18 (mostly) Free and Useful Programs Every PC Gamer Should Have


Accessibility, PC Gaming, Programs
PC Gaming is great. These programs make it better

Hi everyone! Over the years as a predominantly PC gamer, I have needed to make use of several programs to get some games to run properly, or to enable features which the devs should have implemented by default but didn’t.


Other times I have used programs to enhance the games that already worked fine ‘out of the box’.


In most of these cases, I wished I had known about these programs earlier as it would have solved a lot of time, not to mention a lot of headaches. To spare you the same hassle I have compiled a list of them below with info about what they do and the download links needed to get them.



1-to-6: Digital Marketplaces



Steam logo
Steam - pretty much essential for a PC Gamer

If you are new to PC gaming, you may have wondered why brick and mortar stores such as GAME and GameStop have so few PC games on their shelves. The reason is simple - PC gaming has been ‘all-digital’ for over a decade, so there are very few physical copies in existence to place upon those shelves.


The main sites/services where PC gamers obtain their games are Valve’s Steam, GoG.com (short for Good old Games), Epic’s Epic Game Store, Electronic Art’s Origin, Microsoft’s Microsoft Store, and Ubisoft’s Ubisoft Connect.


It is worth keeping an eye on these electronic storefronts for the sales and giveaways they run regularly. For some time now, the Epic Game Store has been giving away free games every Thursday at around 16:00 GMT. Be sure to snap them up before 15:59 GMT the following Thursday, as the offer will expire when the new free game becomes available.


Downloads:


1: Steam

2: GoG.com

3: Epic Games Store

4: Origin

5: Microsoft Store

6: Ubisoft Connect



7 and 8: Zip/unzip programs



Zip File
Zip programs - essential for mods

Mods and patches are often ‘compressed’ or ‘zipped’ to reduce their overall file size for on-line storage and hosting. To play them, they will first need to be ‘extracted’ aka ‘unzipped’ into their constituent folders. The two main programs for this are 7-Zip and WinRAR. 7-Zip is free, whilst WinRAR is ‘nagware’ - i.e. it is free, but it will keep nagging you to buy the full version every time you use it.


Once you have either of these programs you will be able to zip files yourself of course. This is handy if you wish to share large files on-line, and for condensing large files to free up room on your HDD or SSD.


7: 7-Zip Download: https://www.7-zip.org/


8: WinRAR Download: https://www.win-rar.com/start.html?&L=0



9: Borderless Gaming



Borderless Gaming, Crysis, PC Gaming
Borderless Gaming has a wealth of options

Borderless Gaming is a handy program that allows games running in windowed mode to display fullscreen - without those ugly window borders taking up screen space. Its performance impact is minimal and has worked with all the games I have tried using it with.


This could be useful for playing some older games that do not natively support fullscreen display. It is also useful for some relatively recent ones that do feature fullscreen display, but work badly when using it. (The original Crysis and Crysis: Warhead being two notable examples.)


Download: Here



Graphics Enhancement Programs



The next two programs are post-processing programs that can dramatically enhance the look of your games or make them look different to create a different atmosphere.



10: ReShade


ReShade
ReShade can make your games look beautiful, ominous, funny and pretty much anything else you desire

ReShade is a free ‘post-process injector’ that enables users to alter the appearance of their games in many different ways, be it subtle or extreme. As it is a post-process injector that applies its effects after the game has rendered the image it can be used with almost any game that uses DX9 or higher.


The performance impact can vary quite considerably and depends upon which of ReShade’s many effects you choose to use. For example, Bloom and Film Grain have a negligible performance impact, Dynamic Depth of Field and SSAO impacts somewhat more whilst Ray-Tracing is an FPS killer. You are of course free to mix, match and experiment to your heart's content.


User-made pre-sets can be downloaded, used and tweaked which may save you some time too. The only downside to ReShade is that it applies its effects to everything on-screen, including HUDS, menus and the like. Thankfully a simple press of a key can toggle its effects on and off.


ReShade Download: https://reshade.me/



11: ENB



Sky Rim, ENB
Note the bokeh Depth of Field effect

ENB is more complicated, and each ENB tends to be made on a per-game basis. This means that each ENB is generally non-transferable to other games, but the advantage is that it is more powerful and specific, in that it can distinguish between world and HUD elements, menus and the like.


Because ENBs work at a ‘deeper level’ with a game than ReShade, ENBs can alter how a game renders its images in ways ReShade cannot. As with ReShade, user-made ENB pre-sets can be downloaded and applied to specific games if you would rather not create one yourself.


ENB Download: http://enbdev.com/



System Performance Checkers



The following two programs are handy for showing how much strain your system is under at any given time, and the temperature it is running at.



12: Core Temp



Core Temp, UI, CPU
NB - Not my specs - see Image Attribution below

Core Temp allows for real-time monitoring of your CPU on a per-core basis.


Core Temp Download: https://www.alcpu.com/CoreTemp/



13: GPU-Z



TechPowerUp GPU-Z
NB - Not my specs - see Image Attribution below

TechPowerUp's GPU-Z allows for real-time monitoring of your GPU (graphics card).


GPU-Z Download: https://www.techpowerup.com/gpuz/



It is good practice to keep track of your hardware's temperature to ensure it is not running too hot. It is also wise to keep track of the load being placed upon both your CPU and GPU to ensure they are not being over-taxed. Therefore, these programs are a must have, if only for safety and peace-of-mind.


They are very useful for testing too, such as testing how taxing a game is on your hardware, how effective your cooling system is, the extent that the ambient temperature outside the PC has on the temperature inside it etc.


These programs are especially useful for those who are considering overclocking their CPU and/or GPU, as they can provide warning of when they are reaching undesirably high temperatures.


(NB – I am NOT including overclocking software on this list as I have not personally used it, and so I cannot recommend one program over another. NB - Many GPU manufacturers have their own proprietary overclocking software, such as MSI Afterburner. Since overclocking does come with a risk - and it may invalidate whatever warranties and insurances you may have - I would advise those considering it to do so with caution, and that they research thoroughly beforehand.)



Input Emulators



The following are a group of software applications known as ‘input emulators’. They enable the player to use control methods in games that do not natively support them, for example, using a joypad in games that lack joypad support. They also tend to allow for far greater flexibility and fine-tuning of controls than some games do, which is welcome as both an accessibility aid, and as a way of overcoming overly restrictive control options.


Input emulators, once activated, run quietly in the background, and their performance impact is minimal, so there is no downside (that I know of) to using them. They can be turned off again easily when you have finished using them. Their overall file sizes tend to be small as well, so they do not place an undue burden on your HDD’s or SSD’s storage capacity.



14: Xpadder



Xpadder
The player can assign any function to any button, thumbstick, trigger etc.

Xpadder is a superb tool that allows you to assign pretty much any button on the keyboard to any button on a joypad, thus allowing almost limitless freedom to customise your in-game controls to your liking.


The use-cases for this software a wide-ranging, including the following scenarios;


  • Would you like to play a game using a joypad, but the game does not support joypads? Simply assign the game’s keyboard controls to the relevant buttons and thumbsticks and now you can.


  • Wish to play a retro game via your joypad's thumbsticks, but the retro game does not natively support thumbsticks? Simply assign the D-Pad controls to a thumbstick and now you can.


  • Want to play an emulated 8-bit or 16-bit home computer game but can’t stand using up-for-jump? Assign the up key to the button you want to use as your jump button and away you go.


Xpadder also features several other useful features, such as turbo fire, - rapid-fire by simply holding down the fire button - and the ability to record macros. Macros allow the player to perform complex actions with a single button press. This is great for fighting games such as Street Fighter 2 - instant dragon punches at the press of a button anyone?


NB – unlike the other programs on this list, XPadder is not free, but the one-time cost of £5.99 is well worth the investment.


Download: https://xpapder.com/



15: X-Mouse Button Control



XMBC X-Mouse Button Control
XMBC features a wealth of customisation options

X-Mouse Button Control (XMBC) enables the user to assign any keyboard key to any mouse button.


This is very handy when playing games that do not natively support the extra buttons possessed by most gaming mice - F.E.A.R. 2, I’m still looking at you! Simply assign the in-game action to a key on the keyboard, then assign the mouse button you want to use as that key in XMBC and voilà - you can now use those additional mouse buttons in-game.


X-Mouse Button Control could be useful for non-gaming applications too - for example assigning a mouse button to the shift key to make using alternate key functions easier.


Download: https://x-mouse-button-control.en.softonic.com/



16: Joystick Curves



Joystick Curves
Joystick curves helps solve dead zone issues in some sticks

Joystick Curves allows the player to test and alter the dead zone, sensitivities etc. of joysticks and HOTAS systems to a degree that exceeds most games. This can be very useful for games which support joystick and HOTAS input, such as Elite Dangerous, Microsoft Flight Simulator and of course FreeSpace 2 and its many (many) mods.


Download: https://www.xedocproject.com/joystickcurves.html




17: Joystick 2 Mouse 3





Joystick 2 Mouse 3 allows the player to control the mouse and the keyboard using a joystick or gamepad. As well as enabling joystick and/or joypad control in games which do not natively support it, it has other benefits, such as;


  • Remote control if using wireless joypads - handy for couch PC gaming.


  • Functions as an accessibility aid


  • By serving as a mouse alternative it may help alleviate the wrist pain associated with prolonged mouse use


Download: http://atzitznet.no-ip.org/Joy2Mouse3/



18: JoyToKey



JoyToKey (or Joy2Key) enables PC game controllers to emulate the keyboard and mouse input, so that windows applications and web games can be controlled with your favourite joysticks! Whenever buttons and sticks are pressed on the controllers, JoyToKey converts them into keyboard strokes and/or mouse movements so that the target application will work as if a real keyboard and a mouse were used.


Text from the JoyToKey website.


Download: https://joytokey.net/en/



Conclusion



And there we are, eighteen programs that have made gaming on the PC far easier for me, and which might make things easier for you too. Are there any other programs you know of that might benefit PC gamers? If so, feel free to share them with everyone in the comments section below.



Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com

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Image attribution



Steam icon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Steam_icon_logo.svg


Zip File icon: https://www.iconfinder.com/icons/285690/zip_file_icon


ENB Image: tetrodoxin - https://www.flickr.com/photos/tetrodoxin/15975569281/


Core Temp image: Oliver Cluster - https://flic.kr/p/DREAJS


GPU-Z image: ama_alive - https://flic.kr/p/99vBsD