A game that does its best. At least, I believe it’s doing its best.
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Visceral Games
Format: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Released: March 17, 2015
Battlefield Hardline has my sympathy. Last generation’s military shooters are desperate to differentiate themselves, to move away from the formula that made them their money but has grown tremendously stale. Call of Duty has bolstered its militaristic fantasies with a steady increase of science fiction, while most other first-person shooters have looked to other periods of history to keep the gravy train rolling. Battlefield, perhaps the last holdout of the classic army scenario, decided to finally stand out with some hyper-violent urban policing.
Then 2014 happened, and all its associated stories of real-life police violence.
Visceral Games has been left in an unenviable position – it was too late to alter the game’s premise altogether, but every move made could run the risk of appearing tasteless. The resulting marketing spin wasn’t subtle, but it helped – Hardline became an homage to classic cop shows like Miami Vice, its presentation mimicking prime time television and featuring its own bevy of recognizable actors. A story of dirty cops and dramatic drug busts has been quite effective in deflecting any potential accusations of glorification or attempting to cash in on recent tragedies. To its credit, the latest Battlefield has been able to impressively avoid any portrayals that could be reasonably deemed offensive.
That is, however, part of the problem.
See, Battlefield Hardline treads a fine line and appears terrified of stumbling from it. It wants to remain gritty and realistic, but it needs some cheesy narm in order to keep up the appearance of a “cop show tribute.” The result is a game that struggles to let itself off the leash, taking itself way too seriously most of the time to the point where its wonderful moments of crazy energetic action only serve to highlight how dour the rest of the experience is.
Hardline‘s solo campaign could easily have begun at its halfway point. The first act of the game is unbearably dull, as officer Nick Mendoza sifts his way through cocaine shenanigans and police corruption, running into every lame trope along the way. If you’ve seen any movie or TV program about cops, you can probably predict how Nick’s entire story goes. Those people who he thought were corrupt but turned out okay? Of course it was a double bluff. The smarmy officer who plays loose with the rules? He may as well wear a T-shirt that reads, “I love working with the bad guys.” Do you think there’ll be a moment where the villain offers our hero a place in his empire? If anybody’s taking bets, you should put your life savings down!
Even the second half is loaded with narrative dead horses, but it’s at least far more amusing. Once Mendoza uncovers the main thrust of the plot and starts kicking ass across America, Visceral takes the gloves off and finally provides a load of genuinely delightful setpieces and a couple of wild rides. Over-the-top car chases, intense infiltrations, they even find an excuse to throw a tank battle in. It’s shocking how different the campaign’s two halves are, and it makes me wish it could have been consistently like the second act.
As opposed to previous Battlefield games, there’s a big emphasis on reducing the lethality of engagements. Hardline takes several huge cues from Ubisoft’s Far Cry franchise, as Nick uses a scanner to tag enemies or find evidence, has multiple options for dealing with most situations, and is encouraged to be stealthy whenever possible. Mendoza can arrest his enemies by getting close, pointing a gun at them, and approaching carefully rather than shooting them, which is the only way to take mooks out quietly and offers the most rewards – chiefly “Expert” points that unlock new gear. It’s a neat little twist, but a lot of levels seem blatantly designed to allow the player to crouch-walk through the whole area effortlessly arresting everybody, and such instances often devolve into boring busy work more than thrilling stealth.
The arrest mechanic is also somewhat unreliable, as both melee attacks and arrests are listed as “Takedowns”, activated by the same button press. Sometimes, the game fails to register that you’ve got an enemy with his hands up ready for the cuffs, and Nick instead swings his baton at them, alerting nearby enemies. I’ve managed to have several stealthy runs blown for me thanks to this – a doubly annoying situation since some enemies are flagged as high profile, and failing to arrest them is a loss of extra Expert points.
Luckily, Expert ranks are far from crucial, since while the extra gear is nice, any firearms that will naturally unlock through progress are plenty capable. More violent players can always opt to go in guns blazing, and here you’ll find the game is distinctly Battlefield, with single-player firefights consisting of methodical pop-and-fire tactics. It’s hard to drum up much to say about the combat, in all honesty, since it’s truly nothing spectacular and certainly isn’t bad. It is what it is – Battlefield with the thin aesthetic of police work.
The same can be said for its multiplayer – as always the star of the show. Yes, everything is made to look different from DICE’s prior work, but it’s still the same game it ever was. Multiplayer matches have been retooled to pit cops and crminals against each other, with game types like Blood Money and Heist revolving around stealing cash and/or escaping with the loot. Hotwire takes traditional Conquest mode and turns the control points into vehicles, adding some inner-city car chases to the usual base-capturing mix. Meanwhile Rescue and Crosshair revolve around the cops saving hostages and the criminals assassinating a VIP informant, respectively.
The twists are neat, but they all feel like shallow tweaks to competitive FPS game modes that have existed since the beginning of time. This is no Payday – there are no elaborate missions in which the villainous players have to plan and execute a huge robbery while the police work together to stop them. You’re capturing flags, controlling territories, and shooting each other. You just do it with some red-and-blue lights and edgy bass guitar setting the mood. At the very least, vehicles are more suitable for the situation – sedans and bikes as opposed to jeeps and tanks.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the multiplayer is the fact that, despite Visceral clearly trying to provide new experiences within a familiar framework, an exploration of the multiplayer servers shows a distinct lack of interest. By far – by far – the most popular game type is classic Conquest mode, and most of the modes aiming for a different feel have been left standing by the wayside.
One wonders if recent attempts by FPS games to change their spots is even worth it, since apparently the online audience doesn’t care. It makes me question if Hardline, in fact, should have simply been its own game, free of the Battlefield shackles. I can’t help believing that, if Visceral had not had to retain so much of DICE’s groundwork, we could have had a more consistently exciting campaign, and a multiplayer mode that brought genuine originality as opposed to ankle-deep changes. Of course, that’s pure speculation on my part, and it’s better we simply judge Battlefield Hardline for what it is.
So what is it? It’s… Battlefield. That’s not a bad thing, as Electronic Arts’ premiere shooter has actually managed to retain at least some sense of freshness over the increasingly stale Call of Duty series, and the new atmosphere may run on pure aesthetic, but it at least adds a sorely needed pinch of flavor to the usual gun ’em down proceedings.
And hey, unlike Battlefield 4, at least Hardline launched in a playable state. So far I’ve had no issues with matchmaking, and aside from one game providing a significant dose of lag, most of my time has been stable. This isn’t to say the whole package is bug-free – there are a number of notable physics glitches throughout, as well as textures that fail to load correctly, but most of the errors lie in the graphical rather than anything that severely hampers gameplay. As far as the visuals go, am I the only one unimpressed with how the whole thing looks? Maybe I just expect Battlefield games to blow me away now, but visually this one looks, if not dated, at least somewhat upscaled.
Could just be me, though.
Battlefield Hardline had a tough job to do – it needed to be a game about cops without putting its foot in its mouth, and it needed to refresh the Battlefield series without changing anything recognizably Battlefield. Sadly, this has led to a game that just can’t win. It tempers its bombast with overt sobriety, tries to balance the familiar with the new and ends up paying lip service to the latter, never allowing itself to go all the way with any one element.
However, it does do its absolute best, and in trying still manages to be a fairly enjoyable, if somewhat frustrated, production. At the very least, it’s “more Battlefield“, which is by no means a bad thing – yet – and at its highest points, it’s a bit of silly, Vice-inspired fun. I do not think the world will care to remember Hardline very much in future, but for what it is, it’s a good effort to be more than another disposable shooter, even if that’s all it really is at its core.