Battlefield Heroes Preview: Free and Fun

Real battlefield heroes have flashbacks to moments of horrifying combat. Halfway through a round of EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes, I was having flashbacks to World of Warcraft raids. Not quite the same experience, but almost as scary.

After shooting my first enemy soldier, strange numbers popped out of his head: -20, -3, -25. There were more clothing options than weapons, more time spent slotting pirate hats than strategizing. People were ditching their medic packs for area effect heals, and waiting longer for sprint cool-downs than for vehicle respawns. And did I get killed by an Ornery Arathi Nazi, or was that just my imagination?

I went into my hands-on time thinking that Heroes was essentially a pared-down version of Battlefield 1942, and in many ways, it is. From the speed of the jeeps, to the slightly sluggish feel of the infantry controls, I was instantly at home, feeling pleased with the game's clear nod to the first--and still my favorite--entry in the Battlefield series. There's a lot to love about the core game that DICE has built here.

But as was promised all along, Battlefield Heroes is also something new, a re-imagining of the franchise for a broader demographic. It's one of those "revolutionary" games, the hybrid projects that require an endless stream of hyphens to describe: a free-to-play, pick-up-and-go, micro-transaction-supported, ad-based online multiplayer title. Yes, this really isn't your typical Battlefield.

Case in point, a distinct World of Warcraft influence is evident from the first frame. The weapon and ability bar sits along the bottom of the screen, with buttons labeled 1 through 0 often functioning more like spell hotkeys. The emphasis on clothing--sold through micro-transactions--is a clear appeal to the Warcraft loot mentality, the accessory slots eerily reminiscent of WoW's character interface. Hit-point data streams in above the heads of enemies after every hit or heal. Even the third-person view feels like an attempt to connect with Azeroth converts.

And why not? Blizzard's MMO is designed for the casual user, the same demographic EA is targeting with Heroes. From that perspective, Heroes seems perfectly realized, a truly approachable Battlefield for the masses.

But while the game may be free, our time is not. The real question is, with all these changes, should 1942 fans even bother playing?

The answer, from where I'm sitting, is a tentative "yes."

Cartoon aesthetic aside, running around in Heroes is very much a 1942-esque affair, right down to the typical Battlefield font used for player names. You'll still be capturing objectives and achieving victory through flag-based ticket accumulation, slowly trudging from point to point. Though the mini-map is gone, a full-sized overlay is still available with the press of the "M" key. Left or right arrows also appear on the edges of the screen, indicating which way you need to turn in order to face the closest flag.

Tank battles play out just as they have in the past, with players fighting for position and blasting away. As far as controls go, armor behaves more or less as it did in 1942, though shells must be arced significantly now for balancing reasons. The secondary position has been stripped of its machine gun, serving only as a seat to shoot your standard weapons from.

Jeeps are just as fast and unwieldy. Flak cannons are back. Prop planes are a bit more floaty, less precise than the sleek war machines of old. Flight is slower in general, allowing for easier strafing. As seen in previous footage, up to two players can actually sit on the wings of the planes, firing away like human turrets. As always, vehicle positions are switched between with the F keys.

While wing-riding may seem extreme, it's actually more of an homage to 1942. The real outlandish stuff is found in Heroes' abilities, gained after leveling up.

Each of the three classes--soldier, commando, and gunner--have a number of special abilities at their disposal. I mostly toyed around with the soldier, which possesses leader-like tricks, such as a multiple ally-healing spell, and the ability to see enemies through walls for 10 seconds. There's also the not-so-leader-like abilities, like the triple grenade toss.

Though he lacks the gunner's bazooka, the soldier makes up for it with a sticky bomb, essentially a stack of dynamite that can be tossed at a tank. It takes more than one to bring down a tank, but because of the ranged toss, is a little easier to pull off than you'd imagine. Again, the idea here is to level the playing field. Tanks can still dominate, but infantry aren't nearly as powerless against them as they have been in previous Battlefield games.

While I was a little wary of team-healing spells and other magical nonsense, the pacing of Heroes is slow enough that the abilities don't seem overbearing or silly. It felt a little strange to be activating these seemingly-magical powers in the midst of a typical Battlefield battle, but after a few minutes, I found that it didn't really bother me. Heroes is nowhere near a hardcore shooter, but then neither was 1942. This has always been a series about running over people in jeeps, and screwing around in planes, and defending flags to the last respawn. Heroes takes that basic gameplay, cuts away the meaty complexity of recent Battlefields, and lets the greasy fat float to the top. After my first taste, I wanted more.

And yes, Heroes was built around a business model, an egg-before-the-chicken scenario that would normally scream of dumbed-down, cashed-in crap. But no, this game doesn't ruin the spirit of the original with its wacky, casual approach. Judging from my time with it, I'd say it has a fair chance of attracting both the hardcore and softcore gamer, a double market penetration that EA would surely be pleased with.

Whether anyone from either group will be silly enough to pay real money to buy a pirate hat for a Nazi avatar remains to be seen.

Don't forget to check out the whole of Shacknews' EA Spring Break coverage.