On playgrounds up and down the country, playing Cops and Robbers has been a staple of practically everyone’s childhood – unless you preferred to play Cowboys and Indians, Doctors and Nurses or football with a tennis ball. There’s an element of that fantasy play in Battlefield Hardline’s multiplayer, where the scope of Battlefield’s signature game modes is married to a conflict on a smaller scale.
Hardline is a notable shift for a series which has always concerned itself with wars, pulling away from a conflict between nations and back to the kinds of gun battles and shootouts that will feel much closer to home for the American public. The story centres instead on the war on drugs that consumes so many millions of taxpayer dollars, trying to combat the relentless influx of narcotics into the country.
Compared to the disappointing drudgery of the last two mainline Battlefield games this is a breath of fresh air. As newly assigned Detective Nick Mendoza and his new partner Khai Minh Dao quickly find themselves embroiled in a twisting and turning tale of corruption, deceit and revenge. It sounds like your standard buddy cop film fodder, but what makes it stand out from the crowd is how it’s presented as more of a TV show.
Right from the title credits that roll after the prologue, introducing each of the characters and their actors – several of which previously acted in cop shows – to the “previously on…” summaries of the action that happen when you load back into a level, and even “next time on…” outros if you quit to the main menu. The ten episodes generally come it around the 40 minute mark too, each with its own self contained pacing and arc, and this all lends itself well to a slightly cheekier tone and the odd wry smile later in the story, compared to the more serious blockbuster films that games so often try to ape. Then again, there are a number of standout moments that are more than worthy of an over the top buddy cop film and will have you grinning from ear to ear at their sheer audacity.
This isn’t your standard corridor shooter, taking the brief glimpses of sandbox arenas from Battlefield 4 and pushing them further into what Visceral dub Fortress encounters, something which begins to approach Far Cry’s outposts, albeit within a linear story. At least a dozen times through the story you’ll be faced with an area with patrolling guards. Naturally you can go in all guns blazing, but it’s better to go in quietly, and try to take people out as they are isolated – there’s also usually an alarm to deactivate, so that a car of extra goons won’t show up.
Chief amongst your toolset is your police badge, which lets you get up to three enemies to drop their weapons, so you can cuff them. You have to be aware and keep looking at each of them so that they don’t draw and start a gunfight, but sometimes your partner will run in and cover the other guy as you make the arrest – though they’re precious little help at other times. This is also beneficial because, in addition to searching for clues to build case files, you’ll also be able to grab criminals with a warrant for their arrest.
But the way that these sandbox areas are designed also allows you to tackle them from a number of different angles, by using the grappling hook and zipline to gain the advantage. Admittedly, I generally snuck around the areas, taking people down quietly, which neutralised a lot of the challenge of a pitched gunfight on Veteran difficulty, but then there are still plenty of climactic shootouts, just as there are more relaxed moments of exposition as you find yourself heading from A to B.
The story certainly shows of what it is that Visceral can bring to the series, after years of disappointment on that front. It’s not perfect and there’s a few moments which feel a little flat, dialogue which doesn’t match up with what you actually need to do and the occasional spike in difficulty, but these are easily outweighed by the moments of bombast and occasional light humour.
Yet it’s the multiplayer that is the beating heart of Battlefield and it’s here that Visceral have had an uphill struggle to convince the most sceptical of the series’ fans. Of course, it simply wouldn’t be a Battlefield game these days without the huge 64 player Conquest game mode – though sadly this and 64-man TDM also send the framerate below 60fps quite noticeably – but that series mainstay feels like it will take a backseat to some of the new additions and inventive twists on the other staple modes.
Heist is perhaps the most logical addition, taking a loose rendition of the main series’ Rush mode and giving it a light Payday-esque twist. It’s a simple mission to break into a vault through a number of points, grab the money and get it to the chopper before time runs out or you run out of respawn tickets, as the police whittle away your numbers.
Blood Money then sees you squabbling over a central stash of cash, trying to secure it for your side, while Hotwire is a form of Conquest, where each control point is a vehicle that must be driven above a certain speed in order to be active and drain the opposing team’s respawn tickets. Early on with this mode, there is a feeling that you’re just aimlessly driving around or endlessly chasing after letters, but then you realise that you can have a control point car full of guys hanging out of windows and chase down enemy captured points to destroy them, or grab the RPG that’s tucked away in a building and set an ambush. My favourite tactic by far is to use remotely detonate breaching charges thrown out the window of a car.
That last point is key, as the four classes that were present in Battlefield 4 have been rejigged and renamed, amidst a raft of other changes that alter the tone of the game. The Mechanic, for example, (this game’s Engineer) has SMGs and PDWs for their weapons still, but these have been amped up a bit to make them more viable in combat. But he’s now the guy with all the tech, with the ability to sabotage vehicles or plant the satellite phone that is this game’s spawn point, taking that away from the Professional née Sniper class. He also takes the Assault class’ grenade launcher, with RPGs and LMGs now to be found as pick ups on the maps.
Buying new weapons and gadgets has been given a more accessible twist too, where cash earnt as one class can be spent to buy things for another and battlepacks can now award generic weapon modifications tickets that can be spent on any gun. It gives you a lot more freedom to explore the various classes, as you’ll no longer be stuck having to get 5 sniper kills, but you will need to unlock cop and criminal specific weapons on either side of the fence – it takes 1,250 kills with a gun to enable its use on the other side of the law – which helps the two sides feel ever so slightly more distinct, outside of the criminals’ more vulgar spot and mark gesture.
That’s emphasised during the asymmetrical modes, but aside from Heist, that is the preserve of the two 5v5 squad-based modes Rescue and Crosshair. Both of these give you a single life per round – played as a best of nine rounds – and with hostage rescue/defence and VIP escorting/elimination as their goals. Damage to the world persists from one round to the next, so buildings might be collapsed or walls opened, giving you more tactical options. They can be genuinely tense, albeit prone to devolving into a straight up shootout, but my main issue comes that the teams only switch sides after four of the nine rounds have already been played, potentially giving one side a near unassailable 4-0 lead.
As a whole, the game refocusses around more ground-based combat, as lighter vehicles come to the fore, but can be destroyed relatively easily. That’s key in Hotwire’s balance, but also has an effect on Conquest, Blood Money and Heist – when maps allow for vehicles. It’s a different take on the Battlefield series, with many of the same core elements but a shifted focal point and a slightly faster pace to the running and gunning.
It’s easy to dismiss Hardline out of hands as being too far removed from Battlefield’s typical setting to be worthy of the name, but even as Visceral ride on the brands coattails, they’ve had the confidence to adapt that core gameplay to suit a new setting. That’s not just true of the multiplayer, but also the single player story and its compelling tale of drugs and police corruption.
Version tested: PlayStation 4
For this review, Battlefield Hardline’s multiplayer was primarily tested at a dedicated event last week, but also subsequently with public servers in the last few days. With testing during the public beta and netcode that has much in common with recent BF4 patches, multiplayer at launch should be relatively smooth, but watch the news if you are wary of issues.