By John P. Falcone
(Updated September 18, 2007)
great games you could get for a single Andrew Jackson, we decided to up the ante. Presented here are more than a dozen games you can play for free. For one reason or another--often to promote upcoming sequels, for instance, or simply out of karmic generosity--these games have been released as free downloads by their respective publisher, developer, or creator. And each title listed below is a complete game--all but one of them were sold at retail at some point, and there's not a demo, an expansion pack, or a browser-based Flash game among them. So what's the catch? Many of these titles are old (some are downright ancient), some lack a single-player component, and others are notoriously buggy--but hey, what did you expect for free?
Originally released in 1996, Abuse is a 2-D scrolling action game made by Crack Dot Com--the company's one and only release. The genre has long been considered to be console and handheld fodder--think Contra and Castlevania--but Abuse is an excellent example of a 2-D action game optimized for the PC, earning an 8.6 rating from GameSpot (judged against the admittedly lowered expectations of mid-1990s game technologies). The graphics, average 10 years ago, have aged even more, but the innovative control scheme that uses the mouse to aim and fire make the game a blast to play. Factor in the easy learning curve and lowball system requirements, and you may find those "coffee breaks" at work stretching for longer than 15 minutes.
'America's Army: Special Forces'
The original version of America's Army, released in 2002, was a better-than-average online multiplayer shooter. But what set it apart from the legion of other Counter-Strike clones were its impressive visuals (powered by the Unreal graphics engine) and its price--or lack thereof. Unlike all the other games on this list that began as commercial ventures, America's Army was always intended as a giveaway. That's because it's an unapologetic recruiting tool for the real U.S. Army, which funds its development. While it's unclear how many people the game has converted into real-life soldiers, the game itself continues to rank among the top 10 online shooters, thanks in part to frequent updates; Windows users get the latest 2.8.2 "Overmatch" version, while Mac users are stuck with the older 2.5 "Direct Action." Just make sure your rig meets the somewhat formidable system requirements before you download the mammoth installation file, which tips the scales at almost 3GB.
Download complete Windows game from aaotracker.com (2.9GB): Free download
Download complete Mac game from 3dgamers.com (797MB): Free download
Alternatives worth paying for:
Battlefield 2: Read review | Check prices
Full Spectrum Warrior: Read review | Check prices
Medal of Honor: Airborne: Read review | Check prices
'Command & Conquer'
Before Age of Empires, Starcraft, and even Total Annihilation, there was Command & Conquer. (OK, OK... Dune II was the real groundbreaker, but Command & Conquer was the bigger mainstream hit.) Pitting the "Global Defense Initiative" versus the nefarious "Brother of Nod," C&C refined many of the control and play conventions still found in the real- time strategy genre to this day. To celebrate the 12th anniversary of the original game's release, EA (which absorbed the C&C developer Westwood Games in the late 1990s) has released the original game--along with the Brotherhood of Nod expansion pack--for free. A couple of caveats on this one, however. The files provided are CD ISO images, which means you'll need to burn a couple of CDs after downloading (Nero or Roxio will do the trick; otherwise, try the freeware CDBurnerXP Pro). Also: be sure to follow the accompanying instructions to the letter to get the game running properly on Windows XP or Vista.
Take a first-person shooter, spice it up with a generous helping of survival horror elements, and you get F.E.A.R. (short for First Encounter Assault Recon), a 2005 release that garnered a whopping 9.1 from GameSpot. While the single-player campaign was generally enjoyed--if you enjoy being perpetually scared--the lion's share of the game's replay factor came from the stellar multiplayer mode. To promote the expansion pack--F.E.A.R. Extraction Point--Vivendi began offering a standalone version of the multiplayer mode as a free download. Redubbed F.E.A.R. Combat, it includes the whole multiplayer shebang: all the latest updates, 10 game modes, 19 maps, 12 weapons, anticheating software support, and the ability to download user-created content. F.E.A.R. Combat players can compete against each other and among owners of the full retail version, who undoubtedly will welcome nonpaying newbies (read: targets) with open arms.
'Grand Theft Auto' & 'Grand Theft Auto 2'
When the original Grand Theft Auto first hit the PC in 1998, the game was already courting controversy: its brazenly amoral gameplay actually rewarded the player for wanton criminal conduct. But competing titles such as Carmageddon--a Death Race 2000-inspired car combat racer that awarded points for mowing down as many pedestrians as possible--were an easier lightning rod for critics. By comparison, GTA's cartoonish, top-down 2D point-of-view seemed like little more than an amped-up Hot Wheels. Grand Theft Auto 2 refined the gameplay of the original title the following year, but Rockstar wouldn't perfect the formula until taking the mayhem 3D in 2001 with Grand Theft Auto III. For gamers familiar with only such 21st-century GTA landscapes of Vice City and San Andreas, the company has subsequently released the original two games--reoptimized for current PCs and Windows versions--as free downloads. The price of a taste of GTA history? You'll need to sign up for Rockstar's mailing list before you can pull down the files.
Grand Theft Auto: Read review
Download complete Windows game (336MB) from Rockstar's Web site (registration required): Free download
Grand Theft Auto 2: Read review
Download complete Windows game (353MB) from Rockstar's Web site (registration required): Free download
Alternative worth paying for:
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas: Read review | Check prices
'Hidden & Dangerous Deluxe'
When Hidden & Dangerous was released in 1999, setting games against the background of World War II was still a fairly fresh phenomenon; Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was still three years away. Czech developer Illusion Softworks crafted an impressive squad-oriented third-person game that focused more on tension-filled stealth missions behind enemy lines than run-and-gun action. Despite a laundry list of bugs, glitches, and stability problems, the game built a core of enthusiastic fans. To promote the release of the 2003 sequel, publisher Gathering of Developers released the original game as a freebie. The Deluxe version incorporates a host of bug fixes, though some system configurations, apparently, still have issues, and the Devil's Bridge expansion pack into one convenient download.
'The Marathon Trilogy'
Marathon was one of the initial wave of first-person shooters that hit in the mid-1990s. Often dismissed--unfairly--as Doom for Mac (Marathon 2 was the only game in the series to be published for the PC), the game's rich storyline and then-impressive graphics cultivated a loyal following that persists to this day. Marathon's developer, Bungie, was scooped up by Microsoft just so the software giant could secure the rights to a promising title called Halo--which Bungie was developing, ironically, for the Mac. Halo, of course, went on to become the raison d'être for owning Microsoft's Xbox console. Is Halo really Marathon 4? Download the original trilogy--which Bungie has since made available for free--and decide for yourself.
'Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory'
Enemy Territory began life as an expansion pack for 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Activision ended up canceling the game, but it released the multiplayer component of the game as a free stand-alone download in 2003. The result was a game that--years later--holds its own against such heavyweights as America's Army (above), Call of Duty, and Unreal Tournament 2004 as one of the most played online multiplayer shooters out there. The game's legacy lives on in the form of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, a multiplayer spin-off of Quake 4.
Sierra's Starsiege series made a successful transition from strategy to action with 1998's Starsiege: Tribes. Released a year before Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, Tribes' online multiplayer-only gameplay was a revolutionary step forward in the way games were marketed. The inclusion of player-controlled vehicles--years before Halo, Battlefield 1942, and Unreal Tournament 2004--was similarly visionary. While Tribes never achieved the same level of success as some later games, its legacy is still fondly remembered; GameSpot named it to the site's running list of the greatest games of all time in April 2005. The original game was given away free as a promotion for the 2004 release of the updated sequel Tribes Vengeance. It's not as popular as America's Army and Enemy Territory--the once vibrant online community has largely moved on--but those with older PCs will appreciate the easygoing system requirements.
Released in 1992, Star Control II took the arcade-style action of its predecessor and deepened the gameplay with a rich storyline and role-playing features. While many a lesser game would've lost its focus, Star Control II's disparate parts gelled together perfectly into a sophisticated, unique sci-fi title that combined the best elements of action and strategy. The free version of needed to lose the "Star Control" name due to copyright issues, but it's otherwise the same breakthrough classic that, like Starsiege: Tribes, is enshrined in GameSpot's hall of fame. An active community of enthusiastic developers has updated the game for modern PCs, complete with a user-friendly Windows installer (linked below) that automatically downloads and installs the game components, including updated music files.
'Wild Metal Country'
If you've never heard of Rockstar's 1999 tank shooter, you're not alone. It lacks the notoriety of the company's Grand Theft Auto series, and the game's reviews were hardly stellar, with GameSpot awarding the Dreamcast version a mere 3.7. But when you're not paying for it--Rockstar made it gratis in 2004--it's a bit easier to see the Wild Metal glass as half full. Unlike many of the multiplayer-only and graphically intensive games presented here, Wild Metal offers a decent single-player experience, and its Windows 98-era system requirements mean it'll run well on many current laptops and business desktops. But the lack of a hot coffee mod means those looking for some tank-on-tank action will have to point their turrets elsewhere. Like Rockstar's GTA freebies, you'll need to register for their newsletter before downloading this one.
Interested in more free games? Check out a longer list of games that didn't quite make the cut. If you'd prefer an unfiltered list, go straight to our primary sources. We drew this list from several websites, including: Liberated Games, Remain in Play, Mega Games, and Wikipedia's entry on "commercial games released as freeware."
Assistant Editor David Rudden contributed to this article.