20 free PC games you must play

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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!

20. OpenTTD

Grab it from the website.

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.

19. Yume Nikki

Rapidshare seems to be the net's only trace of it.

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”.

18. Alien Swarm

Get it on Steam.

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.

17. Games Journo Story

Grab it from the dev's blog.

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.

16. Wurm Online

Get it on the website.

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.

15. One Chance

Play it on Newgrounds.

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.

14. Battlefield Heroes

Play it on the website.

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.

13. Canabalt

Run along to the dev's website.

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.

12. Photopia

Play it on iFiction.

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.

11. Dwarf Fortress

Grab it from the developer's website.

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.