When EA-owned Digital Illusions CE announced it would be releasing a completely free version of Battlefield under its new Play 4 Free service, it certainly raised the eyebrows of some fans. It was a bold move for EA and it remains to be seen if the new addition will be given as warm a welcome as its full-priced brothers.
We were able to spend some time with the game recently at EA's first European Spring Showcase, along with its other upcoming Battlefield game, Battlefield: Bad Company. While that game looks and feels like a regular member of the series, Heroes has been dubbed by the company as a "cartoon shooter"--essentially the same experience but with a cute, stylised face-lift. The artistic style of Battlefield Heroes isn't unique; it follows in the footsteps of EA partner Valve's Team Fortress 2, with both games looking strikingly similar to Pixar's movie The Incredibles.
The game certainly lives up to the cartoon billing, being cute, cheery, and bright throughout. The map we played looked gorgeous, with bright-green fields, yellow wild flowers, and blue skies, but the real stars prove to be the quirky characters, which are all animated in a rubbery, cartoon style. Along with their general moves, characters will be able to pull off a number of wacky animations with which to taunt other players. These differ according to the character that you're using. Each character belongs to one of the two armies in the game: the Royal Army or the National Army, which are loosely based on the British and German armies, respectively.
It looks like Digital Illusions has put a lot of work into streamlining the game, which runs on the Battlefield 2142 engine. Impressively, the company claims it has managed to reduce it from 500MB to 200MB, and the game should work on a wide range of PCs, including those with mid to low specifications (think a 1.2GHz CPU, and higher), when it launches later this year. While the game will be free to download, it will feature adverts in menus and will offer microtransactions, such as clothes to buy, which you can then use to customise your players. These options will not affect your performance (they're merely cosmetic), and you won't have to buy weapon upgrades. There aren't any adverts visible while playing the game itself either, which we're happy to see.
Heroes contains only two 16-player maps thus far, but expect to see more added after its release. Digital Illusions is also considering adding larger maps that can support 32 and 64 players, if there's enough demand from the community. Despite the limited choice in maps, the game compensates in other areas. There are 50-odd weapons available, for instance. There are also 10 customisable boxes found within the main menu system, which let you drag and drop accessories onto your characters--of which you can have up to four. You'll also have access to jeeps, tanks, and planes in the game, all modelled on typical World War II vehicles (such as Spitfires, Panzers, and Sherman tanks). Each character also has an antitank weapon, in addition to a primary and secondary weapon.
There are three character classes to choose from--soldier, gunner, and commando--and each character can be levelled up throughout the game. When you complete missions you'll earn points that you can use to level up your characters' abilities. However, you'll have more ways to spend points than actual points to spend; therefore, you'll have to balance your characters' strengths effectively. Nonetheless, you can always change your mind and change your abilities.
The game seems to be just as much fun as other games in the Battlefield series. The controls are smooth and the characters respond well to your commands. The map we played had a few strategic checkpoints to conquer, including a lighthouse, a farm, and a village. The village, although small, provided a good checkpoint from which to demolish tanks, after which you could jump into a nearby jeep and set off to go conquer the next checkpoint. If that doesn't sound fast paced enough for you, you can always pilot a plane, with up to two wingmen who will literally sit on the edge of your wings as you perform loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. The local network matches we played on were frantic, fun, and fast--with no lag issues to report.
The Web site for Heroes will also play an important part of the experience. Each player can have a profile, complete with links to friends for comparing progress. Digital Illusions also plans to roll out what it calls "facebook style" features, including status messages so that you can see what your friends are up to in the game, all of which it hopes will provide some lunchtime distractions at workplaces around the globe.
Heroes includes the same frantic conquest missions as previous instalments, with a fun new cast of cartoon characters and, best of all, without any cost to players. Coming to PCs this summer, Battlefield Heroes will be available as a free download from http://www.battlefield-heroes.com.