Digits & Dragons
The Best Games in Life Usually Aren't Free
It's a sad fact of gaming - the best games are going to cost you some cash. With so many fantastic
games for all platforms released in the last couple of months, there isn't any shortage of fantastic
titles that you could shell out for. From Mass Effect to Mario, Halo to Half Life, Bioshock to Rock Band, it's been a good year for gamers.
But what if you're burned out on these or simply don't have the budget to shell out the cash
required for these games and the systems to play them? Well, thanks to the beauty of "free" you
can still get your game on without paying a dime. Many of these games are done for the love of
the game and, while they may not be the best thing around, they certainly are worth a try.
Whack a Skeleton
Last month I was playing Tabula Rasa, a pretty fun massively multiplayer game but one that also
costs $15 a month. If you still want a persistent character to play with friends and don't mind
missing out on some extras (graphics, story, immersion, or depth) then Dungeon Runners is a
free PC online game you might enjoy. If you've played any of the Diablo games you will
immediately feel at home with Dungeon Runners, which in many ways feels like an online
recreation of Diablo. The similarities between the games are obvious; many of the dungeons are
randomly generated and the cool loot you get is variations of quality, enchantments, and
uniqueness that make up fearsome names like the Slothful Rusty Sword of Rat Slaying.
Die rodents, die!
While the game isn't terribly deep, it acknowledges that and plays to its strengths - it is fast, it is
action-packed, and it is free. The time from character creation to monster slaying is next to
nothing and it is easy to master all of the basic skills. Of course, if you want to get access to the
best items in the game you do have to pay a monthly fee, but the free version is enough to
provide a fun online dungeon crawl.
If whacking beasts in dungeons isn't your thing, perhaps a Civilization remake is. Freeciv is an
open-source recreation of the original Civilization that adds some new features and misses on others.
The basic gameplay of Freeciv is everything you remember from Civilization: you build cities,
shape production, drive to new technology, and ultimately conquer the world, reach space, or die
trying. The technologies and units are for the most part pretty similar to the original, as are many
of the formulas used to calculate all of the battles, resource production, and so on.
In addition to recreating the basics, Freeciv goes further and adds some cool new features, like a
more goal-oriented technology tree. If you know your goal is automobiles and you are still
working on writing, you can select automobiles and let your scientists work on all of the relevant
pieces to progress up to that desired tech.
Beyond a clearer tech tree, the developers of Freeciv have also added the option to play online
against other players, and players can take their turns simultaneously. I haven't had a chance to
try the multiplayer but it is definitely a cool addition and finally provides the chance for you to
find out which of your friends would make the greatest leader of the known universe. If those
two features weren't enough, there is also a governor feature that lets cities manage their
production and happiness themselves based on a couple of parameters you define. If your empire
is getting too unwieldy then this is a good way to set aside some of the more menial tasks that
come from wearing the crown.
My first playthrough of Freeciv was against the computer AI and only lasted a couple of hours.
If you've played Civilization you know this is way too short. I don't know if the AI is always this
relaxed and dumb, but I was able to hang out on an Antarctica-like continent and tech up to the
space age while they were barely making caravels and knights. Getting off to Alpha Centauri was
a breeze but it just didn't feel right.
Why play around with sticks when you advance to thermonuclear war?
Although the new features are cool and all of the gameplay of the original is included, I just
didn't feel like the game captured the feel of Civilization. I don't know if it was the great
Civilization music, the funny-looking advisor, the palace-building option or any one thing, but
while Freeciv plays like Civilization, it definitely isn't a replacement for the original empire-building game.
In addition to Freeciv, there is another, independent project to recreate Sid Meier's Colonization,
a game I actually enjoyed more than Civilization. I haven't tried FreeCol, but it is out there and if
it is anything like the original it should be a lot of fun.
Swords and Strategy
There is an interesting gaming genre that combines turn-based tactical combat with the character
development and storyline of an RPG. These tactical fantasy games have been around for ages,
including the Shining Force series for the Sega Genesis and other consoles as well as Final
Fantasy Tactics. These games never seem to be mega hits, but they give a slower pace compared
to real-time strategy and it is fun to develop your characters over many levels.
On the subject of free, one turn-based tactical RPG stands out - The Battle for Wesnoth, an open
source, freely available game built for Windows, various Unix operating systems and even
Macs! And, since the source code is freely available and additions are encouraged, you can even
make your own additions to the game.
The main download of the game comes with a number of campaigns as well as a tutorial to help
get you started with this kind of game. The basics are pretty simple - kind of like an elaborate
(and more random) game of fast-moving chess. After a little bit of storyline background and
setup, you are placed into battle with your army squaring off against your enemies.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the combat is turned based. Each turn, all of your characters can
move, attack, or move then attack. Rather than your attacks just being a free hit for your guys,
you have to choose whether to attack with your melee weapon or with a ranged weapon. If the
enemy you are attacking also has a weapon of that type, they can fight back. This means that
archers attacking wolves with their bow never need to worry about taking return punishment, but
if you end up sword-to-sword against an ogre, you better watch out.
Along with just deciding which enemies to attack when, there are also strategic points around the
map that you must hold on to. The most crucial of these points are villages, which not only add
gold to your recruiting pool each turn but also heal whatever unit is standing on them. Terrain
and time of day also play a factor in determining how likely you are to score a hit on your foes.
The best place for an elf is taking cover in the forest
Between the exciting tactical decisions and the predictable but fun stories, Wesnoth is a lot better
than I would have expected and is a game I could easily see people paying money for. That it is
continually evolving and is totally free makes this a great game to try out.
Following the Leader
Perhaps when you were younger, you enjoyed the game of Lemmings - saving those mindless
green-haired little guys from certain doom, while sometimes accidentally letting one or two more
than necessary explode with that satisfying "pop"! Well, if you still wax nostalgic over that title
then you can satisfy your creature management urge with a fun open source title, Pingus.
Like Lemmings, Pingus is all about making some kind of order out of a bunch of mindless
drones. Each level has a starting hatch that penguins fall from and an ending doorway that you
must guide them to. Along the way are perilous drops, water traps, and of course the most
dangerous feature of all - you. Yes, the sad fact remains that not every tux-wearing bird will
make it to the end; sometimes you have to explode a couple to make way for the others.
Pingus began as, and still is in its heart, a Lemmings clone, but it has also added some new
features. The most obvious of these features is the addition of an overarching story and an
accompanying world map. The story (global warming threatening penguin extinction) isn't that
interesting but it does strike a nice balance between not distracting from the real fun (the puzzles)
and giving at least some context to what you are doing. In addition to the story, there is at least
one additional action available to you as you guide penguins along their way.
It's up to you to bash, climb, and jump these guys to safety
At its core, Pingus is a problem-solving puzzle game and is great for those that like games with
this peppy, Nintendoesque feel. It's easy to pick up and is a good fix if you still have fond
memories of Lemmings.
Free is awesome and some free games are really fun. Just like anything, price isn't necessarily an
indication of quality. On the whole you are probably going to have more fun playing a AAA title
than something you randomly download. This isn't always the case, though. Among the store
shelves there are certainly many worthless games, and sometimes you can find fabulous games
done for reasons other than profit.
Strangely, a lot of free games are recreations or new takes on old games and don't show a whole
lot of creativity. With many of them, like FreeCiv, the mechanics are all in place but the game
just hasn't been fleshed out with all of the small touches you come to expect. Still, the price is
right and there is a lot of fun out there to be had without having to spend your holiday bonus.