Saturday, March 14, 2009

Battlefield Heroes: dickery, nickel-and-diming abound

Apparently, EA hasn’t seen my fist-shaking from their lofty heights. They invited me to the closed beta for Battlefield: Heroes, their upcoming free-to-play online shooter. For the oblivious, BH takes the core element of the foundational Battlefield franchise – class-based combat, vehicles, control points – reduces them to their most basic, and slaps on a cartoony aesthetic unapologetically nicked from Team Fortress 2.

I’m a huge fan of DICE’s multiplayer series. It feels great, plays great, and can be used as a textbook on intelligent map design. I was relieved to find the same competent level design fused to fluid action in BH. The grinning, whistling sense of humor strains to be as smart as its TF2, and fails, but I’m forgiving.

What’s more, my fellow beta testers were quite a cultured bunch. It took me a good half an hour of game time to see the word “N_ggercock” pop on my screen.

It’s what you loved about battlefield, boiled down to the basics. Away from the bombast of WWII and the ultra-slick gloss of modern warfare, we see what made the series great to begin with: fast gameplay, intelligent team tactics and vehicular combat that is still, in my opinion, peerless. This is something they could easily sell for $15 (and they are, tricky them! More later), and I’d buy it. Hell, I bought Castle Crashers. I’ll spend money on anything.

The game opens the door for dickery in two ways. First, pressing the “q” key brings up the “emote” menu. Select “Need a ride,” and your avatar sticks out his thumb and whistles. Select “Hello!” and your avatar will wave cheerily. A platter of taunts, from throat-slashing to chicken-clucking, allow the player to mock their victims. Seeing a cartoon do a chicken dance gets the blood roiling, sure. But what about the commando?

The commando class has the ability to ninja-vanish itself, whereupon it is invisible until firing a weapon or getting close to enemy. It’s not hard to be very, very good at this – before long you’re drawing the ire of well-meaning, noninvisible players trying to enjoy themselves. And by “ire” I mean various iterations of racist slurs. The “n_ggercock” incident occurred after cutting the throats out of two belltower snipers. Guess they didn’t like my chicken-clucking taunt? This isn’t a game-breaker, but it would be nice to see DICE make these killers a little less despicable.

Now here’s the thing about the “free” game. You could play BH without paying a red cent, but you’ll be stuck in the featureless conscript duds that EA issues you. To have access to the colorful wardrobe that beta testers enjoyed gratis, you’ll need to pay tribute to the ugly leering god of microtransactions. Shell out, gamers. Your virtual man-Barbie is just waiting for his Nazi officer’s cap. Refuse if you want, but you’ll be stuck with your prison garb.

I retain a glimmer of hope that battlefunds (nice euphemism, huh?) can be achieved through gameplay. If so, BH will provide players an excellent homage to multiplayer gaming’s greatest series. If not, get out your credit cards. EA’s about to goose your wallet again.