God damn it, Battlefield, you’re out of line! You’re out there smashing up the city and I’ve got the Mayor on my arse demanding your head on a platter! Don’t even get me started on the tank. I ought to take your badge and gun, but compared to the Battlefield 4 campaign, you’re the best we’ve got. Now get out of my office before I change my mind!
Battlefield: Hardline marks the first major departure in the franchise from a military setting and the best attempt since the Bad Company series to have a half-decent single player campaign. At first glance – and Beta test glance – you would be forgiven for thinking Hardline was a well-made mod rather than a full stand-alone game, but once you scratch the surface its own style and personality starts to shine through. The cop drama setting has a lot of potential by dispensing with the geopolitical melodrama of previous games, and opening more gameplay opportunities aside from “shoot everything that moves.” With Dead Space developers Visceral Games in charge it’s obvious Hardline is meant to be a sincere attempt at finally creating a solid campaign, but in reality it’s the multiplayer side that truly needs to win over the Battlefield vets.
Visceral takes the cop-show genre by the horns and turned Hardline into a serialised drama, complete with “Next-time/previously on Hardline” vignettes each time you start or quit the game. It’s modelled on modern police show tropes such as Law & Order or the wire with chapters called “Episodes”, but one can’t help but hope there’s a 70’s themed piece of DLC on the way. The story itself is a somewhat predictable tale of a good cop caught in a web of corruption where nothing’s as it seems – although it’s unlikely any plot twists will take you by surprise.
Set in Miami (ever the hive of scum and villainy if there ever was one), main protagonist Officer Nick Mendoza is a fresh-faced Vice detective who’s thrown head-first into a growing drug war sparked by an influx of drugs into the city. Mendoza quickly learns where there’s money there’s dirty cops, and before he could say “curse this sudden and unexpected betrayal,” he is betrayed and framed. His journey of revenge-justice sends him across the country arresting baddies as he goes – regardless of whether he’s still a cop – and uncovering a wide-spread conspiracy. The supporting characters are a little cliché (then again so is the story), but they do a good job in helping tell the story even if there isn’t a whole lot of chemistry going on. The telling of the story, however, is where things get a bit shaky.
Storytelling in a fast-paced FPS is always going to be limited, especially when it comes to character development, and really shows in Hardline. Mendoza’s backstory (his Dad is an arsehole) is constantly and clumsily prompted by the supporting cast, yet he never seems too interested in their stories. On the upside it means you’re flung into the action quickly rather than sitting through mountains of exposition. Overall, the campaign is OK. The story is coherent and has the right amount of cheese for a cop drama, but it’s not the earth-shaker Visceral was aiming for.
Given Hardline’s civilian setting, certain things had to change in the Battlefield formula seeing as police technically aren’t allowed to mow down suspected criminals in the street (unless you’re Judge Dredd of course). Mendoza has the ability to flash his badge at enemies to make them drop their weapons and be arrested, which is a key element of the game’s stealth mechanics. That’s right, stealth! Most missions revolve around sneaking through compounds to find clues or evidence, but you’re still free to tackle most levels however you like. Hardline doesn’t punish police brutality and it doesn’t reward the player either – experience points, certain items and upgrades can only be earned by taking down enemies non-lethally. On top of Hardline’s overarching plot there’s also small cases that feed into the story that require collecting evidence over a number of Episodes. Certain crooks will be highlighted as wanted by the police and reap extra rewards for arresting, and more importantly they occasionally hold clues to the case files. It’s a stealth system that works well, but it’s awfully repetitive. The hold-up mechanic is a bit on the ridiculous side as heavily armed thugs obligingly throw down their weapons when confronted, even when Mendoza is outnumbered and loses his badge. I guess they just really, really respect the law.
Aside from that, Hardline plays like a Battlefield game – just with less shooting. Most maps offer multiple approaches depending on your playstyle and equipment loadout. Crooks work a lot like Metal Gear Solid enemies in that they have a cone of vision in the radar, react to sounds (or bullet casings that can be thrown) and will set off alarms if you’re spotted. It’s all a bit basic and the enemies are pretty dumb and slow to react, so it’s pretty easy to cheese the AI which pulls you out of the experience. Grappling-hooks and zip-lines provide new angles of attack, while tasers make quietly taking down enemies at a distance easy. However, unless your playstyle is run-and-gun you might find most of the guns and equipment to be lost on you.
Individually the separate elements of Hardline are solid, but as a whole the experience comes across as average. As the game progresses there’s no real change in gameplay aside from a few set-pieces, and for those taking the stealth route things become repetitive and stale fairly quickly. It’s as if it needs more shooting sections to break up the game, or at least some more gameplay features to mix up the action. There’s only so much creeping and badge flashing you can do before it gets boring. The optional Case Files are a fun diversion that moulds into gameplay and may even encourage a second playthrough for any missed pieces of evidence or to arrest any of the wanted criminals. Mendoza has a special PDA thing that has the magical ability to highlight enemies (and show their criminal record), points of interest and evidence. It feels like he’s gotten hold of some NSA spy device from the future, which is a bit disconcerting, but it’s at least an attempt to ground Mendoza’s super detective powers in reality.
When a stealth in a game is good; you know it. The feeling of outfoxing the enemy and completing the objectives completely undetected feels more rewarding than simply crushing your foes under withering gunfire. The feeling is lessened however, when the enemy is comprised of authority fearing half-wits lacking any sort of peripheral vision. They respond if you’re seen arresting one of their buddies, but they can’t hear the guy five meters away giving you backchat as he’s cuffed. Sure, it works from a gameplay point-of-view but it looks so ridiculous that any sort of immersion that was being felt instantly dissipates.
The last few Battlefield games have been visually stunning games and Hardline is no exception. There’s fewer set-piece moments than previous games, but the Miami setting allows for some gorgeous visuals. An early section shows a heap of promise as Mendoza and his partner Khai drive through rough Miami streets showing off a vibrant, living city. Unfortunately the rest of the game is set in uninhabited or abandoned areas, while still pretty, but lacking the same vibrancy. Rain and water effects look great, especially in the hurricane sequence, and the sets are loaded with detail. If anything, the folks at Battlefield HQ know how to create incredible looking interiors and houses you’d kill to own. The little details are great in making otherwise dull warehouses or houses feel real, or unreal in the case of the LA mansion Mendoza and Co raid. Character models are detailed and believable, even if they descend into uncanny valley, and the acting and cut-scenes are a little stale but they look pretty great. The “levolution” feature from BF4 is missing this time around, although it does make sense that the amount of destruction in a cop story would be significantly less than a war.
With multiplayer as the marquee of the Battlefield series Hardline has a lot of work to do to convince a dedicated player-base to move out of familiarity. The setting itself seems a bit absurd: all-out gun battles in the middle of a city over bank robberies, car thefts and other crimes – a bit excessive no? That’s video games for you I suppose. Anyway, Hardline makes a few changes to the formula we’re used to in terms of gameplay and the progression system, plus a few new game modes to mix things up. Rather than experience, you now earn cash that is used to purchase unlocks – some of which require certain criteria met to be unlocked. Some weapons are faction specific and each class (Operator, Mechanic, Enforcer and specialist) has a tighter range of weapon types available compared to BF3 and 4. Hardline has far fewer weapons to unlock, which could end up being a problem in terms of the game’s longevity. Hardline makes up for a lack of military vehicles by including upgrades to cars such as extra armour or a stash of RPGs in the boot – the only place they’re available.
Classic game modes like Conquest (and Conquest Large) and Deathmatch are back along with a bunch of new ones to keep things interesting. Blood Money involves taking money from money piles and taking it back to your own stash, which can also be raided by the opposition. In Heist the criminals have to break open two safes and transport bags across the map to getaway helicopters while the police defend and attempt to return the bags. Hot Wire is a surprisingly fun mode where cars dotted around the map act as conquest-like objectives that deplete the enemies tickets when driven at high speed. Counter Strike gets a big nod with the Rescue and Crosshair modes that are basically straight copies of Hostage and VIP modes, which also gives players one life per round. While Battlefield has always been about large battles, these high-stakes 5v5 matches are incredibly fun and competitive.
Maps are decent sized but nowhere near as expansive as the last two outings, unsurprising given the lack of tanks and jets available to your average cop or crim. They vary from city streets, a Bank, train yards to swamps and seem to have a good balance. Gameplay is all about frantic gun-fights and constant action. It’s fun, hectic, and so much better on Hardcore servers – the mini-map really is your enemy. Shotguns are incredibly fun when battling in close quarters and automatic weapons are dependable and weighty as always, while zip-lines can be used to create new vantage points and paths around maps. Fan of infantry heavy maps on previous games could definitely find a home here with Hardline and certain game-modes demand teamwork which will definitely appeal to some. Overall multiplayer is solid and fun, but for existing Battlefield players they might find it lacking.
Once again there will be four expansion packs released throughout the year with more maps, modes, guns and features – a situation which I think will kill off Hardline’s playerbase. There has been player segmentation issues in the past with the Premium passes, and if Hardline struggles to build its playerbase from the start there’s a good chance no one will be around to see how the final DLC goes. The base game should have been loaded with content to start with to win over the already sceptical fans who already have two other fully fledged Battlefield games to go back to. End Rant.
Note: At time of reviewing there wasn’t an overabundance of populated servers, which is a worry. I could only find one Hardcore Rescue server with players, and at times choosing the Quick Match option would send me to empty servers for other game modes. I didn’t come across any game-breaking bugs or obvious netcode glitches during my time with multiplayer.
Battlefield: Hardline has the unfortunate position of being the younger sibling that has to live up the lofty standards set by its older siblings, while also straying away from the family business of full-scale war. Tough break, kid. Visceral Games did a commendable job in presenting the best Battlefield campaign to date – even if that isn’t really saying much – and for reminding us that cop drama clichés never get old. The new gameplay concepts for the series are hit and miss and could have been better refined, but at least we still got to drive a tank. While the multiplayer doesn’t eclipse its predecessors in a number of ways, it does open up a few avenues for competitive gaming thanks to the new Counter Strike-esque modes.
EDITOR NOTE: this game was supplied to us via the publisher, and reviewed on PC across 16 hours of gameplay.