When EA unveiled Hardline to the world many wondered why this cops ‘n’ robbers shooter had the Battlefield name bolted on the front.
Where were the tanks, jets and bazookas? Well not all of those are entirely absent from Hardline, but the moniker question was one I found myself asking more often as I went along.
In Hardline's single-player campaign you play as Nick Mendoza, an angry hispanic man, which makes a slight change from the usual angry white man you play in games like these. To be fair, Mendoza has every reason to be angry because he spends most of Hardline being double-crossed.
And that’s a recurring theme: everyone’s a back-stabbing charlatan – even the ones with a badge and a big desk at Miami PD with their name on it.
Be quiet and die
Despite a bullet-heavy first sequence, you’ll learn very early on that Hardline is quite keen for you to keep casualties to a minimum. The more people you arrest rather than killing, the quicker you level up, gradually unlocking new weapons, equipment and ways to customise your arsenal. You get points for doing other stuff too, but non-lethal attacks are the most lucrative. If only there were an option to get the word ‘irony’ plastered down the side of your assault rifle.
That pushes you towards non-lethal takedowns and a generally stealthy approach. To help you can scope out locations with a special scanner – a kind of supercharged version of the camera in Far Cry 4 – that tags enemies for you and can be used to identify particular perps who can be arrested in order to bag a big bonus.
What’s different to most stealth games is that you don’t necessarily have to sneak up behind people in order to take them down. Holding L1 when prompted flashes your badge and gun at an enemy, which, as long as you’ve caught them by surprise, is enough to convince them to reach for the sky. You can do it on up to three bad guys at once, but you’ll need to keep your gun moving from one to another or they’ll start to fancy their chances in a bullet-swapping competition.
Bad Guys for Dummies
For a while this is a fun, interesting twist on stealth gameplay, particularly for a first-person shooter, allowing you to live out those dormant Miami Vice fantasies but the process never really seems to change or get any harder, so eventually it gets a little monotonous. Nobody ever attempts to call for help, and if you hold two or more at gunpoint, moving your iron sights swiftly from one to another, they’ll all wait politely while the game goes through the handcuffing animation each time. They’re the politest, most obliging criminals you could ever hope to arrest.
They’re also frequently total idiots. Most of them could do with reading their copies of Bad Guys for Dummies a few more times, not to mention seeing a doctor about their poor eyesight and hearing problems. I lost track of the number of times I arrested a chap in earshot of one of his buddies without so much as an inquisitive head turn to see what was up.
Leaving a trail of trussed-up dudes in your wake would normally present its own set of problems, usually solved by hiding the body of each incapacitated goon, but Hardline doesn’t offer that option, you just have to leave them snoozing on the floor with a slightly comical row of zeds emanating from their heads. Tonal issues aside, that means it’s down to pure luck whether they’re discovered or not, meaning your choice to keep the gun holstered can easily be taken out of your hands.
When the guns do come out you'll find yourself in some fairly exhilarating firefights, helped by brilliantly destructible environments. You won’t have buildings falling down around your ears but the way some rooms get eaten up by gunfire is hugely satisfying. You’ll blow holes in wooden crates as bad guys duck just in time, pillars will gradually turn to dust as you crouch behind them and furniture torn into clouds of stuffing as it gets caught in the crossfire.
Every time you die you can change your loadout before trying again, so you can alter your approach each time with grappling hooks, stun guns, trip mines and the like. They don't all feel like standard issue police equipment but then none of these police officers seem to play by the rules anyway.
It would’ve been nice to see a few more innocent bystanders if only to force your hand in how you approach a situation. Resorting to your gun only ever puts Mendoza in more danger, but if you had to safeguard the lives of some civilians it might give you more reason to keep it holstered.
Let’s get physical
Mendoza’s biggest problem often isn’t the swathes of people trying to kill or catch him it’s the fact that he seems to have all the upper body strength of a toddler. Time after time you come up against a chest-high obstacle that he's unable to clamber onto, forcing you to take the long way round.
He does, however, have a magic crowbar in his possession that’ll open any locked door he finds, but only the ones the game deems it ok for you to enter. Time after time you’ll see a door but have no option to open it, not even with the Magic Crowbar of Power.
Fortunately he can drive (although, a bit like the doors, only certain vehicles). Driving sections are few and far between, and fairly short lived, which is probably for the best. Handling is pretty stodgy and it’s not often clear exactly where you’re supposed to be going. Usually that doesn’t really seem to matter, as the game guides you down the only route available but there are occasions when you’ll end up hitting an obstacle or driving down a dead end through no real fault of your own.
Mendoza’s scanner can also be used to find evidence. It’ll buzz when you’re in the vicinity of something important, and then it’s a case of scouring the scene for the relevant item, which will glow green when spotted. It’s not as thorough as the sometimes tedious searches in LA Noire and largely functions as way of framing extra collectible items. They’re not vital to advance and the story will still make sense without finding every one, but they span the whole game and collecting each set rewards you with new weapons for the campaign and new Battlepacks for multiplayer.
Perhaps the more relevant comparison with LA Noire is in Hardline’s facial animations, which are some of the best since Rockstar’s noirish detect ‘em up. That’s possibly down to the fact that the characters have been made to look like the actors that play them. Anyone who watched The Shield will immediately recognise Hardline’s police captain Julian Dawes as Benito Martinez, the man who played Vic Mackey’s nemesis David Aceveda.
Unfortunately that detail doesn’t go much further than skin deep. Characters are pretty one-dimensional and outside of the cut scenes the script gets very repetitive, with the bad guys parroting the same few lines in identical accents.
That’s not to say the stuff that’s inspired by TV cop shows doesn’t work. The ‘previously on’ reminders when you fire up the game after a period away work well to refresh your memory on what’s going on, while the split into 10 episodes, each with its own narrative peaks helps the pacing and structure. It’s more Bad Boys than The Wire but can you really imagine a game with Battlefield in the title having that level of subtlety?
My esteemed colleague Mr. Wiggins is your man for the story-led single-player campaign, but Battlefield to me is all about the multiplayer. The five-man Battlefield 4 squad I’ve been part of racked up a combined total of 943 hours in the seventeen months of that game’s life (with me contributing by far the smallest portion of that number, it has to be said), and that’s all been spent in the cut and thrust of those big, online battles.
But can I see me and my even more serious Battlefield-addicted comrades ploughing close to 1000 hours into Hardline? Actually, I can. The cops ‘n’ robbers vibe might seem like a massive gimmick, but in reality it’s been used as an excuse to switch gameplay up a bit - the result is a faster, fresher-feeling game.
There are gimmicky features, such as the police cars blasting out Sound Of Da Police while you scream into a gunfight, but overall the multiplayer’s smart and considered - which it has to be to stand the test of time.
Some will mourn the loss of Battlefield 4’s tanks, but the focus here is on smaller, nimbler and less powerful vehicles. They’re not really designed as weapons platforms, but as ways to get players to different parts of the (generally still very large maps) with real speed. This is what makes games of Conquest in particular so competitive and so liable to big swings in points. Your enemies got one of the key points pretty locked down? Ignore it, dash around to one that’s the other side of it, capture that and then race into the opposition from behind. Suddenly you’ve gone from staring at a heavy loss to taking the lead.
Other game modes are even faster, with Heist seeing the criminals going through the various stages of a robbery (blow open the safe, grab the loot, get to the extraction point) while the cops have to stop them, and Blood Money revolving around a scrap over a single money pile. And for something seriously speedy there’s Hotwire, which involves the crims grabbing and attempting to keep a car while the cops chase them down. It’s vehicular carnage.
And the general grind has been reduced somewhat. There are a handful of weapons with crazy unlock requirements, but most guns require only a certain amount of in-game cash and even the starter weapons for each class are perfectly respectable. Essentially, new players won’t feel as underpowered as they do in so many multiplayer shooters. And special weapons are now pick-ups on the map rather than player-owned. Pesky chopper causing all sorts of problems for your team? Best check the map for the location of the Stinger rocket launcher and high-tail it over there. Again, the power to change your team’s fortunes is in your hands - or at least it will be when you grab that Stinger...
The shooting itself is trademark Battlefield - a little less snappy than the likes of Call of Duty, but still solid and satisfying and easy to get used to. Destructibility has actually been reduced since Battlefield 4. You’ll blast chunks of masonry and destroy elements of cover, but (with a couple of notable exceptions) you won’t demolish whole buildings. Sure, in some respects that’s a shame, but when you’re desperately struggling for cover you won’t be complaining when you find a house with walls you can actually rely on.
Perhaps the most reassuring thing for those who were stung by Battlefield 4’s many, well-documented bugs and issues is that Hardline is exceptionally stable. In the couple of weeks since launch it’s been solid as a rock, and getting into a game is far quicker than BF4 has ever been.
So Hardline is a different game to the others in the Battlefield series. It’s faster and tighter and - in my opinion - actually more fun. In a year’s time I’m sure I’ll be desperate for a ‘proper’ sequel with tanks and jets and bombers, but this cops ‘n’ robbers lark looks like it will keep me very entertained until then.
Battlefield Hardline verdict
While it shows real promise in subverting the genre Hardline fails to push any boundaries in gameplay terms, and the ideas it does introduce are often executed in a half-hearted manner. It’s not quite a stealth game, but wants you to play it like one without giving you all the necessary tools to do so.
Hardline could’ve used its law enforcement focus to do something different, but it lacks the confidence to do so, and its settings rarely feel too removed from the Battlefield or Call of Duty games that came before it, purely because they both left the traditional warzone long ago, taking the fight to city streets, lawless desert settlements and hostile swamps plenty of times before.
While Hardline is noisy, spectacular and distracting for a short while, it’s ultimately pretty one-dimensional – exactly like the films it’s trying to recreate. That makes it a success in a way but without its multiplayer mode it’d quickly become a one-weekend wonder.