Back in ye good olde days, the term single-player was not synonymous with Battlefield. Unless you were partaking in a bot match to practice your skills or boost your map knowledge, you were playing Battlefield online or at a LAN (ah, the good old days, indeed) because multiplayer was one of the core pillars of the Battlefield experience. DICE showed it could compose a compelling campaign experience with (originally) console-exclusive Bad Company, and then tried its hand at plot-driven, grittier storytelling in Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4: it was an endeavour, I would argue, whose execution left a lot to be desired.
For Battlefield Hardline, though, it’s a different affair, probably because it’s being developed externally to DICE. Visceral Games has a history of combining clever set pieces and engaging storytelling, as evidenced by games such as James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, Dead Space, and Dante’s Inferno. This is why when Visceral says it’s put time and effort into the single-player portion of Battlefield Hardline, it’s worth paying attention and believing it’s true and will be present in the final product.
To date, I’d only had hands-off exposure to Hardline’s campaign, but I recently had the opportunity to test drive the prologue (read: training) mission and episode nine (of 10 total episodes). Because of Battlefield 3 and 4, I was expecting a sombre tone for Hardline, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that Visceral has set the campaign tone on, well, cool. It’s believable and grounded, with clear inspiration from popular cop dramas, but it also boasts well-rounded characters and a healthy smattering of humour. It’s not the action-comedy of the Bad Company series, but the two sections I experienced satisfyingly straddled the line between satisfying drama and effective comedy.
It meant that the extended on-rails driving section at the beginning of the game was a fantastic introduction to the grounded game world and it was also entertaining, as playable character Nick Mendoza rides shotgun with his partner. They shoot the shit in such a way that it feels natural and made me instantly connect with them. Off to a great start, Visceral.
What followed was a training mission made interesting by NPC banter and the introduction of new mechanics. For the first time in a Battlefield game, stealth is actually a viable option; hell, it’s more than that, it’s encouraged. If you want to play it good cop, stealth is your best bet, as Nick can toss shell casings to create audible distractions for guards that are looking your way for creating silent takedown opportunities. If there’s only one guard, he’ll go investigate; if there are two, only one will leave to scrutinise, which makes sense.
To further push the stealth angle, vision cones have been added to the mini-map, which makes it easier to plot your ninja approach. Nick can also pull out his badge on unsuspecting foes and order them to drop their weapons. The catch is you need to keep switching your aim between surrendered foes—similar to the crowd-control mechanic in I Am Alive—as you close in to handcuff them, lest they reach for their weapon. A handy meter above their heads indicate how close they are to reaching their weapons, while this meter is also used to signpost how close an enemy is to spotting you during other stealthy moments.
The badge mechanic is a great inclusion, but it also highlights the continued trend of shoddy friendly AI. While executive producer Steve Papoutsis did explicitly call out friendly “following AI” as a work in progress, it was jarring to be the only cop arresting multiple goons who were, moments ago, all itching to reach for their weapons. Entering the arresting animation seemingly stops the other goons from reaching for their guns, which was a big immersion breaker for the new mechanic.
There was also no option to hide bodies once incapacitated, which puts Hardline firmly in the action-stealth category. In its current form, enemy AI had what Papoutsis referred to as “heat-seeking mode” activated, in that all bad guys immediately knew where you were as soon as you’d been spotted. He said Visceral is currently working on shifting that system over to a ‘last known position’ mode, whereby a stealth state can be partially reset if you break line of sight for long enough. According to Papoutsis, baddies won’t go back into a normal behaviour of believing you’re not there, either; instead, they’ll go back to what they were doing, albeit in a cautious state.
The other big inclusion is an evidence scanner that works up close or zoomed at range and is perfect for spotting enemies from afar and actively encourages players to plan their incursion. It is a Battlefield game, though, so you can still run in guns blazing, if you so desire. I certainly did at times, but the quieter approach also tempted me to break my usual run-and-gun default state. Using the evidence scanner before a fight is an enticing option, particularly for completionists, given the abundance of scannable evidence and high-priority targets with outstanding warrants.
Visceral is also encouraging a mixture of play styles, specifically for those players that start off stealthily and then decide to go loud. Upon death, all of the tagging you did with the evidence scanner persists, which means you’re not punished into having to go through it all again, increasing the likelihood that you’ll try to perfect the same stealthy approach again, or perhaps find another entry point.
Such was the case in episode nine, where the most obvious option was to Neo my way into a lobby filled with heavily armed security. A nearby parking lot provided a brilliant scouting point, which could have also been used for sniping, or to take advantage of the very cool zipline gadget to make a second-storey balcony entrance. Ultimately, I snuck around to the back loading dock, silently incapacitating one distracted guard and tasing the next before a patrolling guard spotted me and it was time to break out my double-barrel shotgun.
There are weapons lockers scattered throughout each level that let players customise weapons and gadgets which, in turn, further incentivise players to mix up their play style. The primary and secondary slots have been reversed, which makes sense given the game is dealing with cops, so your main weapon is a pistol variant, while your backup can be anything from shotgun to SMG to sniper rifle. Gadgets are almost entirely new, too. Try your hand with a zipline, taser, grappling hook or laser mines.
Weapon customisation is also as deep as would be expected from a Battlefield game, while extended magazines make a welcome return for the appropriate weapon categories. Melee weapons are particularly entertaining, even if they are just alternative skin options, as players can choose to take it seriously with a police baton or baseball bat, or get a bit ridiculous with golf club or sledgehammer. The extensive equipment customisation plays really well into the prevailing motif of forging your own Battlefield experience.
I don’t want to give too much away about the specifics of episode nine, which included some expected spoilers, but also two fantastic set-piece moments that would be ruined if I detailed them. Suffice it to say, they were both equal parts ridiculous (in a good way) and unique, with a great sense of humour about their execution which made them all the more entertaining.
It’s a credit to Visceral to see how much it’s made such a departure from the Battlefield formula still feel like a Battlefield game in the right ways. From what I experienced, vehicles and epic explosions take a back seat to satisfying gunplay and memorable characterisation. It’s a different take on what has been experienced in the Battlefield franchise before, but as far as that applies to single-player, that’s a very good thing.
Nathan Lawrence can be found fragging n00bs in a variety of digital battlefields, but most commonly the ones from the franchise with a capital ‘B’. He loves games with a strong narrative component, and believes in a gaming world where cutscenes are no longer necessary. In his lack of spare time, Nathan can be found working on a variety of wacky script ideas, and dreams of freeing cinemagoers from unnecessary sequels and pointless remakes by writing films with never-before-seen twists and turns. But mostly he’s all about the fragging of n00bs.
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