Insert Coin: Free-to-play is the way to play

Will Podlewski, Columnist

If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a cheapskate. While this column sings the praises of games that are playable for $20 or less, I really try to avoid commitments even that pricey. I’m a college student — sue me.

That’s why, for the most part, I’m a pretty big fan of the latest craze sweeping the gaming world — free-to-play (FTP). For no money up front, you can go out and experience AAA-level games, with everything from massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) to shooters to yes, even the seventh-grade staple “RuneScape.” But like any craze, just about everybody is ready to jump on the FTP bandwagon, leaving the true gems suffocating under tons of shovelware. And believe me, there are gems — you just need me to help you find them. So here are my picks for best free-to-play shooters, MMORPGs and other games.

Shooter: “PlanetSide 2”

If you’ve ever played an online first-person shooter (FPS), you’ve probably got the basics of “PlanetSide 2” down already — you run, you gun, you hop in vehicles and you capture objectives. But how about you magnify that experience to a battlefield that can have as many as 2,000 players on it at once, where columns of player-driven tanks crush player-manned fortifications as squadrons of player-controlled aircraft scream overhead? That’s a lot of players.

Aside from that massive player count though, “PlanetSide 2” is FPS-generic to its core. There are three factions to choose from, each with its own abilities and player classes, but apart from that, it’s just mindless shooting. And there’s no problem with that.

Other picks: “Team Fortress 2,” “Hawken”

MMORPG : “Star Trek Online”

Will is a nerd! Torches and pitchforks, everyone!

Ahem. Now that’s out of the way, I can tell you about the best free MMORPG out right now: “Star Trek Online.” Combining gorgeous space combat with slightly lamer ground combat, you play as the captain of your very own starship doing all sorts of “Star Trek-y” things. MMORPG s aren’t known for their gameplay, and STO admittedly can get a little stale, especially when you’re earthbound, but a great customization engine and a decent story make this a treat for “Trek” fans that’s still accessible to everyone.

Other picks: “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” “World of Warcraft”

Other: “QWOP”

Remember when I said “FTL: Faster Than Light” was the hardest game I ever played? Well, “QWOP” comes in at a very close second.

The premise is pretty simple. You have to send a runner down a 100-meter track at the Olympics. You control his thigh and calf muscles with the Q, W, O and P keys, and the slightest mistype will send you flipping over backwards in a bout of hilarious ragdoll physics.

I am the only person I know who has ever gotten to the end of QWOP. And that makes me officially better at video games than you.

Other picks: “Jetpack Joyride,” “Temple Run 2″