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BFBC2: Vietnam and BF: Play4Free

Two's Company

The Battlefield series continues to splinter across several fronts. While the patient wait for Battlefield 3 continues, the past week has seen the announcement of two important moves for DICE's expansive shooter franchise.

First is the unveiling of Battlefield Play4Free, an online-only PC title to sit alongside the free-to-play Battlefield Heroes. The second is the announcement that with a collective 9 million sales under its belt, the Bad Company offshoot is now considered a stand-alone franchise in it's own right.

EA's recent Winter Showcase highlighted both these moves, with Free4Play and the sizable Bad Company 2 Vietnam expansion present and playable. I spent a little time with each. Here's my field report.

First up, Battlefield Bad Company 2's new expansion, Vietnam. Swapping globetrotting present day combat for a tour of duty in the best soundtracked war ever, Vietnam features a chunky offering of content. In total your 1200MP, or equivalent, gets you four maps, six new vehicles and 15 new weapons, plus a sprinkling of licensed 60's tracks for the in-game radio.

Vietnam sticks to the familiar class options of Assault, Medic, Engineer and Recon. However, the weapon loadouts are now vastly different. Out go the red-dot laser sights of modern weaponry, replaced instead with iron-sighted M16s, M21 sniper rifles and some rickety old AK-47s. There's a definite period of adjustment needed for this low-fi swap-out. Modern aiming guides have clearly spoilt us.

The headline addition, however, is the flamethrower. Much lusted after, yet rarely implemented well, flamethrowers are a notoriously difficult thing to get right in FPSs. In Vietnam they are slow to kill and useless at distance, leaving you painfully exposed in open parts of the map. But they are also deadly up close and have a wide range, torching everything in sight, sparking fires on grass and huts.

Which brings us to the maps. My hands-on was with a horrifically beautiful map called Hill 37. Throwing you into a recently napalmed Vietcong encampment, it's alive with fire. The ground itself smolders and trees and huts are ablaze across the skyline. Riddled with makeshift tunnels it also forces you beneath ground for close quarters combat.

The other map on show was Vantage Point, featuring a mix of wide-open spaces spotted with the tight arenas of a humble fishing village and an American army base.

What Vietnam offers is an interesting diversion from the bog-standard map packs so beloved by console FPSs, a complete facelift stretched over the solid multiplayer framework provided by B:BC2. Launching later this year with 10 new trophies and achievements, it promises to be a robust and engaging expansion.

Meanwhile, approaching online multiplayer shooting from an entirely different angle is Play4Free. Joining Heroes in the free-to-play FPS market, it's a kind of best-of blend of some classic Battlefield ideas.

Aesthetically, it's about as far removed from Heroes as you could imagine, swapping bright colours, jutting jaws and top hats for the gritty, washed out warfare of more straight-faced contemporary shooters. And while it lacks the graphical fidelity of its current console counterparts, it looks pretty damn impressive for a free online game, sporting colour-grading, depth of field and film-grain effects to good purpose.

The launch map is a re-purposed version of Battlefield 2's Strike at Karkand. Named simply Karkand it squashes the original environment down a touch to create what DICE are hoping will be tighter, more fast-paced combat.

Though the vaguely brownish yellow, non-descript Middle-Eastern setting won't win any awards for groundbreaking visual design, vast swathes of casual FPS fans will ultimately see this as a free-to-play Modern Warfare. It's attracting that kind of crowd that will prove indispensable to the game's long-term survival. A necessary evil, perhaps.

Choosing again from the four classes of Assault, Recon, Medic and Engineer, your load-outs and weapon models are borrowed from Bad Company 2, while the progressive levelling system follows that of a real soldier up through the ranks.

The as-yet unnamed game mode on show tasked teams of 16 players with capturing a series of flags, similar to Conquest. Holding them for long enough earns your squad points until the target level is reached and victory is secured.

Because Battlefield Play4Free does away with subscriptions, it is designed to survive on micro-transactions. However, mindful that most players don't really want to spend anything, the paid for content is not intended to skew the game's balance. Instead, you have the option of handing over cash for largely cosmetic stuff, like clothes and rebalanced guns.

Not all of the character and weapon levelling is reserved for micro-transactions, however. Play4Free features a levelling system that allows you to develop both your character's equipment and physical abilities. You can gain access to new weapons and gadgets, as well as increasing the damage you can withstand or the speed at which you move around the environments.

Finding the balance between paid for and free content, while providing the very best game experience is no easy task. But if Heroes model adapted here is anything to go by, EA know exactly what they are doing. 6 million users can attest to that. Play4Free could be even bigger.

So between Battlefield Play4Free, Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam and the upcoming (one day, hopefully) Battlefield 3, DICE's flagship brand has never been in such rude health. I like what I've seen so far. But you'll be able to make your own minds up very soon. Vietnam carries an imminent yet slightly vague, Christmas 2010 release date, while the Play4Free beta is currently signing up applicants in preparation for launch on 30th November. See you there.

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