The $60 video game isn't going away anytime soon, but that doesn't mean you have to shell out big money if you want to play a triple-A title these days.
More and more big-name games are now offering free experiences. Even better, they're being made by some of the industry's top developers with the same cutting-edge graphics engines powering pricey releases. So long as you don't fall too far down the rabbit hole of microtransactions, you can have all sorts of fun without dropping a cent.
Looking to waste time, but not money? Start here.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2Valve's terrific team-based first-person shooter originally came out five years ago, but the developer reinvents it so frequently that it still feels like a new game. Last June, Valve made it free-to-play, opening it up to a new crowd of fans — and has made a mint through microtransactions such as weapons, armor and hats.
League of Legends
League of LegendsRiot Games' popular multiplayer battle arena game has been around for a few years, but has seen a big upsurge in popularity in recent months. Earlier this year, it captured the title of the most played PC game in the world. Be forewarned: it's got a pretty steep learning curve and a die-hard following, so don't expect success right off the bat.
Ghost Recon Online
Ghost Recon OnlineUbisoft has transformed its popular Ghost Recon franchise into an online multiplayer shooter that's entirely free to play, though of course players can enhance their arsenal by using either in-game points or microtransaction purchases. Ghost Recon Online won't mean the end of single-player Ghost Recon games or retail versions of the game, but it's a heckuva lot cheaper.
Battlefield Play4FreeThis browser-based online first-person shooter offers high-resolution art and a modern combat setting, but is a lot less demanding on your system than its AAA cousin, Battlefield 3. The gameplay is familiar, though, with the Assault, Medic, Engineer and Recon classes and real world vehicles.
Tribes AscendThere are plenty of free MMO shooters, sure, but very few feature jetpacks and skiing. Hi-Rez Studios released this latest incarnation of the belovedTribes franchise in April to critical acclaim. It's also a really good looking game, powered by the Unreal 3 engine and featuring a detailed ranking system.
Planetside 2Sony Online Entertainment is in the process of making all of its games free-to-play — and that includes Planetside 2. The sequel to 2003's massively multiplayer shooter is currently in beta and has been getting rave reviews from players. SOE has shied away from announcing a formal launch date, though, as it works to get the game balance just right.
DC Universe Online
DC Universe OnlineLike many other free to play games, DCUO started as a subscription-only game. But with SOE's transition to a free to play company, fans of Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman and more are now able to live out their spandex fantasies without coughing up coin.
Blacklight: RetributionZombie Studios' first-person shooter is a sequel to the popular title Blacklight: Tango Down. Like Tribes: Ascend, it's powered by the Unreal 3 engine and has received positive reviews since going live in April. It currently boasts a user base of over 1 million registered players.
SpelunkyLike a challenge? Then you'll love Spelunky. Though it's unquestionably a difficult game, it's a heck of a lot of fun, too. Friends might be chatting about the Xbox 360 version, which came out as a commercial game earlier this year, but you can play it for free on the PC.
Everquest IIIt might seem a bit long in the tooth, but EQ 2 boasts a very active player base and receives regular updates. It's also the first SOE game to receive the SOEmote technology, which uses a webcam to translate your real-world expressions to in-game ones. The game can also get you amped up for EverQuest: Next, Sony's next-generation Norrath-based MMO, which will also be free to play.
Microsoft FlightThough they launched this detailed sim earlier this year, Microsoft's not putting any future development into Microsoft Flight. But if you're a fan of the old Flight Simulator series, it's a must-have. Just don't expect it to evolve much.
Dust 514While most free-to-play games are PC-based, Dust 514 (currently in beta on the PlayStation 3) is a console title. Set within the Eve Online universe, Dust 514 will take place in that franchise and players will have direct interaction with Eve players.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
The Old Republic started as a typical MMO by charging upfront and tacking on monthly fees. Declining subscriptions forced EA to change its strategy, though, and it will drop the monthly subscription fee entirely this fall. It's also slashing the retail price down to $15. That's a pretty good deal for a game that cost $200 million to make.
Command & Conquer: Generals 2
The upcoming installment in this legendary real-time strategy series could easily be a $60 title. It uses the Frostbite engine that looked so spectacular in Battlefield 3 and, like The Old Republic, it was developed by Bioware. But EA opted to make it free-to-play instead. The multiplayer-only game is due in 2013 and is expected to be the first in a rebirth of the C&C series.
Love giant robots? So does Adhesive Games, who are planning big things with this giant mech game. Nominated for 20 awards at this year's E3, it's looking quite impressive. The beta's not yet underway, but sign-ups for it are.
Far Cry developer Crytek is known for its bleeding-edge graphics, so its pending entry in the free to play market came as a surprise to many people. A multiplayer military shooter set in the "near future," Warface will use the CryEngine 3 engine and is the first of many free to play games from the developer. Trion Games will publish the game later this year or possibly early 2013.
End of Nations
Trion Worlds will publish this massively-multiplayer strategy game (with heavy action elements) later this year. Expect epic battles with more than 50 simultaneous players. While there will be a paid option, the game will be free for anyone who wants to play.