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Battlefield Heroes

Hero of the (lunch) hour.

You know that it's going to be free. You know that it's a stripped-down, knockabout deathmatch shooter built on Battlefield's sturdy chassis. You know that it looks terrific, like an animated propaganda poster for a war in a fancy-dress shop. You know that it's not evil. But did you know that Battlefield Heroes is secretly an MMO and almost an RPG?

No, really. Bear with us.

The first clue is the action bar at the bottom of the screen. As well as switching and deploying weapons, these buttons provide access to very RPG-like skills and buffs that do things like increase run speed, defence, or accuracy for a short period of time. They promote prolonged shoot-outs that blend twitch-gaming skill with an accelerated tactical see-saw. Not entirely dissimilar to the feel of player-versus-player combat in World of Warcraft, in fact.

But if that sounds off-putting, it shouldn't. Developer DICE made the decision for quite the opposite reason; to make the whole deathmatch experience less intimidating.

"We wanted to have it so you didn't die so much," says lead designer James Salt. "We looked at the Battlefield 2 experience where you spawn in and, as a new player, you're dead in a couple of seconds. And then there's fifteen seconds of waiting before you're in again. We wanted to clear this up. So we've made it so it's quite hard to shoot each other and kill each other."

Hence the skills, a delicate balance of cool-downs and effect cancellations that can be deployed against each other, taking the emphasis off raw headshot skill. "It adds like a different level of rock paper scissors," says Salt. "You've played this card, you've got this shield up, and I know you've got 30 seconds before you can use that again. I guess it's like how you have those combat situations in an MMO."

Young man, there's a place you can go.

In a happy half-hour spent playing the game, we confirm what he says. And it's not merely about deploying skills. It simply takes a lot of bullets to make someone fall over. Make no mistake, this is much more than just a cut-and-shut respray of Battlefield - the game has been completely rethought and rebalanced for a new audience and a new playing style. DICE might be making light of war in Battlefield Heroes, but underneath the cartoon insouciance (the war between National and Royal Armies is a dispute over a sporting result), it's deadly serious.

Case in point: DICE stopped with the introduction of buff and debuff. Those abilities can be upgraded and modified using tokens earned by completing missions (achievements, in other words). "But there are less tokens than there are ways to spend them, so you have to decide, am I going to go wide, or am I going to go deep, which I think is going to be kind of interesting," says Salt. It's a talent tree by another name, permitting you to customise more than just your character's costume and load-out.

So far, so RPG. EA and DICE have clearly woken up to the fact that character persistence, advancement and customisation is the key to hooking players on online games - especially if you want to convince them into spending money on trinkets for those characters. They aren't alone - Infinity Ward took similar steps with Call of Duty 4, leading Rob to argue that it verged on MMOdom itself. Battlefield Heroes goes a few steps further down the road marked massive, but here's what makes it really distinctive; it doesn't do so in the games, restricted to 16 players at present. It does so on its website.

I said, young man, when you're short on your dough.

The Battlefield Heroes website doesn't just launch the game, and host the advertisements and item micropayments that will turn a profit from it. It's home to the character creation and customisation interface, and a profile page where you can view and manage your mission and friends lists. There's even an events feed that lets you know what's happening in the game universe, and the chance to browse other players' profiles and examine how they've specced their characters. And there's the metagame.

"It's kind of like cheap Risk," says Salt. You pick one of sixteen countries to fight over, and every match you play puts points in the pot to claim territory for your army. The map fills up with red and blue, and whichever side has more territory at the end of the week receives more "valor points" (in-game money). That's it - for now. "We've got a lot of other plans for it, but before we get really cute with it and add on loads more complexity, we just want to put it out there and see what people do."