Not only have PC games never been cheaper, they've never been reduced in price so fast. That hot new release may cost you between £30 and £35 when it comes out, but you can safely expect that to drop by 15, 25 or sometimes even 75% over the next few months. Digital distribution services such as Steam and Good Old Games are constantly running sales and promotions. If you wait, you usually get the best version of the game, and often all its DLC bundled for free.
What do you do with the money you save?
You buy more games! Take some risks! Try more genres! Maybe there was something that caught your eye back in the day, but you didn't have £30 to gamble on actually liking turnbased strategy games, or not being put off by a score of 70%. Maybe classics such as Psychonauts or Sacrifice simply slipped your attention at release, and you just never got around to catching up. Maybe you're simply attracted by a screenshot or a funny description. For £5, it doesn't really matter whether a game is an unsung gem, or just something to pass the time on a dark, rainy evening.
Of course, we've set our sights a little higher, tracking down the best games that you can buy online for under £15, £10 and £5, as well as a selection of formerly commercial games that have officially been re-released as freeware. We've avoided a few, such as Deus Ex, in the name of giving some less-recognised games a turn in the spotlight, and of course, there'll be sales on now that there weren't at the time of writing. If the game you want isn't cheap enough yet, just hold fire. With digital distribution, you'll rarely wait very long.
While it may only be a snack compared to the banquet promised by Diablo 3, we all enjoy a Mars bar now and again. Torchlight understood like few others what makes action-RPGs fun, with satisfying combat and simple but effective tweaks to the format – such as being able to send your pet back to town to sell unwanted kit instead of wasting your time walking. The sequel arrives later this year, but the first game is still perfect popcorn entertainment.
Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box
Slam the pedal to the metal in one of the first – and still one of the most entertaining – open-world racing games. It looks good, feels good, and you won't want for speed as you race around Paradise City in search of races to win and stuff to smash into. There's even a dedicated Crash Mode to show off in, so you really can claim that you really meant to total your car, honest.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Only one game has earned the right to be seen as a potential successor to Deus Ex – and it's not Invisible War. Bloodlines' shooting side is piss-weak, but the RPG elements more than make up for it. Install the fan patches, though: the official version lags far behind what it can be.
Monkey Island Bundle
Two of the most beloved adventure games ever, updated and in one package. The Secret of Monkey Island remake was slightly underwhelming, but remains worth playing for the series' place in history. Monkey Island 2, on the other hand, was a phenomenal upgrade to a far better game, with excellent voices, great repainted artwork, and a (sadly short) in-game commentary from its original creators. Both are available individually for £7 apiece if you only need one. The episodic continuation, Tales of Monkey Island, is still £25.
Pity poor BioShock 2. Cursed with having to try and continue a game that most people agreed was already finished off quite nicely, thanks, then almost immediately overshadowed by BioShock Infinite, it's no wonder it sank with fewer traces than its own underwater city setting. But here's the thing: it's an excellent sequel, with some terrific storytelling and better level design than the first game. While it may look like the first game, it ends up as a complete thematic inversion, with some achingly wonderful emotional scenes.
Batman: Arkham Asylum: Game of the Year Edition
Hands-down the greatest superhero game ever made, turning you into the predator striking from the shadows. Bat-feel enemies' fear as you Bat-defuse situations with quick Bat-thinking. Writing by Paul Dini and the voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are just the cherries on a dark but awesome cake.
Super Meat Boy
How to describe one of the best platformers in years? Think frustration. Pain. Death. Replay. Saws. Explosions. Frustration. Frustration. More Frustration. Impossible. Missiles. Hell. Slippery. Meat. Platforms. Comedy. Massacre. Replay. Frustration. Agony. Smashed controller. 8-bit. Punishment. Frustration. Jump. Explode. Jump. Luck. Fate. Precision. VICTORY!
Oblivion: Game of the Year Edition
Not only one of the best RPGs in recent years, but the perfect way to get ready for Skyrim. This includes the standard game, plus both expansions – the dull Knights of the Nine, and the far more interesting Shivering Isles. For another £5, you can get the Deluxe edition, which comes with all the Oblivion DLC – but don't worry too much about missing out.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Prepare to enter a world of survival horror that's as good at frightening you with silence as monsters. Amnesia is a masterpiece, turning one of gaming's most generic premises into an unforgettably scary experience. At this price, it's worth turning the lights off, your speakers up, and taking the gamble that you'll still be able to play after a few levels.
All three of the original Fallout games in one pack. Fallout remains the fan-favourite, with its dark humour but serious setting. Fallout 2 eased back a little, with more overt parodies and the best city in any Fallout so far – New Reno, where you can do anything from take out trash to become a porn star. The third, Tactics, is a combat-focused spin-off that can safely be ignored.
Red Faction Guerrilla
Guerrilla is about smashing stuff. It pretends that it's about saving Mars from tyranny or some such nonsense, but you can happily forget that right now. It's about hammers and bombs and explosions and the satisfaction of seeing big buildings come toppling down. Slip the difficulty down to avoid a few annoyances with the AI and combat systems getting in your way, and it's a satisfaction that lasts right to the end of the game. So many games hand out powerful weapons; this is one of the few where they really do damage.
Saints Row 2
Saints Row 2 is Grand Theft Auto before it cut its own balls off. GTA might pretend to be anarchic, but it's only here that you can drive a septic truck on a mission to splatter hookers and johns alike with effluent. This game doesn't cross the line: it plays hopscotch with it. And God, it's brilliant.
Another World is arty and... er... not as much fun as people remember. But! It's more than simply a game; it's a piece of gaming archeology. Few other games have ever created a world so alien with so little.
Broken Sword Trilogy
Revolution remains one of the UK's most beloved adventure gaming houses, and the first three Broken Sword games are easily their masterpieces. They're beautiful games, weaving interesting historical stories – the Knights Templar, Mayan mythology and Voynich Manuscript, respectively – that send you around the world. All three are excellent and largely unblemished by age.
Neverwinter Nights: Diamond Edition
Pop quiz: name the biggest RPG ever. WoW? Not even close. Daggerfall? Probably, you smart-arse. In a solid second place however, there's Neverwinter Nights. The original campaign is pure crap, but what you're really buying is access to all the great fan-made content out there.
Do you like fun? Do you long to see games that play by their own rules? Did you play Psychonauts? If not, you're a hypocrite. But you can atone. It's not the greatest platformer ever, but you'll find few games as bursting with leaps of 'how the hell did they come up with this?' logic. Also, you get to set people on fire with the power of your mind.
Trying to describe The Void is largely futile, but here goes: it's a game about life and death, colour and blood. You're trapped between states, harvesting colour to survive and feeding the bizarre (usually naked) denizens trapped with you. Got that? You don't know the half of it. If you ever feel that games are getting a bit samey, and crave a challenge that's as unusual as it is epic, this is for you. You may love it. You may hate it. You'll definitely find it an original, unforgettable experience.
Baldur's Gate 2
Baldur's Gate 2 is the only RPG that gives Planescape a run for its money, serving up something much more traditional, but far more epic. The sweeping plot stumbles a bit in the original story, but picks up with a vengeance for the included expansion, Throne of Bhaal, which levels your main character up to literally god-like levels of power
Most RPGs give you a quest. Torment simply gives you a question: what can change the nature of a man? To find the answer, you'll need to travel between dimensions and unravel arguably the greatest, most intelligent game ever written. Treating both philosophy and standard RPG tropes as its playthings, it's not just a great game: it's an absolute must-play.
Age of Wonders 2: Shadow Magic
Turn-based strategy in the fine tradition of Heroes of Might and Magic, with some excellent visuals. The AI isn't incredible but it serves its purpose, with a random map generator to keep things more interesting. It's a good intro to the style, and a great example of it if you've simply lost touch with the genre of late.
King's Bounty: The Legend
Alternatively to Shadow Magic, there's King's Bounty. It's also a stack-based, turn-by-turn strategy game, but with one very important twist: it's insane. The follow-ups improved the core action, but at the expense of some of the original's individualism – such as the shock at realising that you can shrink down and have fights in your own equipment to improve it. The only downside is that it's far from a welcoming game, and will happily beat you round the face and neck with your own incompetence the first few times you play. Set aside some time if you've never played a game like this before.
Space Rangers 2
Space, as a wise man once said, is big. In Space Rangers, it's also ridiculously free-form, starting you out with a small ship and some vague murmurs about saving the universe, then cutting you loose to do whatever the heck you feel like. Adventure-style dialogues. RPG development. A little light conquest. It's your ship; it's your choice. Who knows, you might even take care of the robots threatening to destroy randomly-generated civilisation as we know it.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
The best Tomb Raider of recent years… isn't really a Tomb Raider game at all. Guardian of Light pulls the camera back, replacing the usual 3D platforming with a new, simpler version geared purely around fun and challenge. The story is bilge, but the puzzles are fantastic, regardless of whether you're playing through on your own or teaming up with a friend. You can blitz through the story in no time, but working your way through the optional challenges takes a good while longer.
The Pandora Directive
Full motion video. Shudder. The days when it ruled the world were… dark. Even in complete darkness, though, you occasionally see a spark of light – and few shone brighter than the Tex Murphy interactive movies. This was by far the best, mixing a 3D world with surprisingly good video to tell a captivating story of an old-school PI in the future, deep in a conspiracy stretching back to the Roswell incident.
Far Cry 2
Far Cry 2 landed to much acclaim, then somewhat fizzled out. It's still one of the more successful openworld shooters, though – not just for its more hardcore approach to combat, but for the moral questions and unusual themes it plays with. You're the worst mercenary ever, heading into Africa without preparing for malaria, then stuck in a situation where all you can really hope to do is make the situation slightly less bad for all concerned without collapsing to your death.
The tragedy of Freespace 2 is that over a decade later, it's still the best space-shooter ever made. To play it is to curse the industry for letting the genre simply fade away. On the plus side, to finish it is to have the perfect excuse for some of the many fan-made campaigns.
The Last Express
It's the eve of World War 1, and the Orient Express is unknowingly making its final journey across Europe before hostilities break out. This real-time adventure is a true classic, with no expense spared on atmosphere – from getting native speakers to play characters from across Europe, to meticulously recreating the cars on board the train itself. It's a magical, if occasionally slow, journey, and one guaranteed to stick with you long after the Orient Express reaches its final destination.
Puzzle Agent is the closest we have to a series like Professor Layton, with its quirky charm already netting a sequel later this year. The puzzles are tied together with a simple, surreal story, and while they're not always inspired, they hit a good balance between being simple enough to avoid frustration, and complex enough to feel satisfying when cracked.
Master of Orion 1 + 2
Ask a hundred 4X fans to name their favourite game of the genre, and Master of Orion 2 will almost certainly end up the winner. (Just don't ask about 3 if you want to get out alive – that game still has many bad memories attached to it). An epic game of strategy, diplomacy and discovery, and one whose age has done little to diminish its charms. Very few games have even come close to replicating its success, with the possible exception of Galactic Civilizations II. Which costs more.
With Gabriel Knight, Jane Jensen created one of the best adventure game heroes around – a failed horror author who suddenly finds himself the heir to a monster-hunting legacy. At this price, the first two are terrific if you want a genuinely absorbing story, from a genuinely great adventure designer.
In another universe, Outcast was a platform-defining game. In ours, its high systemrequirements and lack of support for 3D accelerator cards made it a cult classic, but nothing more. But wait! Now, we all have computers that can chew up this amazing RPG shooter hybrid. Give it enough time, and it'll reward you with an adventure that just keeps on giving.
Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich
Freedom Force is a game about love – not in the sense that the characters defeat Hitler by kissing, but for its devotion to the excesses of Silver Age comics. The cast can't get enough of bellowing catchphrases in shiny spandex, and you can also make your own underwear-confused heroes to send out instead.
You'll learn to fear simple squares, circles and diamonds, even as you master the arts of blowing them away on the constantly fluctuating board of shimmering plasma. Your only goal is to survive long enough to set a high score – ultimate defeat is guaranteed. The trick is in building up a big score multiplier, and then staying alive long enough to actually make use of it.
X-COM: UFO Defence
The original X-Com, and still the best. It's not the easiest strategy game to get into – we advise watching some Let's Plays on YouTube – but it's one of the most satisfying. From the world map, you build bases to fight back against an endless stream of aliens. On the ground, a turn-based isometric combat system will have you biting your nails every time you step out into battle.
Hitman: Blood Money
Any old murderer can kill someone by emptying a clip of bullets into his face, but Hitman has little tolerance for such amateurism. It's about the joy of a plan coming together – dressing up as an actor to take out another with a real gun instead of the intended prop. It took IO several attempts, but Blood Money finally got it right. It's the ultimate murder sim, in desperate need of a sequel.
The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
He's an evil, pie-stealing, self-cloning machine! And he's hungry. PB Winterbottom is a clever-gimmick platformer along the lines of Braid, but with far less pretension. The specific gimmick is being able to record actions, then continue playing the level while your previous incarnations carry them out – pressing buttons, flipping see-saws and carefully timing dashes to retrieve delicious pie from the most inconvenient places. The retro monochrome look adds to the charm, and the puzzling itself is satisfying, but never too hard.
Independence War Deluxe
If you've already played Freespace, or find regular space-shooters a little too primitive for your liking, there's the Independence War series, which brings real physics to space combat. The first instalment is the most hardcore. The second tones the difficulty down a lot, adding some Elite-style trading and Privateer-esque plot advancement. If you only pick one, go with that – but prepare to give it quite a bit of time before you feel entirely comfortable getting into fights and successfully pulling off stunts in zero-gravity.
This cult strategy classic never got the attention it deserved at launch, but even today, it's worth taking a punt. Its up-close-and-personal approach to strategy kept things fast and furious, giving you access to game-changing powers in the middle of combat, as well as an army of loyal minions to do your bidding. It was a funny game too, though: full of bickering gods and great one-liners. Unlike many strategy games of the time, the tech and AI remain good enough for it to still be playable, and there still are no modern successors to make it feel as old as it otherwise might.
Beyond Good and Evil
Very few people who played Beyond Good and Evil didn't end up loving it. Unfortunately, thanks to bad marketing and a meaningless name, very few people actually played it, full stop. It's an amazing game – an epic quest, a beautiful world, a superb heroine and a soundtrack to die for. By the point that most games start to feel old, Beyond Good and Evil has yet to even unfold everything it has to offer. There's supposedly a sequel on the way, but nobody's heard anything about it for years. To play the original game is to know precisely why you should care about this.
One of the few modern RPGs to even be mentioned in the same breath as games such as Ultima VII, and easily big and complex enough to fight in the same arena. If anything, it's slightly too big, but that's absolutely fine if you want a quest that you can settle into and play for the long haul. Skip the sequel, Beyond Divinity, though. Even fans of the series will usually agree that it wasn't very good, and that you'd be better off rejoining the action in the actual Divinity 2, though that's yet to have a big price cut.
Grand Theft Auto
Nobody would have predicted that this simple top-down shooter – fun though it was – would one day be a billiondollar franchise. It was a pure arcade game, right down to the fact that missions were simply a way of earning the points that you needed to unlock other cities. The sequel moved the action into the future and added a faction system, but for our money, the first was the better of the two games. You can download both of them for free, though, and find out for yourself. Be warned, however: they're rat-bastard hard.
King's Quest III
King's Quest III is either one of the oldest adventures around, or the newest. The original is from 1986, but this complete remake comes from just a little earlier this year. It keeps most of the game as it was in the original, but boosts the graphics to snazzy 256-colour VGA, tweaks some of the puzzles (the original featured a couple of very long sections where nothing much happened) and performs other important tweaks. You don't need to know the first two King's Quest games to follow it, but they've also been remade.
Beneath a Steel Sky
Ever since it became freeware, BASS has become the adventure equivalent of an old Doctor Who episode – a comfortable, nostalgic and unmistakably British bit of sci-fi you can just slip into and enjoy. It's not a desperately long game, nor particularly tricky, but thanks to some fantastic world-building, it's very entertaining to pick your way through.
Top-down shooters have never really been the PC's thing, but this former shareware gave it a damn good go. The levels themselves are much as you'd expect, sending you against wave after wave of enemies to be blown up. The extras are impressive, too – from the story told in emails between missions, to the number of ships you can upgrade to.
Star Control 2
The problem with many 4X games is that they can be a little dull. Star Control 2 is anything but. It's more adventurous than many adventure games, and there's real enjoyment in building the perfect fleet. Keep a walkthrough to hand, though – SC2 is firmly from an era when letting you get into unwinnable situations was acceptable, and it's easy to find yourself snookered.
If you'd rather play free Sierra games the old-fashioned way, try out Sarien.net. Thanks to an agreement with Activision, you don't need to feel guilty about it, and they're almost exactly the same as the originals. The only addition is the multiplayer support for chatting with other people in their single-player adventures. It tends to be a low-traffic site though, so usually you're still going to be on your own.
Quest for Glory II
Another Sierra remake, but a very different game to King's Quest. Quest for Glory II is an adventure/RPG hybrid, often held up as the best of a very popular series. Set in the desert land of Shapeir, you can be a Fighter, Magic User or Thief, each with a customised main quest. This remade version switches the parserbased interface for point-andclick, and replaces many of the more frustrating moments.
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Whether you enjoy this will depend on your tolerance for an adventure that doesn't merely hate you, but actively wants you to fail. The puzzles make little sense, and the unwinnable situations are cruel. If it didn't have the licence attached, it would likely be referred to as crap. But it does have the license, and on its own terms it can be fun.
One Must Fall 2097
It's sad, but this is the closest that the PC has ever had to a commercial Street Fightertype game it could be proud of. Don't let its simple looks fool you: it's still an extremely entertaining game, with an excellent main campaign and plenty of robots to aspire to owning and upgrading. There was a fancy 3D sequel, but it bit off more than it could chew and vanished without a trace.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert
When playing an older game, it doesn't hurt to choose one that already relied on retro charm. This clash between Soviets and Allies takes place after Einstein had the wicked wheeze of going back in time to assassinate Hitler. The chunky graphics still hold their appeal, even if the AI now has all the power of a particularly stupid potato.
The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
How big do you want your games? A couple of towns? An overworld map pretending to be a continent? Daggerfall is 487,000 square kilometres, containing 15,000 towns, and you can walk over every last inch of it if you're crazy enough to actually want to. Most of it is unsurprisingly quite empty, but there's a seriously impressive collection of guilds, factions, quests and more to get involved with beyond the main quest. It's an odd game, but an immersive one – and one you won't be done with any time soon if it gets its hooks in.
MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries
What happened to the stompy-mech genre? We miss it. We miss the scale, the heavy ordnance, the squish of passersby under our giant metal legs. MechWarrior 4 was one of the last games to offer this kind of action, but there's some consolation: it's free, and it's had several expansions since becoming so. Download it here, complete with the extra MekPaks, and relive the experience of towering over the battlefield. And, quite likely, the experience of tumbling down towards the battlefield, walking tanks being Very Silly Indeed.
Some games need no introduction, and Elite is on that list. The original space trading simulator may no longer be a technical showpiece, but it's where the whole genre started. Of course, that's just a cover for the real reason to hit the site. Three words: Elite: The Musical. Not many audio files, sadly, but your mind can fill in the blanks.
Ground Control put the tactics back into real time strategy, making the bold decision to throw out bases and resources to simply focus on set units. A bit like real war, where the first part of the battle is very rarely 'build a functional, economically viable city'. You need to sign up to FilePlanet to get a key, but the download is free. Don't expect to find many other players, but there's still a small active community if you look around.
To PC gamers, this is best known as 'those smelly Mac games Bungie did before finally making Halo'. To Mac gamers, they're 'those amazing Mac games Bungie did before selling out with Halo'. Either way, they're an interesting slice of history – a series of very story-driven Doom-style shooters, fully playable on PC thanks to an open-source version of the engine. Just download the player, AlephOne, and drop it into a directory of data files to play the games.