Battlefield Play4Free: first impressions

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The newest addition to our beloved Battlefield franchise, Battlefield Play4Free was released yesterday. As its name so unsubtly informs, it marches under the oh-so-popular "free-mium" banner. This means you can play the game for absolutely free if you want to--but you always have the option to pay for better weapons or experience points if you'd rather not wait to earn it over time. I'm a big fan of the Battlefield franchise, so I poked my nose around the game the past two days to see if it lives up to its heritage.

Note: These are just my impressions from playing in the game for the first 24 hours. This is not a full review.

Let's get through the basics first. Battlefield Play4Free can best be described as Battlefield 2:The MMO Edition. It looks like BF2, plays like BF2 (capture points for victory) and uses the same maps as BF2 (such as Karkand), but it's got a whole lot of MMO elements tucked in there alongside it.

BFP4F draws heavily on EA's earlier free-to-play entrant in the franchise, Battlefield Heroes, for inspiration. When you first start, you're asked to choose a class for your character (assault, medic, engineer and recon). This is a more important choice than it is Bad Company 2, where you also level classes individually--in BCP4F, like an MMO, your class is permanently linked with your character, and you only get to create two characters before you're asked to pony up some dough. Think long and hard to make sure you really want to play Medic before you devote a slot to it (or just create dummy accounts to try all four before really deciding). Also like an MMO, you'll put talent points in certain trees whenever you level up. One such talent is the "ability to pilot a helicopter." It's disappointing to see the game that championed the concept of letting us control any vehicle at any time making us earn the privilege to pilot in-game vehicles.

Many of the abilities BF players take for granted are tucked away in talent trees. What to throw a grenade? Talent point. Want to hold more than one grenade? Place an additional talent point in the grenade talent slot. Want to know which direction you are taking fire from? Talent point. Want to go prone? Sorry, that isn't even in the game.

This shift from a shooter mentality to an MMO mentality is going to be a tough transition for gamers to make. What I loved about Battlefield games was their willingness to let me do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Now I have to earn the privilege to pilot a helicopter. It was a painful experience the first I ran towards a Blackhawk, was ported directly to the gunner seat and sat there trying to switch to the cockpit until my finger got sore from clicking before realizing that "I haven't trained this ability yet." I haven't raged that hard in a long time.

As for your equipment, your initial layout of weapons is the bare minimum. I chose the assault class and started with a MP5, 40 bullets, a 9mm pistol, ammo crates, a knife and a tracer dart. Its a very low-end kit, but, to its credit, the game does provide you with numerous weapons, gadgets and even clothing to customize your character's appearance and playstyle to some degree. Normally in a Battlefield game, I'd expect to obtain these new weapons by earning experience, and you sort of can in BFP4F, but the more viable, if less appetizing route is to pay good ol' hard cash.

Equipment can be purchased with either Credits or BattleFunds: the former earned by playing matches and the latter by laying down a credit card. After some quick calculations, I found that 100 BattleFunds will cost you about $1.40.

100 BattleFunds may sound like a lot, but here's the catch: unless you buy the "lifetime-use" versions of the items (which cost around $7.85 each), anything you buy will only last you a maximum of thirty days. A lot of gamers are finding the microtransaction model tough to swallow, and granting temporary items for permanent real money investment isn't going to win the business model any new friends. Most players will only feel justified investing in permanent items, but those come at a steep price.

It's not all bad, though: if you play the game fairly regularly, you should easily be able to earn enough Credits to afford continually renting the layout that you want. And that's really what EA wants from you: they don't exclusively want your wallet, they want you to keep playing their game. And if you put in the time, they're willing to make sure you can keep they layout you want, for absolutely no monetary cost to you.

The gameplay is solid, with one major exception: because you your class is locked on your character, no one is able to swap classes during a match. If your entire team decided to play as sniper, then you're all stuck on a sniper-only team until the other, more balanced team mercy-kills you. Its a horrific flaw that needs to be changed ASAP. And since you cannot choose which server to play on (it's all based on automatic matchmaking), you cannot see what your team chose before the match.

Gripes aside, it's important to remember that this is a full-featured Battlefield game that is absolutely free to play. I can complain all I want that it isn't perfect, but I didn't have to spend a cent to play this. Considering everything that's offered in BFP4F, it's an incredible deal. I may not personally like the talent tree design (and I imagine quite a few shooter-purists will feel the same) but I have to admit that it does dangle a lot of enticing carrots in front of me. Plus, what really matter is that--as long as I keep playing and earning Credits--I can keep my super powerful assault rifle.

You can play Battlefield Play4Free here .