PC Gamer

In Mod of the Week, Chris Livingston scours the world of user-created adventure for worthy downloads. This week, a mod that turns one of the best shooters ever into an RTS.

Lambda Wars (originally HL2 Wars), a real-time strategy set in the Half-Life 2 universe, is a mod years in the making and has now had an official launch on Steam. This mod of Alien Swarm provides a bird's-eye view of the struggle between the Combine and rebels and includes both single-player and online play. The world of Half-Life 2 is perfect for a translation into classic RTS play, and the mod is both free and now completely standalone, so there's no reason not to give it a try.

If you haven't played any of the mods earlier incarnations, there's a decent little tutorial to help you get started. You begin with a little base-building. Recruit an engineer from your headquarters, and you'll be able to construct a barracks (which lets you generate rebel soldiers, everything from simple citizens with guns to harder-core veteran grunts, and specialized units like medics and fleet-footed scouts). Build a munitions plant and you'll be able to upgrade your soldier's weaponry, unlocking frag grenades, shotguns, and rifles. There are some nice little animations as the buildings are completed, sort of like the intro to Game of Thrones but with rusty little shacks instead of medieval cities.

You can also play as the Combine, who have counterpart units. Their HQ is a tiny little citadel (so cute!) and their engineers are stalkers, those weird, gaunt former humans who shamble around projecting laser eye-beams. You can build city scanners (those flash-photo taking hovering bots) to scout the map, auto-turrets, various Combine soldiers, hunters, and even striders.

The sound effects are also straight out of Half-Life 2, and goes a long way to making it feel authentic (when you order your rebel soldiers around, they call you Doctor Freeman). Combat, despite it being an RTS instead of an FPS, still has many of the same elements. For example, shoot a zombie and its headcrab will pop off and leap after you. I also had two Combine turrets wipe out an entire group of my rebel soldiers before I realized, oh yeah, in Half-Life 2 you need to lob grenades at them to knock them down. Same thing here.

Multiplayer supports up to eight different teams, and if you're short a few friends the AI can fill in. There are a few different game modes, including one called overrun, which brings in wave after wave of antlions for you to fight off while constructing defenses as fast as you can. Single-player has a number of campaign missions as well.

Online matches, at the moment, are a little hard to come by: there's a lot of waiting for lobbies to fill, only to have everyone ready to play except for one person, who then leaves, and then everyone else starts leaving to find other lobbies. Hopefully more people will be checking this game out in the days ahead, but in the meantime I found single-player enjoyable enough. You can grab it on Steam here.

PC Gamer

Half-Life 3 it ain't, but if it's a new Half-Life game you crave then maybe Lambda Wars will do the trick. An RTS spin on the Half-Life universe, Lambda Wars has been kicking around the modding community for a while as HL2: Wars, but now it's absolutely standalone and most winningly, free. The beta has been available since the weekend. 

The game uses the Alien Swarm engine, but as a newly standalone offering you won't need a copy of that nor any Source Engine game to run this. As either the Combine or Resistance you can play online with up to eight human or AI players.

Check out the trailer below:

PC Gamer
neverending nightmares

Well that was quick. Ikaruga only shot its way onto Steam Greenlight the other day, and it's already emerged from the other end of the Valve's giant approvals machine, covered in a viscous, sticky substance it's probably best not to investigate too strenuously. It's joined by 36 other assorted things (most of them games), including sci-fi roguelike Steam Marines, platforming roguelike TowerClimb (not to be confused with Towerfall), and lots of other things that aren't roguelikes - if you can imagine such a thing.

The full list is below. There's some great stuff in here, including action-horror Source mod Underhell, retro platformer Tiny Barbarian DX, the beautifully illustrated adventure horror Neverending Nightmares (pictured above), and a hell of a lot more.

Aartform Curvy 3D 3.0
Alien Swarm FP
Axis Game Factory – AGF PRO v01.0
Blood of the Werewolf
CastleMiner Z
Elder Sign: Omens
The Fall
Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold
The Fifth Day
Fortress Forever
Fran Bow
Half-Life 2: Capture the Flag
Hot Tin Roof
Infinity Wars
J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition
Metal War Online
Montague’s Mount
Neighbours from Hell Compilation
Neverending Nightmares
Nightmares from the Deep: The Cursed Heart
Portal Remake Mod
Ravensword: Shadowlands
Real World Racing
Starship Corporation
Steam Marines
Tiny Barbarian DX
The Sparkle 2: EVO
Universum: War Front
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Craig Pearson)

Better than Colonial Marines3761 AD. Seattle. A line of tourists is snaking around a wrecked skyscraper. If we listen closely, we can hear their guide: “… this is the cupboard where they found the ‘test heads’, and this is where they arrested Robin “Mad Hatter” Walker, who admitted to 243402 counts of decapitation. That’s the rebuilt Dota 2 annex. The war where the Dota 2 team attempted to secede from the union in 2103 caused a brief civil war, but it turned out their tactics when applied to a real world conflict just got them all killed. We don’t know what this place was: a cupboard where we found the skeleton and a crowbar. Just a handyman, maybe? Moving on to one of the more remarkable finds: a PC that was found in the rubble, still running a copy of Alien Swarm. And beside it was this Steam Greenlight page for a mod that turned it into a first-person shooter. What was Greenli…” (more…)

PC Gamer
TF2 concept

Valve are currently beta testing a selection of additions and changes to Steam's Community pages. Not only have they separated out general community activity from your own contributions, and created a Community Home as an all-game version of the Game Hubs, but you can also upload artwork for any Valve game. It's not all charmingly crude MS Paint scribbles, though, as Valve's artists have created an installation for this digital gallery, featuring concept, prototypes and posters for everything from Portal to Dota 2.

Artwork can only be uploaded for Valve games right now, with the rest of Steam's extensive library set to follow in the future. To use the new features, you'll need to opt-in to the latest Steam Beta Update from Steam's settings menu. You can also view them in-browser by joining the New Steam Community Beta group.

Steam has also updated Workshop entries to provide more detailed stats to creators, as well as new tabs for each Workshop item, letting Subscribers create discussions and view a full update history. More details of that update here.

PC Gamer
coop header

Games get a bad rap for being a solitary, violence-obsessed form of entertainment. But they can also be a collaborative, violence-obsessed form of entertainment. Just ask the close-knit PC Gamer team.

Tom F: Co-op based games teach us the value of teamwork better than any kitten based motivational poster, by showing us how many more of our enemies we can crush if we can just learn to work together.

Graham: They’re not just violent either. We can build giant penis statues together in Minecraft. No, wait, that’s bad. We can control egotistical millionaires in FIFA! Oh God, no. Rich?

Rich: Well, Supreme Commander celebrates the pioneering spirit, by asking us to build a host of clanking deathbots... I got nothing. Chris?

Chris: Uh. Diablo III shows that hell is easier with other people? Hm. Senior? Bail me out?

Tom S: I can’t, I’m too busy shooting these damn zombies. Stop intro-ing and let’s go play together.

Portal 2 - 2 players, Online
How does it work? You and a friend play comedy robots in co-op-only test chambers.

Why is it good?

Tom F: The puzzles get magnificently complicated when designed for two. You can jump through each other’s portals, so you’re often setting up a jump that your partner will perform. And because every puzzle requires two players, you’ve got to figure out where to put four different portals, and coordinate your approach. It bent my brain in the same ridiculous ways that Portal 1 did.

Graham: I use my portals to make a corridor slick with gloopy paint. Tom places his at either end of the corridor, creating the world’s first infinite slip ’n’ slide. I run down it and build absurd momentum, and as I reach terminal velocity, Tom moves one of his portals so that when I exit, I’m flung out over a chasm filled with acid. Co-op Portal 2 means entwining not just your portals, but your brains.

Minecraft - 2 to many, online or LAN
How does it work? Join a server and collaborate with friends – or strangers – to build the biggest, best, and most phallic structures you can.

Why is it good?

Rich: Within minutes, I was building a spa. I don’t know why I was building a spa. No one had said “let’s build a spa” in the chat channel, but there it was, forming before us. Graham, now-departed Craig Pearson and I, had hollowed out an underground chamber, constructed a raised dais of glass, and diverted water to create a lovely jacuzzi pool. Our subterranean sauna was lit by lava, and we sat in it, content.

Graham: My first time was on a new, private server with a few folks from the PCG community. In three hours we dotted the landscape with giant Darwinians, and built an underground bunker with launch missiles, library and steam rooms to avoid a player who had built an ugly golden bridge around the world. It felt like I’d spent an afternoon building sandcastles with friends.

Fifa 12 - 2-5 players, local
How does it work? Two or more players join forces to defeat the nefarious forces of Computron, the dark lord of kicking.

Why is it good?

Rich: Football is incredibly frustrating. FIFA recreates that frustration perfectly: genius moves undone by idiot players. But in co-op, I managed to reduce that frustration through one simple method: blame someone else. I think I’m great at FIFA 12 at the best of times; when I’m playing in co-op, I’m flawless. Graham, on the other hand, is terrible.

Graham: And Rich smells bad. For a while, we were playing two-on-two, but then our fourth man lost interest. We started playing two-on-one. Here’s what we found: the player controlling a team on their own has the advantage. To work together in FIFA is to anticipate the other’s moves, making runs and pulling away defenders. If you do it right, you’re unstoppable. If you’re Rich and I, Rich smells bad.

Diablo 3 - Up to four, drop-in, drop-out co-op across the whole campaign
How does it work? Every player you add to a game of Diablo III boosts the health of your enemies, increasing the challenge – but far less than it did on launch, when damage increased as well. Otherwise, it’s just Diablo III with more people.

Why is it good?

Chris: D3’s normal difficulty is very easy, but it gains a lot of life if you’re doing it with friends. Experimenting with new skills adds a slapstick dimension to demonbashing that’s better with other people. It’s basically that bit from Lord of the Rings where Legolas and Gimli are competing to kill the most orcs, strung out over 15 hours.

Tom S: Having a friend or two around gives you more freedom to experiment with new abilities. If you’ve got a Barbarian chum to wave and shout and take punches to the face, you can sacrifice a defensive ability for that demonic ghost bat bombing run skill you’ve been dying to try. Few things amaze and terrify a co-op partner as effectively as an unannounced demonic ghost bat bombing run.

Chris: It used to be that co-op Diablo III didn’t work: it was too diffi cult, and actually reduced the amount of loot you seemed to get. Patches have since redressed the balance, and working together to crack Inferno is a satisfying challenge.

Alien Swarm - Up to 4 players, online

How does it work? It’s a top-down shooter where you control a squad of four marines shooting aliens in a scripted campaign.
Why is it good?

Rich: People love swarms. The swarms of aliens in Alien Swarm (clue’s in the name), are best dealt with by coordination: one of your group becomes point-man, clearing rooms with shotguns and flamethrowers. Another takes up the rear, machinegun blaring to dissuade any would-be alien pouncers. This coordination is the result of a kind of natural, happy trance that players fall into, rather than tiresome enforcement.

Tom F: I’m a Medic, which used to mean I was the sensible, cautious, team player. Until I realised I could take a chainsaw. It’s terrible. It’s a terrible weapon, don’t use it. You can’t just charge into alien hordes, blade revving. OK, just one more go.

Trine - Up to 3 players, online or LAN
How does it work? Each player can transform themselves into a thief, warrior or wizard at any time. In the mode we play, you can have two Thieves at once if you like.

Why is it good?

Tom F: It’s a physics-based platform puzzler, which in co-op means dropping heavy objects on each other for fun. The wizard can create boxes and levitate them, and your co-op partner can stand on them. Most of our solutions involved carting each other around on telekinetic elevators.

Graham: Trine’s best class is the grapple-hooking, arrow-firing thief, because of the arrow-fi ring but specifically because of the grapple-hooking. In the singleplayer game, you’re forced to switch away from the thief to navigate obstacles and fi ght larger enemies. In co-op, two thieves are better than one, and combined you’re able to spend more time as a swinging idiot. The best kind of idiot.

Left 4 Dead 2 - Up to 4 players, online or LAN
How does it work? - There are lots of game modes now, but the one we play most is still the campaign: four players against the AI-controlled zombie hordes.

Why is it good?

Tom S: I ran through Left 4 Dead 1’s campaign on its hardest diffi culty setting with a group of regulars. We played in the 4 6 5 same small room for many hot, panicked hours until our cries of fear overruled the rattling pistol fire coming out of our speakers. The defence events and climactic mission fi nales offered us a chance to take stock and plan, but the best moments happened when those plans disintegrated in the face of an unexpected Tank charge, or a perfectly placed Witch.

The AI director never quite offered the longevity that it promised, and the monsters lost their scare factor after a while, but Left 4 Dead is still a superb, if harrowing, co-op experience. Ever since Valve ported the fi rst game’s superior maps into the sequel, Left 4 Dead 2 has been the better choice of the pair.

Tom F: There’s an achievement for winning a garden gnome on the fairground level, and taking it all the way through the rest of that campaign. For me, that is the game. It takes both hands to carry the gnome, so whoever’s holding it can’t fi re their weapons. You can set it down and grab it later, but among huge crowds of zombies and charging Tanks, it tends to get kicked around with alarming force.

So you take it in turns to sacrifice your firepower and carry the precious cargo, relying completely on your friends to protect you and your porcelain companion when it’s your turn. If a zombie does get to you, all you can really do is bash him with the gnome.

The carnival finale, set in a huge stadium, was just too intense for any of us to survive it gunless. So when the helicopter finally arrived to bail us out, the real challenge was a frantic scavenger hunt for a chipped red hat among the seething infected. Finding him, grabbing him, and making it out alive was the most nail-biting co-op experience I’ve ever had with the game.

Half Life 2 - 2-10 players, online or LAN
How does it work? The Synergy mod enables two or more of you to jump straight into Half-Life 2, Episode One or Episode Two’s singleplayer campaign.

Why is it good?

Tom F: Half-Life 2 is a huge and amazing adventure. And while there are a lot of great co-op games, there aren’t many that are huge and amazing adventures. People don’t make long, varied, story-driven journeys through meticulously detailed and gorgeous places when they’re making a co-op campaign. So a mod that makes Half-Life 2 and its two episodic expansions work cooperatively is an amazing discovery. I don’t know how it works, but it does.

Graham: Tom and I played through the entire of Half-Life 2, and into Episode Two, over many happy lunchtimes. The best part is the Highway 17 segment in Half-Life 2. You’re both given your own buggy to drive across the countryside, and the solitary bungalows that dot the coast are perfect for cooperative assault: one person bursting through the front door while the other circles around the back. The Combine only seem to be expecting one of you, for some reason...

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 - " players in campaign mode, 2-4 players in terrorist hunt, online or LAN
How does it work? We play Terrorist Hunt: you and the other players have to clear out a big, complex building in which a fixed number of terrorists run around and try to ambush you. It’s brilliant.

Why is it good?

Tom F: Terrorist Hunt is an immediately exciting concept, because it feels more like a simulation of a real armed-response firefight than any campaign level could be. You can’t be sure the level designer isn’t going to have the terrorists suddenly come from behind you, because the level designer doesn’t make that call: the terrorists do.

Graham: It’s doubly cool in co-op, because the challenge is so overwhelming. Even with the foresight of a snake camera under the door, it’s just tough to take out six terrorists in a room before any of them kill you. So you plan: I’ll take the left two... You throw a frag... I’ll come from the other door... You rope down to the window. And then you completely screw it up.

Mass Effect 3 - Up to 4 players online
How does it work? Fight to complete a mixture of objectives on small but open levels against randomised enemy forces. Level up characters and promote them into the singleplayer campaign to improve Shepard’s chances.

Why is it good?

Chris: ME3 multiplayer takes what is good about co-op survival modes – last-stand heroics and impromptu acts of daring – and adds incredibly varied races, classes and weapons that prevent it from ever becoming samey. Right now, I’m enjoying a Quarian infi ltrator that disintegrates enemies at close range with the Reegar Carbine, a gun we’ve come to call THE PLASMA HOSE. I’m just as happy charging around as a Krogan vanguard, or racking up headshots as a Turian sentinel carrying a Black Widow.

Tom S: New classes and bizarre new weapons are added regularly through free updates. You’re always holding out against waves of familiar enemies, but the variety of ways in which you can off these enemies expands every month. The N7 classes BioWare added recently push the boundaries of what the Mass Effect universe can sensibly contain. The Shadow can dart across the map and slash foes with a psychically infused katana, the Destroyer’s weighty carapace gives him the grounding to wield a rapid-fire grenade launcher with decent accuracy and the Slayer is a teleporting martial arts expert. With so many powerful abilities to choose from, playing with friends becomes more about showing off than anything else.

Chris: BioWare’s free updates to the game have been excellent and generous, particularly the new maps. They’ve drawn me back to the game and kept it feeling fresh, which is essential for co-op.


Supreme Commander - 2-7 players, online or LAN
How does it work?

Start a multiplayer game, put all humans on team 1, and some nice tough AIs on team 2. Crush.

Why is it good?

Tom F: It’s not the first co-op game you think of, but playing it cooperatively is how we’ve had the most fun with it. It can be dauntingly complex, so it’s great to have friends in there to help out if you forget to build anti-air or crash your power economy. In theory. In practice what usually happens is we beaver away on our own bases in silence for seven minutes then one of us says “Shit, fuck, they’re dropping in my base and I forgot to build point defence again, have you got anything that can help?” and the other says...

Graham: No, soz :(

Tom F: It’s about hatching your own masterplans, surviving long enough to see them complete, then raining the giant robotic fruits of your labours down on the enemy at the same time. My giant laser spiders are ready! Your flying fortresses are ready? Let’s go! My towering Galactic Colossus is ready! Your swarm of invincible death bricks is ready? Let’s go!

Dawn of War: Last Stand - Up to 3 players online
How does it work? - Unlike the main game, Last Stand gives you only one hero each. You’ve got to fi ght off increasingly tough waves of enemies until you die (likely) or beat wave 20 (unlikely). After the match, you usually unlock new equipment for your character.

Why is it good?

Tom F: I didn’t really get Last Stand until I levelled up a few times. The fun is in discovering new builds, and the role they can play in your group. As the Ork, I thought I was the longrange damage dealer: my autocannon certainly works for that, and when enemies get close I use my teleporting armour to get away. The notion of using the much tougher set, the one that can’t teleport, seemed pretty ridiculous. Until I unlocked the knife. The knife doesn’t do much damage, but it regenerates your health. Add some armour bonus trinkets, a self-healing trait, and an item that stops me being knocked down, and I can turn myself into an unstoppable tank. Suddenly I’m the guy charging into a nest of Tyranids to keep them off my friends, and coming out at full health.

Tom S: In the grim darkness of the future, three dudes battle ridiculous odds in a small stone circle. The setup may seem contrived, but DoW2’s overlooked co-op mode does a much better job of realising the Warhammer 40K fantasy than the campaign. Absurdly powerful heroes dominate the fiction, so I got a kick out of levelling up my venerable Space Marine captain and testing him against the hordes.

Last Stand understands 40K’s scale as well. The final waves throw more foes into the arena than you’ll see in any of the singleplayer missions, so victory may seem impossible. After a few levels you can start combining your heroes’ most powerful abilities to create a maelstrom of death. The glorious slaughterfest that results is worthy of a Space Marine’s final heroic moments.

Killing Floor - Up to 6 players, online or LAN
How does it work? Fight together to fend off waves of mutants, then stock up on guns and ammo at a shop that’s never in the same place twice.

Why is it good?

Chris: Without its guns, Killing Floor would be the bleakest, muddiest depiction of Britain at the end of the world since a bunch of Romans said “let’s go home, it’s cold and everyone here is mental.” With its guns, it’s one of the most satisfying co-op shooters around. My favourite is the bolt-action rifl e, which takes mutant head-popping and turns it into an avant garde musical genre. Bang! Chunk. Click. Bang! Blargh! Splatter.

Rich: I like the dual desert eagles. They go ‘whump’, like a pie dropped down a hole. But a really big pie, one that kills anyone unlucky enough to be standing under it in a spray of arterial blood. And when it kills them, this pie, it makes everything slow motion for a while, so your team can marvel at your incredible pie-dropping-stroke-gun-shooting skills.

Chris: Definitely play it with voice chat, though. Partly so that you can coordinate properly and warn your friends when they’re about to be sawn in half, but mostly so that you can talk over the truly, deeply dreadful voice acting. I started playing it during the Portal 2 promo campaign, when all the shopkeepers were replaced by GlaDOS. It was a huge improvement.

Borderlands 2 - Up to 4 players, online or LAN
How does it work? The whole campaign is playable in drop-in, drop-out co-op.

Why is it good?

Tom F: Two reasons – for one, the different abilities of each class mix well in a team fight. It’s great to see your Siren pluck a boss up into the air, and into range of your Commando’s turret and your Gunzerker’s... gunzerk. Secondly, cooperative play is good for diffi culty spikes, and Borderlands 2 sure has those. Dealing with an inordinately tough boss is less frustrating when there’s a whole a bunch of you coming up with new ideas and tactics, and a wider variety of weapons to try.

Tom S: Almost anything can pop out of Borderlands 2’s unfolding robot boxes. It could be a revolver that shoots lightning grenades, it could be a glowing, five-foot-long sniper rifl e with an enormous bayonet on the end. Whatever you get, it’s always better to have friends there to go “WOAH” or “whaaaat” or “give me that immediately.” Borderlands 2’s batty enemies are more fun to fi ght in a team, a constant stream of new gadgets to crow over makes it feel like the best sort of trick or treat trip, the sort where you get bazookas instead of sweets.

Arma 2 - 2 to many, online or LAN
How does it work? Players can join and play custom missions with each other, or mess around in the weapon playground add-on pack, Private Military Academy.

Why is it good?

Rich: The first time I played an Arma 2 custom mission with Marsh and Owen, it ended with me rolling sideways up a hill and giggling like a maniac. The second time, we were shot before we realised what the ‘open backpack’ key was mapped to. The third time, we found ourselves on a hillside, standing next to a crumpled chopper. It was dark, but the sky was brightening slowly as the sun rose somewhere off in the east. It would’ve been idyllic, were it not for the crowd of ornery locals taking potshots at us.

Together, we made it into a nearby settlement, where our rendezvous chopper was settling down into the dust. We sprinted towards it, tracer fire whistling over our heads, as we howled fears for our safety down our microphones. We were silly men, but Arma 2 quickly made us feel like (mildly inept) soldiers.

Marsh: Most of the time, my Arma 2 experience seems to consist of dying instantly or getting stuck in rocks. But occasionally, you roll the incredibly-complex-emergent-behaviour dice and get a scene as gripping and fluidly dramatic as anything from Full Metal Jacket. I don’t mean the toilet-suicide sequence. Running for that chopper with a busted leg and three shots left in my pistol as the enemy tightened the noose was one of the most extensive workouts my heart has undergone in many years. And it wouldn’t have been half the experience without Owen and Rich bellowing, “COME ON! YOU CAN DO IT!” as I lurched the final few yards.
Jul 12, 2012
Product Update - Valve
- Added latest localization files.
- Fixed a crash when viewing the Achievements screen in a non-English language.
Product Update - Valve
- Added shader source code.
- Matchmaking system supports mods with more than 4 players.
- Mods store their config.cfg separately from the base game.
PC Gamer
Concept art is often beautiful, but even with a growing number of art books being bundled with collector's editions, it's just as often work that will never be seen by anyone outside of a game's development team. The Into The Pixel collection tries to change that. Organised by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and the Entertainment Software Association, each year it selects some of the best pieces of gaming art, whatever the reason for its creation.

The 17 new pieces to be displayed at this year's E3 have just been released, and I've posted the PC-relevant images below, including work from Bioshock Infinite, Mass Effect, Dragon Age 2, Alien Swarm and the unreleased Drawn 3. So pretty.

Click each image for bigger versions, and find more work from previous years at the Into the Pixel site.

Alien Swarm
Incident at the Workshop by Ivan Simoncini

Mass Effect
Normandy by Mikko Kinnunen

Orcs Must Die!
Dead Walking by Chris Moffitt, Brad Crow, Nathan Stefan, Bart Tiongson

The Dream Machine
The Bridge by Erik Zaring & Anders Gustafsson

Bioshock Infinite
Market Fire, Columbia by Ben Lo

Drawn 3
The Cottage by Hamzah Kasom Osman

Dragon Age 2
Flemmeth by Matt Rhodes

Drawn: Dark Flight
The Dragon Play by Brian Thompson and Hamzah Kasom Osman

Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull
The Swamp Skull by Jeff Haynie
PC Gamer

Every month, we present you with a roundup of the best free PC games that have been recently released. What we haven’t done before is sit down and think about all the best free PC games knocking around the internet at the moment, eventually formatting them into a big old list feature. We think it’s about time we sorted that out.

Like PC Gamer’s annual Top 100, this isn’t supposed to be a definitive declaration of the best games ever. It’s a collection of titles that we think you should be playing right now. A snapshot in time, if you will. So at this moment, in May 2011, here’s our favourite free or free-to-play games. Onwards!
20. OpenTTD
Grab it from the website.

Why it makes the list: Chris Sawyer’s Transport Tycoon and Transport Tycoon Deluxe proved cult favourites when they were released in the 1990s. That might be why some dedicated fans took it upon themselves to remake the latter from scratch, making it open-source and adding a heap of features along the way. To this day OpenTTD continues to captivate its followers. Why not give it a go? You might happily become one of them.

19. Yume Nikki
Rapidshare seems to be the net's only trace of it.

Why it makes the list: You’ll probably never play a stranger game. In Yumme Nikki, you play as a young girl as she succumbs to her terrifying nightmares. And, of course, tries to locate a bunch of different special powers which have pretty much no bearing on how the game plays out. Strange, warped, and difficult to find an English version of, this is a work of psychedelic madness that’s worth experiencing, even if it’s never anything approaching “fun”.
18. Alien Swarm
Get it on Steam.

Why it makes the list: Valve unleashed Alien Swarm without much fanfare, but that’s no indication of its quality. Originally a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, then rebuilt in the Source Engine, this top-down shooter sees you battling through alien-infested institutions with up to three co-op buddies. And it’s a lot of tense, action-packed fun.
17. Games Journo Story
Grab it from the dev's blog.

Why it makes the list: Smartly parodying iPhone hit Game Dev Story, this is an exceptionally witty release documenting one university graduate’s attempt to embark on a career in games journalism. If you’re generally familiar with the faces behind the words in the games publications you read, you might spot a few amusing cameos too, including former PC Gamer UK deputy editor Kieron Gillen.
16. Wurm Online
Get it on the website.

Why it makes the list: Before Minecraft came along and blew everyone away, the indie game about building stuff was Wurm Online, a slow and plodding but rather atmospheric and engrossing MMO. The controls are awful, the visuals are frankly shit, and you do, admittedly, have to pay to do the best stuff. But the free version still ultimately blossoms into a fierce, challenging attempt to craft your own way through this tumultuous world.
15. One Chance
Play it on Newgrounds.

Why it makes the list: You have just a few days until the world is supposed to end, and you’re a scientist. Can you and your colleagues come up with something to divert this terrible disaster? And, since you might only have a few days left to spend with your family, do you even want to waste time trying? This is a short, emotive title that gives you just one choice - go to work or stay at home - but makes it resonate to a wonderful degree.
14. Battlefield Heroes
Play it on the website.

Why it makes the list: This free-to-play Battlefield title takes a lot of visual cues from Team Fortress 2, but puts them to use into a fun and silly third-person shooter with a fair few vehicular touches. It’s about as straight-forward as multiplayer action gets these days, but it all runs in a browser, and it’s rarely anything other than a delight, especially when you factor in the (lack of a) price tag.
13. Canabalt
Run along to the dev's website.

Why it makes the list: You can only jump. But that’s all you need to do. You’re running away from something or someone, which is never explained, but it never needs to be. It’s the simplicity of Canabalt that makes it what it is: a hugely exhilarating one-button platformer to which you’re likely to become dangerously addicted.
12. Photopia
Play it on iFiction.

Why it makes the list: No graphics. No sound. No monsters or action or strategy. Just simple puzzles, and lines of text, beautifully presented and profoundly moving. Photopia is, quite possibly, the smartest and most interesting text adventure around, and you can play it for free online. Its hour-long tale is confusing at first, but it slowly clicks into place - and in the moments when it does, its magic is basically unrivalled.
11. Dwarf Fortress
Grab it from the developer's website.

Why it makes the list: A deep and engrossing combination of roguelikes and city-building-sims, Dwarf Fortress is a nightmare of ASCII graphics and instant failure. In fact, think Wurm Online without the 3D visuals and anything resembling a decent tutorial, and you’ll be on the right lines. But what makes Dwarf Fortress so fascinating, so unrelentingly brilliant, is its refusal to sit still: this is a game in which you can plan all you like, but very rarely predict an outcome.

10. NetHack
Get it from the official website.

Why it makes the list: Nethack was developed in 1987. And in all the years after that up until 2003. It’s a traditional roguelike, again complete with brutal perma-death and ASCII graphics, the product of collaborative development over a huge amount of time. This is a game all about discovery, and many have scoured its dungeons for years attempting to find all its secrets. It’s an undisputed PC classic.
9. Beneath a Steel Sky
Get it from GOG.com.

Why it makes the list: With the launch of Good Old Games in 2008, this classic cyberpunk adventure - from point-and-click masters Revolution Software - lost its price tag. While it’s certainly dated now, Beneath a Steel Sky is a masterful work of storytelling, complete with decent puzzles to boot, and blows many modern adventure games - ones with very real prices attached - out of the water.
8. Passage
Get it from SourceForge.

Why it makes the list: There are those who would say Passage isn’t worth your time. It’s over in five minutes, and there’s only minimal interaction. But this small but beautifully constructed art game from Jason Rohrer - who went on to make Sleep Is Death, picking up a 90% score in PC Gamer in the process - is surprisingly moving for a thing of its size. The game asks what you want out of life, and then shows you how the passage of time will make this play out as you wander from left to right towards the inevitable. A lovely thing.
7. Digital: A Love Story
Download it from the website.

Why it makes the list: Budding writer Christine Love emerged out of nowhere to create a computer game last year. Part Uplink-alike, part visual novel, Digital tells the story of a lonely teenager in the late 1980s, sitting in front of a computer at the dawn of the internet. There are basic puzzles littered throughout, but this is mainly about the fantastic presentation of the story, and the strikingly original touches Love has bestowed upon it. An hour of gorgeously crafted, personality-imbued indie gaming.
6. System Shock Portable
Get it from the System Shock Mods Archive.

Why it makes the list: System Shock 2 might get all the plaudits most of the time, but the original 1994 game can still hold its own. It’s a tense, forward-thinking action adventure that did things most shooters weren’t even dreaming of at the time - like trying to tell a complex and involved story, for example. Since it’s effectively been deemed abandonware, you can play the whole game from either your hard drive or a USB stick for no money whatsoever. And you should: it was a real milestone, a landmark in PC gaming history.
5. Neptune’s Pride
Get it on the official website.

Why it makes the list: This huge 4X strategy game is a little out of the ordinary. Instead of joining your friends for play sessions at the same time, attempting to take over the galaxy in one complete burst, Neptune’s Pride is designed to be played over a period of weeks, as everyone battles for control over every star available.

Its exceptionally slow pace encourages careful planning, strategising away from the computer screen, and striking up deals with opposing players outside of the game itself. There are so many options to consider.

That’s why Neptune’s Pride was our webgame of the year for 2010. For a sense of quite how involved this game is, try reading the diary of our one-month battle with Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
4. Gravity Bone
Grab it from Blendo's website.

Why it makes the list: It’s best to know as little as possible about Gravity Bone before you play it, otherwise you’ll ruin the precise reason why it’s so exceptional.

Know that it’s by Brendon Chung, a.k.a. Blendo Games, the guy who went on to create the likes of Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher. Know it uses the Quake II engine to create a sort of abstract cartoon world of spies and suave parties. Know it’s brilliant.

Don’t know what you’re asked to do in it. Don’t know anything about the story. Don’t know how it ends, or which rules it breaks in the process. Do play it, immediately.
3. Quake Live
Sign up on the official website.

Why it makes the list: Here at PC Gamer we’ll always big up Id Software’s seminal online shooter Quake III Arena in any way we can. And that’s especially true when you can play it for absolutely no coins at all.

Arena is certainly ageing now, and has probably been bettered in its field overall. But to this day, no game has managed to match its ludicrous tempo, its sheer sense of kinetic energy, and its masterful map design.

Quake Live is Quake III in a browser. It runs just as smoothly, looks just as good, and is just as much of a tremendous riot as you remember from all those years ago. Essential playing if you have an internet connection and a sensible taste in multiplayer games.
2. Spelunky
Get it from Spelunky World.

Why it makes the list: On the surface, it looks like a simple platformer. You’re an explorer, delving deep into a network of caves, trying to avoid the scheming enemies and deadly traps that reside within. So far, so standard - even if its levels are procedurally generated each time you start the game.

But it’s only when you start to push at the outer limits of what you think Spelunky can do that you realise quite how remarkable this game is. Derek Yu has created a game that encourages you to be cheeky, and rewards you for breaking the rules every so often. It’s also unfathomably tight as a platformer, and while it’s brutally difficult, it’s a challenge you quickly learn to work with, rather than resent.

The environments change as you plough on through, and there are plenty of secrets to be found. I still haven’t completed the bloody thing after two years, as there’s no save feature and I’m simply not good enough, but it’s still one of my favourite games in the world, free or otherwise.

1. The Lord of the Rings Online
Get it from the official site.

Why it's top of the list: The Lord of the Rings Online has always been an impressive MMO, complete with interesting quests, beautiful visuals and a sense of Tolkenian atmosphere that few other fantasy games have managed to conjure up. And now it’s operating on a micro-transaction basis, making it essentially free-to-play until you want to dip your toes into more of the content.

It’s at around level 20 when LotRO starts to become a little more skimpy with what it gives away for free, and that might irritate players who’ve really got stuck into the game by that point. But it’s a sensible business decision - one that those behind the game have confirmed has been extremely fruitful.

And until then, you’re getting hour upon hour of one of the best MMOs on the market, in a way that feels like the game just can’t resist giving you yet another freebie treat.

Wrote Tom Senior in PC Gamer’s review: “Every time I reached a new level, a mysterious gift package would appear in my inventory. Unwrapping the package revealed a cluster of free items. Oh look, a whistle that gives me a free mount for a day, and an experience scroll, And what’s this? A strange letter that starts a special quest when read. These gifts, along with Deeds, and the hundreds of quests already in the game, all feed into the sense of constant incremental success that papers over Lord of the Rings Online’s lack of innovation. It may be formulaic, but it’s one hell of an addictive formula.”

And that’s that, then. Do you agree? Disagree? Of course you disagree: it’s a list feature. Pipe up in the comments below, and tell us what you think are the best free PC games available.

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