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The Benefit Of Years
Games are strange in how they age. Like many pieces of intellectual property, they are prone to having rights to their use transferred, split, re-combined, vaporized, and condensed time and time again. But unlike movies, music, or literature, games do not gain credibility and market appeal as they age. While a good book or album may sell in consistent numbers for years and years, games more than five years old are generally considered dinosaurs. The big publishers lose interest in selling them, and so the rights go up for grabs.
As a result, it's easy to find old games for free, either because the title is abandonware or because the title has been put up for free by a new owner. As a result, there is a surprisingly robust field of first-person shooters for those with thin wallets to choose from. But as with anything free, there is also a lot of junk to sort through. So I've done some sorting for you.
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When Quake 3 Arena was released, it was considered the graphical titan of the year. Few games were able to display levels with such a wealth of curved surfaces, and character models were also extremely high in detail. Now, ten years later, it's a browser based game. I wonder what John Carmack would have thought if you'd told him that, in only ten years, his newest graphical master-piece could be played in Internet Explorer?
Quake Live is, essentially, Quake 3 Arena, although it is also different in numerous ways, so much so that it does not really resemble the content that was available in the retail release of Quake 3 Arena. The game-play, however, remains largely the same. In its day, Quake 3 Arena gathered some criticism because it stuck to an aging style of gameplay that favored deathmatchs over team play, but it was still considered a leading shooter. It was, in fact, one of the last high-octane deathmatch oriented games, as both Quake 4 and the Unreal series rapidly began to veer towards fast-paced team gameplay involving tanks, forts, and other team game cliches.
But the lack of modernization in Quake Live is refreshing. With the exception of Team Fortress 2, most popular shooters available on the PC today are rather twitchy, conveying a "realistic' feel. Quake Live is far different. Characters move at warp speed, spin around in the blink of an eye, carry more firepower than an aircraft carrier, and routinely take rockets to the face. This sort of over-the-top action, around for two decades now, feels strangely new in this format.
Because Quake Live is a browser-based game, there is very little to download. You need to go through a registration process, and then you're ready to play. If you're looking for a free shooter, then Quake Live is the best place to start.
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Savage 2: A Tortured Soul
While there are a number of freeware first person shooters available, the majority of them are fairly generic in their setting. If you're not a soldier in World War II, then you're probably some sort of Starship Trooper fighting against other absurdly armored opponents. This is all good fun, but if you're experienced in the shooter genre, then you may start to be plagued by a sense of Deja-vu. If you're played one fast-paced rocket-blasting shooter, then you'll probably not find much new in others following that theme.
Savage 2 is different. Set in a fantasy world, Savage 2 is often described a cross between an MMO and an old-school Quake deathmatch. It is an apt comparison. Like an MMO, Savage 2 has fantasy-based classes which fit different roles like healing, stealth, and front-linge combat. But the game does not take place in a persistent world, nor is it third-person. The game is an entirely first-person slugfest consisting of individual matches with various goals.
The game even includes melee combat. That's right - while all characters have some sort of ranged ability, those not meant to be used at range have weak weapons which are only really good at picking off fleeing foes. This first-person melee experience is as intense as it is unique - there really isn't anything else like it.
Savage 2 is freeware, but there is the option of paying if you want access to some "premium" content. Making the jump is probably a good idea if you find yourself becoming addicted to the game, but new players can easily get several months of play-time out of the freeware version of Savage 2.
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When Tribes was released in 1998 it was widely hailed as one of the best and most unique shooters ever made. A purely multi-player game, its reliance on team play and emphasis on strategy was still new. What made it unique, however, was its extremely large maps and the jetpacks each player carried. Despite how cool the idea of a jetpack is, the Tribes series is the only shooter franchise that has ever gotten anywhere with the idea.
Tribes was followed by Tribes 2. Unfortunately, Tribes never carried the same weight as larger franchises, and sales of Tribes 2 were limited. In 2004, the publisher released the game as free to download but did not provide the CD key required to play. But earlier this year, a project called Tribes NEXT was launched. This project patched the game to include support for users who do not have the login keys.
As a result, Tribes 2 is now free to play. Although it changed a few aspects of the original Tribes, the key features remain intact. Tribes 2 is undoubtedly the most massive shooter available today, either as a paid game or as freeware. The wealth of strategies, weapons options, and vehicles in the stock game has only been expanded by numerous user mods that give Tribes 2 almost unlimited gameplay. Make no mistake; the gameplay of Tribes 2 is far slower in pace than either Savage 2 or Quake Live! But depending on your perspective, that is probably a good thing. Fans of strategic gameplay will appreciate how the different weapons have specific tactical roles, the importance of upgrading your base, and the coordination required to pull off a decisive victory.