First things first: it is free to download, and it is free to play. We know you know this, but it's worth re-stating. Particularly since this is EA, so obviously we're suspicious. EA, of course, makes DVD cases out of murdered kittens, bathes in the blood of nuns, and squats inside a hollowed-out National Trust volcano, eating babies.
That was the theory anyway, but these days you can't really make that argument. FIFA's getting better, not worse; there's good new IP, like Skate, Spore, Mirror's Edge and Rock Band on EA's release schedule; there are fewer money-grubbing Sims releases; and Battlefield Heroes, despite its ad-driven business model, doesn't actually have in-game ads.
That bit surprised everyone. "We don't have any plans to put billboards or posters advertising products in the game itself," says executive producer Ben Cousins. Instead you'll see them on loading screens and on the website, which acts as a launcher for the game. "If you click on the banner it will open behind the game rather than interrupting your gameplay," he says, referring to the load-screen banner. "We want to get as many advertising hits as possible, but at the same time we don't want to disrupt your experience at all."
The website's actually the first thing we're shown, following a comedy trailer ("You don't visit a store, you don't enter your credit card details, and you don't download it from BitTorrent"), and seems like a good place to start. Like Facebook or a web-forum, you enter a few details and sign up. Very few, actually - just your name, email address, date of birth and region, according to Cousins. Even we ask you for more. The website then tracks "stats and things" via login, and has leaderboards.
Once you're signed up, you build your character. "This is about creating your own unique war hero, so we need you to pick your faction from the start," says Cousins, as the man directing the demo wavers between Royal Army (they look like the Allies) and National Army (zey look like ze Nazis). You can also personalise your character - skin colour, face shape, facial hair, with clothing done later (with unlocks, and with micropayments to support other extras). There are three character classes - Commando, Soldier, and Gunner - which are fast-moving, medium and heavy, in FPS terms.
Except this isn't actually an FPS - Battlefield Heroes is played from third-person, which is a departure Cousins acknowledges and defends. "You invest all of your time and energy in this guy, and it's really important to have this guy on-screen all the time," he says. "You can see him using special abilities, you can see him getting killed, and you can develop a connection with him." He also says that casual gamers have better spatial awareness in third-person, able to take advantage of cover and handle vehicles intuitively. For controls though, it's WASD and mouse, with crouch and jump buttons. World of Warcraft got away with it.
WOW was also cartoony, so let's pretend that's a good segue and talk about those graphics. Cousins doesn't say much about the fact it looks like Team Fortress 2, but he has previously stated that DICE decided to "ignore the possibility of these comparisons and go with the style we believed in". If anything, Heroes' simplicity means that it's more cartoon-like than TF2. It also means that it will run on a 1GHz processor with 512MB and integrated graphics. Like the third-person perspective, this is so Heroes can be played by as broad an audience as possible.