This is a scary time, and if you aren't on board with that statement yet, you should probably ask yourself why. Sorry to start out on a bummer note, but I feel there's a responsibility to be serious and sobering about this: the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, which was formally classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, has claimed over 8,000 lives globally. It threatens to kill millions if the world doesn't take immediate action to stop its spread.
For the average person, the simplest and best thing you can do is minimize your contact with the outside world as much as you can. Practicing self-isolation not only minimizes your chances of infection, but it lowers the risk that you'll spread the disease if you have it and aren't showing symptoms. Epidemiologists say social distancing, isolation, and self-quarantine are key to lessening the impact of the coronavirus, and blithely disregarding their guidance (or quarantine orders) is reckless behavior.
So, what are you supposed to do when you're not going out and are only seeing your friends via video chat? I personally want to try some new hobbies or to revive some old ones, but if this stretches into a months-long ordeal, let's be honest: a ton of us are going to pass time with video games.
Publishers and developers know this, and many of them are either making some games free in an attempt to encourage folks to self-isolate, or happen to have some free options that are... let's say, conveniently timed for our current crisis. Here's a list of some that we encourage you to check out, minus the big always-free options like Destiny 2: New Light, Fortnite, and so on. If we've missed any standouts, please let us know in the comments. Stay safe, folks.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey
PS4, PC, Xbox One from March 19 to March 22
Assassin's Creed Odyssey, a game our Reviews Editor Mike Williams enjoyed quite a bit when it came out in late 2018, is having a free weekend starting tomorrow, March 19. Even if you've already played Odyssey before, you might want to load it up in the coming days. If you do, you can unlock the new "Roman Set" armor and Milanese Sword, modeled after the clothing and blade of Assassin Creed 2's Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
There are a few things to keep in mind during the free weekend: if you're on PC or PS4, you will need to be connected to the internet while playing. On Xbox One, you'll need an Xbox Live Gold membership in order to play, and on PS4, you won't be able to earn trophies.
Also—and I love the way this is phrased—Ubisoft says that if you're playing on PC via the Epic Games Store and decide to buy Odyssey, "due to some technical mumbo jumbo, you will need to re-download the full game upon upgrading to the full game."
Football Manager 2020
PC, Mac from March 18 to March 25
Since nearly every professional sport relies on attracting thousands of fans to crowd stadiums and venues, the spread of the coronavirus has taken a more obvious toll on the pastime. While some soccer orgs are already looking to EA's FIFA 2020 as a way to cope with game cancellations, Sega and developers Sports Interactive are providing a more cerebral free substitute: Football Manager 2020.
Sports Interactive recently used Football Manager 2020 to pioneer fully recycled and recyclable PC game packaging, which will now be the norm for all of Sega's PC releases in Europe moving forward. If you end up buying the full version of Football Manager 2020 via Steam (which, let's be honest, Sega probably hopes you will), you'll be skipping the packaging altogether and protecting others by staying in. That's a win-win.
Dozens of Games on GOG
PC, Mac, and/or Linux with various availability
As part of GOG's Spring Sale, which will last until March 30, the online game seller has also collected a list of all its free-to-play titles "that will help you relax and pass time at home." GOG doesn't mention the coronavirus by name, but if you happen to be on vacation and planned on playing some classic '90s PC games anyway, it just so happens that GOG has a lot of those available. GOG's free line up isn't solely retro, but from a few Ultima series cuts to throwbacks like Epic Games' Jill of the Jungle trilogy, there's a lot of nostalgia to be mined here.
Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Plus the Episodes and Expansions
PC, Mac from now until March 23
A while back, to promote the upcoming release of Half-Life: Alyx, Valve went ahead and made all the older Half-Life titles free on Steam for a limited time. Alyx isn't out until Monday, so you've got a lot of time to make your way through the Black Mesa incident three times (Half-Life, Blue Shift, and Opposing Force) before moving on to Gordon Freeman's adventures in and around Combine-controlled City 17 (Half-Life 2 plus Episodes One and Two).
In January, the original Half-Life actually broke its record for active Steam players thanks to the free-to-play window, and it's still seeing some impressive SteamDB numbers for a game dating back to 1998.
The original isn't as pretty or polished as Crowbar Collective's recently released remake work on Black Mesa, but free is free. Also, if you're going to be picking up Half-Life: Alyx on Monday, Valve advises being familiar with the whole Half-Life story through to the end of Episode Two. If you're playing catch up, you've only got a few days left to do it at no additional cost.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust, A Short Hike, and Mutazione
PC, Mac from now to March 19
This trio makes up the Epic Games Store's usual offering of free titles this week, and you won't be able to claim them after midday on March 19, at which point the free selection will switch over to The Stanley Parable and Watch Dogs.
Anodyne 2 expands upon the original game's Zelda-like dreamworld gameplay by moving things into a full, PlayStation era-inspired 3D world. From there, you can explore the mindscapes of characters you encounter, at which point the perspective and gameplay will transition back to a 2D perspective. It made Senior Editor Caty McCarthy's list of the 15 best games you probably missed in 2019.
A Short Hike, Adam Robinson-Yu's charming exploration platformer, also made that list. "It's an adorable short game that can be done in under an hour," writes Caty, "or you can loiter about, talking to the fellow hikers you see on the trail, hunting collectables, and taking your time to admire the beautiful scenery." It honestly sounds like a great companion to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (or a suitable substitute if you can't get it).
Die Gute Fabrik's Mutazione launched alongside Apple Arcade last September, and if you haven't heard of it, just know that it's an indie release to rival other 2019 standouts like Untitled Goose Game, Eliza, and Slay the Spire. Why? Well, it received the most nominations of any games in 2020's Independent Games Festival Awards, including a nomination for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. A Short Hike and Anodyne 2 also got nominated for the grand prize, so before the awards start streaming tonight at 5 p.m. PT, download all three so you can say you knew about them before the award show bump.