Battlefield Hardline hasn’t been doing well in the run-up to its release. The recent beta showed off a solid game, but one that did little to separate itself from the military-themed games in the series. The full game is a slightly different picture. Hardline has a little more to offer than just Battlefield 4 with a cops-and-robbers skin. There’s a campaign that draws influence from a shooter that’s not Call of Duty, and multiplayer modes that let you partake in insane car chases and tense, single-life shootouts.
But is it enough? With the foundation of so much of the game very clearly the previous Battlefield game, does Hardline offer enough novelty to justify its existence?
If you log into Battlelog now and have a look at the server browser for Hardline, you’ll notice that a huge proportion of servers are playing Hotwire. That’s because Hotwire is Hardline’s only genuinely interesting mode. It’s Fast and Furious comes to FPS land: a capture-point game where the points you need to hold are a variety of muscle cars, vans, and petrol-tankers. To capture them you need to hijack them, bring them up to speed, and then keep hurtling around the map for as long as possible. The longer you drive, the more points you rack up. It’s kind of brilliant: without the static nature of Conquest mode’s points, the whole pace of the game suddenly changes. It’s a game of car chases; criminals attempting to score big whilst cops ram-raid them off the road. Gangster’s hang out of car windows madly machine-gunning the tyres of chasing police. Convoys form as fast sedans flank the slower trucks, protecting them from the oncoming coppers.
Elsewhere, things begin to lapse back into the traditional Battlefield formula. Heist is a genuinely well-crafted mode; at the start of a match the criminals will bust open a vault or crash a money van depending on the map, and then must sprint with it to a helicopter extraction whilst the police do everything they can to stop them. There’s a cinematic quality that can come to this mode when everyone plays their parts; being a criminal can be thrilling as you engage in a variety of near-misses as you desperately keep heading forward to the end-goal. But this is all dependant on players actually wanting to play Heist; inevitably there’s always a group that just think it’s a deathmatch mode, and rather than the action progressing further across the map, it stagnates and just becomes a messy free-for-all.
When it is working though, Heist benefits from Battlefield’s usual standard of fantastic map design. All of the nine maps do a good job of selling the urban-crime setting: there’s a marijuana-filled grow house, a dilapidated set of apartments in The Block, a couple of great LA-style city street maps in Bank Heist and Downtown, and a highly-destructible multi-million dollar mansion in Hollywood Heights. They’re notably more confined than a traditional Battlefield map; not smaller, but filled with numerous smaller spaces and plenty of indoor locations. There’s an awful lot of doors, which allows players to attempt to gate-off spaces and focus fire on various entrances. This places emphasis on infantry combat; without tanks, humvees, helicopter gunships, and APCs, the majority of fighting is done rifle-to-rifle.
But whilst the focus of Hardline shifts away from massive pieces of military hardware, that military feel is still there. This just doesn’t feel like a game about cops and robbers. It’s just another Battlefield; it controls, feels, and reacts identically to Battlefield 4. The combat is exactly what you’ve played before, thanks to a complete reliance on the same styles of weapons you’ve used in the last four Battlefield games. The fact that Conquest, Conquest Large, and and Team Deathmatch are still here is proof that Hardline can’t escape its lineage. The Conquest games feel empty without heavy vehicles, especially in the large variants.
Adding to that militarised feel are two new modes called Rescue and Crosshair. Drawing inspiration from Counter-Strike and Rainbow 6, they’re single-life games. Rescue requires the police to save hostages from the criminals, and Crosshair demands that the criminals attempt to assassinate a VIP being escorted across the map. They certainly don’t fit the crime theme; this is counter-terrorism operations. Still, if the modes work, that’s no real problem. Unfortunately they don’t quite hit the mark. Rescue’s individual rounds are three-minutes long, and that seems just right. However, you have to play nine rounds to finish a game, which drags the simple mode out way past its welcome point. Crosshair feels best played with small teams, but all too frequently it’s played with teams of twelve-a-side. Seeing that amount of people try to successfully escort a player is almost Benny Hill-like, and with twelve criminals on the hunt for just one person, the odds are stacked in their favour.
What we’ve got in Battlefield Hardline is a game that doesn’t quite do enough beyond Hotwire to separate itself as a new and exciting crime-themed entry. But let’s just accept that for a moment and ask: if you love Battlefield, is Hardline a good follow-up? If you can get past the lack of tanks and fun army equipment, Hardline does tweak the Battlefield formula in interesting ways. Support roles are now far more efficient; run up to a medic Operator and you can just tap E to nick a health pack from him. The same with the ammo-providing Enforcer. The unlock system allows you to buy guns with the ‘money’ (see: points) you’ve earned in game, meaning not every new weapon is tied to a level-specific unlock. Now you can choose to buy a little gun now, or save up for a big gun.
The gadgets are less interesting than you’d like. Tasers are fun and giggles, but the grappling hook can only be used on specific ledges barely more than two-storeys high, preventing them from being the all-access tool they should be. Zip-lines fare better, but pretty much need to be carried at all times alongside the grapple, since you’d need to get somewhere high enough in the first place for the zip-line to be useful. This prevents you from carrying something like body armour or a defibrillator; things frequently more important.
After Battlefield 4’s horrific first six months, Hardline absolutely needs to be top-notch technically. It’s mostly good news. There’s none of that sound-glitching, no rubber-banding issues, and hit-detection seems fine. I have been struggling with the odd connection issue though; being booted from games because I was ‘idle’ has happened a handful of times, and there have been occasions where I’ve not been able to connect to games at all. The game’s not broken – most of the time I’ve been playing happily – but the odd connection issue does marr the experience slightly. Getting into a game and staying there shouldn’t be difficult.
Campaign Single Player
For all of DICE’s Battlefield campaigns, we’ve played a fairly straightforward Call of Duty-inspired, set-piece laden romp. For Hardline, new developer Visceral games clearly has a different source of inspiration: Far Cry. No, Hardline isn’t set in an open world, but the core mechanics of the majority of its encounters are a clear lift/homage to Far Cry 3. As you progress through each of the game’s 11 missions, you’ll frequently come to wide-open spaces littered with patrolling criminals. You have a choice: are you going to run in and blow them all to kingdom-come using some exceptionally militarised police gear? Or are you going to quietly sneak around, arresting and subduing each individual crook? These zones, which make up the majority of encounters, are basically Far Cry’s outposts. And the similarities don’t stop there.
A tap of Q will open up your police scanner, a blue filter that will highlight goons in red and reveal background information on high-value targets. It’s Far Cry’s camera, and you’ll use it to scout out enemies, which will be highlighted through walls once tagged. Groups can be separated by tossing bullet cases to cause distractions. When you’ve thinned out the herds, you can start to make arrests. Getting close and tapping G will flash your police badge. Criminals will immediately give themselves up, although if there are any more than three in a group they’ll realise the odds are on their side and reach for their guns. With a criminal surrendered, you can cuff them and force them to the floor, removing them as a threat. Metal Gear Solid-like vision cones fill your mini-map, and truly emphasise Hardline’s stealth option. These zones also have alarms that can call reinforcements should you be discovered and, again like in Far Cry, disabling them should be a priority.
Whilst there are several cinematic-style shootouts where the killing is no-holds-barred, when it comes to these many open-approach areas, you can proceed completely non-lethally. It’s even encouraged; simply shooting your way through holds little reward, but arresting criminals will add points to your Expert level. There are 15 ranks in total, and you can make exceptional headway in them by seeking out wanted criminals, of which there are generally a handful in each mission. Oddly the rewards for playing stealthily don’t correspond with your playstyle though: increasing your Expert rank unlocks a variety of increasingly powerful guns. Considering I found playing it soft and quiet the most rewarding method, most of the guns unlocked felt unneeded. A better, more considered unlocks system would provide a better variety of non-lethal equipment, and perhaps the ability to make arrests at quicker speeds.
Punctuating these areas are the more story-led sections that really scream Hardline’s television inspiration. Visceral claim that the game is influenced by the best crime shows on TV, but this isn’t The Shield, True Detective, or The Wire. It’s CSI meets Michael Bay’s Bad Boys, and as such there are bombastic and absurd sections with car chases, tornadoes that rip apart buildings, prison escapes, and a even section where you fight (honest-to-God) a crocodile. They’re not perfectly constructed experiences like you’d find in the Grand Theft Auto, but they’re solid enough to keep the thriller feel going.
The story that holds this all together is nothing to write home about; it’s a tale of dirty cops that are up to no good while investigating a drug empire, and it’s likely you’ll be checking Twitter during the cutscenes before episode five is up. Oh yeah: Hardline is presented as a TV show. It even has a Netflix-style “20 seconds until the next episode plays” box at the end of each episode, and quitting the game will start a quick “Next time on Battlefield Hardline” cutscene. The cast themselves are all semi-famous actors you’ll have seen around and about, and even though they don’t leave any lasting impressions I’ll give Visceral bonus points for such a varied variety of people: you play a Cuban, your partner is an American-Asian woman, and the criminals aren’t exclusively from ‘da hood’.
For all that Hardline does to be fresh and interesting though, there is always that traditional Battlefield feel there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the series does shooting better than most – and of course it is a Battlefield game. It feels chunky and militaristic, which depending on your opinions of the US police force will also colour your judgement of the game’s tone. It never feels particularly offensive, and the game actively prevents you from shooting unarmed, surrendering enemies, but this is still a game where cops use assault rifles to mow down people if they so wish. In a post-Ferguson world, that may not sit right with you. The bombastic action sits fine side-by-side the stealthy meat of the game thanks to that Bad Boys-style of approach, but it’s clear that Hardline could have been a further few steps more interesting by scrapping the Battlefield shackles and combining sneaky arrests with a robust set of detective-work mechanics.
Visceral have create a perfectly good functioning Battlefield game in Hardline. It shoots as good as the best of them, the car-chases are fun, and the small tweaks made to the core formula are very welcome. But a little refinement does not mask that this is a very similar game to what we bought in 2013; despite the strong efforts to make a variety of new game modes, you can’t shake the feeling of playing classic Battlefield. And quite honestly, Battlefield without tanks and jets is only half as fun. Curiously the single player campaign is the most interesting element, which is surely due to the studio’s strength in solo-play design from their days on Dead Space. That’s not enough to make it an essential purchase, though. Players new to the series may find the urban setting interesting and will certainly benefit from the refined mechanics. Series veterans, however, are best sticking to what they already have.