Gone are the days where free games equated to ropey puzzle games and knock-off clones of games that had a price tag. These days, courtesy of in-app payments and the ease of offering both a sample of title alongside its full-fat version, there's actually plenty of great games to play without spending a dime. Put your card away, and consider this your starting point.
Although Fortnite is without a doubt the most popular free-to-play battle royale game, that doesn't mean you won't have a great time with the rest of the bunch. Apex Legends is the perfect example of that. From the studio that brought you Titanfall, Apex is a 60-player deathmatch with teams consisting of three people each. The goal is for your team to be the last one standing in Kings Canyon, where you'll have to loot and fight your way to survival using characters like Octane, an adrenaline junkie whose ultimate move is deploying a jump pad that catapults you into the air for sneak attacks.
You can download it and use the majority of Apex's characters without having to spend any money. That said, you will have to shell out some cash to access to certain content, including weapon skins and new characters such as Wattson, the savvy electrical engineer who was added in Apex Legends season two on July 2nd. If you don't like the cartoonish aspect of Fortnite, and if you're a fan of the action-packed Titanfall gameplay, it doesn't get much better than Apex. EA
Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club looks like any other dating sim. It plays like any other dating sim. Until it doesn't, and then you're rocking yourself to sleep and trying to get images of damaged schoolgirls out of your head. There's a creeping sense that something is terribly wrong and even though we've already spoiled one of the major twists — that this supposedly innocent story of a bunch of book-loving teens is, in fact, a horror title — you'll still find yourself dreading every new development and wondering what the game will do to them (and you) next. KN
Dota 2 has one of the steepest learning curves of any game. Only after sinking hundreds upon hundreds of hours into the five-on-five MOBA can you even begin to understand the deep game mechanics, 100+ unique characters and team strategies. But the fact Dota 2 is so challenging makes those big plays and hard-fought victories all the more satisfying. The sky-high skill ceiling means there's always something to learn, and if you eventually make it into the pro ranks, one tournament win can turn you into an overnight millionaire. JR
Eve Online proves there's a game for everyone, even fans of dynamic spreadsheeting. OK, that take might be a little stale, but it's a testament to Eve Online's incredible staying power -- this interstellar MMO has been around since 2003 and still supports a robust, active audience. Eve Online is much more than an economic and inventory-management simulator, with layers of player-on-player subterfuge, collaboration and scheming. There's a robust economy here, too, and epic space battles where players can lose billions in a single click. High stakes, high reward. JC
Fallout Shelter takes the popular action RPG series and transforms it into... a game that doesn't have very much role-playing. And a very different kind of "action." This mobile sim places you in charge of a vault — you know, one of those places you usually have to leave before your regular game of Fallout gets exciting and dangerous. If you've ever wondered what it was like to live in one of those vaults, turns out it's lots of resource management, real estate and uh, eugenics, as you get to pair off your workers and hope their induced union will produce an even better worker to run your plants, do research and fight off the occasional giant rat. KN
Fortnite Battle Royale
Fortnite is a cultural phenomenon. It's responsible for popularizing a new shooting-game genre and doing it in a way that has millions playing across mobile, PC and games consoles, like the Switch -- you'll see this particular game appear in several of our lists. It all started with a simple idea: survive. (Actually it started with a tower-defense-esque game where you built a fort to protect human survivors against zombies, but hey, it evolved.) Fortnite has a low barrier to entry (it's free!), and the sheer momentum behind the fact that everyone is playing it makes resistance futile. Parachute into the field, grab supplies, guns and ammo, build some defensive protections if you like and make it to the end. Sounds simple, but the best game ideas are. PUBG, Apex and the rest have a tough fight on their hands. MS
Understanding the basics of Blizzard's collectible card game Hearthstone takes just a few minutes, but don't let the pick up and play simplicity fool you. The strategic depth of the Warcraft-themed title is one of the reasons it still has a thriving casual community and potent competitive scene five years after launch. Blizzard continues to update the game with new cards, balance tweaks and single-player campaigns that are enjoyable alternatives to the standard one-on-one showdowns. Though players can spend money to grow their card collection, the game is generous when it comes to free booster packs, and there isn't a single card that can't be unlocked, one way or another, for free. JR
League of Legends
League of Legends represents one of the most exciting landscapes in gaming today. On top of supporting a monthly player base of roughly 100 million people, League is the most popular esports scene in the world. When you're not watching pro matches, LoL itself is perfect for all-night gaming sessions, playing with a team of friends or solo. There are a few different roles to best match your preferred play style, and Riot Games consistently rolls out updates, new champions and visual upgrades. Plus, the studio has built a character roster 143 deep (and counting). JC
When Pokémon Go launched in 2016, there were some obvious omissions, such as trading and player-versus-player trainer battles. In early 2019? Almost every problem and missing feature has been addressed. The game isn't perfect, but the fundamentals -- walking around outside, spinning Pokéstop signs and catching critters -- make this a truly unique and health-beneficial experience for Pokemon fans. The daily "research" quests and timed events, which boost the appearance of certain monsters, are a great excuse to log in every day. Niantic is slowly expanding the Pokédex, too, so that your collection is never quite finished. NS
Do you like space? Do you like potatoes? Do you like extremely strange games? If you answered yes to all three of those, boy do we have the game for you. Spaceplan Prototype is an intensely strange idle game with a twist. Like most idle games -- or clickers, as you might know them by -- gameplay comes down to clicking buttons to unlock things to click more buttons to unlock more buttons to -- you get the point, it's not exactly Tri-D Chess. Where it's unique is in its story and lore, which is about humanity, life, love, death and... potatoes. Lots of potatoes.
Honestly, we'd tell you more, but it's free, and we don't want to spoil it for you. If you do enjoy it, though, we'll point you in the direction of the $3 full game, which is available for PC, Android and iOS. AS
Contributors: Jessica Conditt (JC), Kris Naudus (KN), Jamie Rigg (JR), Mat Smith (MS), Aaron Souppouris (AS), Nick Summers (NS), Edgar Alvarez (EA).
The best games
Explore our top picks for every system
The best games