Free Fire Review: A PUBG Clone with a Monetization Rabbit Hole

With the complete dominance of Fortnite Battle Royale, it’s easy to forget where the current gaming craze actually started – a mod that morphed into its own franchise called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. PUBG for short.

The spirit of PUBG obviously lives on through many clones and spinoffs, not the least of which is a game I got to go hands-on with recently: a surprisingly well-implemented mobile game called Free Fire. After several hours and more than a few “Booyah!”s, I was able to dig pretty deep into this game to see what it actually is, and also the shocking depths that its monetization model goes to.

Let’s check it out in this review of Free Fire on iOS.

Don't get distracted at the beginning by the many options this game provides
Don’t get distracted at the beginning by the many options this game provides

Made By Professionals

Free Fire and Free Fire MAX (the visually enhanced version I actually played) are both developed and published by Garena, a Singaporean studio responsible for distributing some of the most popular free-to-play games of the past decade in specific Asian regions.

For instance, they were responsible for League of Legends up until 2023, Path of Exile until 2016, and currently handle Call of Duty Mobile, FIFA Online 4, and Fairy Tale: Forces Unite. Those are all big names in gaming, which gave me confidence when downloading Free Fire.

As it turns out, that confidence was well-founded.

There's a lot of weapon choice!
There’s a lot of weapon choice!

Familiar Gameplay Mechanics

If you’ve played a battle royale – or any free-to-play game in the past several years – you’ll feel right at home in Free Fire right from the jump.

Its home screen UI is just as cluttered as you would expect, filled with various tabs and buttons all surrounding your avatar. Most of those buttons have to do with the insane monetization at play in Free Fire, but we’ll get to that a little later.

For now, you just need to know that most of these buttons are easy enough to ignore since they are overshadowed but a big yellow “Start” button in the bottom left corner that got me into a match in less than three seconds. I’m sure I’ve waited longer than that for Fortnite matches, so I’m not sure if that says more about Garena’s matchmaking process or the popularity of the game itself, but it was nice.

Get matched in less than 3 seconds
Get matched in less than 3 seconds

Once the map loaded in and I dropped out of the customary plane flying over an island, I was greeted with a very large map, plenty of loot, and a decidedly fun shooting experience. You don’t even really need to do any inventory management, since the game seems to equip/unequip gear as you walk over it, always ensuring you have the best pieces available.

Other than that, there’s not much else to be said about Free Fire in terms of its gameplay. It’s what I expected, it runs well, and it’s a lot of fun. The quintessential battle royale experience boiled down to something that’s available on iPhone (unlike Fortnite, which still stings).

Now, let’s talk about what’s going on under the hood.

Monstrous Monetization

First off, this is a free-to-play game, so you can probably guess that there are going to be multiple currencies at play. First up, you have Gold, which can be collected from special platforms in-game. From my time with the game, it appears that you can only use this currency to buy guns, character skins, and select cosmetics. For everything else, you need to have the premium currency, which is Diamonds.

The exchange rate between Gold and Diamonds doesn’t seem to be very good, with the majority of character skins going for 200 diamonds or 10,000 Gold. Now, I found the Gold payouts to be pretty decent, but I haven’t been playing the game for weeks or months at this point, so there’s no telling what kind of dropoff in Gold output occurs as you get to higher levels.

As for Diamonds, it’s up to you and your willingness to part with real-life money when it comes time to top off that wallet.

Here is a breakdown of the Diamonds top-up options in Free Fire:

  • 100 Diamonds ($0.99)
  • 310 Diamonds ($2.99)
  • 520 Diamonds ($4.99)
  • 1,060 Diamonds ($9.99)
  • 2,180 Diamonds ($19.99)
  • 5,600 Diamonds ($49.99)
There's a lot of options to upgrade in-game
There’s a lot of options to upgrade in-game

While that would be enough for most people and most games would draw the line at that, Free Fire goes WAY further. In addition to these one-time top-up purchases, there is also a handful of other options:

  • Level-Up Pass: A purchasable pass that entitles you to a set amount of Diamonds every time you level up. ($9.99/$2.99 introductory offer)
  • Membership: A tiered purchasable that entitles you to a set number of Diamonds and rewards per the duration you select. (Weekly ($1.99)/Monthly ($9.99))
  • A variety of other subscriptions: On top of the Diamonds membership, you can also subscribe to weekly microtransactions that grant you different styles of loot crates or vouchers for other features of Free Fire. (Variable, range from $0.99 to $1.49)

On top of all of that, Free Fire rewards you with more Diamonds at set intervals through its Cumulative Top-Up program. This doesn’t require a separate purchase (shockingly), but it does entice you to buy just a little bit more than you might have without it.

From what I’ve seen, Free Fire launched in December 2017, the same year as Fortnite. It’s had an awful lot of time to add and refine its offerings over the past nearly seven years, and I think that has a lot to do with the sophisticated monetization it has today. I would love to go back and see what it looked like back then.

Anyway, that’s how you can gain these currencies, which is something you’ll probably be thinking quite a lot about if you become invested in Free Fire. Microtransactions can get expensive, with most cosmetics (emotes, hats, glasses, outfits) costing anywhere from 300 Diamonds all the way up to 1,300 Diamonds. For those keeping track, that’s roughly $3-$13. Emotes, crates, and vouchers are much cheaper at 10-100 Diamonds.

A Great Game with Varied Offerings

While you can find yourself on a slippery slope with Free Fire’s microtransactions, it is still an ultra-competent free-to-play game. The impressive number of options players have when going in for cosmetics are there, but are not at all required to have a good time.

Overall, I would recommend Free Fire to battle royale fans, especially those who are feeling left out in the cold since Fortnite’s removal from iOS.

8/10 helps game developers create their own storefronts or marketplaces to sell directly to players. Web2 and Web3 compatible.

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