(Quick note: if ever there was a game to hold off on a full review until it’s live, it’s Battlefield. For that reason this is about my experiences in the single player and a little from the betas. There’ll be a full review once the game’s out in the wild.)
Battlefield Hardine is a shooter that rewards not shooting. In the single player at least. If you wondered how it would deal with the idea of a ‘bad cop’ in the current real world climate, it turns out the solution is, ironically, to pretend it didn't happen.
EA and Visceral are admittedly in a tight spot to some extent given the scrutiny the US police force have been under recently. Living in the UK I'm in no position to really comment – there’s no gun culture here and all our police can really do is shout and point. But I know there’s been concern about both the behaviour and militarisation of American law enforcement that’s directly called into question a shooter that potentially glorifies trigger-happy police action.
The solution, as I said, is to turn a blind eye. If you go rogue and shoot everything that moves then the game simply sits quietly pretending nothing’s happening. While arrests and non-lethal takedowns pile on rewards like a fruit machine that’s all cherries, gunning a man down tacitly slides by unmentioned. Even the plot is cleverly agnostic as to what kind of cop you actually are, or the enemy you're fighting.
If nothing else this is an odd set up simply because your reward for not shooting people is more guns, while using those guns, gets you nothing.
When I saw the game back in November there was talk of an as yet un-finalised “Perfectionist” and “Loose Cannon” style of ranking, although Visceral’s Steve Papoutsis openly admitted they weren't sure or happy about it at the time. Now there’s just the ‘Expert’ ranking for being a good guy and a mute look in the other direction for anything else.
Despite that, Hardline is still the most fun when you go full bad-cop, throw the rules out the window and shoot everyone. Even if the game can’t openly acknowledge it. The translation of Battlefield’s gunplay into smaller locations creates a tight and punchy shooter in places. The initial focus on handguns, with less ammo resupplies, aggressive AI and more claustrophobic spaces, creates a different kind of pressure to the ‘who can blow more shit up’ arms race of the usual warfare FPS.
Sneakily, though, the game doesn't leave you hanging if you do want to play as a bad cop, by still rewarding you just enough to get by. Simply completing objectives earns you points, as does collecting evidence (hidden items scattered around the levels). Plus you can unlock guns by picking them up off the floor. Once I finished the main campaign I backed up and wiped my saves to replay it again weapons free. I found I progressed about one level per episode that way (the game’s presented like a TV show). While playing ‘properly’ – arresting everyone and completing some levels without a kill – meant I actually maxed out the 15 available character levels at around episode 7 of 10, suggesting the game’s progression might be balanced to accommodate the slower, more violent approach.
So, what is the ‘proper’ way to play? At least according to the game’s internal moral compass? The answer is lots of arrests. All the arrests. If it moves arrest it. Or at least try. The first time I made a bust, it was exciting. I still love the idea: you shout 'freeze!', flash a badge, and then have to approach the suspects (as many as three at a time) while keeping them all under your sights in case anyone goes for a gun.
It’s a mechanic that starts off interesting – especially in the smaller areas where the choice to bust a group or go in shooting feels like a decision you’re making – but as the game progresses it reveals itself for what it is: an awkward stealth takedown mechanic to delay an almost inevitable alarm. Later, as levels open up, you find yourself presented with larger, more open spaces that are (pun fully intended) harder to police.
These bigger areas are apparently modelled on Far Cry 4’s base camps, with alarms to neutralise and an open layout. You've even got a scanner to tag everything as you recon the place. But, where Far Cry 4’s aggressive and mobile stealth lets you slip in and out of confrontations, picking away at the bad guys until you've levelled the odds or taken everyone down, Hardline has you arresting. Always arresting. The stealth AI is fairly placid as well. The enemy are aggressive shooters but robotic patrollers.
It works but it’s not hugely flexible and actually feels like work after a while. It takes time to approach and cuff individual enemies (remember, sometimes up to three). It also struggles to maintain a consistent in-game logic. You can lure people into traps using a thrown shell casing as a distraction but the game bizarrely and explicitly tells you that only one person at a time will react, making the mechanic feel literally mechanical.
Once you've made an arrest, subdued people are indicated by a ‘Zzz’ over their head even though all you've done is tie them up. Was the process of being busted so stressful that they felt the need to take a nap? Plus, if another enemy then finds one of their narcoleptic buddies, they’ll say something about them being ‘taken down’ or ‘got’. At no point does anyone say something more obvious like, ‘Holy shit this guy’s been arrested, the cops must be here.’ Stealth also confuses the game when hiding stops things moving forwards, leading to enemies endlessly looping 'Where is he?' style phrases.
To be honest, while I worked hard to clear levels as bloodlessly as possible on my first playthrough, accidently raising the alarm never really felt like the punishment it should have been because it meant sweet, sweet action. There are plenty of levels specifically set up for all out gunfights but what the exploding trailers have done a good job of hiding is how much of this is meant to be played as a stealth game.
The arrest mechanic is a symptom of several issues Hardline has in trying to be a few different things at once without solidly committing in any one direction. It tries to focus on being a non-lethal stealth game but only really has the mechanics for shooting. It also wants to be a new and different kind of Battlefield but can only do what Battlefield did in the past (from destruction and explosions, right down to a Paracel Storm-flavoured hurricane). It reorders and repositions existing parts in an attempt to fit the new angle but does little to physically change the components.
A clear example of this is all the traditional Battlefield gear you get. There's no sense of a loadout that's more suited for law and order. You just have all the usual army guns and gear. There are no grenades at least (I'm guessing because cops with grenades would be weird) but you can use a breaching charge instead (which is perfectly normal). While enemies just love firebombs to get you out of cover. They also occasionally use gas grenades. Rarely enough to be a nuisance but just enough to make you remember there is a gas mask in the kit bag.
The pitch from an event I attended was that you could use gadgets to plan and implement different approaches. However, that makes me think of things like Deus Ex or Dishonored – games that feature a strong selection of toys with levels built purely as a way to use them. Here, there’s none of that. Options are mainly of the front/back door variety, and the only real tools you have that occasionally provide different options are the zipline and grappling hook gun. Although I rarely used them outside requisite tutorial sections or heavily hinted set ups. It doesn't help that surfaces you can grapple are only indicated when you actually equip the gun, so levels aren't exactly immediately readable for opportunities.
Under close scrutiny then, much of Hardline’s logic unravels like a rubber band ball in a fire. That’s not say it isn't an enjoyable shooty time, it’s just best to not think too hard about it. As ever it’s all very big budget and pretty: locations are good looking, character performances are alive with personality (seriously, there’s some great facial capture/animation), and that action’s exciting in a Michael Bay kind of way. I played on my home PC at ultra settings and it’s a handsome looking game, as you’d expect from the franchise (all the screens and footage here are captured from my playthrough).
It feels the most interesting and satisfying when it tries to be the smaller scale cop-drama it so clearly wanted to be, with less firepower and cramped urban shootouts. The early levels, where you’re just a normal cop, have some tightly focused action with some great understated set pieces that feels like TV police doing TV police stuff. Stuff like the sequence up there where you have to push forward to apply pressure to your partner’s gunshot wound while fighting off a gang. Or a nicely atmospheric level at night with piercing chopper spotlights overhead as officers go door to door.
So it starts like this:
However, that interesting cop angle is eventually overpowered by the Battlefield genes expressing themselves like some sort of weird video game puberty. And, as it happens, the promise of a police procedural shooter disappears in all the smoke. Things get louder, more stuff explodes, and before you know it that police uniform has been shed like reptile skin to reveal the soldier from all the previous Battlefield boxes.
Eventually this happens:
So, later in the game, when you’re operating more outside standard police procedure, things get a little nuts. There are tanks, helicopter gunships and an AC-130 all in one level. The story does a good job of explaining why you’re facing off against all this, but is it happening because it’s expected in a Battlefield game? Or because the bits were there ready to use? Either way it's disappointingly to see things lapse into every war game ever when there are good ideas elsewhere. That’s an extreme admittedly but towards the end there are levels you’d struggle to believe were in a cop game if you hadn't taken the journey to get there.
Battlefield's single player has always been there to add some sort of perceived extra value to the online offering; the fear being that a multiplayer game alone won't sell enough. The focus on military action in the past has at least always meant the two halves matched. Here, however, it's clearly been a little more of a struggle to take that traditional army set up and rework it into a story-based campaign that isn't military led.
At least the multiplayer component itself is, so far, good. I'm not passing any official comment until things are live (EA did arrange a UK event to play online internally but I declined as it wouldn't be a fair test of the game). All I can say at this point is that I've really enjoyed the betas. Like the single player game, the smaller maps make the action more immediate; it’s large enough to make vehicles useful, but not so spread out that you can spend entire matches just running towards the action.
There are also some great looking modes. The new car-stealing Hotwire mode has to be the most fun I've had in a multiplayer game for ages. The focus on objective-based stuff also sounds promising. The bank-robbing Heist is another idea that's played well in the beta, while the hostage rescues and VIP escorts sound like even more variety. And, if none of that appeals, there’s still the traditional team deathmatch and Conquest options.
If Hardline is to be worth picking up, it’ll be the multiplayer that seals the deal. Hence waiting to see how that plays outs. The single player is competent, and barrels along between some nice moments and the odd stand out section, even if the mechanics don't completely gel with the subject matter. But it never becomes the cop game it wants to be, or could have been, because it fails to distance itself enough from Battlefield. It’s as if it’s wearing a police hat over the top of the army one and it's a disguise that only works if you don't look too closely.