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.
There's a lot of other stuff in there that will appeal to the FaceSpace generation: respawns occur every five seconds; there's no mini-map or friendly fire to worry about; holding "Q" brings up a 3x3 grid of emote shortcuts, so you can give someone a thumbs-up; weapons and abilities are lined up at the bottom of the screen so they sit above the number keys on your keyboard, making it obvious you need to hit "8" to heal; behind-the-scenes match-making offers "a fairly extensive way of matching up your skills and experience" with other players'; you can record and distribute videos of your bouts; and the basic game mode is simpler than ever.
"Capturing flags is obviously a key thing for the Battlefield franchise," says Cousins, before explaining why the team reduced its significance. "Our game mode is basically a team deathmatch," he says. "Each team has 50 lives, and the first time to have their lives reduced to zero loses. Every time you kill an enemy you reduce their lives by one." Flags do have an important role though. "If you capture the flags, you add a modifier to that amount of lives taken for each kill. So if you've captured all the flags on the map you may be taking two lives off for every kill."
Excellent - we'll capture some flags then. This still involves standing next to them. As this is demoed, the enemy closes in, and we're able to observe some encounters. The heaviest character, the Gunner, is slow-moving with big armour, and has a rapid-fire light machinegun and bazooka, so he's tough at close range. The Soldier is an all-rounder with a sub-machinegun. The Commando, meanwhile, is Heroes' spy and sniper; he can cloak himself - semi-transparent in close quarters, effectively invisible at long range - and perform knife kills and long-range snipes. DICE has counter-balanced the threat of the Commando, though, by forcing him to land two blows to kill, even with the sniper rifle.
Classes, which can't be changed once you're in-game, also have special abilities. The Soldier, for example, can get himself incendiary bullets, see hidden enemies ("a legitimised wallhack"), and buff his health. "Most special abilities have an area effect as well, so you can be buffing the people you play with," says Cousins. As you level up (an indicator in the top-left tracks your level and shows your progress in accumulating experience points), you get more of these.
At this stage fifteen minutes into the demo, we're wondering when we're going to see the vehicles. It's now. First there's a tank. "Vehicles are really important to the Battlefield franchise, but in Battlefield Heroes we've done the same thing to the vehicles that we've done to the characters," says Cousins. The tank's "influenced by the Sherman tank, but we've squashed it, it accelerates faster, it's easier to drive, it's more fun to drive." The shells that it fires also arc over time, a bit like they did in Battlefield 1942. "We've deliberately made the tank slightly less effective against infantry now though, so you don't get a tank spawning and completely owning the map," adds Cousins.
But screw the tank, because we're hanging out at the aeroplane spawn point. This one's propeller-driven, and fires cannons rather than dropping bombs. Best of all, you can use it to transport your friends around as they sit on the wings. "You can dogfight with these two guys," says Cousins, proudly. You can also hop onto the wing yourself, which cuts out the throttle and allows you to glide to the ground, jump off and start fighting.
It's all looking very polished. The game's due out this summer and will feature two maps, according to Cousins (the first, Seaside Skirmish, is bright and Mediterranean - the one from the screenshots), with more to be added. A 17-man team will support the game once it's live, updating the game and website regularly. It may be free to play, but EA and DICE have big plans for it, and despite the obvious push to try and make it appeal to casual gamers, we'd be surprised if it doesn't attract a lot of you as well. "In playing the game, we've kind of realised that is actually probably the deepest Battlefield game that's ever been produced, that we've ever created, just by the addition of these special abilities which have the buff effects," Cousins says, boldly, at one point. It's hard to tell if he's right, at this point, but one thing Heroes definitely can claim to be is not evil.