You know that it's going to be free. You know that it's a stripped-down, knockabout deathmatch shooter built on Battlefield's sturdy chassis. You know that it looks terrific, like an animated propaganda poster for a war in a fancy-dress shop. You know that it's not evil. But did you know that Battlefield Heroes is secretly an MMO and almost an RPG?
No, really. Bear with us.
The first clue is the action bar at the bottom of the screen. As well as switching and deploying weapons, these buttons provide access to very RPG-like skills and buffs that do things like increase run speed, defence, or accuracy for a short period of time. They promote prolonged shoot-outs that blend twitch-gaming skill with an accelerated tactical see-saw. Not entirely dissimilar to the feel of player-versus-player combat in World of Warcraft, in fact.
But if that sounds off-putting, it shouldn't. Developer DICE made the decision for quite the opposite reason; to make the whole deathmatch experience less intimidating.
"We wanted to have it so you didn't die so much," says lead designer James Salt. "We looked at the Battlefield 2 experience where you spawn in and, as a new player, you're dead in a couple of seconds. And then there's fifteen seconds of waiting before you're in again. We wanted to clear this up. So we've made it so it's quite hard to shoot each other and kill each other."
Hence the skills, a delicate balance of cool-downs and effect cancellations that can be deployed against each other, taking the emphasis off raw headshot skill. "It adds like a different level of rock paper scissors," says Salt. "You've played this card, you've got this shield up, and I know you've got 30 seconds before you can use that again. I guess it's like how you have those combat situations in an MMO."
In a happy half-hour spent playing the game, we confirm what he says. And it's not merely about deploying skills. It simply takes a lot of bullets to make someone fall over. Make no mistake, this is much more than just a cut-and-shut respray of Battlefield - the game has been completely rethought and rebalanced for a new audience and a new playing style. DICE might be making light of war in Battlefield Heroes, but underneath the cartoon insouciance (the war between National and Royal Armies is a dispute over a sporting result), it's deadly serious.
Case in point: DICE stopped with the introduction of buff and debuff. Those abilities can be upgraded and modified using tokens earned by completing missions (achievements, in other words). "But there are less tokens than there are ways to spend them, so you have to decide, am I going to go wide, or am I going to go deep, which I think is going to be kind of interesting," says Salt. It's a talent tree by another name, permitting you to customise more than just your character's costume and load-out.
So far, so RPG. EA and DICE have clearly woken up to the fact that character persistence, advancement and customisation is the key to hooking players on online games - especially if you want to convince them into spending money on trinkets for those characters. They aren't alone - Infinity Ward took similar steps with Call of Duty 4, leading Rob to argue that it verged on MMOdom itself. Battlefield Heroes goes a few steps further down the road marked massive, but here's what makes it really distinctive; it doesn't do so in the games, restricted to 16 players at present. It does so on its website.
The Battlefield Heroes website doesn't just launch the game, and host the advertisements and item micropayments that will turn a profit from it. It's home to the character creation and customisation interface, and a profile page where you can view and manage your mission and friends lists. There's even an events feed that lets you know what's happening in the game universe, and the chance to browse other players' profiles and examine how they've specced their characters. And there's the metagame.
"It's kind of like cheap Risk," says Salt. You pick one of sixteen countries to fight over, and every match you play puts points in the pot to claim territory for your army. The map fills up with red and blue, and whichever side has more territory at the end of the week receives more "valor points" (in-game money). That's it - for now. "We've got a lot of other plans for it, but before we get really cute with it and add on loads more complexity, we just want to put it out there and see what people do."
The metagame ties the community together in one single, massively multiplayer war effort. It also sneakily gives you a way to play the game when you're not supposed to be playing the game. "We're always talking about this idea of people playing games that they can check in on at lunchtime, or the afternoon when you're supposed to be working," says Salt, noting that he was inspired by a Sony Online Entertainment massively multiplayer shooter. "Planetside did this really well. It kept you connected to the game world. That was what interested me from a design point of view."
It's a pretty ambitious web development, all told, something DICE had never had any experience of. "We were completely flying blind," admits Salt. "A lot of learning happened in the last eight months or so while we've been building it. But I think there's a lot to be gained by having more of your game experience on the website as well. I think you get a game you can come along and touch."
Let's get on with the touching, then. We played several rounds of Battlefield Heroes on the wide-open Seaside Skirmish map, a large rolling plain above white cliffs, with a couple of villages and a lighthouse to capture and defend. Designed for vehicle combat, the map features jeeps, tanks and fighter planes, and a variation of the Battlefield's famous Conquest mode - team deathmatch with a base-capture twist.
It's not very particularly fast-paced - at least, not with just four players per side - but as Salt says, that's intentional; with players staying alive longer, they tend to cluster more and play more recklessly, and concentrated slapstick scrums for the command points tend to develop. Battlefield Heroes doesn't just look like a cartoon, it plays like one. The vehicles handling is also somewhat exaggerated; our attempts to fly the extremely inertia-heavy and hilariously slow Spitfire were comically inept, but very entertaining, especially with other players sat on the wings, gunning away.
It's hard to explain how much difference the exuberant avatars make to the whole experience. For all the similarity in art style, this isn't Team Fortress 2's fundamentally sensible communication of class design through character appearance. This is fundamentally silly self-expression, a chance to splash your personality over the screen; it makes individuals instantly recognisable without a nametag, and promotes intense revenge rivalries between players. The shift to third-person makes perfect sense in this context, and indeed the slightly less accurate aiming fits with the slapdash fun.
It's also fantastically camp. As you customise them, the National Army develop from German World War II soldiers into Victorian voodoo pirates, and the Royals... well, Salt puts it best. "They're a little bit, ummm... to be honest, right now they're a little bit YMCA. Big, fat and round, lots of sailor outfits and stuff going on. You can also do - I don't know if you remember the Commando comics - guys in khaki shirts with the fronts undone and kind of ruffled hair. They definitely come out more camp, for some reason."
There aren't any female avatars yet. They're under consideration to be put in the game after release. So are more game modes, more vehicles, more maps (Seaside Skirmish is one of just two, the other being a tighter map for infantry only), more social features for the website, a more developed metagame. Any and all of these will be added depending on one thing: what the players want most.
Since it's a free game, DICE isn't under any pressure to give Battlefield Heroes a bulging feature list at launch, and can build it slowly, growing the game organically according to what players respond to. "Yeah, from a developer point of view, if you're making a game you're making a big gamble about what people want, you make enough stuff, you stick it on a disc and hope people like it," says Salt. "With this we make quite a small amount and put it out, and say where do you want to go now? We'll see how that grows, maybe we'll have more stuff on the website, like really extensive clan support, or maybe more game modes."
It's a world away from releasing a couple of map packs down the line; Battlefield Heroes will be a true, living online game. It's not just the business model that makes it different; expanded according player feedback, split almost half-and-half between the game itself and the website that plugs into it, Battlefield Heroes is certainly one of the most forward-thinking games to come out of a major publisher this year. Since it's yours for nothing more than the time to make a 250MB download, since it's fun, and since it's backed by the corporate might of EA, it's an easy call to make: this one will run and run.
Battlefield Heroes is due out this summer on PC.