An Early Look at the MMO-Styled Battlefield Heroes

We preview Battlefield Heroes, EA's newest (and wonderfully cartoon-like) addition to its Battlefield franchise.

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If you’re a fan of the Battlefield game series, you’ll love this one. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard that EA has been developing a free-to-play, MMO-styled shooter called Battlefield Heroes; the newest member of the Battlefield family. A relatively quiet, semi-closed beta-testing phase is currently underway, offering an early look at what to make of this ambitious, online shooter. So far, things look pretty fraggin’ good.

For those of you who aren’t die-hard FPS fans, the “Battlefield franchise” officially began with Battlefield 1942, developed by Electronic Arts in 2002 (although some will argue the series technically began with a precursor called Codename Eagle). Regardless, the World War II-era shooter was amazingly well-received by fans, spawning mainly from the game’s heavy emphasis on cooperative, multiplayer combat mechanics. At the time, team-based shooters weren’t as prevalent as they are today, especially considering 1942’s solid engine and polished gameplay.

Naturally, EA noticed a good thing and ran with it, following up with the gritty Battlefield Vietnam in 2004. But it was the modern-warfare-based Battlefield 2— released in 2005—that many consider the series’ “breakthrough” game. Winning a slew of awards and gathering praise from nearly every major gaming publication, Battlefield 2 is still what many fans consider a benchmark when it comes to team-based, soldier/vehicle hybrid PC shooters. Since then, a few more expansions—and the futuristic Battlefield 2142—joined the Battlefield family, but the series hasn’t seen much innovation these days.

It’s more than likely that the upcoming Battlefield Heroes was specifically developed in response to the aging FPS paradigm. EA needed something to revitalize the series—and, of course, to capitalize on the thriving MMOG sector of the market.

Battlefield Heroes will be completely free to download and play when it launches, using a micro-payment model similar to many other free-to-play MMOs. (The game is actually categorized as “Play 4 Free,” which is just the proprietary name of EA’s free-to-play marketing model.) Similar to Free Realms, it’s a “browser-based” game, installed as a plug-in via Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, compatible with Windows XP and Vista. Despite its browser-based installation (which is more of an accessibility and memory-storage solution than anything else), you can play the game in a variety of full-screen and wide-screen resolutions. Everything except combat is rendered in windowed mode, such as character configuration and game settings.

The gameplay is essentially a warfare-combat shooter just like its older brothers, but designed to perform more simply than most modern FPSs. Your character can run, jump, crouch and shoot…but that’s about it. You can throw out a handful of emotes (for both communication and fun) and communicate with your team using text-entry. The goal of each battle is the same familiar scenario found in previous Battlefield games; to capture and hold multiple strategic points throughout the map, illustrated as waypoint flags. Other than that, it’s your average red vs. blue frag-fest (or the “National Army vs. the Royal Army,” respectively).

There are three character classes, each serving a unique role on the battlefield. The Soldier is your basic front-line infantry class, armed with assault rifles and shotguns. Gunners are the heavy-weapon class, carrying missile launchers and specializing in explosives, meant for taking out enemy vehicles. Lastly, the Commando is a rogue-like class that specializes in infiltration via stealth, as well as long-range kill shots from a sniper perch. All three classes have unique combat abilities that they can learn; you can distribute skill points broadly or specialize in select abilities to boost their effectiveness.

It’s not the most diverse class dynamic, but it works. I had to keep reminding myself that the game’s simplicity and dulled edges plays a large part in its expected appeal. Combat is meant to be fast and easy, with minimal distraction. This concept starts to shine when you happen to notice little details that you’re meant not to notice, like how quick and conveniently-placed the respawns are. The vehicle combat—also designed with extreme simplicity in mind—can be a blast, especially when you’re wing-clipping opponents with your airplane, or sitting on the wing yourself, raining down hellfire. All of the vehicles are teammate-friendly, meaning you don’t always have to be behind the wheel to use them.

There’s one more thing I can’t go any longer without mentioning, because it has probably been the elephant in the room since you started reading this preview. The first thing any Battlefield fan will instantly notice is how completely alien the graphics are in comparison to the rest of the series. Battlefield Heroes features a vibrant, colorful and cartoon-like atmosphere, from the map environments to your character models. It’s like something out of a comic book; a bit like what you’d expect to see through the lens of a youngster’s army adventure daydreams. I’m sure the graphics style is actually just another accessibility move on EA’s part, but, fortunately for us, it doesn’t detract from the gameplay. If anything, it adds a new, character-driven dimension to the Battlefield series that will no doubt be played out to the extreme after it launches, thanks to all the visual modifications (like clothes and accessories) you can buy.

But just like talk, appearances are cheap when it comes down to the gameplay. After creating a character and playing a few matches, I was thrilled to discover a working, respectable 3D engine under the hood of such a seemingly “lightweight” game. Your character is controlled from the classic third-person POV most of the time, depending on the situation. EA explains the reasoning behind going with the third-person route “so your Hero is center-stage,” which translates to “people won’t spend money on outfits if they never see them in-game.”

Trade-offs like these are expected in most free-to-play games using micro-transactions to generate revenue. Ideally, the “real money” purchasing features shouldn’t hinder the gameplay experience for people who don’t spend money. Battlefield Heroes seems to be designed with that ideal loosely in mind. EA’s FAQ claims “We don't plan on letting players buy a gameplay advantage, like bigger/better weapons for ‘real’ money. What you will likely be able to buy are items like clothing, cool looking things and fun stuff.”

As I browsed through the game store (which isn’t fully stocked yet), I didn’t find many “real money” items that would drastically impact player balance. Aside from your typical “experience accelerator”-type items, most of their stock consists of clothes and accessories, just as promised. There are three kinds of currency in the game; Hero Points, Valor Points and Battlefunds. Hero Points are used to buy and level up special abilities, while Valor Points can be used to buy temporary weapons and gear. Both of these point types are earned in-game through progression, so they don’t require anything more than time and skill to earn. Battlefunds is the “real money” currency used to buy vanity items and enhancers, although the enhancers seem to impact the speed of your own progression more than your power vs. opponents on the battlefield.

As with any beta, things are constantly being tweaked and modified, and there are a few issues in need of some serious tweakage. Your mileage will vary depending on your PC and Internet connection, but I experienced quite a bit of choppiness—seemingly from server lag—even after I verified my bandwidth was performing optimally. The physics and collision mechanics could also use a few adjustments here and there; I’d sometimes end up in the weirdest places while crossing rough terrain in vehicles, or on foot in close-combat. Finally, the server interface could use some work. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to work this way at launch, but right now there’s no way to view game listings across servers. There’s only a “quick play” option that places you in a random game with similarly-leveled players. You can “bookmark” a server if you like it, but there’s no way to view and select available servers.

For my money’s worth (which was zero), none of these issues are deal-breakers. Most of them will probably be ironed out later this summer, by the time Battlefield Heroes officially launches. My initial reaction is a positive one; a rare occurrence, considering most of the MMO-styled shooters I’ve recently tried out proved to be major let-downs. Battlefield Heroes offers promise—it’s both accessible and fun, a combination that you just don’t see in every new game on the block these days.

Try it out yourself by signing up for a beta spot. If registration is closed, keep checking back every other day or so.


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