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.