The idea of "free" games with a pay-as-you-go scheme attached is not new, but this new entry in the Battlefield series, the second to use the "freemium" model (after 2009's Battlefield Heroes), goes a long way to cement the model outside of Asia (where it has been a popular method of charging people for content for as long as we can remember). Battelfield Play4Free comes from the Electronic Arts stable and is currently in open Beta.
The game itself is free to download once you have registered with EA (if you have purchased an EA game previously, your existing registration should work as your login). Once you are in, you will need to download the game client, followed by an auto configuration, and then you’re all set to play. Where EA makes its money is through players exchanging real money for in-game tokens to purchase better weapons, equipment and armour.
The game itself is built on the Battlefield 2 engine, and by all accounts the graphics and gameplay are not much different from the original game. On starting, you get to select from the standard four soldier types (Assault, Recon, Medic and Engineer). This is quite a crucial choice, as once you have chosen your soldier you are pretty much stuck with it until you shell out some tokens to open up another character slot.
There are currently three maps that are available to play: one open coastal area, and two large urban areas. The mission for each is to capture the key strategic points and bases to win the game. The protagonists are the US Army and the Russians in the modern era. Is it just us, or is this scenario a bit jaded? There are more than two super powers in the world, and we would happily like to see China joining in the virtual fray. Equipment-wise they have some fascinating weapons and armour, which are almost on par with the US.
The game balances the forces at start-up, and depending on your starting point you will be either Russian or US. These are fixed, so in subsequent rounds when you are swapped to a new starting point, you will find yourself in a different uniform. Takes a bit of time to get your head around and initially you may find yourself shooting your own men (oops).
Kills award you with experience points and as your soldier levels up more options on the skill tree become available. This tree includes skill-ups such as more ammo, improved health and the ability to drive or fly vehicles. Every bit helps, especially if you are trying to avoid spending real money on the game. This is because at the lower levels your weapon does as much damage as a chocolate hammer and has the accuracy of a Warriors goal kicker after a night on the turps. Because of this you need to be prepared to die a lot at the hands of higher level enemies, or those with the gold tokens to throw around. Without investing real cash, you can still accrue silver tokens (just like experience, these are obtained through kills and victories), and these can be used for better gear. but Unlike gold token purchases, however, those bought with silver only have a limited life span.
What’s the gameplay like? Well nothing like an after-action report: “Ok so I’m an American marine, I have my shiny new sniper rifle and I have magically appeared on an aircraft carrier. With 16 or so other recruits we rush to the various transport options to get of the tub. Some immediately fire up the jet fighters and roar off the deck, while others dive into the assault helicopters. Others with a more nautical bent make their way to the assault boats. Me, being the new guy, hitched a ride in a troop helicopter.
We fly towards the coast and take in the play area: a few coastal buildings, and further inland a small coastal town and railway. My sightseeing is interrupted by the roar of a jet, and the rattle of cannon fire. Like magic I find myself back on the deck of the carrier. Hmm, maybe we should have left some guys to man the Anti-Aircraft missiles.
On to the ‘copter again, and I finally get to hit land. Joining the rush, I make a beeline to the first strategic point, which is chock full of vehicles and tanks. Just as I crest the sand dune: whang! I’m bowled over by a light attack vehicle, piloted by a grinning Russian intent on grabbing the outpost first. Back on deck of the carrier...”
As you can see, the games are fast and furious. There’s not much time to get your bearings before you are dumped in the thick of the action. As a sniper we found we were doing a lot of shoot-and-scoot; staying still was an invitation to getting pinged due to the kill cam, which reveals your position. Not much of a problem, as initially we struggled to make a kill in the early ranks of the game. Sure, we could hit people at range, but unless we nailed a head shot it was not normally a kill (even then they could sometimes survive this). This then is the real hook in the game. For an average player to reach veteran status means investing some dollars to get maximum enjoyment from the game. This proves once again that there is no such thing as a free lunch (or in our case a free cruise on an aircraft carrier).
With the game still currently in Beta, there are issues getting onto the limited servers, but overall we found the game very stable and surprisingly lag-free. Sound and graphics are good, with some great ambient sounds hinting at a wider combat going on around you. The maps themselves are well presented; however they lack the detail you would see in an over-the-counter packaged game. Most buildings can't be entered, and a lot of the high rise buildings inexplicably have external ladders. That being said, the maps are well designed, with many different tactical options to explore.
Overall, we liked Battlefield Play4Free. The formula of quick, full-on combat makes this a game you can pick up and play when you have a spare 15 minutes or so. The micro payment system, although understandable, does put the free players at a disadvantage; however play regularly enough and your silver tokens should compensate for some of this. Come and join us on our magical aircraft carrier!