes the list: You'll probably never play a stranger game. In Yumme Nikki, you play as a young girl as she succumbs to her terrifying nightmares. And, of course, tries to locate a bunch of different special powers which have pretty much no bearing on how the game plays out. Strange, warped, and difficult to find an English version of, this is a work of psychedelic madness that's worth experiencing, even if it's never anything approaching “fun”.
Why it makes the list: Valve unleashed Alien Swarm without much fanfare, but that's no indication of its quality. Originally a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, then rebuilt in the Source Engine, this top-down shooter sees you battling through alien-infested institutions with up to three co-op buddies. And it's a lot of tense, action-packed fun.
Why it makes the list: Smartly parodying iPhone hit Game Dev Story, this is an exceptionally witty release documenting one university graduate's attempt to embark on a career in games journalism. If you're generally familiar with the faces behind the words in the games publications you read, you might spot a few amusing cameos too, including former PC Gamer UK deputy editor Kieron Gillen.
Why it makes the list: Before Minecraft came along and blew everyone away, the indie game about building stuff was Wurm Online, a slow and plodding but rather atmospheric and engrossing MMO. The controls are awful, the visuals are frankly shit, and you do, admittedly, have to pay to do the best stuff. But the free version still ultimately blossoms into a fierce, challenging attempt to craft your own way through this tumultuous world.
Why it makes the list: You have just a few days until the world is supposed to end, and you're a scientist. Can you and your colleagues come up with something to divert this terrible disaster? And, since you might only have a few days left to spend with your family, do you even want to waste time trying? This is a short, emotive title that gives you just one choice - go to work or stay at home - but makes it resonate to a wonderful degree.
Why it makes the list: This free-to-play Battlefield title takes a lot of visual cues from Team Fortress 2, but puts them to use into a fun and silly third-person shooter with a fair few vehicular touches. It's about as straight-forward as multiplayer action gets these days, but it all runs in a browser, and it's rarely anything other than a delight, especially when you factor in the (lack of a) price tag.
Why it makes the list: You can only jump. But that's all you need to do. You're running away from something or someone, which is never explained, but it never needs to be. It's the simplicity of Canabalt that makes it what it is: a hugely exhilarating one-button platformer to which you're likely to become dangerously addicted.
Why it makes the list: No graphics. No sound. No monsters or action or strategy. Just simple puzzles, and lines of text, beautifully presented and profoundly moving. Photopia is, quite possibly, the smartest and most interesting text adventure around, and you can play it for free online. Its hour-long tale is confusing at first, but it slowly clicks into place - and in the moments when it does, its magic is basically unrivalled.
Why it makes the list: A deep and engrossing combination of roguelikes and city-building-sims, Dwarf Fortress is a nightmare of ASCII graphics and instant failure. In fact, think Wurm Online without the 3D visuals and anything resembling a decent tutorial, and you'll be on the right lines. But what makes Dwarf Fortress so fascinating, so unrelentingly brilliant, is its refusal to sit still: this is a game in which you can plan all you like, but very rarely predict an outcome.
Why it makes the list: Nethack was developed in 1987. And in all the years after that up until 2003. It's a traditional roguelike, again complete with brutal perma-death and ASCII graphics, the product of collaborative development over a huge amount of time. This is a game all about discovery, and many have scoured its dungeons for years attempting to find all its secrets. It's an undisputed PC classic.
Why it makes the list: With the launch of Good Old Games in 2008, this classic cyberpunk adventure - from point-and-click masters Revolution Software - lost its price tag. While it's certainly dated now, Beneath a Steel Sky is a masterful work of storytelling, complete with decent puzzles to boot, and blows many modern adventure games - ones with very real prices attached - out of the water.
Why it makes the list: There are those who would say Passage isn't worth your time. It's over in five minutes, and there's only minimal interaction. But this small but beautifully constructed art game from Jason Rohrer - who went on to make Sleep Is Death, picking up a 90% score in PC Gamer in the process - is surprisingly moving for a thing of its size. The game asks what you want out of life, and then shows you how the passage of time will make this play out as you wander from left to right towards the inevitable. A lovely thing.
Why it makes the list: Budding writer Christine Love emerged out of nowhere to create a computer game last year. Part Uplink-alike, part visual novel, Digital tells the story of a lonely teenager in the late 1980s, sitting in front of a computer at the dawn of the internet. There are basic puzzles littered throughout, but this is mainly about the fantastic presentation of the story, and the strikingly original touches Love has bestowed upon it. An hour of gorgeously crafted, personality-imbued indie gaming.
Why it makes the list: System Shock 2 might get all the plaudits most of the time, but the original 1994 game can still hold its own. It's a tense, forward-thinking action adventure that did things most shooters weren't even dreaming of at the time - like trying to tell a complex and involved story, for example. Since it's effectively been deemed abandonware, you can play the whole game from either your hard drive or a USB stick for no money whatsoever. And you should: it was a real milestone, a landmark in PC gaming history.
Why it makes the list: This huge 4X strategy game is a little out of the ordinary. Instead of joining your friends for play sessions at the same time, attempting to take over the galaxy in one complete burst, Neptune's Pride is designed to be played over a period of weeks, as everyone battles for control over every star available.
Its exceptionally slow pace encourages careful planning, strategising away from the computer screen, and striking up deals with opposing players outside of the game itself. There are so many options to consider.
That's why Neptune's Pride was our webgame of the year for 2010. For a sense of quite how involved this game is, try reading the diary of our one-month battle with Rock, Paper, Shotgun .
Why it makes the list: It's best to know as little as possible about Gravity Bone before you play it, otherwise you'll ruin the precise reason why it's so exceptional.
Know that it's by Brendon Chung, a.k.a. Blendo Games, the guy who went on to create the likes of Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher. Know it uses the Quake II engine to create a sort of abstract cartoon world of spies and suave parties. Know it's brilliant.
Don't know what you're asked to do in it. Don't know anything about the story. Don't know how it ends, or which rules it breaks in the process. Do play it, immediately.
Why it makes the list: Here at PC Gamer we'll always big up Id Software's seminal online shooter Quake III Arena in any way we can. And that's especially true when you can play it for absolutely no coins at all.
Arena is certainly ageing now, and has probably been bettered in its field overall. But to this day, no game has managed to match its ludicrous tempo, its sheer sense of kinetic energy, and its masterful map design.
Quake Live is Quake III in a browser. It runs just as smoothly, looks just as good, and is just as much of a tremendous riot as you remember from all those years ago. Essential playing if you have an internet connection and a sensible taste in multiplayer games.
Why it makes the list: On the surface, it looks like a simple platformer. You're an explorer, delving deep into a network of caves, trying to avoid the scheming enemies and deadly traps that reside within. So far, so standard - even if its levels are procedurally generated each time you start the game.
But it's only when you start to push at the outer limits of what you think Spelunky can do that you realise quite how remarkable this game is. Derek Yu has created a game that encourages you to be cheeky, and rewards you for breaking the rules every so often. It's also unfathomably tight as a platformer, and while it's brutally difficult, it's a challenge you quickly learn to work with, rather than resent.
The environments change as you plough on through, and there are plenty of secrets to be found. I still haven't completed the bloody thing after two years, as there's no save feature and I'm simply not good enough, but it's still one of my favourite games in the world, free or otherwise.
Why it's top of the list: The Lord of the Rings Online has always been an impressive MMO, complete with interesting quests, beautiful visuals and a sense of Tolkenian atmosphere that few other fantasy games have managed to conjure up. And now it's operating on a micro-transaction basis, making it essentially free-to-play until you want to dip your toes into more of the content.
It's at around level 20 when LotRO starts to become a little more skimpy with what it gives away for free, and that might irritate players who've really got stuck into the game by that point. But it's a sensible business decision - one that those behind the game have confirmed has been extremely fruitful.
And until then, you're getting hour upon hour of one of the best MMOs on the market, in a way that feels like the game just can't resist giving you yet another freebie treat.
Wrote Tom Senior in PC Gamer's review : “Every time I reached a new level, a mysterious gift package would appear in my inventory. Unwrapping the package revealed a cluster of free items. Oh look, a whistle that gives me a free mount for a day, and an experience scroll, And what's this? A strange letter that starts a special quest when read. These gifts, along with Deeds, and the hundreds of quests already in the game, all feed into the sense of constant incremental success that papers over Lord of the Rings Online's lack of innovation. It may be formulaic, but it's one hell of an addictive formula.”
And that's that, then. Do you agree? Disagree? Of course you disagree: it's a list feature. Pipe up in the comments below, and tell us what you think are the best free PC games available.