EA caused a bit of a stir recently when it announced that the next PC game in its popular Battlefield franchise is going to be a free-to-play Web-based title. We were curious, too; thankfully we finally got our first look at Battlefield Heroes at the recent Game Developers Conference. Here's what we learned: While it has and will undoubtedly continue to draw comparisons to last year's Team Fortress 2 for its cartoon look, the developers at DICE say that it's also the deepest Battlefield game that they've ever made.
To hammer in the point that this is supposed to be fun and crazy, the demonstration started with a somber trailer full of World War II images. Just when you might think that you're watching another video for another World War II game, the trailer busts open with a zany montage of cartoon violence, with soldiers running around a colorful battlefield, riding on the wings of fighter planes, zipping around in tanks as if they were sports cars, and the like.
Though the game has vehicles and weapons and uniforms that are obviously inspired by World War II counterparts, this is not set in World War II. It's not even really set on Earth as we know it. The guys in grey and black aren't Nazis or Germans, but rather members of the National Army. The fellows in green and tan aren't British or Americans. Instead, they're members of the Royal Army. Even the conflict itself is a bit silly to fit into the game's humor: The Royals and the Nationals are battling over a quarrel regarding the Olympic games. This isn't about a titanic clash of totalitarianism versus democracy.
So here's the deal. The game is indeed free to play. All you'll have to do is go to the game's Web site and click on the brightly colored play button, and that will launch the installer. The system requirements are low enough to support most integrated graphics chipsets found in budget computers. (The other requirements right now are a 1GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM.) When you install the game, you also create a login and a password for your profile. It will not ask for you a credit card number. Once the game is installed, you just go back to the Web site, hit play, log in, and the game launches. The entire process is designed to very similar to registering for an Internet forum or social site such as MySpace.
Free sounds like a great deal to the consumer, but not for businesses. EA plans to make money mainly through advertising. For instance, whenever the game is loading, you'll see ads. We saw two big banner ads for EA games that were released last year (keep in mind we saw the in-development version of Battlefield Heroes, so those were placeholders). EA says that there will not be any in-game advertising in the game itself, so you will not see any billboards or posters for the latest Hollywood movie or Detroit car while dodging bullets. A secondary source of income is microtransactions that are entirely optional, though EA didn't really go into depth about what types of things you'll be able to purchase.
Heroes will distill the Battlefield experience into a more intimate package online. Like with other Battlefield games, there's just one mode in Heroes, and it is sort of a mix of team deathmatch and the classic Battlefield conquest mode. Each team has 50 tickets, or respawns, at its disposal. When a player dies, he uses up a ticket to respawn back into the game. The goal is to be the last team standing. There will be control points that can be captured, and they will confer a modifier to whichever team controls them. For instance, controlling all flags might result in your team being awarded two kills for every one that you make. The maximum player limit per match is 16; in comparison, Battlefield 2 tops out at 64.
There are three classes that you can play as: soldier, gunner, and commando. You select a class at the beginning of the match and you can't switch in midmatch. The commando is the light class; capable of being completely invisible at a distance and semitransparent up close. He's armed with a knife and a sniper rifle, each of which takes a couple of whacks to kill with. That is to soften the frustration felt in other Battlefield games, where you're suddenly killed with a single shot of a sniper rifle. In Battlefield Heroes, the first hit you receive is a warning and a chance for you to do something to survive. Next up is the soldier, which is a medium class, a good mix of speed and firepower. The gunner is the heaviest class, but also the slowest. He's armed with a machine gun and a bazooka. It's key to keep in mind that while the bazooka might be ideal for killing vehicles, all classes will be equipped with sticky mines so that they have an antivehicle weapon.
The action takes place entirely in third-person, save for one moment, which we suspect is probably when you zoom through the scopes of a sniper rifle. Part of the reason is because DICE wants the game to be as friendly as possible to people who have never, ever played a Battlefield game before, and third-person is apparently more accessible and less intimidating and more casual than first-person. The other reason for third-person is so you can see your custom character and all the cool stuff that you'll unlock. Character creation is a bit like an online role-playing game in that you can select different hairstyles, colors, and other physical features. Since the game is played entirely online, it'll also keep a permanent record of your performance. As you advance through the rank system, you'll access new items that you can equip, such as clothing and accessories. The buttoned-up uniform shirt might make way to the unbuttoned-at-the-top shirt, goggles might appear on the helmet, and so on.
Like with all Battlefield games, the action is a mix of infantry and vehicle combat. The difference in Heroes is that everything is meant to be as user-friendly and colorful as possible. Hit a guy with a rifle and you'll see numbers flash above his head indicating how much damage he's taking, just like in a role-playing game. The respawn timer is set to five seconds, so if you're killed, you'll get back in the action quickly. The physics and violence are somewhat cartoonish, from the tanks that can scream through a street and run someone over to the way a pilot can jump out of a plane right before it hits the ground and land on his feet safely.
The developer also says that Battlefield Heroes is the deepest Battlefield game yet. That's because there are special abilities that you can equip before a match that let you do all sorts of things. For instance, you can equip incendiary bullets so you cause burning damage on someone. Another ability is a wall hack that lets you detect enemy soldiers behind solid objects. A health burst will heal not only you, but those around you.
Battlefield Heroes is going to be a very interesting experiment, because this is a game that is designed to appeal not only to Battlefield fans, but also to the vast, untapped masses out there who don't play games because they're too expensive or their computers aren't powerful enough. It's basically Battlefield for the people. Fans of Battlefield 2, though, should also keep note that while no future Battlefield games have been announced, the developer did insist that DICE is working on projects that it can't talk about quite yet. Battlefield Heroes will go live later this year.