Yes, you need to break out your wallet if you want the latest big AAA shooter, but the free route is becoming increasingly interesting. Many older games are now opening out in search of a wider audience, and more and more companies are finding ways to profit from free releases.
For indie developers, it's the perfect way to make a name for themselves, either just for the glory or to build an audience for future games.
US company 2D Boy, for example, launched onto the scene with Tower of Goo, a game that involves building a tall tower out of bouncy balls of stretchy slime. This free download morphed into the amazing full title World of Goo, which took the net by storm.
We've gathered together 10 of the best free games around, covering releases new and old from every genre. With so much choice, you're guaranteed to find at least one you like. Give them a go – there's nothing to lose.
Spelunky is about anger, hate and, most of all, death. It looks like a simple enough platform game – an Indiana Jones pastiche set in a cavern full of tricks and traps – and it is. There's nothing complicated about it. Every enemy is avoidable. Every trap can be dealt with.
The catch is that every time you play, the entire game is randomised. In one game you'll stumble through screen after screen of spiked horrors and swarming monsters; in the next, the software will bend over backwards to give you gold and help you on your way.
The trick is learning the ropes, figuring out how to get past every obstacle, and then doing so perfectly as and when the game throws things at you. You will die. You will die a lot. But the important thing is that in death, you learn.
You discover ways of stealing from the shopkeepers who inhabit the levels, or find out that the damsels you can rescue for a health-boost can just as easily be taken to the nearest sacrificial altar, or thrown around to trigger traps before you go down yourself.
You learn how each randomised world ticks and which equipment will give you a fighting chance. And then you'll die some more. And scream. And restart. Again.
Much like Spelunky, this open-source classic makes heavy use of randomisation to give you a new adventure every time you fire it up. However, instead of being a platform game, it's an epic RPG with the unofficial motto, 'The dev team thinks of everything'.
Do you want to blind a basilisk with a custard pie? Abuse shape-changing spells to lay deadly eggs that can be used as weapons? Get blasted by your patron deity if you try praying to them when they're in a bad mood? It's all in here, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
First released in 1987, NetHack isn't the prettiest game around. There are graphical mods out there, but it's still best played using ASCII characters, and until you can tell your Ps from your #s, it's somewhat confusing.
Unlike Spelunky, chances are that you'll have been adventuring for a while before you die. With only one savegame on your side, which is deleted if you snuff it, it only takes a single careless mistake to lose days of progress to a tough monster or a swig of a health potion that turns out to be poisoned.
With that risk comes great reward, though: retrieve the legendary Amulet of Yendor, sacrifice it to your deity and become king of the nerds.
3. Quake Live
This is how far the web has come: one of the best deathmatch games ever created is now available to play from within the confines of your browser.
Well, technically, no, it's not actually in it – Quake Live uses a plug-in and then goes full-screen when you play – but the spirit is still there.
Any modern computer is now able to handle Quake's modest demands, and the game's blisteringly fast action makes it quite unlike any modern shooter. Forget realism. Forget objectives. Sometimes, all you need is a rocket launcher, a perfectly timed shot and the lamentation of the noobs as time permits.
Beware, though: if you haven't played id Software's classic shooter for a while, the frenetic pace of the online action might be terrifying.
4. Beneath a Steel Sky
A classic adventure from British developer Revolution, and one that serves two purposes. First, it's fun – a comic-style sci-fi adventure with a wry sense of humour.
Second, it's a great way to experiment with ScummVM – a tool that enables you to play classic LucasArts games on modern systems. BASS isn't the only free game that runs in it, either.
If you're still thirsty, check out Lure of the Temptress, Drascula (sic) and Flight of the Amazon Queen.
5. Desktop Tower Defence
It's not just a game, it's a whole genre. The idea is simple. In most RTS games, you build units such as soldiers or tanks and pit them against your enemy's army.
In Desktop Tower Defence games, you put down fixed turrets, each with different abilities, with the aim of stopping the enemy making it from one side of the screen to the other. It sounds easy and, like most casual games, for the first few levels it is.
The tactics come in finding ways to force your enemy down specific paths, and using your limited resources to build and upgrade a death-course that can take them all down. It's addictive and simple to play.
No wonder there are a million clones out there, from free Flash games to commercial offerings such as Plants Vs Zombies and Defense Grid: The Awakening.
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