Free Play Friday: F1, Battlefield, Magic, and Space!

Justin Calvert throws out some ideas for games that you could be playing without paying this weekend.

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Battlefield Heroes
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F1 Online: The Game
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Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013
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Craving a new gaming fix but not looking to spend any money on your habit this side of the weekend? In this new weekly feature I plan to highlight games, demos, and betas that you can get into right now without spending a cent. Some of them will be new, some of them will be old favorites, some of them will be on the PC or consoles, and some of them will be on iOS and Android devices. All of them will be games that I've played and enjoyed recently. Take this week's batch for instance:

F1 Online: The Game (PC)

Codemasters' free-to-play Formula One game went into open beta this week, so you can begin playing it within moments of signing up or logging in with your existing RaceNet account. I really didn't know a whole lot about the game going in, but I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that not only is it an enjoyable top-down racing game, but it also incorporates some compelling (and optional) team management features. The first time you start playing, you can opt either to race for a real-world team or to create and manage your own; I chose the latter, and Covert Racing was born.

Controlling your car in F1 Online isn't complicated in the slightest, but it took me a couple of races to feel comfortable with it because it's unlike any racing game that I've played in recent memory. You accelerate with the left mouse button, decelerate with the right button, and steer by using your mouse to move chevrons that appear at the front of your car. There's also a boost that you can trigger with the space bar, and a second that's bound to the D key by default. (In case you're curious, these mimic the "KERS" kinetic energy recovery and "DRS" drag reduction systems employed on modern F1 cars.) The braking is the hardest part of the game to get used to in my opinion, because if you hold down the right mouse button for a moment too long, you can easily end up stationary on the circuit.

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One of the best things about F1 Online: The Game at this stage of its beta is the way that you're matched up with other racers. Not only does it rarely take more than 30 seconds or so to get into a full race of 24 players, but the game also acknowledges that some players are in superior cars and sets everyone's goals accordingly. Early on, before I had researched any new parts for my car, I was rewarded for finishes as low as 18th. Now that my car has new wings and a new engine, it's not uncommon for team expectations to put me on the podium--though I must confess I've yet to accomplish that.

I haven't spent any money on the "Codemasters Points" used for premium items yet, and based on the current beta, I don't know that I'll ever really feel the need to. Rather than affording you the option to purchase exclusive performance-enhancing items with real money, F1 Online just lets you speed up the process of leveling up and researching/producing them. Boosts that impact your experience points and in-game cash flow are available for the impatient, and it's essentially possible to pay real-world wages to in-game workers for overtime. Personally I'd rather just wait however long it takes for them to design and build new parts, but perhaps I'd feel differently if I were competing in a championship already rather than just jumping into quick races.

Want to take F1 Online: The Game for a beta test-drive? Check it out at: f1onlinethegame.com

Battlefield Heroes (PC)

Free-to-play multiplayer shooter Battlefield Heroes celebrated its third anniversary this week with, among other things, the release of a new map. I've been meaning to check out the game for ages, and now that I finally have, I wish I'd started playing it sooner. There's nothing particularly inventive about Battlefield Heroes' gameplay, but I really like its art style, and its eight-on-eight games of Capture the Flag, Conquest, and Hero of the Hill are a lot of fun. There are three classes to choose from anytime you create a new persistent character (I'm loving the stealth/sniper combo of the commando right now), and as you level up you earn hero points that can be spent on different specializations.

It's unfortunate that the vast majority of the customization options and weapons can be obtained only after purchasing "Play4Free Funds," but it's at least possible to rent some of the gear using valor points that are earned in-game. Consumables such as health tonics, speed boosts, and fireproof underpants can also be acquired with valor points, and since these items very obviously give you an advantage, it's heartening to see that most of them cannot be bought with real money. That focus on fair play regardless of whether or not you choose to spend any money doesn't always hold true elsewhere in Battlefield Heroes though.

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When I opted to swap out my commando's knife for one with improved range and damage, there was no way to do so without using P4F funds, for example. And when I could no longer resist the urge to experiment with different sniper rifles, only five of the 20 available could be unlocked using valor points (and then only for a one- or three-day rental period), so I ended up paying out around eight dollars to acquire one permanently. There is a claw machine system in place that lets you unlock one item for free every day that you log in, but to date all I've gotten from it are consumable items and vanity gear.

I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with Battlefield Heroes thus far, and I think it's one of those games that I'll keep coming back to in the weeks and months ahead. It's not a game that you need to devote countless hours to in order to feel like you're progressing, and because all of the match types are team-based, the disadvantage that you're at if you spend zero dollars feels slight rather than significant.

If you're inclined to check out Battlefield Heroes for yourself, you can sign up for a free account at battlefieldheroes.com

Magic 2013 Demo (iPad, PS3, X360, PC)

I remember being curious about Magic: The Gathering when I was in college. I also remember being so intimidated by how complicated the game appeared to be when I saw folks playing it that I never actually tried it myself. That changed recently when I heard that Magic 2013 had been released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and iPad. Clearly I'm not qualified to talk about the game's pros and cons from the perspective of an expert, but from the perspective of a newcomer I can tell you that it makes Magic more accessible than I ever imagined it to be.

For starters, the optional tutorial does a great job of walking you through the basics of gameplay and explaining what the various numbers and symbols on the cards mean. There are also three difficulty settings to choose from, and while I can't speak to the level of challenge offered for those of you with years of Magic play under your belts, I'm finding that the lowest setting is nigh perfect for me. I've lost against the AI plenty of times, but I've always been able to learn from my mistakes and then--two or three attempts later--earn a satisfying victory.

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After beating four very different opponents one-on-one, I'm now taking part in a four-player "Planechase" game that, if I'm honest, I'm still trying to figure out the rules of after a couple of failed attempts at winning it. I'm sure I'll get a handle on it soon enough, and when I do I'll be able to unlock the Revenge and Challenge modes of play. I'm not entirely sure yet at what point the free version of Magic 2013 will require me to hand over 10 dollars if I want to play more of it, but between the handful of varied opponents and the decks that I've unlocked but not used yet, I imagine it'll be a little while yet before I feel like I've exhausted all of my free gameplay options. The free iPad download and demos of the other versions feature only the easiest of the three difficulty settings, so perhaps it'll be my wanting to face tougher opponents that will eventually see me parting with 10 dollars for the full version.

By the way, in case you're wondering, the content in all of these versions of Magic 2013 is essentially identical. The main difference, and the reason that I actually prefer playing on the iPad right now, is its touch-screen interface, which card games obviously lend themselves to. I'm sure I'll end up playing a good amount on my Xbox 360 as well, though, because that's where the friends I want to play multiplayer with appear to be.

You can queue up Magic 2013 for download using the following links:
iOS: Magic 2013 for iPad
X360: Magic 2013 on XBLA
PC (Steam): Magic 2013 on Steam

Strikefleet Omega (iOS, Android)

I already have a pretty sizable collection of games on my iPad, but I'm always on the lookout for something new--particularly if that something is free to download. Earlier this week I heard about the release of Strikefleet Omega and, a couple of daily commute staples aside, very few of my iPad games have got a look-in since.

A space combat game of sorts, Strikefleet Omega tasks you with defending the Galactica-like spaceship Retribution which, following an alien attack, is pretty much humanity's last hope of avoiding extinction. You have both a squadron of fighter craft and a group of mining vessels onboard, and much of your time is spent controlling these simply by drawing lines with your finger to create routes toward enemies and asteroids for them. As you progress through the game, you gain the ability to call large vessels with their own fighters and miners to your aid, as well as ships armed with artillery that you can fire just by tapping the screen. The enemies that you do battle with become increasingly formidable as well, of course, and so between missions you have to spend resources that you've earned on purchasing additional ships and upgrades. You can also purchase these items with "MegaCreds" that, while possible to earn in small quantities in-game, are essentially a currency with an exchange rate of 20 to the dollar.

Two or three hours in, I've yet to spend a cent on Strikefleet Omega, but the game certainly hasn't been shy about presenting me with opportunities to do so. When I purchased my first large mining vessel I noticed that an advanced version of it was available for just 20 MegaCreds, for example. And while I'm content with my lone artillery gunship for the moment, I'd certainly be tempted to purchase a more powerful one armed with an energy beam if the price tag weren't 100 MegaCreds. I may well decide to get one eventually, but for the moment I'm perfectly happy with Strikefleet Omega's level of difficulty, and so I'm not inclined to spend money on any of the numerous ways (respawns and extra slots for perks are also available) available to make the game easier.

If you want to play Strikefleet Omega yourself, you can add it to your iTunes download queue here:
Strikefleet Omega for iOS

Incidentally, if you'd like to support the developer without having your dollars impact the game's difficulty level, in-game ads can be disabled for 99 cents.

If you have an Android device, you can download the game from Google Play here:
Strikefleet Omega for Android

That's it for this week. Please use the comments below to let me know if you tried out any of the games I mentioned or to suggest games that you think I and other folks from the GameSpot community might enjoy.

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