Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

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.

(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.)

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.

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

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 setup 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.

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

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 handcuff them. 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 will 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 forward, 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.

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

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 setups. 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 throughout, as you'd expect from the franchise (all the screens and footage here are captured from my playthrough).

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

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:

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

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 disappointing to see things lapse into every war game feature 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 setup and rework it into a story-based campaign that isn't military-led.

Battlefield Hardline Tries Real Hard Not To Be Battlefield

At least the multiplayer component itself is, so far, good. I'm not passing any official comment until servers 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 in real life). 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 will 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.

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles. Follow them on @Kotaku_UK.


Comments

    single player sounds promising, though the multiplayer is horrible from what I have played

    Is it just me or do the materials in that first screenshot look all wrong?

    I'm really disappointed EA weren't willing to let Visceral actually take this in the direction they wanted to (that's my assumption about what happened internally anyway) and keeping the series on the "safe" path.

    The series has gotten extremely stale with BF3 and BF4 being practically the same game (whereas in the past each main installment used a different setting and had noteworthy mechanical changes) and Hardline feeling like a $30 expansion pack or a total conversion style mod for BF4 made into a full-priced game (based on the Betas). The franchise desperately needs to be revitalised with new ideas and considering Hardline was being made by a different studio, with a different theme, I really hoped that would happen.

    Instead, like I said... it feels like a reskin of BF4. There were some great ideas and the cops/robbers theme had loads of potential but ultimately the game got pigeonholed too hard into having to be the same as every other game in the franchise because EA is terrified that anything else will hurt their bottom line. A couple new gametypes and less focus on vehicles doesn't mean a whole lot when everything else is so similar. I'm increasingly convinced this is actually a really flawed way for publisher to operate even just from a financial perspective, since people getting burned out on games and feeling burned having to pay for the same game again every year are both things. But they keep doing it...

    In any case, I think I'm not going to be buying this one. It does seem more interesting than BF4 thanks to the change of scenery, but money's tight and I can't justify buying something that felt so similar to two games I already own.

    Last edited 17/03/15 5:21 pm

    single player looks interesting, but honestly i just missed the larger vehicles in the betas (and snipers now being the go-to takedown option for helis).
    in short - no tanks? no thanks

    Want a game that rewards you for not shooting people as a cop...Play SWAT

      When was the last SWAT game released?

        SWAT 4, 2005. stetchkov syndicate 2006. Both still play better than most modern shooters...Add a few mods, and you have one of the toughest FPS games out there.

        Nothing is more tense than staring down a guy with an Uzi, yelling "Get down" and making a split second call on whether he is raising his hand in the air or raising his weapon at you...

          I agree that SWAT was great, I was just hoping maybe they had released a new one I didn't know about :p

          SWAT 4 was fantastic.

    For me, BF3 and BF4 were ruined by too many heads up distractions. I don't know why gamers weren't given the option to turn off those objective markers. I won't buy another one until I am able to do that, and frankly even then I don't feel that tempted to play a cops and robbers game.

    I can't take this Battlefield seriously. After all the silly multiplayer easter eggs, like the reloads which don't seem as rare as they seem to be, to the stupid chair you can drive. It honestly just feels like 1 big joke. The singleplayer will take itself too seriously and turn into this big macho manly man experience full of explosions. Main reason why I am not bothering with this game and also because I got BF4 not that long ago. I don't want to buy the same thing again full price for a sub par singleplayer.

    Does anyone have any feedback regarding the servers here in australia?

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