Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Battlefield: Hardline doesn’t know what it is. On the one hand it tries to uphold the Battlefield name, a name that has become synonymous with epic multiplayer war. On the other hand it wants to be a police procedural with a hefty dose of action and a cops versus robber multiplayer. It’s almost like developer Visceral had the idea for a police game but couldn’t get the funding to build it, before EA stepped in and demanded a new Battlefield game to meet their quota since DICE were still busy fixing the mess that was Battlefield 4. What we gamers have been left with, then, is a half-baked mixture that can’t live up to the Battlefield name and can’t carve an identity for itself. It’s fun, but it’s not as good as it should be.
You play as rookie detective Nick Mendoza who is stationed in Miami, a city undergoing a pretty major drug war. The story kicks off as a police procedural, tracking Nick and his partner as they try to bust a gang smuggling drugs, before heading into standard dirty cop territory. But about half-way through the game the tone seems to take a radical shift from its relatively grounded police work into more set-piece heavy, totally insane stupidity that should be familiar to anyone who has touched a Call of Duty game. It’s a jarring leap, to be honest. The campaign stumbles along, but there’s no getting around the dodgy writing which not only insists on hitting every crime procedural cliché along the way but also giving us inconsistent characters who constantly make decisions that seem to go against what little personality has been established across the meagre six hours it takes to complete the singleplayer. You’ll see every double-cross coming from a mile away, groan at every cliché and quickly realise that you don’t care about any of the characters. All of it leads up to a bunch of instantly forgettable set pieces which remind us that EA still can’t get over their Call of Duty envy and a finale which makes no sense. And all of this is a crime against the clearly talented cast of actors who voice these idiotic police officers.
An opening sequence early in the game really sets the stage for everything that feels wrong with the game. You head out into a run-down neighbourhood at night with the intention of finding a guy and getting some information. It’s a sequence clearly intended to create some atmosphere and set up the characters, but it quickly devolves into something much worse. From the start the writing is weak, the two partners clumsily bantering. Once out of the patrol vehicle you find the environment to be incredibly restrictive, not allowing you to chat to the locals or anything. At one point your partner readily admits that sneaking through somebody’s yard is entirely illegal, yet mere moments later neither cop seems bothered about knocking out people who are seemingly innocent of any wrong doing. You see, Hardline likes to deal in criminals and dirty cops but doesn’t actually want to get into the nitty-gritty of any of it, treading around all the many complex questions surrounding police work in a world where cops more closely resemble private military firms by simply ignoring everything while simultaneously having its characters run around with serious weaponry and do questionable things. Want to kill every person you meet? No problem. Are you actually killing cops? Nah, that’s just a private company who just happen to dress like police, act exactly like police and have all the same jurisdiction as police. This wouldn’t be a problem if the developers were capable of telling a light-hearted, fun police procedural instead, but they can’t quite do that either. It’s the first in Hardline’s many cases of identity crisis.
At least it makes some decent use of its theme in the new arresting gameplay mechanic. Gunplay is still in, obviously, but now Battlefield does stealth, too, borrowing liberally from numerous games with the inclusion of cones of vision on the mini-map and even Far Cry style alarms that need to be disabled and a magic camera that can tag enemies for you. You can even toss empty shells to distract criminals and laugh as they somehow fail to see you in the broad daylight. By sneaking up behind a crook you can flash your badge and tell them to freeze, making them put their hands up. To keep them in check you have to keep your gun trained on them until you can get close enough to slam them to the ground and slap the cuffs on them. Groups of up to three criminals can be handled like this, and naturally to keep all of them from gunning you down you need to carefully. Fail to keep them all nervous and somebody will pull a weapon on you, naturally alerting nearby enemies to your presence as well.
Initially whipping out the cuffs and arresting criminals feels fun and fresh, an interesting addition to the otherwise simplistic stealth. But it grows old far too quickly. Because the developers need to account for players going in all guns blazing as well levels are filled with enemies, and if you want to go down the good cop approach it means arresting a lot of people, and there’s little effort to keep things feeling interesting. Enemies will always react with one of a few snippets of audio before the same animation plays. You’ll never encounter an enemy who simply refuses to freeze or tries to call out for help. Laughably once arrested criminals just lie on the floor with a little stream of cartoon Zs emanating from them, even though they are wide awake. Their clueless comrades might stumble across them, but even then they won’t utter a word, and perhaps even worse is the fact that the aforementioned comrade won’t notice the handcuffs. But while you arrest far too many hapless morons to keep the mechanic interesting you’ll feel compelled to do it anyway as the game’s progression system vastly favours clean arrests over dead bodies, offering 250 points for every captured crook and a mere 100 points for a corpse. It’s this very reward system, though, that perhaps most eloquently demonstrates Hardline’s wonky development: playing as the good cop grants you access to new and more powerful weapons, weapons that a bad cop who guns everyone down would use. Counter intuitively putting a bullet in every bad guys brain will still unlock new guns, but at a much slower rate.
At least putting those bullets into brains is generally quite fun. Despite seemingly being a little confused this is still very much a Battlefield game when it comes to the guns which are universally awesome to fire, the now standard high quality audio design of the series delivering beautiful snarling death with every pull of the trigger while the level of kick is just right. The result is guns that feel seriously satisfying to use. It’s just a shame that you won’t be putting them to great use. The AI of the Battlefield series has never been exemplary, and Hardline’s seems to almost be worse. Enemies take cover semi-sensibly, but they have a habit of doing stupid things, like running up three flights of stairs that they’ve just watched several of their pals get shot to pieces on. They suffice as cannon fodder, but nothing else, even on the highest difficulty settings.
Your AI partner/s is worse, a shambling goon with no semblance of intelligence to be found within their dense skulls. Quite why they are even there is a mystery. On numerous occasions they failed to notice the enemies surrounding them, and when they did she proved incapable of actually killing them. Indeed on one occasion I patiently counted how many shots it took my partner to put down a crook and was astonished to see them put 30+ rounds into his chest before he finally died. And that’s if my partner even bothered to move at all. How such horrendous AI ever passed testing is beyond me.
Another small nod to the overall theme of the game is the ability to hunt for evidence, a potentially exciting prospect which could have brought a unique twist to the gameplay formula. The reality is that hunting for evidence is nothing more than whipping out a scanner and following the little arrow which points you straight to the target where you then proceed to scan it. And that’s it. Collected evidence is merely added to a case file where you can listen to a tiny snippet of explanatory audio for each clue, and if you gather enough of it the case is is closed with no further interaction from you required. It’s nothing more than a glorified collectible hunt. In fact it’s worse since the police scanner points players to the collectible, rather than making them look for it through exploration.
If there is one thing I can’t find too much fault with it’s the episodic presentation of the singleplayer. Each episode is prefaced by a “previously on” segment, and if you exit the level you’ll be greeted by another segment which gives you a glimpse of what’s coming up. Finish an episode and a Netflix style screen will pop up with a timer counting down to the next episode starting.
The rest of the presentation, however, is a mixed bag. Sometimes the game looks quite nice, and then the next moment it looks pretty crappy. Partly this is because of the 780p resolution that the Xbox One versions runs at, but more than that it’s just weak textures and drab levels. Jagged lines are a big problem, too, as is clipping when arrested crooks, their heads passing straight through entire walls. Other bugs exist, too, like one mission where the next event failed to trigger, forcing a restart, or enemies walking through walls. At least the audio design is as strong as ever, delivering an almost orgasmic audio experience for anyone with a good set of earphones or 7.1 sound system.
Ranking Hardline’s singleplayer in the Battlefield franchise is a tricky proposition. It sits only below the vastly more fun Bad Company campaigns, their strengths being stellar personalities of Bad Company themselves, and above the rest, especially the utter tripe that was Battlefield 4. However, given how bloody awful Battlefield campaigns have been this is hardly glowing praise. It’s ultimately a mediocre affair that will only amaze if you’ve never played a shooter before, interspersed with a few genuinely good shootouts and set pieces which hint at something far stronger.
On the multiplayer side of things we again see evidence that developers Visceral had trouble merging the cops and robbers theme with the Battlefield template. Tanks and attacks helicopters are out in favour of plenty of transport vehicles, smaller maps and far less access to explosive weaponry. The result is a faster pace with less waiting to get some action and a heavy focus in infantry play, but the overall concept of having the police face-off against criminals is largely abandoned except in some vague but unimaginative ways. Arresting crooks, for example, and being encouraged to go non-lethal, is entirely bypassed, which is truly a shame when you consider how cool it might have been if people playing as the police got bonus points for arresting the opposing team rather than just shooting them. The shift from full-scale chaotic warfare might alone be enough to justify dedicated Battlefield fans skipping this one entirely. Conquest mode returns, and has the full 64-player roster, but without the tanks, helicopters and everyone carrying RPGs it feels somewhat neutered. I’d even go so far as to that in order for Hardline to maintain its own identity Conquest should have been left out entirely.
And that’s the thing: you rarely get to feel like you’re playing as either criminals or police in Hardline, instead if feels more like you’re just playing as the military again, but with a really crappy budget that doesn’t allow for proper tanks. A theme like this provides so much potential freedom: the criminals could have a variety of mad guns since they would use would they could get their hands on, and both the zipline and grappling hook that have been introduced make a lot of sense for them. Meanwhile the police force doesn’t have much to differentiate them except for being able to knock enemies out with a tazer. Where’s the spike strips, for example?
Heist is the headlining act and is, to my mind, at least, the best of the new modes, making use of the game’s overall them, albeit not to the degree that it really should. The criminals are tasked with breaking into two vaults, stealing the contents of each and delivering it to two separate escape points, meanwhile the cops have the straightforward goal of stopping them. Providing the crooks don’t get away with all the loot in a set time the police win the match. On the bank map Heist feels pretty damn good, especially when you’re playing as a crook trying to fight your way out of the building against a horde of angry coppers. It’s just a shame that the actual criminal element of the mode is so meagre: cracking the vaults just means running from the close start point and holding down X. The police start further away and most of the time struggled to stop the criminals cracking the vault, leaving the battle mostly for the second phase of the match. The mode remains great fun, though.
The supporting act is probably Hotwire, a mode that sounds fantastic in theory but has some flaws in reality, though like Heist it manages to generally quite enjoyable regardless. In Hotwire you must capture and hold points around the map, but the catch is that the capture points are actually vehicles, and to capture them you’ve got to drive fast and keep driving fast. It’s a great idea and in theory is obviously meant to encourage cool car chases, especially when you load up with teammates all leaning out the windows and firing madly. Toss in extra vehicles that each team have at their spawn and heavy weaponry to pick up around the maps and you’ve got a killer idea, right? Not quite: for starters the speeds of most vehicles are the same and the handling model is incredibly simplistic, so car chases don’t feel all that dramatic. I also noted that most players had already resorted to just hanging around and placing charges on the vehicles rather than trying to drive them. Finally the maps just need to be a bit bigger as right now driving in circles is the standard tactic, although bigger maps would make things more dull for people who get stuck on foot for long periods of time trying to chase down the enemy vehicles. For all its problems many of my best Hardline memories stem from playing Hotwire.
Blood Money is the third of the most enjoyable modes on offer here, whacking a heap of money in the middle of the map and challenging both sides to grab as much of it as they can return it to their respective vaults, the justification for the cops being that they need it for evidence. A neat twist is that you can even rob the other team’s vault if you like, just to add insult to injury. Basically what it amounts to is a clusterfuck in the middle of the map, but if you can get a decent team together it’s a glorious clusterfuck indeed. Speaking of clusterfucks, though, that’s how much of the game feels. The smaller maps and generally quicker pace make for frantic matches on just about every mode where getting killed from behind and the sides occurs frequently, far more so than usually in Battlefield. Players just seem to be everywhere and it can be hard to get a sense of what direction the fight really is going, because there isn’t one; it’s everywhere. As much as people will hate me for the comparison, Hardline feels just a bit more Call of Duty-ish at times.
Hardline even takes a few illadvised stabs at the E-Sports market through two game modes. V.I.P. is a 5v5 affair with no respawns where one team must get the V.I.P. to one of two drop-off points while the opposing team must stop them. The second is titled Rescue and involves two teams facing off against each other with hostages in the middle. The cops must rescue both hostages or simply kill all the criminals, while the criminals must defend the hostages and survive until the 3-minute timer runs out, with no respawns allowed for either side. Both modes have potential, but are entirely ruined by maps that aren’t designed for them. Rather than make custom maps suited perfectly for each of the two modes developer Visceral opted to simply use a small chunk of the existing maps that are used in the other game modes, and it simply doesn’t work. In VI.P. one team has to try to cover two seperate escape points on maps which far too easily let the other team just make a dash for the objective. One the V.I.P. reaches the extraction point the extraction timer is quick that the opposing team have no chance to react. Their best best is to simply split the team 3/2 and hunker down near the extraction zones and hope for the best. Rescue fares a tad better, but the maps still don’t do it justice.
The progression system has been tweaked for the better, at least in some regards. This time around you earn cash for your multiplayer exploits and can use it to purchase new gadgets and guns, so there’s no waiting around for a linear progression system to finally give you the weapon you’ve been waiting to use. It just makes so much more sense to unlock the gear you want, rather than what the developers say you should get next. What doesn’t is that the game still insists on locking off weapon attachments until you’ve earned a certain amount of kills with said weapon, a really pointless decision that just means the shiny new gun you spent cash on feels far less useful than other items in your armory for a little while. And then what makes even less sense than that is how utterly lacking Hardline is in weaponry compared to Battlefield 4. Each class has a meagre four or less primary weapons to pick from, not counting the fact that both the criminals and cops have different sets of gear, which is fine even if it means you might only get to use your favorite gun half the time. Technically you can use a gun as both a cop and a criminal, but to do so you need to earn 1,000+ kills with that specific weapon, so if you want to be able to select from eight guns per class you’ll need to sink a lot of time into the game. It’s just such a disappointingly small arsenal of weapons. Battlefield 4 had enough that ensure that everyone could find at least one or two guns they love, but in Hardline I couldn’t find any rifle I particularly liked for the primary Operator class. It’s such a let-down to see the armory stripped down so much.
And speaking of the Operator class it’s too powerful, a problem I had with past Battlefield games and their Assault class. The Operator not only wields the most versatile guns in the game, the assault rifles, but is also capable of dropping health and ammo packs, as well as reviving dead teammates. Because of this the most common class on the field is the Operator. There needs to be a separate medic class again that runs support in order to remove some of the power from the Operator and bring back a more varied and balanced team.
The other modes are familiar stuff. Team Deathmatch doesn’t exactly need any explanation these days, and Conquest, which comes in 32-player and 64-player varieties, is well-known among Battlefield fans. If you’ve somehow missed it, though, it’s basically a case of killing the enemy while capturing points in order to remove respawn tickets from the enemy’s pool. It’s bloody good fun, though the more traditional Battlefield version with tanks and jets wins out on the sheer awesomeness scale.
Battlefield: Hardline’s biggest crime is that of wasted potential. We get so few games using a theme like this, with perhaps Payday 2 being the closest in recent memory, albeit without letting people play as the police force, that to see a game like Hardline with such a huge budget behind it waste such amazing potential is almost physically painful. The singleplayer is disappointing enough, but the multiplayer makes me cringe. How could Visceral fail to utilise so much of their own theme? Can’t you, dear reader, just imagine the wealth of potential game modes, weapons and gadgets that could be offered to players? How about a mode where the criminals need to steal cars from round under the police’s nose and get them to a safe point? Call it Gone in Sixty Seconds, give the police spike strips and there we have it. Or how about a drug bust where the criminals need to either quickly get the drugs out for bonus points, or just burn them for the safer route, while the police must stop them and earn extra points for arresting criminals instead of killing them? Speaking of arrests, how about a mode where the criminals score points for killing cops, but the cops can only win the game by arresting all five criminals? A single death could result in a loss, while the police get infinite respawns so that the criminals can mow them down? The crooks would win by scoring a certain amount of points, the cops would win by arresting them. Obviously these ideas would need heavy work, but those are just off the top of my head. But what we actually get is the vaguely interesting Heist, which really amounts to capture the flag, an attempt at a car chase mode and some other offerings that are fairly typical of the Battlefield series, but without the same level of carnage.
Here’s the truth: Battlefield: Hardline feels like a glorified expansion pack for Battlefield 4, and indeed would have succeeded far more had it been just that. In fact, better yet, launch it as a £15-20 standlone expansion and Hardline would be a steal, a brilliant little slice of action. The theme is entirely tacked onto a structure that needed to be radically altered to fit it, and very little effort seems to have gone into making full use of it. Taken entirely on its own Battlefield: Hardline is a really fun multiplayer existence with a weak singleplayer campaign and a theme which seems to have been abandoned when crafting the online components.. But to take it on its own is to entirely ignore the existence of Battlefield 4 which offers up massively more maps, weapons and the inclusion of heavy armor for less money, while still having plenty of players. At this point if you want a multiplayer shooter go play Battlefield 4, unless you already own it and you’re looking for another Battefield fix.
Let’s be clear, though, despite my harsh tone the game is fun. Some may very well find the heavier focus on infantry combat the faster tone more enjoyable than the large-scale mayhem of the previous games. Personally I enjoy both, so Hardline does at least make for a refreshing change in that sense. The singleplayer has some decent moments, but will likely fail to capture your imagination and will be forgotten about almost as soon as the credits roll, but the multiplayer is a hoot, even with its many, many issues.
Here’s the bottom line: Hardline feels like it doesn’t know if it wants to be Battlefield or something new, and instead settles on a compromise that never truly works.