Although you might well be suspicious of so-called "free-to-play" gaming, there are some aspects of it you just can't argue with. Visit a website. Get a sense of what it's offering you. Download the client. Install it. Jump into the game. Enjoy, or if you don't - uninstall. No loss. Nothing spent.
Then, of course, there are the aspects of free-to-play games that cause that suspicion. Most notably the fact that, inevitably, the games will encourage you to get out your wallet and pay through "micro-transactions". They manage this with varying degrees of subtlety. Combat Arms - a Counter-Strike-style multiplayer FPS from the Korean pioneers of the freebie MMO, Nexon - gives the impression that it's going to be reasonably tolerable, more Windsor Davis than R Lee Ermey. At the time of writing, though, much remains to be seen: micro-transactions for real-world currency have yet to be implemented in the European Combat Arms, which went from open beta to official launch in mid-January, six months after the American launch.
Combat Arms joins other free-to-play titles set in a comparable modern warfare context, such as War Rock and the controversial US army "recruitment" tool, America's Army. Indeed, 2009 looks set to be a good year for F2P multiplayer shooters: EA's Battlefield Heroes should be with us fairly soon and looks set be hugely entertaining, and then there's id's Quake Live.
As discussed in October's closed beta hands-on, Combat Arms seems decidedly old-school in the age of COD4 and World at War. Even graphically - it serves up environments that feel like something from a generation or two ago (one map, Brushwood, played around a downed plane in a jungle clearing, is bordered by flat walls of texture-mapped foliage). However, unsophisticated visuals don't undermine the game's dynamics.
Anyone who's played FPS games over the past five or ten years should be able to dive straight in and feel comfortable with the six modes: classic deathmatch (One Man Army); team deathmatch (Elimination); Capture the Flag (my personal favourite, since it's not just about how good a shot you are); the Counter-Strike-esque Search & Destroy; and the newest addition, Spy Hunt, which doesn't really seem to have caught on, as it's a tad convoluted.
Spy Hunt involves mercenaries hunting for intel being carried by spies, who can become "Super Spies" and must upload the intel, the remaining mercs facing sudden, no-respawn death in the face of a fearsome minigun. Talking of weaponry, the minigun only seems to appear in this mode, but normal play involves an impressive selection of gear to choose from to equip in your primary weapon slot (assault rifles, sniper rifles, MGs and SMGs), secondary weapon slot (pistols, shotguns), melee slot, grenade slot and backpack. The latter allows you to carry a second main weapon, so you can switch between assault and sniper rifles when the environment requires: and some of the game's nicely varied maps are already head-shot havens, most notably the Italianate seaside of Two Towers and the hilly, snowbound bunker, Snow Valley.
The weapons and gear are very much Combat Arms' strong point. The range comprises 14 assault rifles, five machine guns, eight SMGs, eight sniper rifles, ten pistols, no less than seven shotguns, six grenades, and some interesting support gear, like heartbeat sensors. Then there's a variety of armour and headgear, which can offer protection and speed percentage variations. The guns, meanwhile, can be modded with clips, scopes and suppressors. And that's just so far - Nexon has pledged it will roll out new content regularly.
Nexon also seems to be pretty savvy about some of the game's potential issues. For example, you hire gear with GPs ("gear points"), something you garner from kills, wins and levelling up. One concern is that to be able to hang on to your gear, you'll need to keep playing - a lot - and to get the very best gear, you'll have to play exponentially more.
Nexon soothes this potentially off-putting issue with the generous chunks of GP you get on levelling up, and through such things as bonus GP events - for example, play in a certain time-slot, and you get 30 per cent bonus GP. Only time will tell whether this will be balanced enough, or whether the slog of maintaining and improving gear will be a turn-off, but it seems to work well so far.
Levelling itself starts out quick and soon slows up - but again, there's method here. There are five categories of rank, ranging from grunt (recruit to sergeant) to general (from brigadier general to general of the army). Only the uber-most of FPS maestros can hope to achieve the highest ranks and unlock all the best gear, which may seem a bit harsh, but bear in mind that most average players will be working with comparable kit, and very few will be unduly advantaged.
Talking of advantages, let's get back to the matter of micro-transactions. The game shop and outfitting section will have a "Black Market" area. This is already live in the US, and offers "cosmetic, convenience, community and premium items". The mention of premium may seem a little worrying, but by and large, the bits and bobs you can spend real dosh on (by way of charging up an account with Nexon's NX currency units) do seem to be more about fun, novelty, or vanity.
For example, the current best-sellers in the American Combat Arms are the option of a permanent sex change for your avatar (a snip at 9,900 NX) or a bit of bling in the form of gold-plating your AK (for you sir, 8,900 NX). The exchange rate seems to be around 10,000 NX for USD 10, and depending on the effects of the global economic meltdown, that's around EUR 8 or GBP 7. So there aren't crazy amounts involved - unless you want to go crazy with your Nexon Cash Card. That's your prerogative.
The bottom line is that Combat Arms is a free-to-play game that does offer genuine opportunities to play and progress for free, without the two-tier structure that puts people off many free online games. What's available in-game without too much trouble grinding GPs can provide perfectly viable combat opportunities, and with a little more spend, you can satisfy your personal preferences.
The gameplay, meanwhile, is largely basic and undeniably old-school, but it can be fun, fast, furious and reasonably deep if you find a map and mode you like, and are lucky enough to get a team that works together. Nexon seems intent on keeping things interesting too, with new content and events, and the encouragement of a clan system. (Clans of up to 120 players can compete in competitions, the winners of which can earn goodies including kit for your computer, in-game gear, GP and even NX.)
These guys seem set on doing free-to-play, micro-transaction-based gaming right. For all that their games are likely to play better, DICE and id could do worse than take some notes from the masters of this business model.
6 / 10