If you’re looking for really cheap games, the Humble Bundle is a good bet -- they now have a marketplace for selling individual games, usually with good discounts (many including Steam keys). Good Old Games is also a wonderful place to find older titles at low prices and, having expanded their operations, GOG now gives away a fair number of titles for free. EA's Origin has also taken up free games distribution, accompanied by improved customer service in an attempt to gain marketshare.
Amazon Games has recently upped its ante, oftentimes selling Steam game codes for cheaper than Steam itself.
Let’s be honest, though: Effectively all PC gamers use Steam, and friends might not be especially impressed by a gift of a game that was free in the first place. Steam has plenty of great games for low prices during its seasonal sales, and Amazon's offerings ensure you'll find something interesting on the cheap. This guide showcases our favorite PC games that are available for less than $10, primarily using Steam & Amazon for sales and gifting. We've separated this list by genres for ease of browsing.
Good Role-Playing Games Less than $10
Fallouts 1, 2, 3, & New Vegas ($10) & NV story DLC ($5 each): I have to admit, I’m part of the growing number of people who have played Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but not 1 or 2. That said, I’ve probably spent more hours on just those two games than on any other series, except maybe Total War.
Fallout 1 and 2 are isometric RPGs with turn-based combat; both were recently free on Good Old Games, but that deal has since expired. Fallout 3 and New Vegas, however, are first/third-person RPGs with a choice between normal combat or using VATS (automatic targeting). FO3 takes place in the East Coast ruins of DC, while New Vegas is set in the Mojave wasteland in and around Las Vegas. My personal favorite is New Vegas — I like the setting better, and the each of the story DLC (four, for $5 each) are interesting and fun to play, unlike the Fallout 3 DLC (Point Lookout is pretty good, I admit). Both FO3 and New Vegas have tons of mods by now to improve graphics and gameplay.
Deus Ex GOTY ($7): Deus Ex came out in the year 2000, a wonderful time when people wore black trenchcoats and sunglasses and used “cyber-“ as a prefix for everything. Everything. The game takes place after the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but the basic idea is the same: it’s an RPG set in a dystopian future where you fight terrorists with the power of guns, cyber-mechanical augmentations, and dialogue choices.
System Shock 2 ($2.50): The System Shock horror FPS/RPG games are the precursor to the Bioshock games. The games share a similar atmosphere, though Bioshock replaces cyberpunk with biopunk/steampunk/whatever you want to call it. There’s up to four-player co-op (in a game that was released in 1999!), which can be a bit tricky to get working, but is worth a try. System Shock’s rogue AI SHODAN is the ancestor of the modern rogue AI trope in games (think GlaDOS), and there’s good cause for the imitation.
The Witcher Enhanced Edition Director’s Cut ($5): It’s an enhanced edition AND a director’s cut -- gee whiz! Although I haven’t played the un-enhanced, un-director’s-cut Witcher, the Steam page makes it sound like there are some legitimate improvements over the original (re-recorded dialogue, optimization, etc.). It’s an RPG where you play as Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, who goes around murdering and romancing and making various moral choices in a swords-and-monsters style fantasy world. You definitely need at least the recommended hardware specs listed on the Steam page; they aren’t kidding around with the graphics.
Goat Simulator ($7): I can’t pretend that I’m not a little tired of “_____ simulator” games when we live in a world where Rock Simulator is a real project that’s been funded – and I don't mean the music genre. That said, Coffee Stain studios (yes, these guys also made Sanctum and Sanctum 2) have recently released the free “Goat MMO Simulator” content pack for their Goat Simulator game. For such an absolutely silly game, the developers sure are putting a lot of effort into making sure that your $7 is wasted with as much style as possible, and that deserves some appreciation.
Sandbox Games Under $10
Terraria ($3): A two-dimensional, procedurally-generated sandbox block world. The Minecraft comparisons are obvious (There are blocks! You mine them!), so I’ll just note the differences: Terraria has multiple bosses, significantly more weapons/armor/items than Minecraft, and a generally greater feeling that it’s a real game with goals to work towards. It’s no longer updating, but if you like what you see, you might want to take a look at its larger and more expensive sort-of-sequel set in space, Starbound.
Gmod ($2.50): Garry’s Mod is the Second Life of the source engine, and I’m not sure I can offer a better summary than that; it’s basically a framework for manipulating and playing with the assets from all of Valve’s source titles. Gmod has seen the creation of hundreds of different gametypes and character models and items, each more incomprehensible than the last.
For a long time, Gmod was also the best way to make animations using Source assets (before the Source Filmmaker was made public), and it’s the birthplace of all those bizarre stop-motion animations of Valve characters floating around on YouTube. Really, Gmod is a must-have if you own more than one Source engine title (warning: you’ll only be able to see the assets from source games you own and have downloaded, unless you download them separately somewhere).
Saints Row 2 ($10): I’ve played Saints Row 2, the Third, and IV, but 2 is still my favorite. The plot hadn’t quite sunken into the absolute ridiculousness of the latter two games, so there’s a lovely contrast between missions like “breaking out of jail” and “spraying as many pedestrians as possible with the contents of a septic truck.” Stillwater is large and genuinely interesting to explore, and I remember thinking on multiple occasions that whomever was in charge of level design really didn’t need to go that extra mile. I highly recommend installing the Gentlemen of the Row mod pack and playing co-op with a friend, but you’ll have to figure that out on your own since Gamespy is no more.
Braid ($1.43): The prototypical indie game, Braid is one of my all-time favorite titles. This is Jonathan Blow’s only released game so far, and he very clearly put a lot of himself into it. Braid's got a deep and emotional story based on the typical man-rescues-princess trope. Even if you don’t have time for all the high-minded poetic indie-ness of it, though, it’s still a fun game mechanically; it’s a fairly basic platformer, but also a puzzle game in the best sense of the phrase: a simple mechanic -- in this case, the ability to reverse time -- is used to make complex and creative levels. It’s one of the few puzzle games that hasn’t made me mad enough to look up a walkthrough, and that’s saying something.
Portal ($5): I love Portal and Portal 2, and I think everyone should play both of them. Portal is a physics-based puzzle game which, like Braid, uses a simple mechanic (portals) to encourage creative thinking (to think with portals, badum-tss). You are silent protagonist Chell, sole test subject of everyone’s favorite rogue AI, GlaDOS. The writing is great, and I’m a sucker for the “clean white futuristic environment gets old and deteriorates” look.
Thomas was Alone ($2.50): Worth it just to prove that expressionless quadrilaterals can make you feel emotion. The puzzles are pretty simple, as is the art (it doesn’t ever go beyond colored blocks), but the story is enjoyable. You play as a small rectangle (Thomas) and his friends, and anything more than that would probably be a spoiler.
Action Co-Op Games Under $10
Magicka ($5): A word of warning: when I first tried to play Magicka, it was on a laptop with Intel integrated graphics, and the game didn’t even try to launch. As far as I know, that’s still a problem, and it’s somewhat representative of the whole game—there’s a spell named “Crash to Desktop,” for instance. That said, the four player co-op is extremely fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously; we reviewed Magicka when it first came out and loved it.
You play as four inept little wizards just trying to make it back to a party with the help of the definitely-not-a-vampire Vlad. The game stretches the term “co-op” to its limits, as you’ll probably end up killing your teammates more often than enemies, maybe even by accident. There’s a ridiculous amount of cheap DLC that’s been released, so feel free to explore such concepts as “what if the Vietnam war had been between tiny wizards that sound like the Swedish Chef and an army of goblins.” We actually interviewed the Magicka folks about that one, too.
Sanctum ($2.50): A clever combination of the first person shooter and tower defense genres. You and up to three of your buddies run around upgrading towers and building walls between waves, and then switch to your own weapons and assist the towers in taking down the enemies. In my experience, the main problem in tower defense games is that the towers do all the defense, and you’re left with nothing to do during waves—Sanctum fixes that.
Shoot Many Robots ($6): This might take the prize for “most charmingly straightforward title.” You walk from left to right through the 2.5D levels, shooting lots of robots and picking up or buying upgrades. There’s not much else to say, other than the fact that there’s 4 player co-op. It’s a simple idea, but it does it well.
Top-Down Indie Action
Binding of Isaac ($2.50): You’ve probably heard about The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, the sequel to TBoI, and there’s a reason for that—TBoI is a great game and fully deserved a sequel. Featuring Edmund McMillen’s distinctive art (he’s also half of Team Meat, the indie developer of Super Meat Boy), it’s a top-down 2D dungeon crawler with the kind of clean procedural generation that makes it so easy to spend hours playing games like Rogue Legacy. Definitely worth the price for the amount of content and potential playtime you get.
Hotline Miami ($2.50): With any luck, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number should be coming out soon. In the meantime, though, everyone should play the first game—it’s the game equivalent of the movie “Drive,” with 80s-style neon pixel art, over-the-top blood, and what might be my favorite game soundtrack ever. It’s a top-down game in the fast paced die-respawn-retry style of games like Super Meat Boy, where you play as a masked man performing brutal killings under mysterious orders. Hotline Miami is proof that all you need to be a successful game developer is some basic coding skills and motivation—it was made by two guys using GameMaker, and as far as I know, all the music was found on SoundCloud.
Adventure Games Under $10
I have no mouth, and I must scream ($1.50): This is a point-and-click game based on a short story by Harlan Ellison, and despite being published in 1995, it still manages to be rather unsettling even now. A supercomputer named AM has killed everyone except for five people, and you must play as each of these five characters in levels of AM’s design for its amusement, all while looking for a way to defeat it. None of the five characters is really one hundred percent sympathetic, though, and some of them are downright evil.
Psychonauts ($10): Tim Schafer designed it, Erik Wolpaw helped write it (one of the writers for Portal and Portal 2), and Scott Campbell did the art; it has to be good. You play as Razputin, a psychic kid at summer camp, whose greatest ambition is to become a Psychonaut. This endeavor apparently involves a lot of platforming and solving puzzles, as well as the occasional boss fight. I’m still blown away by the sheer amount of levels and assets they managed to cram into an Xbox original/PS2 era game; every level is so completely distinct from the next that they could easily be from different games.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP ($3.19): It’s hard to tell whether Superbrothers is a game or a method for delivering Jim Guthrie’s music, but maybe it doesn’t matter. The art and music are both great, and the gameplay is mostly simple point-and-click, which fits with the unhurried theme. Fortunately, the music is intentionally placed in an easily-accessible folder within the game files. High points include gameplay that depends on the real-life phases of the moon; low points include the game asking you whether you want to tweet every single interaction.
RTS, FPS Under $10
Rome Total War ($5): Probably the most beloved of the Total War titles, RTW was the first in the series to use 3D models and it introduced a lot of the features seen in later games. There’s always been a huge modding community, so if Rome itself isn’t quite your cup of tea, head to the Total War Center and take your pick of the total conversion mods.
Half Life ($5) & Episodes Blue Shift/Opposing Force ($5): Every one of Valve’s Half Life series is a classic PC game, and every title is available for $10 or less. That includes Half Life (both the original version and the one ported to Source), Blue Shift and Opposing Force, Half Life 2, and episodes 1 and 2. All the games are first-person shooters following armor-plated physicist Gordon Freeman’s involvement in an alien invasion of Earth and its aftermath; Blue Shift and Opposing Force are exceptions to this, which feature a security guard and a soldier respectively (and were developed by a different studio). They make especially good gifts for Half Life fans; they’re not as widely played, but they’re both several hours long and offer different perspectives on the events at Black Mesa.
If that's not enough to get you started, check out our other Buyer's Guides for the holidays.
- Patrick "POL1607" Lathan.