Battlefield Play4Free is, hyper-confusingly, a Battlefield game - using Battlefield 2's most popular maps and Battlefield Bad Company 2's weapon and class set - you can play for free. Or 'four' free. Either way, you don't have to pay a cent, penny, or imaginary-monetary-stand-in-token for it. Note the stress on the 'have to' in that sentence. That's because Battlefield P4F (as I'll now be calling it and wincing slightly every time) is supported by everyone's favourite kind of transactions – microtransactions. EA's previous free to play shooter experiment – Battlefield Heroes – proved a financial success, even though only about 10% of the game's players actually bought anything. Here's a trailer.
Heroes provides the model for Battlefield P4F's marketplace. Small deviations had to be made in customisation – the serious, beige'n'gunmetal tone not quite tallying with Heroes luminous green legwarmers and smiley-face planes. Instead, more utilitarian cosmetic goodies are available, designed when purchased to make your soldier look less like a greenhorn and more like a badass. On a more useful note, new guns and items are available for small fees, but they're not monstrously more powerful than their free counterparts. The example given to me was for the assault class – dropping a few notes in the marketplace would unlock access to a semi-auto burst firing gun for the gamer who likes to engage from a longer distance than normal.
Classes still progress for the cheapskate player though. A character unlock system is nicked wholesale from Battlefield Bad Company 2, that game's four classes getting access to their usual weapons and bits of kit: expect the medic, for example, to gain access to magic healy-boxes and defibrilator pads after a few XP-garnering rounds
I got to play the game on Karkand – a map slimmed and toned a smidge since its previous inception as Strike at Karkand in Battlefield 2. The focus is quicker, dirtier scrapes. The tweaked map's shorter engagement distances reduced standoffish play, but cover and assailable high points gave enough tactical depth to reward teamwork. In short, it's Battlefield 2 that runs from a browser.
It even looks like Battlefield 2. The team rightfully talked up their engine as leading the pack among free to play games, but against the debris-strewen gorgeousness of Bad Company 2 and Medal of Honour's hazy multiplayer vistas, it's no beauty. But thirty seconds into my first round, that was no problem. I was back on the Battlefield, and it felt right.