Battlefield Heroes Preview

By Chris Faylor, Feb 29, 2008 5:01am PST EA DICE's decision to release Battlefield Heroes as a free-to-play, web-based title has raised a lot of questions and concerns.

How will the game-funding advertising be handled? Will the oft-dreaded micro-transactions be worth the dough? And most importantly, how will it play? Is this going to be a free game, or a game that's free?

During a presentation last week, senior producer Ben Cousins took the opportunity to show off the latest build of the cartoony game, and answer some of these questions in the process.

"[It's] probably the deepest Battlefield game we've ever created," boasted Cousins, before launching into a laundry list of notable features.

Gameplay Tweaks and Changes
In the effort to bring the franchise to a more casual audience, EA DICE has made numerous changes to the traditional Battlefield formula.

The most obvious of these is the shift to a third-person perspective, which abandons the series' traditional first-person viewpoint. This was done due to DICE's belief that many casual gamers find themselves confused and disoriented by a first-person camera, unable to properly navigate their character around corners or remember if they are crouching.

Apart from providing a better view of the player's character, the third-person camera doesn't change much, Cousins claims. Players sill move using the WSAD keys and aim with the mouse, allowing for similar core combat.

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The next step in broadening the appeal of Battlefield Heroes was to simplify the user interface. A player's chosen abilities appear alongside the bottom of the screen, a move that places each icon right above the number key used to activate them. Health and experience information appear next to the character portrait in the upper left-hand corner.

The mini-map, meanwhile, has been entirely removed.

Defending the controversial choice, Cousins argued that the team had created a multiplayer mode that did not require an overall view of the battlefield. A mixture of Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch, players will be hunting each other down while attempting to capture the flags scattered about the map. While the flags aren't needed for victory over the other team, each capture speeds up that team's respawn time.

Other casual-friendly modifications include the absence of friendly fire and the removal of one-hit sniper and knife kills, which are said to make the game less frustrating and more entertaining. Matchmaking will be handled based on a player's skill level in an attempt to keep the frustration level low.

Tanks and Planes
Vehicles are now simpler and more fun to control, according to Cousins.

The tank has been sped up in comparison to previous Battlefields, and now zips along at a good clip. To balance this shift, it is now less effective at taking down infantry. While a tank's shells are extremely harmful to other players, their arcing trajectory requires a bit of skill to nail a target.

Further reducing the emphasis on armor, each class comes equipped with a sticky bomb that is extremely useful against tanks. However, getting close will be tricky, as running someone over in a vehicle qualifies as one of the few one-hit kills in the game.

The propeller planes, meanwhile, are much more maneuverable. Taking a Battlefield 1942 exploit to an extreme, other players can now sit planted on the wings of planes, adding both extra firepower and a bit of character thanks to the game's emote system.

Character Classes, Customization and Expression
When it launches later this year, Battlefield Heroes will sport three character classes: the standard Soldier, the fast-moving Commando, and the heavily-armed Gunner. Instead of picking their faction at the beginning of each round, players will be forced to swear their allegiance to the National Army--a politically correct Axis team--or the Royal Army when registering their account. The conflict between the two has something to do with a dispute over the Olympics. Yes, really.

The chosen faction ties into the overall meta-game, which is centered around territory acquisition. Though no details were provided during the presentation, it is presumed that conquest will be decided based on the number of victories each side accrues per map.

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Another benefit of the third-person camera is that players can more easily see the customizations they've applied to their character. Almost every aspect of a character can be personalized, from pants and shirts all the way down to facial hair.

By hitting the "Q" key during gameplay, players can bring up a 3x3 grid that provides a number of expressive animations. This emote system provides the baseline for in-game communication, allowing combatants to easily and visually express emotion, such as boastful laughter.

Abilities
A number of specialized abilities will be available, with players selecting their traits before the game begins. Demonstrated techniques included what Cousins referred to as a "legit wall hack," which allowed him to briefly see outlines of other players though walls, as well as a temporary damage bonus and an ability that provided a burst of health.

Mapped to number keys, abilities can only be used sparingly, with their respective icons sitting along the bottom of the screen indicating availability and recharge status.

Some abilities, such as the health burst, will affect not only the player but also those within range. Floating health icons indicate when a player is using their health burst skill, and the use of other abilities is illustrated by similar visual cues.

Advertising
There will be no billboards or any sort of in-game advertising within Battlefield Heroes, Cousins assured the crowd.

Instead, the game-supporting ad revenue will come from the Battlefield Heroes website, which players must visit to launch the game.

A bright yellow "Play Now!" button is prominently featured on the page, as are news posts, details on purchasable items, and, of course, banner ads.

When a player registers an account, that form will also contain banner ads. And when players go to launch the game, the loading screen will contain ads, too.

In short, anytime someone loads the game, EA is guaranteed at least three ad views--one on the main page, and two on the loading screen. As a result, there was no apparent need to integrate advertising into the game itself.

Low System Requirements
As EA DICE is targeting a broad demographic with Battlefield Heroes, the system requirements are quite low.

At the bare minimum, players will need a 1GHz processor and an integrated graphics chip in their system.

And Yet...
Despite the information-packed presentation, loads of questions still remain. Aside from an off-hand comment, Cousins barely touched on the subject of purchasable items. Will they be weapons? Abilities? Fashion accessories? If they are weapons, how will EA DICE balance the game to be fair, and yet still entice folks to buy new armament?

Sadly, I wasn't able to play the game myself. It looked fun, no doubt, but with all the gameplay tweaks and casual-oriented changes to the typical Battlefield formula, I'm left wondering just how much of the original dynamic is left in the title. Will long-time fans embrace the changes, or will they shun Heroes as a nerfed offspring?

Sure, Cousins regaled us with tales of how internal testing has proven the title to be much more popular than anticipated, noting that the studio has been forced to set up multiple test servers so that everyone on staff can play. He even admitted that the game's unexpected popularity may have had a "slight impact" on the other games DICE has in development, hinting at Team Fortress 2 levels of addictiveness.

I suppose a better question is, will the fan reaction even factor into the title's reception? By creating a free-to-play web title with low system requirements, EA DICE is targeting those that fall far outside of the series' typical demographic.

I have no doubt that when it launches later this year, Battlefield Heroes will be successful--at least from a business standpoint. But the same thought keeps running through my mind: Is it still Battlefield?

Honestly, I still have no idea.

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