Version tested: PC
I get this feeling quite a lot: enjoyment in spite of my better judgement. Ultimately, I know that Battlefield Heroes is an uncomfortable experimental mess of a game, but I can't help enjoy rambling about in its four brightly coloured maps, shooting the dudes, and trying to figure out how best to use the points I've earned to bolster my armoury. It's free via the website too, which skews any critique of value I might be inclined to make.
Anyway, yes, points earned. That's the peculiar conundrum that beats so awkwardly at the heart of Battlefield Heroes: it's a level-based third-person shooter. While the level structure is not one that means that high-level dudes are indestructible, it does mean you're in it for the persistent character, and your early chappy really is at a disadvantage to his better-equipped foes as time goes on.
The more stuff people have been able to unlock, the more versatile they become. It works for some other notable shooters, I guess, but here there's a definite sense of, well, I'm grinding. I'm trying to earn points to spend, and it never seems entirely appropriate. That said, the distraction of getting new toys is often enough to keep you interested, especially when you spot something someone else has, that you don't.
Of course you could also spend money to get stuff. This is largely dominated by paying to change your appearance from the near-blank template of your basic character, but it's really little more than dressing up. You either end up looking like a clown, or a very seriously gay biker with a splendid handlebar moustache. There are few other visual options, and it leaves me with considerable doubts about whether people will part with the best part of five pounds to make permanent their adventures with the Mr Ben dressing-up box comedy wardrobe.
Behind all these hand-waving distractions is a game that tries to boil down the Battlefield series to their essential soup. There are four maps, which are wide open, but with "base" spawns for both teams, where vehicles can be obtained. Across the map are capture points, the holding of which reduce enemy "tickets" until it's game over. The winner, of course, will be the team who held the most of the map for the longest time. Tickets go down real fast in Heroes, and if a team managed to cap all the points for any length of time, it's game over.
The other Battlefield basic that the game takes on board is the idea of class: you can be one of three classes, which is defined when you make your character on the website. (You can make and play a whole bunch of characters as you see fit.) The three archetypes are commando, gunner, and soldier.
The soldier is the middling character, and his abilities and later upgrades very quickly make him a master of all trades. He's best for short-range battles, and can support his buddies: perfect for battles around the capture points, which are generally enclosed by buildings or other structures.
The gunner is the lumbering damage dealer, and he can take a colossal amount of damage - and I mean a skyscraper full of hit-points - before he goes down. This makes for some interesting "oh god hold him back!" moments as a gunner sweeps in, disgorging firepower, and taking down multiple enemies before he too falls.
The commando is a kind of spy/sniper hybrid creature. You can turn invisible, which doesn't seem to work particularly well, backstab with a knife, and also strike at long ranger with the sniper rifle. Given the astonishingly slow-moving nature of the BFH characters, this makes sniping particularly effective, although you'll still get minced at close range, taking those capture points. (The commando also means spawn-camping is a very real and continual nuisance.)
One peculiar ramification of Heroes' character development system is that you can't change between your archetypes in any given game. Because it's part of a larger character-creation system complete with name and class for a particular profile, you're locked in for that match. Join a public server full of gunners, and you can't simply swap to commando to balance things out, which was always one of the fundamental joys of the Battlefield games.
The other fundamental joy, of course, being the vehicles. In Heroes these are jeeps, tanks, and planes. The jeeps are brilliantly fun, and allow the passengers to fire as you move, for that Wacky Races-with-machineguns feel. It's not particularly practical for any serious play, but there's little doubt that high-speed slapstick shenanigans are best achieved by a jeep-bound crew. They're also pretty good for that early race-to-capture moment.
Better, perhaps, are the planes. Those carry passengers on their wings, passengers who can jump off and parachute back to Earth. I've yet to manage to kill anyone on the ground in a plane - because there's so much cover, because it's easy to get shot down by AA emplacements, and because it goes too fast - but dogfighting with your aerial opposite number is a fun time.
Probably the most serious of the vehicles in a practical power-balance way is the tank. As long as you can keep nasty bomb-lobbing infantry away from it, you've got a pretty powerful tool on your side. The main gun doesn't do all that much damage, but the big knock-back area-of-effect is great for multiple enemies, especially if you can get the shell into where they're holed up, waiting for people to head for the capture points.
Vehicular entertainments aside, the most enjoyable aspect of Battlefield Heroes has, so far, been trying to work out how to be most awesome with the tools at your disposal. As with many team-based games, it's possible to be very awesome, if you're able to stick with chums. The game definitely rewards close-proximity to your fellows, with your heals and focused firepower making use of the heavy cover around capture points to devastate enemies who turn up in their ones and twos.
Of course most of the time there is no cohesion, and you end up having to having to play for optimal-loner status. The gunner or commando generally represent the best way to do this: the commando's sniper rifle is the railgun of the game, and allows you to deal huge damage from a considerable distance. Any twitch gamer worth his caffeine addiction is going to find that chappy all too easy to dominate with. This is probably the weakest design decision in the game, which should clearly have focused on close-range gunfights and vehicle silliness. Sniper-dominated games are groaningly dull.
In summary, this free Battlefield game comes with two complimentary kneejerk responses. "Hey, this is nothing like proper grown-up Battlefield!" is one of them. "Cartoon? Team Fortress 2 is cartoon, therefore grumble-mumble!" is the other. Neither are actually relevant, because this is very much its own game, with its own innate delights, peculiar slow pace, poorly-executed class mechanic, and weird micro-transaction married to level advancement persistence.
It's going to be interesting to see how the project develops, too: will EA see fit to introduce regular updates? Will we get new maps? New weapons? A new class? These four maps are already getting a little old, a week after release. Whatever the outward evolution, it's been an interesting experiment in juggling multiplayer genre conventions, and I don't expect it to be the last.
I can see Heroes being rather popular, at least for a while. Someone somewhere is punching the air and whooping at their enjoyment of machine-gunning pseudo-Nazis while dressed like Elton John, but me, well, I'm hoping I'll soon move on to other, rather more evolved experiences.
6 / 10