As we watch a man with a wooden leg and skull facepaint fire a machinegun while sitting on the edge of a Spitfire wing, the producer of the Battlefield series, Ben Cousins, is talking finance. "We consider this a volume business," he says. The Spitfire rolls lazily onto its back. "We expect around 95% of players won't buy anything." The Spitfire flips up and over, heading toward a village lined with picket fences. "To improve that volume, to improve access, we've streamlined the client by near 50%. To play Battlefield: Heroes, you'll only have to download 250Mb."
Mr Facepaint starts waggling his arms like a chicken. "We see our open beta as our launch event. That's when the game becomes playable worldwide." A squat tank pitches up, takes aim, and fires a shell. It hits the Spitfire head-on. The Spitfire comes to a dead halt, like Wile E Coyote. The metal carcass of the plane crashes at the town crossroads, scattering debris. A jeep rolls up. Its driver, a GI with beard and bandolier, holds his sides, laughing. With a salute and a cheer, he drives on into the fray.
Battlefield: Heroes is simultaneously the silliest and smartest game coming to the PC. It's a combination of forward-thinking business with a proven design. And it's hilarious.
So, the mechanics. Battlefield: Heroes is a free download, to be made available to the world this autumn as an open beta. You'll arrive, create a character, and start shooting, all for free. There will be two maps, each of which will play as a cross between the traditional Battlefield conquest mode, and team deathmatch. Every kill reduces the number of lives for the enemy team. More lives and more kills are gained and lost by capturing control points dotted around the territory. Matches are short, violent and sweet: you should be able to fit two or three into your lunch hour.
Free? What's the catch? There isn't one. But if you really enjoy the game, you'll be able to buy new outfits for your chosen character. That takes them from the bog-standard WWII-inspired templates into a whole new world of lunacy. The National Army are a loosely Germanic team, but their outfits range from high-goth fashion to Lord of the Manor funk.
The Royal Army are a lighter, more down-to-earth bunch. They start as hardy American troopers, but can evolve into high-camp pirate catwalk. One worry: Heroes is a sausage-fest. There are no female character models. It also has the RPG mechanics and statistical tracking that developers DICE have been experimenting with since Battlefield 2. Kills (with every weapon), captures and time spent playing are all tracked, and contribute to experience points.
Experience points can then be spent on upgrades - special powers that provide tactical flexibility. They're mapped to the number keys, as in World of Warcraft, and include such things as extra-damage power-ups, a cloak, and being able to peer through concrete walls. DICE promise that nothing that provides an advantage in combat will ever be sold. This will be a level playing field.
Yet questions remain. Can launching with just two maps create the kind of long-term viability and massive audiences that a free game like this require? Can EA and DICE generate enough cash to pay for a team to provide Battlefield: Heroes with long-term support? Ben talks about how "95% of the playerbase will never pay for a thing." That requires hooking hundreds of thousands of players in the hope that just a few fork over a few quid. Can those numbers support a team of artists and level designers?
Such questions hang in the air as another Spitfire takes to the skies. The pilot waggles his wings, then dips his nose and flies just a few inches above the grass. Two National Army commandos are blazing up a hill, a suicide charge. They don't notice the plane bearing down on them from behind. The plane piloted by a man beating his chest like a gorilla.