Free-to-play games come in many shapes and sizes. Battle royales and hero shooters are probably the most oversaturated in this day and age, but genres like MOBAs and MMOs are not going away anytime soon. The latter tend to have a few big names that dominate the scene, but they occasionally welcome new properties that manage to survive beyond a year or two.
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These expansive open-world games don’t exactly provide players with a waypoint and checklist of objectives for when they first start their adventure.
Free open-world games are not extremely common, with most examples falling squarely in the MMORPG sphere. Simply put, these sorts of projects are huge investments for developers and publishers, so they rarely go the free-to-start route unless they are specifically focusing on multiplayer. Still, not every MMO is open-world, and the ones that do qualify cover a wide range of quality. What are the best free-to-play open-world games?
Steam User Rating: 86%
- March 25, 2013
- Third-Person Shooter
Destiny 2 and Warframe are at each other’s necks in dominating the open-world RPG market. Like Call Of Duty and Battlefield, they each do something very different from the other but are loved nonetheless by the same types of players. Warframe lets players choose from more than 30 different Warframes, which essentially make up the game’s class system, and each gives a totally different gameplay experience from the other.
The open world of Warframe is beautifully crafted to immerse players in the galactic setting of the game. With plenty of different worlds, players surely have some time to invest in this free-to-play game.
Steam User Rating: 84%
Somehow, RuneScape is still thriving more than two decades following its debut. The MMORPG was one of the first of its kind on the market, and while hundreds of other games have shown up to take its place, precious few have had the longevity and appeal of RuneScape.
The RPG’s calling card is its progression system that allows players to gain experience points through the execution of skills. It makes most actions feel purposeful, even if the combat itself is quite simplistic. The open-world offers a surprising amount of variety, although the free version does come with its share of restrictions that reduce the overall enjoyment of the experience.
- September 28, 2020
Genshin Impact was a massive success right out of the gate, and miHoYo has done a good job of maintaining the game’s momentum. Set in the beautiful world of Teyvat, the action RPG allows players to build teams of four characters that they can swap in battle, and the campaign’s harder challenges require a balanced party filled with fighters who complement each other.
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Combat is generally the main focus, but the game encourages exploration as well. Genshin Impact launched with a reasonably large open-world, and subsequent updates introduced new regions to expand the map. Although the end-game can be frustrating for non-paying users, the main story is quite accessible by free-to-play standards, provided someone tolerates Genshin‘s gacha system.
Steam User Rating: 91%
- July 7, 2014
- Smartly Dressed Games
Launching in 2014 and still going strong, Unturned has enjoyed a long and healthy life. Largely revolving around survival, the game has a few notable things that have helped heighten its popularity. For one, most modern PCs should be able to run Unturned since it really does not require powerful specs. Obviously, its “free” price tag does not hurt, especially since the game can generally be enjoyed without requiring monetary investment. The community is also active and fairly welcoming, and this extends to the modding scene.
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Unturned offers players plenty of ways to survive and explore. With these mods, though, the game only gets more interesting.
Although not much of a looker compared to plenty of modern open-world games, Unturned‘s voxel art style actually sets it apart from most of the genre’s survival offerings since they tend to lean into realistic visuals. Sure, Minecraft is an exception, but Unturned is closer in gameplay and tone to something like DayZ.
- February 20, 2007
- Realtime Worlds
Although initially premium products, Crackdown and its sequel are both free on the Xbox Store, and the games are backward compatible with the Xbox One and Series X/S. While the second entry has its positives, the original Crackdown is generally regarded as the franchise’s peak since it was a fresh experience at the time of its release. Cast as an agent tasked with taking down three gangs, players rampage their way through Pacific City as they slowly but surely transform into overpowered superheroes.
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Crackdown utilizes a skill-based progression system that rewards experience orbs depending on the player’s actions; basically, the more somebody uses a skill, the more proficient they become at it. This creates a satisfying and rewarding gameplay loop that ensures players never feel static. As the project debuted in 2007, Pacific City is a fairly quaint open-world by modern standards, although it works well as a sandbox to facilitate absolute mayhem.
Steam User Rating: 79%
- July 17, 2017
- Sandbox Interactive
Albion Online can be grueling, but the game can also be really addictive. Rather than focusing on an overarching story, the MMORPG is primarily driven by its resource-gathering, crafting, and Fame systems. The latter determines the equipment players can equip, and acquiring weapons and armor serves as the main gameplay loop. Essentially, players grind until they can craft their desired equipment and then head out into the world’s zones to take part in PvP. If an adventurer is killed by another player, they lose their equipped loot (if they are in a Full Loot area), which means they will have to start crafting once again.
Albion Online does offer different ways for players to approach its content. For instance, if someone wants to solely focus on PvP combat, they can skip the whole crafting element by simply buying weapons and armor from other players. While fairly vast, the open-world is sectioned into zones to accommodate various playstyles or routines. Certain areas only have PvE, while others incorporate PvP action but lessen the death penalty.
- December 7, 2023
Launching out of nowhere alongside Fortnite Rocket Racing, Lego Fortnite sounds like a match made in heaven, and the crossover is well on its way to proving that. While not officially labeled as “early access,” Epic’s spin-off feels like a work in progress, with the developer planning to release updates throughout 2024. Consequently, Lego Fortnite is currently a bit light on content and might struggle to keep someone’s attention as indefinitely as a few other survival games like Valheim. However, the game’s current state contains more than enough positives to justify a recommendation, especially if players plan to engage in co-op. Outside a few (very popular) releases, the survival genre tends to cater to older players rather than younger ones, so a project that prioritizes the latter is always welcome since the world needs alternatives to Minecraft.
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Dropping players into randomly generated worlds, Lego Fortnite challenges players to craft a base by gathering materials. The game does not try to reinvent the wheel, opting instead to streamline some of the genre’s core concepts while still encouraging creativity and experimentation. When venturing into the unknown, players can expect to engage in a touch of combat, which is generally quite simplistic. Nevertheless, these encounters offer a pleasant change of pace from the material-gathering and base-building loop, and they can be somewhat difficult too.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Steam User Rating: 89%
Star Wars: The Old Republic
- December 20, 2011
This absolutely free RPG lets players fully immerse themselves in the universe of the Star Wars franchise. What’s interesting about Star Wars: The Old Republic is that besides having eight different classes to choose from (and great customization options), the game has a different storyline for each of them.
This tailors a unique narrative experience depending on how players play the game. There are also various PvE and PvP activities sprawled across more than 20 different planets across the galaxy far far away, making for an impressive amount of content for even free-to-play players.
The Lord Of The Rings Online
Steam User Rating: 81%
Lord of the Rings Online
- April 24, 2007
- Standing Stone Games
Yet another movie franchise-based RPG game, Lord of the Rings Online lets players explore the shared open-world of Middle Earth. There are six different races to choose from in the game; dwarf, elf, high-elf, hobbit, man, and beorning. There is also a wide array of classes and specializations to select from in LOTRO.
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The game is an amazing recreation of Tolkien’s books and is available for everyone to immerse themselves in. Whether someone is a fan of the movies or an MMORPG-head in general, this is a title worth getting into.
Steam User Rating: 81%
- November 20, 2012
- Rogue Planet Games
- First-Person Shooter , MMO
At this point, Planetside 2 is more than a decade old and in the twilight of its life. The people still playing are generally those who have been around for years, and newcomers might be a tad hesitant to jump into a PvP world filled with grizzled vets. Servers can be quiet for long stretches as well, although they do pop off fairly regularly.
For the uninitiated, Planetside 2 drops players in a continuous world defined by a forever war pitting three factions against each other (although players can unlock a fourth option as well). Large-scale combat is the name of the game, and battles have long-reaching consequences as armies engage in a tug-of-war to expand their faction’s influence across the land. Even though its age shows, Planetside 2 offers a unique experience that no other free open-world game fully replicates.
Steam User Rating: 93%
- June 26, 2004
Nowadays, the market is oversaturated with RPG Maker games, to the point that many of these releases can blend together. However, despite inspiring many fan projects and spiritual successors, there is only one Yume Nikki. Madotsuki does not need to physically leave her room to visit strange worlds – she only needs to fall asleep. Once the girl starts dreaming, players can jump into more than 10 worlds (and many strange locations within them), each of which comes with its own surreal aesthetic.
Yume Nikki foregoes a story in favor of atmosphere and free-roaming. Madotsuki is essentially lucid dreaming, and the indie game does an incredible job of replicating that feeling. Outside of collecting costumes, the title leaves players to their own devices, encouraging them to lose themselves within the bizarre and uncomfortable environments. While not for everyone, Yume Nikki is such a unique experience that most people should give it a go.
Steam User Rating: 97%
- December 22, 2022
- Lemaitre Bros
Babbdi is a different type of open-world game, especially for the free-to-play market. Since most of these projects lean into MMO territory, they are designed to keep players coming back for weeks, months, and years. Even if they might not cost any initial money, they are huge time investments that not everyone can afford. Consequently, Babbdi offers a refreshing change of pace since it will likely not keep anyone busy for more than maybe an hour or two. Created by a very small team, the game drops players in the eponymous city and challenges them to escape. That is largely it. While not completely devoid of lore or environmental storytelling, Babbdi‘s selling point is primarily exploration, along with the implementation of some neat items like a trumpet.
Open-world games are defined by scale and ambition, and that extends to this release. Sure, the city is relatively small and barren, but it is atmospheric and has impressive verticality. The world is fascinating and oddly relaxing, all the while still coming across like something ripped from a fever dream. There are not all that many indie open-world free games, so Babbdi fills a niche while not overstaying its welcome.
Guild Wars 2
Steam User Rating: 88%
In 2015, Guild Wars 2 went free-to-play, instantly making it one of the best free open-world games. While expansions need to be purchased, the unpaid version of Guild Wars 2 includes plenty of content since it allows players to experience the base game.
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There are a couple of restrictions regarding exploration (for instance, free accounts are limited to starter maps until their character reaches level 10), but players can mostly travel Central Tyria to their heart’s content. Guild Wars 2‘s expansions are generally worth it, but newcomers can try the free version to see if they want to eventually invest in the game.
Steam User Rating: 94%
- June 5, 2021
- Daniel Mullins Games
- Adventure , Roguelike , Survival
Featuring an origin story that is almost more interesting than the release itself, Muck is an addictive roguelike survival game that does the basics extremely well. Players spawn into a sandbox and simply have to survive, which involves crafting, eating, fighting monsters, working with allies, or engaging in PvP. All these elements are fairly conventional for both the sandbox and survival genres, but Muck combines them in a way that is both accessible and fairly challenging.
While the core experience does not change much, Muck has a few different game modes that slightly alter its rhythm. For instance, if players want to have a more leisurely playthrough, they can pick Creative Mode so they won’t have to constantly fear for their lives. Although not overly packed with sights to see, the islands/maps are pretty in their own stylish way.
Ultima Online: Endless Journey
- September 24, 1997
- Origin Systems
One of the grandfathers of the MMORPG genre, Ultima Online is primarily a subscription-based game; however, in 2018, Broadsword launched a free version called Endless Journey. While this iteration comes with its share of restrictions that limit the user’s footprint on the world, free players still gain access to a plethora of content, all the way up to 2009’s Stygian Abyss expansion.
Considering it debuted in 1997, Ultima Online is a wildly different beast than modern MMORPGs. Consequently, the title might require some getting used to for people only familiar with post-WoW projects. That said, Ultima Online‘s open-world is still among the best in the genre, and the game provides players with more freedom than most other MMOs.
Total Conversion Mods
Technically, total conversion mods are not truly free as they, typically, require users to own their base games, be it Skyrim or Gothic 2. However, releases like Enderal: Forgotten Stories and The Chronicles of Myrtana: Archolos completely revamp their chosen games, essentially serving new full campaigns that can rival some of the best RPGs on the market.
Anyone deep into the modding scene is likely familiar with these sorts of releases since they tend to attract a fair amount of attention. Meanwhile, newcomers who wish to extend their time with one of their favorite titles should dive into sites like NexusMods or Moddb to see if there are any projects that grab their attention.
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