The free to play model should more accurately be called ‘free to play – but costly to play in full.’ Don’t ever be fooled by the promise of a free point of entry. The companies behind these titles need an income. Without one, the game will fold. Any title hoping to find success with this model will, inevitably, have to use subtle pressure to get players to spend money. This pressure will either focus on a broad portion of the playerbase, encouraging them to spend a small amount each, or it will try to convince a tiny portion to spend much higher amounts.
Battlefield Play4Free seems to be aiming for the former model.
The main virtual coin in this game is the ‘battlefund’ and, as is often the case, you’ll get more battlefunds for your dollar if you buy a more expensive package. Spend $50.00 USD and you’ll get 175 battlefunds per dollar, spend $5.00 and you’ll only get 140. That’s an average rate of around 158 for each dollar spent. There are also silver coins, earned through in-game performance. These can be spent on obtaining better weapons and fancy helmets too, but only give you the gear for a limited period of time (either one or three days.) In theory, this means you could play well enough to perpetually rent a desired gun. In practice, I think this is unlikely. The biggest silver coin boosts come from levelling up (500,) which is something that stagnates after the first few levels.
For the purposes of this hands-on playtest, EA gave me code to redeem for 7,000 battlefunds (around $45.00-worth.) I spent around 2,500 on my first soldier (an Engineer) before running out of things I really wanted or need. My pretend-o-cash got me a much improved submachine gun and pistol, plus some purely cosmetic headgear and jacket options. At my averaged rate of 158 battlefunds per dollar, that’s about $16.00 to deck a guy out. If you wanted to just buy superior guns (as I did for my second chap, in the Assault class,) it’d cost you around $8.00. Except, of course, the smallest division of battlefunds costs $5.00, so you’d have to spend $10.00.
It is possible to play the game completely for free, but here’s what you’re limited to: playing with just one soldier (because the mere act of switching between the two free soldier slots costs 300 battlefunds/$2.00); using default weapons (these do the job, but are obviously worse than any of the ones available for purchase); and looking like an average spod (not really a big deal.)
Keep in mind, too, that there don’t seem to be any currency distinctions in place, so one dollar/one British pound/one Euro will get you the same 158(ish) battlefunds. This makes the gear a lot more expensive for non-Americans, without any real justification.
At least everyone gets access to all of the maps on offer. At present, there are just three of these (Sharqi Peninsula, Gulf of Oman, and Strike At Karkand) so they become repetitive rather quickly. I promise you, before you know it you’ll be letting out a weary sigh when Oman pops up again. Especially if you’re already familiar with these locations from Battlefield 2. More maps have been promised and the latest trailer for the game shows a couple of different ones being used, so hopefully they’ll be added soon. The one game mode on offer on all of these maps is Assault, where two teams fight over multiple tactical ‘flags’ on the battlefield. Points are gained per second for held flags and the first team to 1,000 points carries the day.
In-game, the action is much like a tweaked version of Battlefield 2. Assault, Medic, Recon and Engineer classes are all available as selections, each with access to a selection of purchasable weapons (assault rifles for Assault, submachine guns for Engineers) and with primary battlefield roles. Engineers need to blow up tagged vehicles like tanks and jeeps with their rockets, while Medics are tasked with dumping medipacks in handy places for their team to use. Class-specific tasks result in experience points being earned, and everybody gets experience for general actions like killing enemy soldiers or capturing flags.
For a free, team-based FPS Battlefield Play4Free is familiar enough to get into, runs relatively well and can provide classic Battlefield thrills if you can tolerate the odd player whining about “hax” or his team sucking. It’s still a blast to cruise around the place in a dune buggy, and it’s still hilarious to watch someone trying to pilot a helicopter upside down. As long as you don’t want to get too involved, the base game is fun and pretty casual.
But the nagging doubt remains that you’re never going to be on an even playing field. Team-based FPS titles already ditched equality when they introduced RPG-style levelling systems, but allowing people to buy their way to a competitive advantage (as will be possible in Battlefield Play4Free when experience point ‘Boosters’ become available to purchase again) will be an imbalance too far for some. It’s already a little annoying to run into players who have advantages because they’ve been playing the game forever, but it can be maddening when you’re not even sure whether the foe who just shot you earned his privileges or just bought them.
After a while you might get a little tired of being the cannon fodder guy who’s there to improve the stats of the higher-level players. Not that it’s impossible to kill above your station, but those underdog victories tend to be overshadowed by guys swivelling around to headshot you with a pistol from 150m away. You see, certain skills make enemy player tags pop up on screen quicker and allow you to identify soldiers at greater distances; both extremely advantageous abilities. Others let you do things like carry more (or, to begin with, any) grenades and, most ridiculous of all, fly choppers and aircraft. Yes, you can’t even play with the full selection of vehicles until you spend some precious levelling up points.
Of course, this is exactly the position EA want to put you in – feeling as if you need to spend some cash to really enjoy the game.
In a recent interview with RockPaperShotgun, Ben Cousins (head of EA Easy during Battlefield Play4Free’s development) remarked that he felt it was unfair to place all of a game’s content behind a $60 barrier. I’m sympathetic to that point, and definitely see the value in a kind of ‘try before you buy’ model. However, it seems more insidious to dangle potential add-ons in front of people via in-game adverts (these appear on the pre-match upgrade/supply screen) and constantly remind ‘free’ or even frugal players of their inferiority through the advantages given to those who’ve paid. Some of the penny-pinching here is just outrageous. I bought Hitman: Blood Money from Steam a month or so back for $3, so why on earth would I spend a similar amount here for the right to toggle which guy I’m using in matches? There’s no excuse for that charge.
Outside of the problems introduced by a free to play model, the game has a few more regular issues to iron out. At the time of writing there are no server lists or options to look for a game on a certain map, just a big ‘Play Now’ lucky dip button. A lack of a toggle option for crouching gets to be hell on the pinky finger after a while, and I’ve noticed some periodic mouse stutter that seems unconnected to lag which can make aiming tough at the worst possible times. Also missing is a way to quickly leave the end of match summary screen and pop back to the training/weapon equip menu. This means you either have to wait for the next map to load before quitting out, or just close the entire browser window and reopen the game.
While we’re at it, it seems mysterious that the game links to a browser window in the first place. The majority of the files (maybe even all of them) are downloaded when you first start the game and are held offline.
At its heart, Battlefield Play4Free is a slightly modified version of Battlefield 2 with a couple of bugs, a modern levelling system and (at present) not nearly enough maps. The bugs and lack of maps will likely be solved with time, but what is unlikely to pass is the sense that this would be a far better, more balanced game if all players (rich and poor) had access to exactly the same equipment. There’s an ever-present pressure to spend a little money; a subtle whisper in your ear which says “you’d be playing better if you spent a little cash, go on, spend some money” and however you try to frame it this is pretty intrusive and unpleasant. Battlefield Play4Free is not shaping up to be a bad game at all; it’ll be a decent, retro-inspired one housed inside a rotten model.
Battlefield Play4Free is in so you’re able to sign up and try it for yourself. Just have someone hide your wallet first.