The metagame ties the community together in one single, massively multiplayer war effort. It also sneakily gives you a way to play the game when you're not supposed to be playing the game. "We're always talking about this idea of people playing games that they can check in on at lunchtime, or the afternoon when you're supposed to be working," says Salt, noting that he was inspired by a Sony Online Entertainment massively multiplayer shooter. "Planetside did this really well. It kept you connected to the game world. That was what interested me from a design point of view."
It's a pretty ambitious web development, all told, something DICE had never had any experience of. "We were completely flying blind," admits Salt. "A lot of learning happened in the last eight months or so while we've been building it. But I think there's a lot to be gained by having more of your game experience on the website as well. I think you get a game you can come along and touch."
Let's get on with the touching, then. We played several rounds of Battlefield Heroes on the wide-open Seaside Skirmish map, a large rolling plain above white cliffs, with a couple of villages and a lighthouse to capture and defend. Designed for vehicle combat, the map features jeeps, tanks and fighter planes, and a variation of the Battlefield's famous Conquest mode - team deathmatch with a base-capture twist.
It's not very particularly fast-paced - at least, not with just four players per side - but as Salt says, that's intentional; with players staying alive longer, they tend to cluster more and play more recklessly, and concentrated slapstick scrums for the command points tend to develop. Battlefield Heroes doesn't just look like a cartoon, it plays like one. The vehicles handling is also somewhat exaggerated; our attempts to fly the extremely inertia-heavy and hilariously slow Spitfire were comically inept, but very entertaining, especially with other players sat on the wings, gunning away.
It's hard to explain how much difference the exuberant avatars make to the whole experience. For all the similarity in art style, this isn't Team Fortress 2's fundamentally sensible communication of class design through character appearance. This is fundamentally silly self-expression, a chance to splash your personality over the screen; it makes individuals instantly recognisable without a nametag, and promotes intense revenge rivalries between players. The shift to third-person makes perfect sense in this context, and indeed the slightly less accurate aiming fits with the slapdash fun.
It's also fantastically camp. As you customise them, the National Army develop from German World War II soldiers into Victorian voodoo pirates, and the Royals... well, Salt puts it best. "They're a little bit, ummm... to be honest, right now they're a little bit YMCA. Big, fat and round, lots of sailor outfits and stuff going on. You can also do - I don't know if you remember the Commando comics - guys in khaki shirts with the fronts undone and kind of ruffled hair. They definitely come out more camp, for some reason."
There aren't any female avatars yet. They're under consideration to be put in the game after release. So are more game modes, more vehicles, more maps (Seaside Skirmish is one of just two, the other being a tighter map for infantry only), more social features for the website, a more developed metagame. Any and all of these will be added depending on one thing: what the players want most.
Since it's a free game, DICE isn't under any pressure to give Battlefield Heroes a bulging feature list at launch, and can build it slowly, growing the game organically according to what players respond to. "Yeah, from a developer point of view, if you're making a game you're making a big gamble about what people want, you make enough stuff, you stick it on a disc and hope people like it," says Salt. "With this we make quite a small amount and put it out, and say where do you want to go now? We'll see how that grows, maybe we'll have more stuff on the website, like really extensive clan support, or maybe more game modes."
It's a world away from releasing a couple of map packs down the line; Battlefield Heroes will be a true, living online game. It's not just the business model that makes it different; expanded according player feedback, split almost half-and-half between the game itself and the website that plugs into it, Battlefield Heroes is certainly one of the most forward-thinking games to come out of a major publisher this year. Since it's yours for nothing more than the time to make a 250MB download, since it's fun, and since it's backed by the corporate might of EA, it's an easy call to make: this one will run and run.
Battlefield Heroes is due out this summer on PC.