Battlefield Hardline Review: Cops, Robbers & Total Mayhem
Words: Josh West
Hardline is at its best when it isn’t being forced to fit inside the decaying Battlefield structure. As a franchise, Battlefield has happily sacrificed any hint of humility or poignancy in favour of roller-coasting you through ludicrous firefights and QTE driven set pieces. It’s grown tiresome, which EA has clearly recognised as Hardline represents something of a shift in priorities for the flagship shooter.
This is the first major Battlefield game to be developed outside of DICE, which has subsequently dropped a metric-shit ton of pressure on the shoulders of Dead Space developers Visceral Games. Not only to deliver a competent multiplayer experience following the Battlefield 4 fiasco, but to ensure that Battlefield’s single-player campaign is no longer considered worst-in-class. Visceral has essentially been locked in a war of attrition versus consumer and publisher expectation, so what chance did Hardline really have?
That isn’t to say, however, the Visceral hasn’t managed to impart some identity onto Hardline, even if it is fleeting. Stripping Battlefield of its baggy modern warfare camouflage and in giving it an attractive cops versus criminals makeover, Visceral has successfully delivered an FPS that can competently askew its heritage, all the while threatening to break new ground entirely. To be clear, Hardline’s multiplayer – the beating heart of the Battlefield franchise – is a marked improvement over last year’s iteration, though it doesn’t feel like it has been the total focus of Visceral’s debut effort.
For better or worse, Battlefield finally has a campaign worth talking about. It’s a crazy American coast-to-coast round trip that places you in the role of a Miami vice detective, Nick Mendoza, as he attempts to stamp out dirty cops and the spread of highly addictive liquidised cocaine across the country. It’s got all the hallmarks of a Battlefield campaign of course; it’s still an FPS that places as much emphasis on destructible environments, deft positioning and attention-to-headshot-detail as much as it does anything else. But a handful of new mechanics give way to a fresh experience, and one that the triple-A shooters of this generation have thus far struggled to successfully nail down.
Visceral has worked fairly robust stealth mechanics into Hardline as — wait, what? Enemies have clear vision cones on the mini-map, there’s a meter to highlight your visibility and it’s wholly possible to make your way through the campaign (the first half at least) without so much as reloading your weapon as non-lethal takedowns assault the Battlefield formula. This can be as simple as using a Taser to take down an unsuspecting perp or, more interestingly, in the form of an arrest mechanic. Getting the drop on enemies gives you the opportunity to point your badge – or the finger of authority, as the latter half of the game demonstrates – and force enemies to drop their weapons and await detainment. It’s surprisingly robust, forcing you to act swiftly to cuff enemies before they make a move for the weapon or alert their criminal buddies standing within earshot.
This isn’t mere filler either; on the Veteran and Hardline difficulties it’s about the only way to progress through levels without being riddled with bullets. It becomes especially intense when attempting to disarm multiple perps, where you’ll need to train your weapon between multiple enemies at a time or risk them going cop-killer on your ass. There’s also special targets peppered through all ten of the campaign levels with active warrants out on them; successfully identifying and arresting them will gift you ‘Expert Points’, which will eventually unlock new gear to use in the campaign and Battle Packs for the multiplayer experience.
It’s fun, it’s fresh and, about four hours into the eight-hour campaign, we’d scribbled down notes suggesting that never had such a little ammunition been expended in a Battlefield game – which is certainly a welcomed change of pace. At its most basic, stealth introduces a new layer of tactical depth to the series whilst simultaneously proving that navigating layered, open-spaces in first-person doesn’t have to be defined by bombastic Michael Bay insanity.
Sadly, all of this fantastic work is undermined once you make the leap from cop to criminal. That’s when it begins to feel like Battlefield is torn between its new intentions and old obligations. It’s the moment where Hardline jumps the Battlefield-branded shark, giving a distinct impression that EA waded in and asked just what the hell was going on with this funky, fresh interpretation of its flagship franchise. From then onwards Hardline’s all about QTE battles with crocodiles, blissfully gunning down every criminal in sight and a god-damned, honest to god, boss battle in a tank. Visceral, you were this close. This close.
It’s also worth noting that Visceral’s attempt to present Hardline as a TV series – with each game chapter acting as an episode – doesn’t quite come off as intended. Should Hardline have launched ahead of Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the cast of D-list actors might have bought an impressive Hollywood shine to the production. The dialogue is cheesy and poorly written for the most part, the lip-syncing is way out, and the story has about as much depth as Bad Boys – only it’s lacking Will Smith in the lead and most of the execution. The campaign is certainly the best we’ve had from a Battlefield since 2010’s Bad Company 2, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Visceral could have delivered something truly special were it not shackled to the Battlefield franchise and given the opportunity to roll with a new IP entirely.
There was a worry that Visceral wouldn’t be capable of bringing the strategic battles, massive scale and heart-in-throat action of Battlefield’s multiplayer to an all new setting, but that fear is alleviated once you gun down your first opponent online. Visceral set out to make Hardline the fastest Battlefield game ever, and it has achieved that to great effect. That isn’t to say it’s now wholly based on twitchy gun-play like its biggest competitor, as positioning and team-work still wins the day, but battles seem to come thicker and faster than before and it’s exhilarating – for the most part, at least.
The truth is, as hard as it is to hear, that Hardline’s multiplayer works best when it isn’t trying to be Battlefield and instead accepts itself as the spin off that it really is. The smaller maps and more considered new game modes offer some great moments, especially if you can rustle a full squad of friends together. But once you back away from the smaller maps – those with a strong emphasis on moving through buildings and cover – and onto the larger flatland areas – for large-scale Conquest, TDM and Heist – that it crumbles. These modes are far too anarchic to be consistently fun, while the intention for faster combat means you’re often spawning into death-zones, caught in a seemingly infinite loop of revival and execution. That’s best-case scenario; some maps offer such a dizzying lack of cover that they’ve quickly become a sniper’s paradise. Perfect for those that land on camping being a legitimate strategy, but a total nightmare for everyone else.
Blood Money, which tasks two teams with raiding small vaults for cash while attempting to defend their own; Rescue, in which you escort and protect a VIP; and Crossfire, tight five versus five assaults with no respawns, work excellently, not to mention appropriately plugging the gap in our hearts for truly intense tactical play until Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege lands. It’s these new game modes where everything comes together, where you see the insanely well-designed maps for what they are, where Visceral’s cops versus criminals theme falls into place, but it feels hollow everywhere else. That isn’t to say the likes of Conquest and TDM aren’t still fun, because they are, but there’s a distinct aura of ‘been there, shot that’ about them.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that Battlefield still hasn’t settled into the yearly release schedule rhythm appropriately. The last three main Battlefield releases have all delivered major improvements and expansions to the core formula. Squads in Bad Company 2, the 64-player battles of Battlefield 3 and the huge scale and Levolutions Battlefield 4 delivered. Battlefield Hardline is instead content with being purely iterative, on all fronts, while occasionally threatening to break out of its shell and impress with Visceral’s trademark brand of boldness and originality.