The skepticism about Battlefield Hardline was almost palpable when it was announced at E3, a quite drastic tonal shift from the all out warfare of the long running franchise to something more akin to a police procedural.
The multiplayer beta test that launched alongside the announcement was all about those “Battlefield moments”, an over the top action romp as cops and robbers waged war through a city. It’s fair to say that it didn’t exactly capture people’s imaginations, but the single player could be a whole other story.
Rather than the boots of a frontline soldier or special forces team, you’re stepping into the shoes of rookie Detective Nick Mendoza. There’s a drug war sparking off in Miami and, alongside Nick’s more experienced partner, Detective Khai Minh Dao, you’ll quickly find yourself embroiled in a story that’s set to take quite a few twists and turns, eventually landing yourself on the wrong side of the law.
There’s a markedly different pace to the game and how Visceral go about setting the scene, thanks largely to this new setting. An early mission starts with Khai driving you through Miami, to try and track down a particular drug dealer. It’s a surprisingly lengthy drive, but as the two characters talk, you observe the manifestation of the modern gap between rich and poor in America. Gang tags become more prominent, houses look more and more dishevelled, and the level culminates in an abandoned school that’s been taken over by a drug dealing gang.
This is also a game that has an appropriately reduced focus on shooting and gunplay. Sneaking your way through gang territory, to avoid raising the alarm and letting your target make an escape, you’ll be flicking empty shells to distract people standing guard, and then knocking them out when they’re not looking.
Your police badge also comes in handy in these situations, and getting close enough to flash your badge and shout “Freeze!” – you don’t have to do this in the real world, but I assume it’s more fun – allows you to subdue multiple enemies in a non-lethal fashion. You’ll have to be careful though, because if you’re not regularly switching focus between enemies, they might think themselves to be lucky punks before you can work your way through and cuff them.
It’s with the game’s fortress encounters – Visceral’s catchy way of describing open sandbox areas – that you really have the freedom to choose what you want to do. Do you barrel in through the front door, all guns blazing? Do you methodically catch enemies unawares and quietly subdue them? Maybe you’ve got a grappling hook equipped as one of your gadgets and spot a balcony you can quietly get up to.
Naturally, gunplay does come into it during big action sequences, or if you just get things wrong while trying to be stealthy. There’s all manner of guns in the game though, from pistols up to assault rifles, shotguns and LMGs, and you’ll be able to pick your loadout before missions and at weapon stashes. There’s even a similar degree of customisation to Battlefield 4, letting you add silencers or, just for the hell of it, daub your guns in gold or even pink and black zebra stripes.
Your pistol and main weapon are, just as in Battlefield 4, augmented by the two gadgets that you can have, but these take a different tone. The taser will doubtless be a popular choice in the story, for the silent, non-lethal takedowns, but you also have the ballistic shield and breaching charge, for more of a SWAT team feel, or the zipline and grappling gun, which will open up more options for getting into a building.
Interestingly, your AI buddies generally seem to just get out of the way and let you get on with things. It was particularly noticeable during the sandbox Fortress areas, where I was given free rein to explore and take enemies down without the worry or distraction of my cohort. However, at this stage, it doesn’t feel like it really struck the right balance between feeling like I had company and not getting in my way, and their calling out of gadgets that you could use if you had them equipped felt a little bit too on the nose. However, there’s still plenty of time for elements like this to be tweaked ahead of launch.
Going in hot will affect a kind of morality system within the game, shifting you a few notches towards being branded a loose cannon, rather than a perfectionist who goes through cuffing perps. It’s one part of a number of such ancillary mechanics, alongside identifying and arresting certain perps and collecting evidence during missions to fill in case files.
At times, what I saw really felt like a kind of buddy cop film, albeit with each mission set up like an episode in a TV series. Right from the offset, you’re bending the rules a little to cajole a potential informant, for example, but this story will see Nick on both sides of the law, and a mission much later in the game featured a particularly bombastic set piece that had me grinning from ear to ear. If you’ve longed for a fresh injection of fun into the Battlefield series’ single player stories since Bad Company 2, this looks like it might just hit the spot.
Yet maybe the best way to look at Hardline is to recognise the subtitle first and foremost. It might still come under the Battlefield umbrella, but just as a rival series like Call of Duty has several sub-series that can feel rather different from one another, Visceral’s work should be allowed to stand on its own merits. With a fun and interesting looking story and a few extra months to refine the multiplayer, I’m looking forward to seeing more of what they have up their sleeves.