Let's be clear about one thing, because there's only one thing we can be clear about. Battlefield Heroes is outrageously, deliciously, hilariously pretty. DICE's knockabout multiplayer shooter single-handedly destroys the reputation of free-to-play casual PC gaming for low production values. This is one of 2008's best-looking games, hands-down - and what's more, it will run on an old laptop from the office.
With its clean cartoon style, vivid colours, exuberantly simple animations and economical effects, Battlefield Heroes doesn't so much pop off the screen as explode off it - and does so in a shower of pink confetti, accompanied by a marching band composed entirely of kazoos and swanee whistles. Only LittleBigPlanet has more infectious, joyous and downright daft charm, and that game has nothing on Battlefield Heroes when it comes to something that has seldom been explored by deathmatch shooters before - high camp.
You might question whether the market's ready for it, and assume that, with the extensive character customisation on offer, most players will cast themselves as straight-laced, burly macho-men. And yet here we are in the Battlefield Heroes beta test, getting repeatedly gunned down by a barrel-chested machine-gunner in a Napoleonic hat and a red frock coat that hangs open to reveal nothing but his underpants. Never fear, salvation is here - in the form of a team-mate, dressed as a top-hatted, monocle-wearing, Afro-Caribbean biker-Nazi with a peg leg and a riding crop.
"A little bit YMCA" is how lead designer James Salt described it to us the last time we previewed the game, and this could only be more true if there was an Indian head-dress in the costuming options (presumably it's being kept back for the item store - although it will mostly be supported by advertising, EA would be fools if they didn't branch out into item sales too). Going by the bare-chested, moustachioed muscle-men in braces, trucker caps and aviator shades swarming all over the beta's two maps, it seems there's a little bit of Village Person in all of us. So much the better. The game's spirit is so infectious and funny you can't help but join in - DICE's commandants haff vays off mayking you dress up.
Battlefield Heroes' visual charm isn't just about the avatars that make it resemble a capture-the-flag version of one of Ellie's house parties. The maps are gorgeous too: Seaside Skirmish is all open cornfields, chocolate-box villages and swooping Messerschmitts, while Victory Village is a secluded, sunset Mediterranean retreat with snipers hiding in the church tower. Elegant depth-of-field effects, textures with a hand-painted look, and a creamy crayon colour palette make these far more atmospheric little idylls than their basic geometry should allow.
Don't let the happy campers and holiday-resort maps fool you into thinking this game is about anything other than killing, though. Although the pace has been slowed, and the pin-sharp, headshot-critical precision of previous Battlefields deliberately smudged to make it more accessible, Battlefield Heroes is still a take-no-prisoners respawn riot.
Both maps are based on the Conquest game type, with the National (Nazi) and Royal (Allied) Armies vying to keep their flags flying over four bases, and erode the other side's score first. Seaside Skirmish is very vehicle-biased; it's dominated by the game's chunky tanks, although jeeps offer fast transit around its rolling fields, and fighter planes strafe from the sky (pretty ineptly - few players have mastered their wildly exaggerated banking and rolling yet, but everyone's having fun trying).
Victory Village contains a couple of jeeps, but it's largely focused on threading your way on foot through a maze of alleyways and attempting to spring surprise ambushes on the enemy. Both maps, as you'd expect from a veteran of multiplayer FPS like DICE, are exquisitely designed. Lines of sight have been considered from every single vantage point and sandbag bunker, and the balance is perfect - including the balance between free-form freedom and carefully channelled encounters. Spawn-camping is a bit of a problem, but nobody said this comic-book war was about fair play; the game (and its players) have a cruel streak under all that jollity.
Matches are invariably a brisk five to fifteen minutes, and seldom descend into stalemate. Once you're rolling, you can happily and seamlessly run from one into the next without stopping, and get showered in XP to level up your hero while doing so. Despite its limitations, Battlefield Heroes is an addictive romp already - but it's very far from being ready.
Most of the things that make the game unusual aren't in it yet. The website it's launched from is basic and slow, and doesn't feature the campaign-map meta-game DICE has talked about, or any of the social functions you might expect either. Even the character creation tool is very simple, leaving costume customisation to be done within the game client. There's no friends or lobby system to speak of, and matchmaking is haphazard at best.
More seriously, the game's levelling system hasn't been fully implemented yet, and remains something of a mystery. Battlefield Heroes' three classes - Soldier (sub machine guns, healing), Gunner (machine guns, shields and lots of health) and Commando (stealth, traps and sniping) - can all gain XP as they play, and also spend Hero Points to power up abilities and buy new ones. Missions - achievement-style challenges to destroy a certain number of tanks in one round, for example - can be picked up after level 5 in the current version of the game, and award Hero Points.
The relationship - if any - between levelling and Hero Points isn't clear yet, or indeed the purpose of levelling at all, since it doesn't seem to affect your character's stats. It will mostly likely unlock weapons and costumes, but at the moment these are all available from the beginning. Persistence, attachment to your character and a steady stream of unlocks are absolutely key to making a game like Battlefield Heroes work, and DICE hasn't showed its hand yet.
Character balance also needs work - although this goes with the beta-test territory. DICE's decision to extend the multiplayer shooter's flirtation with RPGs - already begun by the likes of Call of Duty 4 and its own Battlefield 2142 - into the territory of skill bars, buffs and cooldowns is a brave one, and will inevitably need a little ironing out.
All classes, as well as carrying primary and secondary weapons (machine gun and shotgun, or sniper rifle and knife/pistol in the Commando's case) can bandage themselves, throw explosives, and repair the vehicles they're in. In addition, the Captain can choose from a group heal ability, a knockback, stealth detection, fire damage on his bullets, and the self-explanatory Grenade Spam.
The Commando can go into stealth, increase his run speed, mark targets, poison his knife, lay explosive traps, and increase his rifle damage. The Gunner, meanwhile, gets a timed shield, sprint, increased machine gun accuracy, explosive kegs, and the ability to eat grenades for health. Each of these abilities can be upgraded through five levels of potency with Hero Points.
Balancing these against each other, the weapons (each type comes in three different flavours), the new third-person viewpoint, and the usual concerns of a multiplayer shooter is quite a challenge. The Gunner has been overpowered, and skill use in combat (you can use hotkeys, or scroll through them with the mouse wheel) hasn't really settled into a rhythm yet, but it definitely adds a more varied, gung-ho and slapstick element to your standard insta-death firefights. There's no reason to suspect DICE can't make the system work, but it might take a little time to straighten out the kinks.
This side of Battlefield Heroes will certainly sort itself out, and the core of the game - an ebullient redux of the deathmatch shooter for the WOW generation - is very solid, and can't help but be worth a hundred times more than the asking price of nothing at all. But whether it can grow from diverting freebie into the kind of moreish obsession that will have you reaching for your wallet for new trinkets and features is up to the game's character advancement system and web support. As it stands, these sides of Battlefield Heroes are completely unproven.