Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Genre: First Person Shooter
It’s actually pretty sad that in this day and age – an age where games are going places no one ever imagined they would – that it’s actually a shock for a developer to do something decidedly different. With Battlefield Hardline, EA have done just that, and taken what has been one of the world’s premiere FPS shooters since 2002 and ditched its very foundation and essence – war. Real war, that is. Hardline gives us war of another kind. A war of the streets. Of Cops and Criminals. Prepare for a tighter, faster, and very different experience.
At its core, Hardline is still the Battlefield game you know and love. The gunplay and overall feel remain intact to DICE’s decade plus of refinement and polish, but it’s most certainly a new experience, and one which makes a lot of sense to be a series of its own away from the main installments. Palming the development off to EA’s own Visceral Games (the good folks responsible for browning your pants with their Dead Space franchise), a fresh set of eyes were free to craft a game that stands out from the rest, made around the theme of Cops vs Robbers. It’s a wonder this hasn’t been tapped much before in the gaming world, given its timeless nature.
Single player see’s the player thrust into a story-driven campaign structured like a TV show, with ‘Episodes’ as levels, complete with Previously/Next Time On context, and even a corny starting credits scene during the first ep. While starting off strong, and having some serious potential if it were to embrace the ‘Cops & Robbers’ theme in earnest, the story just falls flat into a pit of bad TV drama clichés delivered with bad video game ones. I did have a lot of fun, due to the solid gameplay and new stealth elements, but the whole ordeal is little more than a low budget scripted walkthrough, not unlike a certain other FPS series we all know and love (hate). Only, you know, with significantly less explosions.
As I said, the stealth was a saving grace. Hardline introduces the ability to take on almost every situation in a sneaky, and super-violent-but-non-lethal manner. You get extra points, which unlock new weapons, for arrests and takedowns. I found myself going out of my way to try and cuff every bastard I could see, which also greatly increases game time. The AI is solid, and can be tricked and manipulated, investigating your position and noises. I gotta give Hardline some brownie points for delivering what you might call collectables (a dirty word in the game world, I know) in a refreshing way; in every Episode, there’s a handful of suspects with outstanding warrants who give off massive XP bonuses when arrested, and you have to find them, as well as pieces of Evidence which branch episodes the campaign over to solve optional related cases, awarding new items and Battlepacks for Multiplayer use. A great incentive if you ask me!
And finally that brings us to why we’re all here; the multiplayer! Not that anyone is surprised, but this again the only real reason to be picking up the latest Battlefield game. With new game modes, an overhauled customisation and unlock system, and the translation to the new style all working exceptionally well – not to mention a very smooth launch – the multiplayer game in Hardline is one of the series’ strongest yet. Gameplay is a lot more riveting than we’re used to, mainly due to the increase in player speed, and the smaller, tighter maps, which still hold up to the usual 64 player max. This results in some serious chaos, and when you take into consideration the lack of military grade weaponry and vehicles, means you have some of the finest gunplay and firefights you’ll ever see in an FPS.
The new customisation mode is a welcome change, too. Instead of simply unlocking new items through XP, you earn Money as you play, and can buy the weapons, the attachments and the gadgets as you please.
There’s a double edged sword in the equipment available. Err, not literally. Hardline gives us access to a very noticeable lack of guns, likely to keep in tune with the lack of military. It’s not great, as you can usually just buy your most preferred weapons at your first chance, meaning you have little to work towards with character customisation. It losses a little value when the second cheapest gun is my favorite, and I can buy it with no need to ‘upgrade’ for that class again. But while we have access to and options for much fewer weaponry, the game is actually a lot more balanced because of it. The new class set-ups and loadouts make way for a very tuned gameplay experience that the developers have painstakingly tested, meaning while streamlined, it’s never unfair or uneven. This, along with the somewhat shocking server stability, is a first for a Battlefield launch. It all just works so perfectly.
The Battlefield staple Conquest makes a welcome return as the primary game mode you’ll find online, but it’s the new additions that really stand out. Blood Money and Heist are two 32-player modes which play on the theme, involving money and the gracious act of stealing it. Heist particularly is noteworthy as an attack/defend type mode, and is arguably the most tactical in the game. No matter how you want to play, there’s a perfect place for you on the team. Blood Money is very unique too, with both teams tasked with stealing from the same money grab and returning to home base, but things get interesting when you can also rob the oppositions own vault. These matches can be lengthy, close and full of action. New also is Hotwire, a conquest style mode where the bases are actually cars that you need to drive to hold down. This is just pure unadulterated fun, the vehicular combat with primarily civilian vehicles is so different for a Battlefield game, requiring some real team work – or just some great driving skills – to take the win.
Finally, there are two more new modes which take a very different tone. Crosshair and Rescue; with a max of 10 players, and no respawns, on paper these game modes just don’t sound like they belong anywhere near a Battlefield game. In practice however, they just work. Short rounds and tense standoffs, things can be over in seconds or come right down to the hair in the last seconds. They make for a refreshing change of pace and are a good place to test your stealth and cunning, not just your brute firepower. A terrific addition to the formula that I hope sticks around. Just give us Rush back, please.
Hardline is a mixed bag visually, scoring major points with attention to detail and design. The level design is superb, in multiplayer at least, and the setting fresh. But it’s strange to me that this game, released more than a year since the last installment, can’t manage to stand shoulder to shoulder with Battlefield 4. The cutscene animation is great, but apart from that the character and gun models, and the scenery, are definably ugly. It’s a step back from what we’ve been promised from the Frostbite 3 engine, and I think goes to show that catering to the last generation of consoles with new games only goes to hurt them. A fall from grace for the series which has set new benchmarks with every release.
Thankfully, the folks in the audio department lived up to the reputation the name holds. Hardline sounds brilliant, especially in surround sound. When things heat up in the game, there’s nothing that makes you feel it like the audio. It’s loud, abrasive and suits the tone of the game, the gunplay and explosions having substantial weight and the attitude from the characters fitting right into the mix. The performances in the campaign are great, with some Hollywood talent adding some recognizable faces and polishing off the narrative. Also a small, but noticeable addition, is an in-game radio which plays a variety of songs (hip-hop and rock) while you drive around in multiplayer. It doesn’t add much, but is a nice touch when you’re playing something like Hotwire that has you in a vehicle almost the whole time. You can change the songs or turn it off completely, but it actually does make a high speed chase all that much cooler with some music blasting.
Battlefield Hardline is most definitely not a main instalment in the franchise, and when you look at the lack of actual content it’s easy to see why. But it’s different, it’s original and most importantly it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The new theme is a welcome change for a game that was beginning to get stale, but Visceral missed a major opportunity with the poor single-player experience that could have been in a league of its own. The game might be step up a bit with some DLC that adds some more maps and hopefully weaponry, but in the meantime, there’s still a lot of gold in the multiplayer experience, and it separates itself enough from the previous Battlefield games that it all feels fresh again. This could be the start of big names taking a risk with a directional change, and for the good of us all, I hope it is.