Why pay to play?
We’ve all played plenty of bad free games—in many cases, games that seem really awesome, but have some insidious or poorly designed freemium model that ruins gameplay. Luckily, developers are learning from the mistakes of the past and coming up with free games that not only look great and play well, but don’t punish you by bothering you incessantly or blocking off content with lengthy, inane timers.
Let’s salute those games that strike the right balance, offering plenty of fun for free while making in-app purchases feel optional, yet meaningful. We had no problem assembling a list of our favorites from 2014, and you’ll find them all within. So clear some space on your iPhone or iPad, and get to downloading already!
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft might be the single biggest killer of productivity this year, and much of that is thanks to the release of the iPad version. It began as a breezy-looking Mac and PC collectible card-battling spinoff of the Warcraft fantasy franchise, but took on new life when you could easily whip out a tablet and go a few rounds at any time.
Now, this impressively crafted free-to-play offering has more than 20 million players ready to throw down in strategic, turn-based action, and you’ll have to compile one heck of a deck to face the world’s best battlers. And it’s plenty fun for free, although spending money lets you get packs of better cards a whole lot faster.
Why did the chicken cross the road? We think the bigger question is: How did we end up logging hundreds upon hundreds of sessions over the last month alone? Crossy Road is a powerfully addictive concoction, and while it clearly draws inspiration from arcade classic Frogger, turning that lane-hopping experience into an endless, leaderboard-centric affair gives it ample new legs.
Just seeing your friends’ names and scores on the road as you pass by makes you want to play even harder, and thankfully, Crossy Road is an incredibly generous free-to-play affair. No energy meter, timers, or other barriers; not even ads. That only serves to make this fantastic freebie all the more essential.
Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games are all the rage on PC, drawing tens of millions of daily players to log countless hours in team-based combat. But they can be just as fun on a touch device, as the incredibly impressive Vainglory proves.
It subtly scales down the genre’s concept without losing the appeal or strategy, letting you team up with two other online players to battle the trio at the other end of the map. The strategic action sees you learning new skills on the fly and smartly using limited resources, and not only does the approach work well on touch, but Vainglory also has some of the best graphics we’ve ever seen on an iPhone or iPad.
World of Tanks Blitz
The original World of Tanks is an absolute phenomenon on PC, where the free-to-play combat game has turned tens of millions of players into artillery addicts. What’s amazing about World of Tanks Blitz is that it maintains the tense action and thrilling spirit of the PC hit while scaling things down just enough to keep everything fluid on mobile.
Even with smaller maps and team sizes, the seven-on-seven tank battles are a load of fun on iPad or iPhone, requiring real strategy and teamwork to prevail against the rival squad. And the free-to-play model is thankfully no big headache, letting you play an extensive amount without paying—although the grand variety of tanks might tempt you to spend a bit to hurry progress along.
Ignore the urge to write this one off based on the title, because it might be the most inspired and enjoyable thing to come out of the whole Flappy Bird phase. Flappy Golf is side-scrolling golf on over-the-top, fantastical courses—except instead of hitting a ball with a club, you’re tapping to make it fly like a bird towards the cup.
Silly, right? It’s actually a conversion of the brilliant Super Stickman Golf series, using the same wonderfully creative courses and charming aesthetic, only now the goal is to get the ball into the hole in as few flaps as possible. And it has tons of free content, not to mention local and online multiplayer options.
Obnoxious, glossy aesthetics usually dominate icon-matching puzzle games (think Candy Crush Saga), but TwoDots is wonderfully and thankfully subdued by comparison. The sparse game boards and attractive adventure theme make that clear, but the game itself also is a subtler affair that relies on simple play elements to build an engaging experience.
Here, you’ll link up two or more adjacent dots to clear them from the board, but creating a square or rectangle instead removes all of that color from view. The strategic opportunities extend from there, especially as TwoDots implements challenging modifier dots in later stages. The result is rather sublime.
Bitcoin Billionaire is a very strange game to assess, because while it often feels like you’re in on the joke—it pokes fun at everything from Internet culture to, indeed, Bitcoin mining—you occasionally feel like the joke’s on you. Because you’re doing very little of import, and indeed, you may even willingly choose to watch video ads to receive special perks.
Someone is clearly profiting from all of that screen tapping, and it’s not you—but this simple game remains weirdly gripping. Tapping the screen mines fake Bitcoins, which you’ll then use to invest into silly things and improve your pad, and the cycle of tapping and spending continues endlessly. Somehow, that’s really fun.
FIFA 15 Ultimate Team
Last year’s game turned FIFA into a free-to-play experience, and EA Sports pretty much nailed it on the first try. FIFA 15 Ultimate Team doesn’t make any drastic changes to the formula this time around, but it’s still a startlingly robust mobile soccer simulation with loads of real teams and players plus within.
While not as realistic or refined as the console game it’s based on, Ultimate Team nonetheless does a great job as a freemium affair. You’ll build up a custom squad by collecting player cards, and then can play local matches or hop into online games, plus you can relive some of the biggest real-world matches each and every week.
Appealing to our base urges to break things while providing absolutely zero real-world consequence for doing so, Smash Hit proved to be one of our favorite games of the year, and the free-to-play model is really quite appealing. The goal is simple: throw balls to shatter panes of glass and little crystals as the camera whooshes ahead through abstract rooms.
Of course, it’s not really that simple for long. The stages quickly shake up the types of glass items you’ll need to destroy to keep moving along, and missing anything at all can really kill your momentum. You can play as much as you want for free, while paying a couple bucks adds the option of checkpoints.
Let’s be quite honest: Spider-Man Unlimited isn’t the most original or innovative game on this list. It feels a bit like Gameloft repurposed the core of last year’s quite fun Despicable Me: Minion Rush, pumping in comic characters and city rooftops to give the behind-the-back runner experience a fresh coat of paint.
But after a wealth of mediocre superhero games, we really enjoyed Spidey’s action-packed romp. It has both short, story-led missions and endless, score-chasing modes, and there’s a lot of variety within each—like dodging obstacles, bashing enemies, swinging through the air, climbing walls, and battling bosses. It adds up to a frantic, fun brew that we keep coming back to.
Rovio’s best release all year wasn’t an Angry Birds game—all three were pretty unremarkable, really—but rather a straightforward game about guiding a tiny airplane through 2D stages. Retry lives up to its billing, however: although simple, the tricky controls mean you’ll eagerly play again and again to clear each area.
That’s because tapping and holding the screen is the only way to control the plane, and maneuvering your way around walls and steep inclines en route to the next airstrip requires a lot of finesse. And the freemium model is reasonable: you might watch a video ad here and there to get a checkpoint coin, but it’s worth it.
Where's My Geek?
If you have a thing for the type of pixel art seen in classic games, please allow us to point you squarely in the direction of Where’s My Geek? It’s the latest entry in the Time Geeks series—a definitive compendium of sorts—and it delivers absolutely stunning environments that are packed with pop culture references (Game of Thrones, Lost, Nintendo, etc.) from all around the media spectrum.
Thankfully, Where’s My Geek? is more than just an incredibly pretty face. It’s also a great take on Where’s Waldo?-style image hunts, sending you on a search to find small item in busy environments, plus there are amusing arcade-style mini-games between rounds.
It’s not expansive or elaborate, but Checkpoint Champion is a tough game to stop playing. Given an overhead view of a map and just ten seconds on the clock, your goal is to whip around the dirt, grass, and tarmac and complete all manner of absurd turns to grab all of the icons that appear before time runs out.
The result is fast and frantic, and quite typically, you’ll play each level a few (or more) times before sorting out the right approach to hitting every spot in time. Checkpoint Champion doesn’t have a load of content included just yet, but the social leaderboards give every challenge ample replay value as you aim to topple friends.
Adventure Beaks is probably the best game we’ve ever played that stars a double-jumping, top hat-wearing penguin—but we suppose that’s a very specific category. Really, though, this cute little platformer doesn’t look like much, but it delivers enjoyable and lightly challenging side-scrolling action without a price tag.
It’s a Super Mario-like game of timing and precision, albeit with your hero here automatically propelled ahead. As such, you’ll need to tap at the right moments to leap between platforms, and overcome hazards, plus you can dive and slide on your belly—all essential tactics when it comes to reaching each goal.
Two golf games on one list? Don’t worry, Golfinity isn’t anything like Flappy Golf. In this inventive mini-golf affair, you’re presented a literally endless array of randomly generated holes to play in one ongoing game. Your over/under score is perpetual, and there’s always something new to play. Like, forever.
Golfinity’s minimal aesthetic results in holes made of basic geometric shapes, but there are curveballs: stairs to descend and ramps heading up or down, which can be difficult to assess from the overhead angle. But that’s part of the appeal in a game that provides endless challenges to tackle. And if you don’t do well, you can always replay the hole—but that’s not very honest, now, is it?
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