In this new age of economic recession, getting something for nothing is as appealing as ever, and GameSpot is here to help you navigate the free-game terrain. In our last installment of Cheaper by the Dozen, we pointed the spotlight at 12 free online role-playing games to help you decide if those games were for you or were a waste of time and bandwidth. For part two, we decided it was time our trigger fingers got a workout, so we jumped into the world of free online action games.
As before, we applied certain criteria to determine whether a game was eligible for our list. 1) It has to be free to download and cannot charge a periodic fee. The game may offer pay options (for extra weapons, for example), but they cannot be required. 2) It must not require a retail game to be installed in order to play. This eliminates any modification that requires the original game to be installed, though some of these games started their lives as mods for popular games. 3) It must be a multiplayer action game played in a stand-alone client. Web-based games are ineligible.
In other words, if you like shooting missiles, bullets, and lasers at other players but your wallet is missing the plastic or paper you need to grab the big guns, these are some of the games you will want to consider. It's not a comprehensive list; there are other free online action games out there if you know where to look. However, we wanted to give you a good sample of the options available, so we focused on offering a varied list of games that cover a spectrum of gameplay styles.
So here are 12 free online action games that won't make your pocket lighter and may be worth spending a moment or two on. And check the video on this page to see these games in action!
Part 1: Back to Basics
There's a reason most online shooters have a Deathmatch mode: shooting other players in a virtual environment never gets old. Sure, you could get all fancy and tactical, or get all funky with cover mechanics and acrobatic moves. But why bother, when you grab a simple laser rifle and point it at your enemies? None of the following games put on airs; they don't pretend to offer any groundbreaking mechanics or push the limits of modern technology. Instead, they just let you shoot guns, and they let you do it without forcing you to spend a cent.
CodeRed: Alien Arena
Who Should Play: Extraterrestrial ranchers.
There's deathmatch--and then there's deathmatch with cattle. And not just any cattle, but cattle wearing astronaut gear. If you've ever felt that faced-paced shooters could use a good dose of '60s-style kitsch, Alien Arena delivers plenty of it, between big-brained extraterrestrials and a good selection of futuristic weapons to mow down your opponents with. Take, for example, the rocket launcher, which doesn't propel its ammo forward with blazing speed but flings it out with enough thoughtfulness to let you enjoy how expertly you've aimed it.
While Alien Arena has its feet firmly planted in the traditional realm of fast-paced sci-fi shooters, it's got an attitude all its own. It's that cheesy '60s vibe that does it, and each player avatar is a tiny-framed, huge-headed alien with a glint in its eye and a shotgun in its hand. While all the standard modes, like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, are covered, it's the Cattle Prod mode that's most intriguing. In this mode, a herd of robotic-limbed cattle donning head bubbles awkwardly trample about a central arena, and you and your teammates must escort them to an escape point. If you want, you can shoot any cattle your enemies are leading, but it's better to shoot your enemy instead and lead the android bovines to your own destination. It's weird, and it's a little clumsy, but it's absolutely hysterical.
Not that humor is enough to get you through, but in a game that cribs so much from the big boys of sci-fi shooters, it goes a long way in keeping things fresh. Fortunately, the time-tested gameplay is solid, there are a ton of cool maps to play on, and the community is healthy and active, so if you want to jump right in and start fragging, this is a good place to start. Oh, and did we mention that there are bionic cattle in this game?
Who Should Play: Sci-fi shooter fans who know that the old school is the only school.
Few of the games on this list are real lookers, at least not in the modern sense. They are, after all, free, and none are based on the kind of technology that powers Crysis or Far Cry 2. Don't worry, this isn't setting you up to tell you that Nexuiz looks ugly. Rather, Nexuiz manages to keep up with similar free games like Alien Arena rather well, and it does so using the DarkPlaces engine, which in turn is based on ancient Quake I technology. Who knew that such old tech could power a game with such a strong modern community? But Nexuiz owes another debt to Quake, which firmly established that while teamwork and strategy are all fine and dandy in other games, sometimes all you want to do is shoot aliens in the face.
Therefore, you could say that Nexuiz is derivative--and you'd be right. This deathmatch-focused first-person shooter squashes the most familiar aspects of Quake and Unreal Tournament together, going so far as to include revamped versions of some old Quake maps. If you get into the high-velocity action, you should be aware that Nexuiz supports all sorts of Quake mods; also be sure to download the community map pack, which gives you a single-player campaign to explore and a bunch of maps. And if you really get into things, perhaps a clan will welcome you into its ranks, or maybe you'll feel confident enough to join one of the frequently hosted tournaments.
If you just want to play for the fun of it, you'll find that Nexuiz is easy to jump into, and if you're a Quake or Unreal Tournament veteran, it will fit like a rocket-powered glove. There are always a bunch of players online, and automated map downloads make it easy to join almost any match. Just be careful: That shotgun packs a wallop in the hands of a bunny-hopping extraterrestrial.
Who Should Play: Soldiers who love lead salads but hate consequences.
Combat Arms is a light and entertaining military shooter with a seasoning of arcade elements, so if you've played a first-person shooter before, you should be able to pick this one up without too much difficulty. It comes with a number of well-designed maps and a variety of weapons, so whether you like picking off your enemies from a distance or getting up close and personal, your play style should fit right in. Nevertheless, sniper rifles reign supreme, since almost any weapon you acquire can be turned into one with the simple addition of a scope. Fortunately, it's easy to land long-range headshots, and sniping ledges are abundant. To make this action even more compelling, fun pop-up bubbles reward you for multi-kills, revenge kills, and more, or you can check the game's official Web site to see how your stats fare against others.
Matches move along smoothly thanks to small- and medium-sized maps and quick respawn times. Another helpful feature is the three seconds of invulnerability granted upon respawn, which helps stave off spawn campers. The most useful element, however, is the death camera, which closes in on who shot you, helping you avoid falling for the same trick twice (and letting you discover the best shooting spots in the process). As you speed through matches, you'll gain ranks, which unlock new helmets, supply cases, flash grenades, and extended magazines. Ranks also unlock new servers where you can take on players of similar ranks and graduate from the newbie servers you're initially limited to.
Combat Arms is free, but there's a catch: You start off with a stock avatar and stock weaponry. As you play, you earn points that can then be spent on weapons and items like land mines and silencers--but you don't get to keep them. Instead, you rent them for a certain period of time, and when the rental period is up, they disappear from your inventory, no matter how often you've played during that time. Fortunately, maintaining an optimal loadout is simple, and many upgrades are purely cosmetic, so you won't find yourself spending more points than you're capable of earning.
Part 2: It's All Part of the Strategy
You can make things go boom in these next three games, but they force you to do more than just looking down your scope before pulling the trigger. These are games for the thinker, for the intellectual action enthusiast that needs to apply some gray matter to the proceedings. This might mean commanding an entire horde or simply doing your part for the greater good. Either way, the following free games reward you for quick thinking, teamwork, and, of course, good aim.
Who Should Play: Entomologists on amphetamines.
This strategy/shooter hybrid is, to put it mildly, insane. On any given map, two highly distinct sides build up a base and then proceed to maul each other in some of the fastest-paced twitch gameplay this side of Quake. Picture this: If you choose the alien faction and go on the offensive, you run around like a black widow spider on speed, biting enemies until you can evolve into an even more powerful arachnid. The sense of speed is exhilarating and a bit overwhelming at first, but once you get used to it, you'll be skimming along chomping at the legs of your human enemies. You can even run up walls, a la The Darkness, though it's worth pointing out that Tremulous did it first. Aliens need enemies, of course, and the humans make up the opposing faction.
The twist to the formula is that you choose to play as either a basic attacker or a construction unit. Construction specialists--alien grangers and humans with construction kits--build structures like turrets, armories (which allow human teams to purchase upgrades, like the oh-so-awesome jetpack), barricades, and other defensive and offensive buildings. As your team racks up the kills, and as construction specialists stay alive, teams earn currency used to build these edifices. Should the opposing team destroy all your spawn structures and slay you and your teammates before you can replace your spawn point, it's game over.
Tremulous' most impressive feature, however, is how different the two factions play. Humans may get some powerful ranged weaponry, but aliens are masters of the hit-and-run, using their speed and special abilities to offset the more direct attacks of their enemies. While aliens evolve into more powerful beings (tyrants are an intimidating sight), humans unlock enhancements that make them a more formidable foe. No matter which side you choose, however, you'll find that matches in Tremulous speed forward like a bullet train, so if you assumed that all strategy-oriented shooters were plodding affairs, you'll want to take a look at Tremulous, if only to discover how wrong you were.
Savage: The Battle for Newerth
Who Should Play: Control freaks--and those who want to be controlled.
Savage is a first-person shooter and a real-time strategy hybrid in which one player sits on high as the commander and the rest do the grunt work on the ground. In each match, two teams go head-to-head; the Legion specializes in ranged attacks and technology, while the beastly Horde leans toward melee and magic. As a grunt, you work your way up through the ranks by killing local wildlife and enemy soldiers so you can purchase classes, weapons, and special items. The maps are creative, and teams of up to 32 players fight back and forth over bridges, towers, walls, ruins, and fortifications. You can spawn at any friendly stronghold or lair, and your commander will be building structures from which you can also spawn and advance across the map. As the battle progresses, the commander builds and upgrades your base, which enables new weapons and classes for players.
If you play as commander, menu options allow you to give clear and concise instructions. From a traditional RTS bird's-eye view, you can mark waypoints, target specific enemy units, or draw hot routes along the map to communicate your strategy. To other players, waypoints appear as giant beams of light that descend from the sky, and red targeting icons give you the location and distance to marked enemy units. In addition to visual cues, the commander has a list of voice commands to indicate his or her wishes.
Because Savage is a cooperative venture, you'll always have to weigh your needs versus the team's needs. At the start of each match, you have to decide if you want to assist in building structures or raise funds by killing local wildlife. Hunting will give you access to better items early on but will result in slower technological growth for your side. Yet for all these complexities, Savage is simple to get the hang of, and because the servers are consistently full, you'll never have trouble jumping into the action.
Who Should Play: Armchair generals who don't mind starting out as lowly grunts.
America's Army was released as a US Army recruiting tool in 2002, and over the past six years not only has it been a hit on PCs but it has found its way to the PS2, Xbox, and Xbox 360. Unlike other first-person shooters, America's Army seeks to promote teamwork and tactics. Being Rambo will get you killed very quickly, since your character can take only two or three shots. You'll spend large parts of this game crouched behind cover and crawling through the dirt.
Just be prepared for a time commitment: The game starts with a required basic-training phase, and you can take on additional training should you want to explore your gameplay options even further. The initial training is light and fun, and some of the courses reward performance with additional capabilities. Javelin and Humvee training are particularly punishing, however, while Special Forces education can take more than an hour to fully complete. There's an upside to completing the training, though: You'll earn a wide assortment of weapons to use, while the average rifleman who only finishes infantry and airborne training will have access to a very small selection.
There's a huge amount of online content to explore. Matches are team-oriented and objective based, requiring you to secure crates, escort hostages, capture VIPs, and make it to extraction points. A fixed number of class slots for each team ensures proper balance, so if a quota is filled, you may have to request the slot from the player who is currently occupying it. If you want weapons beyond the one you were issued, you'll have to kill for them. In the end, it's all about the tactics you develop with your squad; you'll often find yourself analyzing the map to figure out how to best exploit the environment to your advantage. Of course, the long training phase proves that freedom isn't totally free, but at least you don't need to fork over any cash if you want to fight for the red, white, and blue.
Part 3: The Space Race
Landlubbers may be perfectly content to keep the action planted on good old terra firma, but some of us need to really stretch our wings and fly. These games are all functionally different from each other, but they all feature intense action--and they all take place in the far corners of the universe. Whether you want to master the complex tactics of galactic warfare or mold entire planets based on thoughtless whims, one of these them may offer the boundless possibilities you've been searching for.
Who Should Play: Patient fighter pilots who know that galactic wars aren't won in a day.
The word "allegiance" isn't just a game title; in this case, it also warmly describes an entire player base. This complex space sim/real-time strategy hybrid was released to retail shelves in 2000, but while it garnered impressive reviews, it didn't catch on with the general public. That's a shame. However, Microsoft smartly shared the source code, and Allegiance is now free to download and free to play, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers. The player contingent is equally dedicated, so you'll rarely have trouble finding fellow pilots, though you should expect to be outgunned from the very beginning, and for quite a good while to come: Allegiance isn't easy, and it will take you time to learn the basics, let alone its myriad subtleties.
That's because, like Tremulous and Savage, Allegiance gives its action a real-time strategy twist, in this case putting a player on each team in the role of a commander, who then manages a research tree while delivering commands to his or her units. Of course, these units (with the exception of resource-gathering mining ships) are all controlled by human players. But even if you're a simple pilot, there's a huge learning curve to overcome, even if you've played a space sim before. You need to be conscious of healing drones called nanites (nans, as most players refer to them), the relative pros and cons of your chosen faction (some shipped with the game; others have since been created by members of the community), and when to kill an enemy player who has ejected from his ship and is floating home in his lifepod. Why wouldn't you kill him? Because if you don't, he has to slowly float back to base; if you do, he'll respawn and be right back into the action.
As complicated as it gets (and trust us--there's a mass of information to take in), eight years after it was thrust onto the scene, there's nothing quite like Allegiance. Dogfights are tense and colorful, there are all sorts of different ships to pilot and master, and while teamwork is key in many action games, in few games can your actions as a lowly grunt have as far-reaching consequences during a match as they can here. That may make Allegiance hard to get into, but it also makes for all sorts of rewarding gameplay, as long as you have the patience to stick with it. If you're looking for a long-term relationship with any of the games on our list, this is probably the hardest one to get into--and the hardest to break away from once you're in the swing of things.
Beyond the Red Line
Who Should Play: Battlestar Galactica fans looking to kill some frakking toasters.
Beyond the Red Line is officially a demo, but for a work in progress, this stand-alone FreeSpace 2 conversion is remarkably tight, as long as you have some buddies to play with. Entire clans were built around this Battlestar Galactica-themed game upon its initial release, and though the community has dropped off substantially, its status as a freely downloadable multiplayer space combat sim in a world sorely needing one makes it worth checking out if you're a Privateer veteran longing for the days when a joystick meant everything.
With enough people, dogfights are a trip, and you can duke it out as a Viper pilot or a Cylon raider, on maps with plenty of breathing room or cluttered with enough asteroids to throw a wrench in your works. In another mode, teams must mine a collection of ore before their opponent does, which is a fun twist on the usual fights to the death. But even if it's just you and a buddy, you can join up together and take on enemy raids, in which the game throws wave after wave of enemy ships at you. At a time when cooperative play is desirable in almost any modern game, this is a great touch that gives even small groups of players something to keep them occupied. It helps that like in many space-based games, the visuals have held up remarkably well--and a lovely soundtrack makes it easier to stomach losses.
Of course, getting used to a FreeSpace 2-based game is a little rough for newcomers, particularly those who don't have joysticks and aren't used to keyboard-only controls. But hey, if William Adama can helm an entire spacecraft, tapping on a few keys and navigating a few confusing menus isn't too much to ask, if the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.
Who Should Play: Cosmonauts with a sweet tooth.
In the future, planets will be made of candy. No, really. It's a vision that's hard not to like and that comes to life in the intriguing Celestial Impact, a first-person shooter with more than one twist to keep the action moving. Consider it a mix of Super Mario Galaxy, Fracture, and Unreal Tournament: On a small asteroid with a strong center of gravity, including one that seems to be made of Reese's Pieces and candy canes, two teams duke it out in Deathmatch and Capture the Flag (specifically, Capture the Crystal) modes and in a VIP mode in which one team member holds onto a crystal while his teammates try to protect him.
Throw in a terraforming tool called a dirtgun, however, and the already-inspired gameplay becomes even more dynamic. The planetoid is already covered with rock formations, craters, and makeshift tunnels, but with the dirtgun in your hands, the level evolves on the fly as you build up protective walls and facilitate your escape plan by digging entire holes. Many games claim to never offer the same experience twice; in Celestial Impact, this is as true as it gets, because the entire map changes before your eyes. Not only does this offer a layer of strategy, but it can develop into full-blown hilarity as teams connect plateaus with bridges, aim the dirtgun at their feet to propel themselves upward, and, of course, shoot each other with a number of cool weapons.
The icing on the cake is the charm of the visuals and audio, which makes it disappointing that Celestial Impact's installed user base is currently so small. But even with just a few players, it's a riot to play, and with any luck, this fairly new (and free) FPS will wriggle into the hearts of shooter fans looking for something that's easy to pick up and play but offers a unique experience every time.
Part 4: There Is No Spoon
We've all shot our way through the neon-lit corridors of alien spaceship and the mine-strewn battlefields of World War II. That's why you sometimes want shooting with a twist, action with a visual style all its own. The following three games don't do much that other games haven't done, but they let you do it with countless pieces of flair. Oh--and they don't require you to hand over a dime.
Gunz: The Duel
Who Should Play: Leather-clad hackers who choose the red pill over the blue pill.
In the realm of third-person shooters, Gunz: The Duel is the closest you're going to get to re-creating your favorite moments from the Matrix films. Gunz throws Matrix-style wall-running, Max Payne-brand leaping, and RPG leveling into a multiplayer fragfest that's as interesting to watch as it is to play. Remarkably, you can pull off a good variety of moves without breaking a sweat, jumping from walls and running along them, dashing forward, and tumbling from side to side, all while pumping your enemies full of lead--or slashing them up with a katana. In fact, if you really get into Gunz, you can explore some mind-boggling advanced techniques, such as swapshots (alternating between two slow-fire weapons to maximize damage) and multi-wall runs. Not only does this all look pretty neat, but an announcer offers a constant supply of vocal rewards, from "fantastic" to "headshot," which enhances the fun factor.
Not that you should expect to wield the best weapons or execute the best moves from the very beginning. As you play you level up and earn bounty, which you then spend on new weapons; in turn, you get access to better techniques and higher-level servers. Melee weapons include daggers, swords, and kodachis, while ranged weapons encompass a slightly broader range of firearms, from submachine guns to revolvers. Your weapon choice depends on your play style and the mode in which you plan to do the most killing. There are a number of modes, including variations on Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch as well as an Assassination mode, in which you target a randomly specified VIP. The most intriguing mode, however, may be Quest mode, a cooperative venture in which you kill off a series of increasingly difficult monsters.
As for the future of Gunz, it seems unlikely that you'll have difficulty finding anyone to play with anytime soon: Thousands of players are logged in at any given time, across a variety of different servers and chat channels. If you mutter "Mr. Anderrrson" under your breath every time you see a photo of Keanu Reeves, Gunz is the most immediate outlet for wall-running your way to online fame.
Who Should Play: Overgrown adolescents who wish their Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots could dual-wield Gatling guns.
When you sign on to this robotic action game, you take control of a large mechanaught and take on up to 15 other players. Objectives are simple: Kill other bots before they kill you, sometimes in teams, sometimes individually. Five gameplay modes, from Deathmatch to Capture the Flag, can be engaged through clans, private rooms, or open servers. The biggest decision you'll make in Exteel, however, is how to customize your loadout going into a fight; there are a mind-boggling number of options, so expect a bit of trial and error. Once you're in a match, fighting comes down to knowing when to boost, when to flank, when to hit a health station, and whether to use short- or long-ranged weapons.
There are a myriad of weapons in Exteel, from shields and swords to guided missiles and health guns. Your robot can dual wield and even carry multiple weapon sets, so you can equip long-range and short-range firepower in the same match. Rewards come slowly; you'll be able to purchase a wide variety of weapons early on, but the powerful ones take a while to earn, and while the game is free, you can spend actual money on top-quality models.
Weapons, parts, and skills lose durability, some through use, some over time (regardless of whether you're playing or not). Fortunately, Exteel has an excellent tutorial mode that takes you through the gameplay intricacies. What's most important to know is that the game is most fun in short bursts. You'll feel rewarded as your robot climbs in rank and design, but disappointed when you haven't played in a couple of days and return to find that many of your cool items have decayed. To get the most out of it, play often, but play lightly.
World of Padman
Who Should Play: Adults who still get up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons.
If you're unfamiliar with German artist Andreas "ENTE" Endres or PlayStation Games magazine, you may not know of Padman, the star of ENTE's comic strip in that same mag. But no matter. Whether you're a fan of the strip or just looking for deathmatch with a twist, there's a lot to like about this free first-person shooter, which began as a Quake III mod but developed a life all its own.
The basic gameplay isn't much of a surprise: You'll get Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch and variants in which you've got to spray your graffiti tag on walls while shooting each other in the face. You'll also get a variant on Unreal-style Domination. The real draws here are the visual style and the hysterically fun settings where the shooting takes place. First, you choose one of several cartoon character models, from wacky-looking pirates to rotund, uh, thingies, and then you'll jump into one of the many interesting maps. Locales run the household gamut, from the basement to the attic, and because you see each room from your tiny avatar's perspective, you'll appreciate the cleverness of each setup. Take, for example, the kitchen map. Here, you use orange slices (and a toaster!) to jump onto the dining table or the oven (among other appliances) while navigating around boxes of detergent and taking aim at your opponents.
The weapons supply their own animated hilarity. They're all toys in appearance, but they pack a lot of punch, such as the Pumper, which shoots bolts of electricity, or the paint gun, called Bubble-F. Or perhaps heavy guns are your style, in which case the rocket-spewing Betty will be your weapon of choice. Our favorite, however, is the melee attack. Your weapon is not a knife, a sword, or a chainsaw, mind you: It's a hungry rubber duck with an evil grin, a cute tuft of hair, and a nasty bite. If you like the speedy tempo of Quake-style shooters but have tired of the usual alien hullabaloo, World of Padman may be just the visual change of pace you've been looking for. And if you're not sure if this free FPS will bring out the cackling preteen in you, remember: You can shoot water balloons at people. C'mon.
It's impossible to say whether the recession will lift anytime soon, but whether you're broke or rolling in dough, "free" is usually (but not always) an excellent value. So if any of these games sound appealing, check them out! After all, uninstalling the game won't mean you're out a wad of cash.