According to the Entertainment Software Association demographic research, 56% of Americans are now playing video games, but while we may be a crowd not all of us have the cash for the habit. For those of us working on shoe-strings, $60 for that new blockbuster console title, even if you're going to get 100 or more hours of play with it, is just not in the budget. So what's a broke gamer, or even a commitment-phobe newbie, to do? Free to Play!
Here are 4 great options:
Neverwinter and Star Wars: The Old Republic
If you are interested in a MMO (massively multiplayer online game) Neverwinter and Star Wars: The Old Republic are both great choices. Neverwinter is a Dungeons and Dragons-type game with all the trimmings. Play as one of the now fantasy standard races -- elves, humans, halflings, etc. -- against the rising tide of darkness. The graphics are beautiful, the baddies satisfying, and the flexible hover to attack fighting machines make the games easy to start playing while also feeling diverse as you gain more abilities.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) was a personal favorite of mine back when it was still a subscription game. You choose factions at the game's start: Galactic Republic or Sith Empire. Both have versions of Jedi (both ranged and melee), Smugglers, and Troopers, each with their own special abilities. Much of the play, adventuring over planets, collecting missions, and working too hard to bring down the other faction can be done alone or with an in-game guild. Make sure you also try Huttball, a PvP warzone located on a neutral planet in the Star Wars universe, made up of fire pits and end zones. Knocking an enemy into a burner is just the best.
Both Star Wars: The Old Republic and Neverwinter feature full worlds and the chance to play with your friends or make new ones without paying a dime. There will, of course, be the option to shell out a few bucks to snazz up your character with a fancier outfit or vehicle, cooler-looking weapons, or even the opportunity to find rare items or crafting materials, but the game is great without all that. It's a temptation you'll just have to resist, like true Jedi.
The delightful music soothes your nerves as you explore this whimsical mini-golf map. But don't let the small scale fool you, the tiny map is modular and changes as you play. Grass is mowed by a herd of cows who themselves get abducted by a waiting UFO. Your ball drops into a crashed submarine and you have to play through an expanded diagram of its major parts. You ford an impossible isometric river and deactivate a stonehenge force field. It's imaginative and clean and with its no-fail progression, as long as you eventually get the ball in, you are allowed to move on to the next hole. This game is totally free on Kongregate. Check it out when you are in the mood to be charmed.
If you like whimsy, but Wonderputt is just too peaceful for you, try Dungeonland, a very self-aware hack-and-slash cooperative through a funhouse amusement park of danger. It's an overwhelming, exuberant mess. One second you are being charged by fireball-spewing cherub-like dragons and the next by a swarm of diminutive wizards, all the while cute bystander sheep are being roasted to death by errant missiles. It's a great time. But not only can you play as one of the adventurers, one lucky jerk gets to play as the Maestro, dealing out the monsters and bosses the rest of the party must face. You will die frequently and spectacularly, but keep your sense of humor about you, after all the streets of Dungeonland are lit by unicorn giraffes. The free version contains one of the game's four stages (and yes some may call that a demo), but that demo is bigger than all of Wonderputt, so maybe just take your free where you can get it.
As with all free-to-play, these games have their own methods of funding; most use micropayments to access certain levels or equipment. This shouldn't deter interested players however, there is plenty of gameplay to be had without the cool factor of showing off your fancy new purchased duds. If you just want to play, free fun is at hand.