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Best challenging free-to-play games in 2021

Winter Nexus is coming to EVE Online on December 10

Video games come in all shapes and sizes, and when it comes to choosing what to spend your time on, there are so many factors to take into account. That choice only gets harder when you bring money into the equation. From the most obscure of Steam listings, to the ever-present fixtures of free-to-play games as a genre, there are way too many games to choose from.

With this first of our new features, we’re going to be speaking to gamers looking for a challenge. Many free-to-play games are incredibly simple, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s talk turkey, some gamers want a bit more to sink their teeth into. So to help you out, here are some of the great options for challenging free-to-play games in 2021.

Path of Exile

Without a doubt, the best ARPG on the market right now. Styled after the legacy of Diablo 2, developer Grinding Gear Games has spent years pushing this game to new heights and limits, and then blowing past them each cycle. The game continues to evolve, and it’s entirely free-to-play. With new content every three months, there’s always something new to do.

Across a 10 Act campaign, players fight back the gods and literal horrors of the mysterious beyond, all in a quest for ultimate power. And true to their name, the devs shower players with a mountain of loot to let them achieve that power. There’s also an incredibly deep crafting and leveling system that will allow players to take skills in literally any direction. If you want to sling spells, you have hundreds of build choices for that. If you want to smack things with a hammer, same thing.

And with the launch of the new Ritual League this week, there’s plenty of fun to be had. The new league, which is the way POE deploys new expansions, is all about taking on bosses in droves. Completing rituals will award you points that can be spent on buying various rewards from each ritual site. The prices for items change as you complete more rituals, making it better to push deeper and deeper into the mysterious new content. Check it out in the trailer below.

Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One

Play Path of Exile

EVE Online

The fights between player groups are what often make the headlines in EVE Online. but it’s what happens in-between that really makes the game shine. There are so many different ideals, cultures, and political philosophies at play in this game that you’re basically watching the West Wing in space. And with so many different playstyles—from space trucking to space piracy—you can always find something to do.

Against that backdrop this is an incredibly complex game where it’s basically a submarine simulator in space. There are dozens of ships to fly and hundreds of skills to make flying those more effective. And to be the best, you have to learn a lot about how all this stuff fits together, Getting the most optimal fit for your ships is all about knowing what you can and can’t handle, and then risking it all to take your shot. Because when you die in this game, your stuff is gone. The ship goes kaboom and leaves a smattering of your cargo behind. Lucky for you, you can come back and try again, because there’s always something new to learn in New Eden.

And in a completely player driven-economy where players make everything of consequence, every fight has an impact. If you want to be part of a single-shard MMO where the stakes matter, EVE is the game for you. The sci-fi setting takes humanity thousands of years into the future in a distant star cluster, and sprinkles in all kinds of geopolitics and cultural clashes for added flair. All of that reflects in the gameplay as well. Because when you put thousands of players into a single box, they’re going to fight over space.

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Available on: PC

Play EVE Online

Warframe

Who doesn’t want to be a space ninja? This game from Canadian studio Digital Extremes is another interesting and incredible tale about the growth of an amazing game from humble beginnings. Warframe started as a scrapped multiplayer mode for an entirely different game, before being spun-off into something new. And it’s nothing short of amazing that the game is at where it is today.

After years of work, DE has managed to turn a basic game about the future of humanity into something worthy of recognition. As the twists and turns of the story unfold, you’ll find yourself pulled in, but it’s not just the ever-evolving story that keeps folks coming back. You start life as a weak and humble Tenno, but before long you will rule the stars. And it’s that journey to power that gives the game its complexity and engaging core ideals.

A player-driven economy has evolved around trading loot and blueprints to craft powerful builds, and oh boy are there a lot of builds out there. With the sheer number of weapons and mods that can be used to give near-endless build variety. It’s this build variety, and an endless mission structure that gives you something new to do. With new Warframes, gear and areas being added all the time, the list keeps growing.

Available on: PC, PS4/PS5, Xbox One.XSX, Switch

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Valorant

Valorant is more your speed if you’re after the experience in your free-to-play games that is all about PvP and mastery of very specific skills. As a competitive arena shooter after the genre crown held by Overwatch, this game has it all. There’s incredible character designs that make the game feel more alive just by looking at it. It certainly has the look for the genre down.

But where Valorant really shines is the gameplay. Other free-to-play games in this space that are trying to usurp the big names just get the aesthetic and nothing more. Made by the incredibly talented folks at Riot Games, they really have something here. The fast-paced action is all about making the 5v5 hero shooter a rather brilliant entry into the space through smooth gunplay and a passionate and dedicated community. The alterations to the core formula add a bit to the learning curve, as do the unique hero powers, but there’s tons of fun to be had in just learning how things work.

With an increasingly broad collection of heroes and maps, you can find your niche by just trying things out. Once you have found the things you enjoy, and start to master the high-stakes play, it will be hard to put it down. The basic gameplay of rotating teams in a bomb-planting game mode is a ton of fun too, once you learn to work with the folks fighting beside you. If you’re after a social experience in the shooter space, this is for you.

Available On: PC

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ISKMogul is a growing video game publication that got its start covering EVE Online, and has since expanded to cover a large number of topics and niches within the purview of gaming.
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