Traditionally Battlefield games aren't known for their single-player experiences. For years, SP was just the multiplayer maps with bots, and when DICE started doing narrative campaigns they dropped the ball twice in a row.
So forgive me if I didn't expect much from Battlefield Hardline. Think about everything we knew from preview sessions during the game's early stages. We knew the main character's name was Mendoza, which is a name you always scream in McBain's voice whenever you read it. We'd seen in the multiplayer beta that the team didn't appear to care much about the distinction between police officer and criminal. And we knew that Battlefield games have short history of involving terribly stern and uninteresting storylines. I know better than to write a game off before I've played it, but let's just say I went in with lowered expectations.
Consider me pleasantly surprised. Nick Mendoza isn't a strong or deep enough character to permanently transcend the rather silly Simpsons moment his name is more famous for, but while the game is going and the characters are talking, McBain's voice subsides and he's the only Mendoza who exists. The credit goes to the writers, who not only fed the actors believable lines but also steered away from sombre, humourless scenes.
The actors deserve praise as well, of course. Battlefield Hardline ropes in a number of actors from various TV shows, and the experience helps. Benito Martinez plays your upwardly-mobile precinct Captain Julian Dawes, and the shift from The Barn across to Miami PD doesn't slow him at all. Kelly Hu from Castle and Arrow is your no-nonsense partner, Adam Harrington from Supernatural is a drug trafficker you chase down... even Nicholas Gonzalez, who plays lead Nick Mendoza, was at one point a detective in Melrose Place.
Ok, that last one's not the best example. But Visceral's previous experience capturing great performances from characters and translating them to the digital pays off here -- each character looks and moves great, and they deliver their lines like it's not their first time attempting to do so.
The story is pretty clichèd. It's the sort of thing you wouldn't be surprised to see in Hawaii 5.0 or NCIS, although Visceral would prefer the game was compared to something like The Shield or Justified. Each mission is topped and tailed with a "previously on" and "next time on", which is a cool touch, and don't get me wrong -- Hardline is a single contained story arc the entire way through, not a "monster of the week" style game peppered with a background story arc, but the story itself isn't of the same quality as, say, True Detective.
It follows the exploits of Detective Nicholas Mendoza as he joins the Miami Police Department and becomes a soldier in the War on Drugs. One of my favourite moments was when some criminally minded individuals dismiss a massive marijuana growhouse because "it will all be legal in a couple of years", a self-aware piece of humour that struck with me almost exactly as I was wondering why Mendoza was busting a pot growhouse.
In a lot of ways the writing and the acting is reminiscent of Battlefield Bad Company, where the actors had chemistry and the writing had a self-referential sense of humour. It's difficult to write dialogue like this, and Hardline doesn't nail it nearly as often as Bad Company 2 did, but I was engaged from beginning to end without feeling like I was putting in hard time.
The gameplay itself definitely helped. While the multiplayer portion of Battlefield Hardline (the review of that is coming later in the week once we've played the game in the wild) still has little to do with cops and robbers beyond the skins, the single-player very much puts you in the shoes of a police officer. And it's good, but not great.
SWAT 4 is the pinnacle of law enforcement in videogames. It was a game that used the stilted style of Rainbow Six to tell an understated narrative, while also encouraging players to follow police procedures. To get the most points in a level, you needed to act like a police officer -- announce your presence, tell those inside the area to raise their hands, avoid the use of lethal force where possible -- and failure to complete something as simple as securing criminal weapons could result in much lower scores.
The key to SWAT 4's brilliance was that your duty forced you to give criminals a chance to surrender before you were allowed to shoot them. The Rules of Engagement stated that you were not to fire unless in immediate danger, forcing you into a situation where you would tap the F button repeatedly, forcefully begging them to drop their weapons lest you drop them
. This turned every single encounter -- even those where you got the drop on the enemy -- into a tense battle of nerves. If you let them turn too far around without the gun clattering to the floor, they might shoot you or a team-mate, and that would be a devastating encounter. The balance of power in each encounter could shift at the drop of a hat, but as a law enforcement officer you were bound by the rules of your role to see how it would play out every time.
I'm yapping about this so much because Battlefield Hardline almost achieves this level of excellence in its single-player, but it falls short in a critical way. You can arrest enemies in Hardline. You're rewarded for arresting them, and there's a dedicated button for doing it. You flash your badge at them, they drop their weapons, you cuff them and you move on. They're as incapacitated as any of Solid Snake's victims.
The game has a progression system designed to incentivise players to be "expert" police officers, which means using your phone to tag enemies and find evidence as well as arresting every person possible. The problem with the system is twofold. First of all, arresting someone is a binary event -- they're either frozen in place waiting to be arrested or they're still currently hostile. There is a mechanic in place which forces you to keep your gun trained on them, but this is rarely an issue. The problem with this being an either/or mechanic is that the tension of the SWAT 4 encounters is gone -- enemies will turn around to see your badge, often sweeping their muzzle across you as they do. This would be an instant kill in SWAT 4, though here the chance of shooting a soon-to-be unarmed man is removed from the players grasp -- Battlefield Hardline follows a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" rule.
The other problem is that while being a proper police officer and doing things correctly is rewarded, putting silent headshots into bad guys without their knowledge isn't punished. When I found myself getting frustrated with my full stealth attempts, it was far too simple to just put a bullet in enemies and move on. I'd capped out my Expert Rank (the progression system tied to arresting perps and gathering evidence) a long time before I finished the game, too. Hardline would have benefited greatly from both negative and positive reinforcement.
This rigid system hints at, while not quite being, a brilliant gameplay mechanic. Fortunately facilitating this mechanic forces the rest of the game to stray from the typical first-person-shooter campaign style -- instead of sprinting from checkpoint to checkpoint, as is the case in the Call of Duty games and in the last two Battlefield campaigns, each level is a scenario for you to dismantle unto itself.
The easiest way to think of them is like an outpost in Far Cry 3 or 4. Before you begin, whip out your phone and tag every enemy you can see. This lets you see them through walls, lets you spot alarms (which you can disable by activating them or by shooting them) and allows you to mark out any explosives in the area as well.
You have options at almost all times -- you can go in guns blazing, murdering everyone as you attempt to clear the area. Or you can sneak in, past everyone and into the next area. This usually backfires, as on more than one occasion you have to return through the area you just cleared, and anyone not arrested or killed will be there waiting for you. The best option is to sneak in, arrest everyone you can and then move on. It can be a bit tricky at times, but putting every single criminal in cuffs is extremely satisfying, and like other soft stealth games you're able to go loud at the drop of a hat.
The final mission is easily the game at its best, even if the story's ending is unsatisfying. I won't go into too many details to avoid spoiling it for you, but after a game full of action-packed set-pieces punctuated by soft stealth action the game finishes at at its logical conclusion -- a massive map, a vaguely open set of objectives and all the time to complete it in.
It's not without its flaws. The AI is inconsistent -- dumb as dogshit when at "rest", hyper-alert when in its Alert phase. Too many arrests can be made by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs using the "throw a stone to distract a guard" mechanic, when in reality after three pings around a corner I'd have called for a friend to come see the ghost. Overall the game is too easy -- even when they dare to restrict your access to items or hint at acquiring things on the scene, you're able to equip any gear you might need from a menu.
The few times you find yourself commanding a vehicle, the game's physics seem sloppy. Hardline suffers from its delays in an unexpected way -- being pushed back from its October 2014 release date to a time after the release of Grand Theft Auto V means most next-gen gamers have seen how first-person combat driving should look, and Hardline doesn't cut the mustard there.
Seeking out people with experience in the genre pays off for the campaign, creating a storyline which is believable enough while still allowing for the explosive set pieces that are now gaming's bread and butter. The Arrest mechanic does the inexplicable, providing players with a non-violent (or less violent, depending on your opinions regarding the restraint of non-sentient AI characters) option -- unheard of in a Triple-A first-person shooter. The gameplay, broken up into large level chunks and giving way to improvisational strategising, allows the player a lot of agency -- even if the cutscenes still insist on removing control from players.
All told, Battlefield Hardline's single-player campaign is a good step in the right direction, even if it's not a flawless move. Should the multiplayer fail to capture an audience, or should the game itself fail to really sell, my greatest fear is that EA will chalk this up to an experiment gone wrong. Hardline lacks polish, but it more than makes up for it with bold ideas.
Battlefield Hardline is not a Battlefield game.
This isn't an attack on the game. This doesn't diminish whatever qualities the game has. I'm not saying it because it wasn't created by DICE, and liking Hardline doesn't make you any less of a Battlefield fan. But it's not a Battlefield game.
You only need to look at how Conquest plays out in Battlefield Hardline to realise this. Conquest is Battlefield's marquis game mode, a massive sprawling affair where (up-to) 64 players duke it out across giant maps, using any means necessary to complete their objective. Victory in Conquest is measured in tickets -- the more you have at the end, the better you have done.
Superficially similar to Domination mode in Call of Duty or King of the Hill in almost a billion other games, what makes Conquest so compelling is that it delivers an ever-changing set of priorities across multiple levels of gameplay. In Domination or King of the Hill, the objective is to control the zones. Your set of priorities is to capture zones your team doesn't have and defend those you already own.
Conquest adds layers of complexity to the mix, because your priorities aren't as rigid. The addition of vehicles forces players to rethink their overall strategy on a life-by-life basis, and it encourages them to change their tactics on a second-by-second basis. When a tank is roaming the map trying to kill you, it's not enough to simply capture or defend points -- a weapon as powerful as that can change the balance of a game, and so it becomes an alternate priority for your team.
You have a plethora of options for dealing with that vehicle, and on the fly you need to work out which you will use. Suddenly, player roles become very important, and the makeup of your team can be the difference between victory and defeat. Without at least one engineer, you can't destroy the tank at all. Without a medic you might find your progress halted significantly. Without an assault you might be cut down by enemy masses, and without a support your ammo will run out before you reach your objective. You won't notice if you don't have a recon because they'll be camped in the base trying to shoot the other recon players.
The reason this works to provide a compelling and interesting game mode is because each player has the tools they need to succeed. Successful incentivising of players to work together also helps, but the primary reason people love Conquest is because at any point in time the player is able to change their priorities and act on that change.
So, how does this exempt Hardline from being a Battlefield game?
If you've read the single-player portion of my review, you'll know that Battlefield Hardline is a cops vs robbers game. Unfortunately for Visceral, criminals who wield rocket launchers en masse are called domestic terrorists, and they're not really the purview of local police departments (no matter how much surplus military gear that department has purchased).
For a game that wasn't Battlefield related, this wouldn't be a problem. A rocket launcher isn't a necessity in a game where vehicles aren't the focus, because they're primarily used as anti-vehicle weapons (Quake games notwithstanding). In modes where vehicles don't play a large role -- in the smaller modes like Rescue or Crosshair, or in Heist, the single large mode where the emphasis is drawn away from vehicles -- the game is at its best, giving way to a different set of changing priorities, those which don't involve anti-vehicle warfare.
But on Conquest, or Hotwire, or Blood Money Battlefield Hardline has a problem. Players in vehicles have far too much power in these modes, because players on-foot aren't equipped with the tools to deal with them. Rocket Launchers and Anti-Air Launchers do exist in Battlefield Hardline, but for a player to access them they must either find them on the map or equip them to a vehicle. This isn't actually that bad -- if you unlock the ability to put an RPG in the boot of your police cruiser, it's easy enough to pick it up moments after you leave your base.
The problem is that holding an RPG or a Stinger launcher or a SMAW becomes your primary weapon. It doesn't replace an item in your inventory, it supersedes it. To use any other weapon you need to drop the RPG and re-equip the weapon you want to use. This is a problem in Conquest, Hotwire and Blood Money, because it means if you want to deal with a vehicle in the game, it becomes your only priority -- you're not equipped to deal with anything else.
Suddenly the cascading system of priorities disappears, because if you pick up a rocket launcher from somewhere on the map, the only way to bring that Rocket Launcher to a vehicle which needs blowing up is to travel there with it equipped as your weapon. If you run into another player along the way, you will lose 50/50 encounters against all but players with the worst aim.
Without a capable way to deal with vehicles (and grenade launchers don't count, seeing how it takes multiple grenades to kill a sedan) Conquest becomes a game of haves and have-nots. Those in the armoured vehicles or helicopters have a great deal of power and those on-foot have only the immediate power to deal with others on-foot.
It's reminiscent of how chopper pilots in Battlefield 2 reached a degree of competence where they were almost impossible to stop -- the top of the leaderboards in public servers would routinely feature a chopper pilot and his gunner. The twist here is that anyone can drive an armoured truck, park it near a capture area and then mow down every person who comes near -- the skill ceiling on driving a truck is low, and the skill ceiling on dealing with said vehicle is much higher.
In Hotwire, where the capture zones of Conquest are tied to vehicles themselves, the problem is exacerbated. Against less competent teams you'll often find yourself simply driving laps around the map, rarely passing through areas of conflict which appear independent from the game mode's objectives. The driving model in Hardline isn't brilliant, as it seems like the Battlefield engine has trouble handling vehicles moving along the ground at the sorts of speeds you tend to move at, so doing laps around a bayou can get tedious pretty quickly.
In Blood Money the armoured trucks can roll up to the central Money Pile and dominate the enemy team with ease. Blood Money is essentially single flag capture-the-flag, except it allows each team to directly take from their opponent's captures -- after stealing money from the central pile you have the option to also steal from your enemies pile as well.
Without vehicles Blood Money would be a solid mode, although it's a bit of a nightmare in public matches. It requires at least a small degree of team coordination or it can become lopsided -- too many pub players will duke it out at the enemy's money pile instead of focusing on getting captures at the money pile, primarily because the central pile is too easy to dominate with an armoured vehicle. Blood Money doesn't suffer to the degree Conquest or Hotwire does from the vehicle problem, but it can get bogged down when a good chopper pilot and side gunner combo get going.
So, Battlefield Hardline has problems stemming from the modes that are "Battlefieldy" -- fortunately it's fantastic in the modes that are not.
Heist is the other large game mode in Battlefield Hardline, and it's the first of the asymmetrical game modes, giving each team different objectives to concentrate on. It's simple attack/defend stuff, with the cops defending and the criminals attacking. Each map has two items to steal, and the criminals need to get to the items (deep in Police defended territory) and get out to an extraction point. A helicopter flies in after a short wait, and the criminals get the capture when they touch the chopper.
There's a good deal of nuance in this mode, which is what makes it compelling. The destructibility inherent to DICE's Frostbite engine allows defensive positions on each map to slowly erode, forcing players to rethink their tactics. The items the criminals are stealing don't always sit next to one another, and when they're separated the division of labour can be challenging to coordinate on both sides.
It's when I'm thinking outside the box and attempting to create a solution out of nothing that Hardline feels like a game I could keep playing over and over, and Heist is the only large scale mode which delivers this repeatedly. Getting an advantage over your opponents is critical to success, and there's an element of actual accomplishment felt when you earn a creative victory.
The other two modes are also asymmetrical. Rescue and Crosshair both borrow heavily from Counter-Strike, with Rescue resembling cs_ maps and Crosshair mimicking as_ maps. If you can't recall the designations, those are hostage rescue and VIP assassination modes respectively.
Both modes feature five versus five competitive style gameplay. You get one life per round, there are nine rounds per game and after four rounds you switch sides and try to eke out victory.
Rescue involves two hostages, one of whom must be carried back to the police team's spawn to earn victory. The hostages are invincible, and what this results in is a lot of high-explosive solutions to otherwise deadly problems. Throwing a firebomb into the hostage room to deal with a bunkered down criminal is a perfectly viable tactic in Rescue.
As a result, each round sees the destructible environments wear away at the world a little more. Walls become pocked with holes from bullets and explosives, giving both sides extra sight lines inside. Trip mines become less viable as you run out of places to put them. All destruction resets at halftime, allowing both teams the same opportunities.
Crosshair equips one player on the Cops team with a golden Desert Eagle and challenges them to make it to an escape zone. Crosshair is fast paced as players rush across the map, and there's a great deal of mind games involved on both sides. On more than one occasion as the VIP I would do my best to stick with my team for a few rounds and then mix things up the next, leaving the four of them to go one way while I went off alone. It's a lot of fun, but like VIP mode in Counter-Strike though, I suspect Crosshair will see far less playing time than its hostage rescue counterpart.
So, there's good and bad in Battlefield Hardline. The hit detection woes of BF3 and BF4 appear to be a thing of the past here (and they're mostly gone in BF4 by now, as well) but the game does seem to suffer a degree of lag when moving at speed. Hit detection gets iffier the faster you go. Grenades and rockets, projectiles you can actually see moving, tend to fire with a delay as the game attempts to work out where you were when you fired them. This is annoying, but it appears to be consistent so you can at least adjust to it. Count it as yet another strike against the vehicle heavy modes, though.
Two people killing one another in a 50/50 firefight is far
less common than it was in BF3 and BF4, but it does still happen occasionally. It's hard to tell if they've fixed the problem and that this occurs as a natural phenomenon in a game where projectiles have travel time, or if it's a lingering remnant of the problems that plagued the last two Battlefield games.
In modes like Heist, Rescue and Crosshair the gunplay feels great. Enemies drop when they're supposed to and you're able to concentrate on the task at hand, instead of feeling frustrated about getting screwed by hitboxes.
If Hardline faces any specific challenge, it will be from gaining a large enough playerbase. Battlefield 4 is finally in a state where it plays as it always should have and Battlefront is due out in just a few months. One of the problems Titanfall suffered was a sharp uptick in player population during the first few weeks which disappeared before the end of the month -- and there's a chance that same sequence of events may happen in Battlefield Hardline.
Of course, it's a Catch-22 situation -- the player population won't be high unless people buy it, and people shouldn't buy it if the player population isn't high. That's the challenge many multiplayer games face, and Hardline is no different. I'd love to see Rescue and Heist establish a community of players, because they're great modes done well.