Battlefield Play4Free Preview - Dead on Arrival?
By Neil Kewn (Murxidon) - OnRPG Journalist
Electronic Arts is taking their renowned Battlefield series into the free-to-play arena for a second time later this year with Play4Free. Almost two years since Battlefield: Heroes brought us a more slapstick take on the series' famed multiplayer military mayhem, this new iteration takes us back to the game's roots. Play4Free returns to what made Battlefield great - two teams of soldiers doing their utmost best to obliterate each other with an assortment of powerful weaponry and vehicles. However, unlike their commercial counterparts, you won't have to pay a dime to experience any of it.
In recent years Battlefield has taken a more realistic approach to warfare. The series has always taken their military hardware seriously, but the absence of the famed fighter jets and similarly expendable modes of transport in Bad Company 2 did not please everyone. Don't get me wrong, Bad Company 2 was an excellent game in its own right, but we haven't seen the ultimate vehicular carnage BF does so well for a couple of years now. Play4Free is set to change that, promising to include a variety of conveniently placed tanks, jeeps and aircraft.
There are four classes to choose from. The standard Assault class is equipped with a wide assortment of assault rifles and ammo packs; it's their job to resupply the team with ammo when necessary. Similarly, medics aid the wounded whilst providing covering fire with a light machine gun. Engineers specialise in repairing and destroying vehicles on the field, whilst Recon is the class everyone loves to hate - the controversial band of snipers. Character creation is relatively basic at the moment. Picking a name, skin, hairstyle and class is all it takes to design your own mercenary. Each texture is more horrific than the last, but I doubt many consider facial appearance to be a priority in games such as this. First time downloads are relatively slow right now, but things are improving with each new patch.
Those who have played a multiplayer team-based first person shooter game before will feel right at home in Play4Free. The game feels very much like a Battlefield title - your soldier won't be indestructible and you must make use of the available cover to survive. The interface is concise and unobtrusive, with helpful hints cropping up whenever interactions become available. As of now there isn't a server list, only the ability to jump straight into a game or join one of your friends. Hopefully this will change upon release.
Electronic Arts insist that you can "Play4Free", and on the whole that is correct. As things stand players are getting a tried and tested slice of Battlefield action for absolutely nothing. As with the majority of free online games, micro-transactions will eventually offer perks and upgrades for your soldier. Furthermore, playing the game earns credits that can be used to purchase items in the store. Credits can help you obtain high performance weaponry and other equipment for a set number of days, but you will need to buy "Battlefunds" in order to purchase anything you wish to keep indefinitely.
Right now, players are required to launch the game via Play4Free's official website. The page also relays server, soldier and payment information - you can even create new soldiers. There is little reason that this couldn't be incorporated into the client though, eliminating the need for this minor inconvenience. Once launched, the main menu displays your active soldier, their rank, weaponry and appearance. You have many options to customize their look and style, from new helmets and body armour, to uniforms and goggles.
Beta tag aside, playing an actual round can be a frustrating process. The client often outright refuses to join a session. Lag isn't uncommon, practically removing any fun or playability from the game. Right now it wouldn't surprise me if EA were merely stress testing, as such fundamental flaws do little to form solid multiplayer gaming. Strangely, the EA Store is already open. I can't help but feel that those who do commit to testing Play4Free are expected to hand over cash to do their job properly, why aren't cash shop items free in the beta?
Once in a while, it is possible to end up on a reliable server. There are only a couple of well-known maps available now, but the features implemented will be very familiar to fans of the series. The objective is to secure a number of bases on each map. The team with the most bases will slowly deplete the opposing team's hold on the area, the first team to reach zero will forfeit the round. Running across the relatively large maps isn't advised, so make use of the vehicles on offer. There are several implemented at the moment (jeeps, trucks and fighter jets to a few) and they vary by map. Teammates can hop on board to provide fire on the move or make use of the mounted weaponry the vehicle may have.
Play4Free incorporates the levelling elements found most popular FPS games, allowing your veteran to level up in experience and skills. Interestingly, points earned in the field can be used to customize and populate various "talent trees". You may choose to become a skilled helicopter or fighter jet pilot, or improve your resiliency and usefulness on the battlefield. This element adds an interesting dynamic to the game, hopefully resulting in a wide and varied assortment of teammates skilled in a multitude of different areas. Hopefully this will go a long way in encouraging teamwork.
The game doesn't have the graphical prowess of its predecessors. Built upon a modified version of Battlefield 2's engine, EA are aiming to attract as many shooter fans as possible by keeping system requirements to a minimum. There are a few nice graphical effects here and there, and smoke does a great job at obscuring your view. Sound direction has always been a highlight of Battlefield, and Play4Free is no exception with its high-impact explosions, rifle shots and typically atmospheric environmental sounds.
It remains to be seen whether or not Play4Free captures the imagination of PC shooter fans. It has potential, but with the forthcoming release of Battlefield 3 it's possible that the majority will skip this stripped down version. For those looking for a shooter to tide them over, the game offers a familiar FPS experience without cost. It looks good, sounds great and inherits the intense multiplayer warfare seen in other iterations of the series. It's Battlefield at its most raw, only free.