Battlefield: Hardline is a dumb game, both in a literal sense and in a ‘dumb fun’ kind of way (a term usually reserved for media with little substance that nonetheless entertains – provided you can turn your brain off for a few hours). Hardline treads a thin line between the two, mixing some baffling design choices and comically bad writing with some genuine, and often ridiculous, fun. It’s an uneven game for sure, not least in the execution of its brand spanking new cops and robbers motif. While this novel change of pace may set Hardline up for a more low-key outing than the rest of the franchise’s brash military hoo-rah, first-time Battlefield developer Visceral Games has still found time to cram its police tale full of Michael Bay-esque action sequences, a healthy plethora of explosions and absurd tank sections, and even a fight with a full-sized alligator, guaranteeing the nought-to-dumb ratio never wavers too far from the latter end of the scale.
I kind of like it.
With Visceral at the helm, their prior history on the Dead Space trilogy and other single-player centric titles lends Hardline’s solo campaign some added significance – not too dissimilar to DICE’s renewed single player focus on the Battlefield: Bad Company games. In budgetary terms, the cast of semi-recognisable TV actors says as much, but it also signals Hardline’s intent. This is a game that wants to look and feel as much like a TV show as humanly possible, going so far as to feature ‘next time on…’ recaps and previews, an opening title sequence that wouldn’t look amiss on pretty much any police procedural on American network TV, and even a Netflix-style timer counting down to the start of the next ‘episode’. Yes, Hardline refers to its levels as episodes. However derivative, it proves to be an effective approach, quickly establishing a TV-style flow from episode to episode as each builds to a climactic crescendo of payoff and story advancement.
“If you’ve ever consumed any kind of police-themed drama before, then Hardline’s story beats will be inherently familiar”I only wish that story was better. If you’ve ever consumed any kind of police-themed drama before, then Hardline’s story beats will be inherently familiar. It runs the genre’s gamut of tropes and clichés, with a Miami Vice gag and The Shield’s own Captain David Aceveda thrown in for good measure. Even the environments feel like TV sets, with streets in Miami and Los Angeles conspicuously quiet and bereft of life. This is about as cop show a videogame trying to be a cop show could be – though even this is erratic.
What starts out as a fairly basic and slow-paced affair about drugs and crooked cops soon fumbles its way into action movie territory. The amount of explosions increases significantly as the whole thing devolves into a farcical face-off between dirty cops and even more dirty cops; raising the stakes as the story becomes less like The Wire and more like Bad Boys II. It’s a rapid tonal shift and one that doesn’t exactly work, due in no small part to a cumbersome narrative pretzel that twists the story into a mess of nonsensical double-crosses as everyone betrays everyone else because I guess that’s just what dirty cops do. It’s completely illogical – at one point you’re duped by the same person about three times in a row – and while some of the characters may be enjoyable in their own hokey way, they contradict themselves at nearly every turn in what is a predictable and shallow tale. In trying to ape the best police dramas in history, Hardline becomes the worst of them.
Yet it doesn’t start out that way. In the very first episode you’re assigned a new partner and sent out to do some intelligence gathering on a local drug dealer. As you cruise the streets of this humid, run-down neighbourhood in the heart of Miami, there’s some understated dialogue between the two detectives that grounds you in this world and begins to develop these two as actual characters rather than genre caricatures. It feels organic and the environment encompasses that, too. A window washer will try to wipe down your windscreen as you wait at a signal crossing. You’ll pass a fellow officer making an arrest, or see a guy getting drunk in his front yard with a friend. The booming bass of some non-descript hip hop can be heard off in the distance as your police radio chatters away, while a woman taking out the trash will give you some lip. It’s atmospheric and feels like real police work, but Hardline never comes close to matching this again.
I’m fine with it being this microcosm of goofy action movies and TV shows. There are certainly a handful of fun moments throughout the campaign – like the episode where you go from shooting up a marijuana growhouse to fighting your way through a shopping mall in the middle of a raging hurricane – and it’s still tonally divergent enough from the usual military gruff to set itself apart from the pack, at least ever so slightly. But I wish there was more to it than that. Maybe it was foolish to expect some kind of police simulator, or even an approximation of police work that’s even marginally grounded in reality and isn’t just about shooting people. Hardline veers towards the latter with some of its differentiating mechanics, but it still feels too hamstrung by the Battlefield name to deviate too far from the tried-and-tested formula.
With the addition of stealth, it’s at least showing that it doesn’t want to be a simple Battlefield iteration dressed up in a police uniform – and to its credit, the stealth’s not some passive addition layered atop the regular Battlefield mechanics either. There are vision cones on your mini-map, a meter that fills up to an alert status when enemies can see you, freeform level design that encourages experimentation and even a mobile phone that can be used to mark enemies that’s less police-tech and more Far Cry 4. And, since you’re an officer of the law, you can brandish your badge and arrest people, too.
This provides an interesting spin on the usual Battlefield format – not to mention serving as the only mechanical aspect identifying Hardline as police-themed at all. By approaching unseen, you can arrest up to three enemies at a time, keeping your gun aimed on each suspect to make sure they don’t try anything stupid by reaching for a concealed weapon. Essentially it’s just another way to take down enemies, but there’s something satisfying about whipping out your badge and cuffing someone, especially in a series usually geared towards ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. It feels novel and at least fits the theme, yet the mechanic never evolves beyond its humble beginnings.
“There’s something satisfying about whipping out your badge and cuffing someone, especially in a series usually geared towards ‘shoot first, ask questions later’”You’re incentivised to take the arrest route because doing so rewards you with the most Expert points, but this is a contradictory progression system since the only items you unlock are new guns. Surely it would make more sense to reward non-lethal players with more tools to aid that approach? If I’m arresting everyone I don’t really care that I’ve unlocked some new high-powered assault rifle I’m never going to use. Give me flashbang grenades, or extend the time it takes for enemies to spot me. I’d love it if arrests didn’t take so long so let me unlock a faster arrest animation. There are options here, but since this is Battlefield I guess piles and piles of firearms is the only answer.
It even lacks the conviction to maintain the arrest mechanic’s facade. Halfway through the campaign you wind up as a fugitive on the other side of the law (a ‘twist’ made obvious during the game’s very first cutscene) yet you can still arrest people. Rather than waving a badge you just yell ‘freeze’ and these gun-toting criminals immediately surrender despite having no reason to do so. It’s bad enough that the people you arrest immediately fall asleep, complete with comical ‘ZZZs’ above their heads – an apathetic way to explain why they wouldn’t just alert their friends while handcuffed on the floor – but a fugitive arresting members of a private police force takes the farcicality to a whole new level. Videogames often ask us to suspend our disbelief, but this is pushing it a bit too far. Why not just change the animation so I’m knocking them out with a melee weapon or the butt of my pistol instead of cuffing them? And where the hell did I get all of these handcuffs from anyway? It completely ruins the context of the arrest mechanic, so much so that I ended up playing it like the shooter it probably wanted me to. It was the only thing that made sense.
Environments are nice and varied at least, going from the hot and sticky swamps of the Everglades, to a dust bowl of Nevadan desert and even a James Bond-inspired private island – to give you an idea of where the story goes. And most of these locales are repurposed into some fantastic maps in Hardline’s multiplayer – which is still the star of the show, of course. With the cops and robbers theme in place, skirmishes are naturally smaller than those found in Battlefield 4 (though there are still 64-player matches available), and with no tanks or fighter jets in sight, the focus is more on infantry units rather than large scale vehicular warfare. In terms of modes, Hardline leans into zero-respawn, round-based modes with both Hostage Rescue and VIP Escort. The former is particularly smart about giving you two objectives to procure, preventing the defending team from camping in one spot. They’re both a good time, focusing on small teams and teamwork, like the antithesis to the rest of the multiplayer’s general anarchy.
Elsewhere, Heists is essentially Capture the Flag with bags of money, while Blood Money turns that into a two-way fight where you can steal cash from both the enemy’s stash and the main vault, forcing teams to take the reigns while also being defensively-minded. From there you have your standard Team Deathmatch and Conquest modes, with Hotwire reimagining the static conquest capture points as vehicles that must be driven quickly to score. With vehicle-destroying weaponry harder to come by, this mode isn’t quite as explosive as one might like, and regular Conquest is still the superior mode. There’s a nice variety of new additions here without sacrificing what keeps people coming back to Battlefield – which, if you browse the server list, is just Conquest, Conquest, Conquest.
And that’s what the multiplayer is: more Battlefield. Unless you’ve grown tired of this particular brand of multiplayer mayhem, more Battlefield is certainly no bad thing. I had a tonne of fun during my time with it – even if I primarily played a mode that has been part of the series since the dawn of time – yet it’s also hard not to be disappointed that it never fully embraces the cops and robbers motif, opting instead to use it as simple window dressing rather than a crucial component to a new, inventive shooter.
That the single-player feels even more shackled by the Battlefield name is a bigger tragedy. It occasionally attempts something new but never fully commits or evolves its mechanics beyond the bare minimum, retreating back to the familiar bombastic action expected of a game with Battlefield in the title. At it’s best there’s some schlocky TV show-inspired fun to be had here, and it at least tries to differentiate itself from the myriad of disposable shooters on the market, even if it doesn’t quite pull it off. Hardline is the archetypal spin-off, then; the victim of a franchise treading water until the next big advancement. Maybe it would have been something more than that as a new IP, but I guess we’ll never know for sure. As it is, nine new maps will be worth the price of admission for many. And hey, at least it works right out of the box this time.