As gamers, we live in an era of unprecedented choice. Want a sophisticated, explosive AAA game of massive complexity that vacuums up hundreds of hours? You've got the likes of Overwatch, Destiny, Battlefield 1, The Witcher 3... the list goes on. Alternatively, you can grab the simplest Flash game diversions or game jam novelties that can be played in full on an abbreviated lunch break. Games have never been more diverse. And that breadth is also true within genres, especially a genre as popular and attractive as shooters, where being competitive demands a level of polish or innovation that allows your game to stand out in a very crowded market. The upside for this is that, as gamers, we’re the beneficiaries, and as publishers explore new ideas and new monetization models, there have never been more high quality free-to-play shooters than there are right now. So whether you’re looking for a palette cleanser between behemoths like Battlefield and Call of Duty, or if you’re just too broke to afford the latest AAA offerings, this list has something to satisfy your appetite.
Want more? Here are the Best FPS games of all time.
Warframe (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Warframe is that rarest of games: an online shooter that emphasises PvE gameplay and actually makes it feel rewarding and satisfying. Not only is the combat crisp and exciting (in part because of the hybrid approach that balances ranged and melee), but Warframe provides an excellent reward treadmill that keeps you coming back to its cyber-futuristic, hyper-gun-ninja world. And few games come as close to satisfying those old gun-fu fantasies best embodied by the cinematic works of John Woo. Sliding around in a game, guns blazing, swords flashing, enemies erupting into shattered parts (and spewing loot) has rarely felt so good, and Warframe also never gets too pushy or demanding about opening your wallet.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex First Assault Online (PC)
First Assault Online is a strange beast in that while it was (very) roughly timed around the release of the live action Ghost in the Shell film, it has next to nothing to do with either it or or the manga/anime with which it shares its name. The Ghost in the Shell component is really just a thin veneer over a very competent and entertaining shooter, and while I’m a fan of the source material, I’m happy to forgive the lapse in meaningful connective tissue because the game’s so well executed. It’s a fairly relaxed, multiplayer first person shooter with some science fiction trappings that frankly could’ve been drawn from almost any franchise, but it works because the shooting is crisp and feels really satisfying, and the game never feels like it’s pressuring you do dump money into it to remain competitive. It’s a less stressful experience than a lot of the major players in this space, the CS: GOs and Battlefields, and that alone is enough to make it stand out as a fine alternative.
Paladins (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
The elevator pitch for Paladins is as simple as they come: it’s Overwatch, but for free. It’s easy then to assume that because it’s so blatantly, ahem, inspired by another property that Paladins would feel like a cheap knock-off, like an also-ran clone that can’t compete with the real thing and is only suitable for the truly desperate. But Paladins is a surprising exception; while it may not be quite at the level of quality exemplified by Overwatch, it is impressively playable, fun, and attractive. Throw in a few wrinkles to the Overwatch formula, like the ability to rush into the action atop a customizable mount, and Paladins becomes a very attractive package for the budget conscious.
Planetside 2 (PS4, PC)
Planetside 2 is, in many ways, an incredible feat. A wildly ambitious online shooter that takes place on multiple continents, with room to host thousands of players and replete with vehicles and weapons, buildings and upgrades, all produced with a AAA level of polish, and all entirely free. It’s also a game that has continually improved over time, in part because of a steady stream of patches and updates but also because it’s managed to attract and retain a larger player base as it’s evolved, meaning those massive areas aren’t completely devoid of life (as they often were around launch). Add in the variety of the conflict because of the massive armory available and the selection of air and ground vehicles players can hop into and wreak havoc in, and Planetside 2 feels even more like a full retail product that you really, really should have paid a load of money for...
Gotham City Imposters (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Gotham City Imposters is the little shooter that could. When it released as a pay-to-play proposition, despite a positive critical reception, strong mechanics and a suite of ridiculous weapons, gadgets, and skins that made each match feel fresh and unique, it sort of disappeared from the zeitgeist almost as quickly as it had appeared. But a switch to a free-to-play model and an almost stubborn commitment to continually improving and expanding the game (it now features 1,000 levels of character progression and an astounding number of upgrade and customization options) has kept it powering along, and it remains one of the most fun, quick-and-dirty shooter experiences on the market, a joy to jump into for a quick fifteen minute session or to completely immerse yourself in for an entire evening of whacky madness.
Dirty Bomb (PC)
Dirty Bomb feels like a pure hit of unadulterated, first-person-shooting adrenaline. It’s a game that joyfully strips away a lot of modern shooter concessions (things like controller support or user-friendly difficulty curves) and focuses on a simple, beautifully crafted core: a team-based multiplayer shooting with frenetic action and a selection of characters that feel different but, crucially, very balanced. And as its Steam page so gleefully emphasizes, Dirty Bomb is free-to-play in the purest sense, where player skill trumps microtransactions every time. Dirty Bomb is a great tonic for people bemoaning how complex or unfocused other online shooters have gotten, or for anyone looking for a bump of adrenaline and some fast-paced, frenetic action that recalls the glory days of Team Fortress or the original Counter-Strike.