Battlefield Hardline – Review

Title   Battlefield Hardline
Developer  Visceral Games, DICE
Publisher  EA
Platform  PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Genre  First Person Shooter
Release Date  March 20, 2015

Following the current FPS trend, Battlefield Hardline makes a concerted effort to distance itself from the contemporary military shooter. Leaving future warfare to Call Of Duty, Visceral’s big budget spinoff to DICE’s mainline series instead sets its sights on aping the police procedural, episodic structure and all. But make no mistake – this is far from L.A. Noire in first person. Impressive faces aside, there’s little in common here with Rockstar’s 1940’s-set detective-em-up, and that’s no bad thing. In Hardline’s delightfully silly campaign and impressive multiplayer suite, cops and crooks clash over drugs and money, chase each other to the death in high speed pursuits, and wreak wanton destruction across several of America’s criminal hotspots (thanks, Frostbite 3), evidently blowing up all the paperwork with it.

Let’s address the burning question first: Battlefield Hardline’s multiplayer works! Historically, Battlefield’s defining online warfare has always suffered with ropey launch-day woes, which could infamously take anything up to a year to fix, but it’s a delight to report that Hardline finally breaks the unlucky streak, operating smoothly straight out the gate. Unless anything drastically unfortunate happens, at the time of writing the online servers are stable, matchmaking is swift, and games aren’t plagued by numerous glitches, balance issues or system crashes. It’s an important victory for EA, who lost respect after releasing Battlefield 4 in an unfinished and broken state, and pleasing news for loyal fans who don’t have to wait for endless patches. Furthermore, this is just one of a few pleasant surprises to be enjoyed when playing Battlefield Hardline.

Want another one? Despite drawing a not unreasonable amount of scepticism, at first, the wealth of content in store here is enough to warrant a full retail release. While it seems entirely possible this could have been distributed as a substantial police-themed multiplayer expansion for Battlefield 4 instead, the seven modes to play across nine maps, along with a six hour campaign, mean the asking price isn’t wholly unjustified. But perhaps most surprising of all, even more so than the stable multiplayer side of things, is that Battlefield Hardline’s single player doesn’t totally suck.

That seems as good a starting point as any. By no means is it an outright success, but Battlefield Hardline’s campaign is a significant improvement over Battlefields past, easily making it the best in the series yet. That might not mean a lot when, arguably, the previous holder of that accolade was the mediocre Bad Company 2, so to put it another way, Harldine isn’t terribly worse than your pick of any of the last three Call Of Duty games. Developer Visceral (who evidently couldn’t resist throwing in some Dead Space easter eggs) were always in a better position to deliver a single player actually worth playing more than DICE, and in some respects they’ve realised more of Battlefield’s potential than its creators have.  But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves just yet.

In a refreshing thematic shake-up, Hardline swaps out po-faced plots concerning terrorism, nukes and the looming threat of war for a daft buddy cop drama taking in police corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering, set within and around the sun-kissed city of Miami. An episodic structure and some recognisable faces from the small screen help to sell the illusion of a prime time TV cop show, even if the format is underutilised (there are few cliffhangers rounding episodes off, and no “Previously” or “Next time” intros and outros unless you quit out of the game) and a script which tries too hard, means Hardline falls short of its aspirations.

Nevertheless, after the nonsensical drivel that was Battlefield 4, this is a major leap forward for a series that’s never found its storytelling footing, while the cast of eccentric if conventional cops and crims are, at least, less forgettable than the numerous incarnations of Sgt Whatshisface we’ve inhabited before, although they’re not a patch on the lovable oafs of B-Company. As Nick Mendoza, the least interesting of Hardline’s characters, unfortunately, you get to walk both sides of the law in a bid to dish out your own brand of justice as events rapidly conspire against him and what he stands for.

And it really is your own brand of justice, too. Rather than follow its precursors in poorly attempting to imitate its more immediate rivals, if anything Hardline feels indebted more to the likes of Far Cry and Hitman. Levels aren’t rigidly linear shooting galleries but are, instead, often small-scale sandboxes with a level of freedom and choice you’d expect. Previous Battlefield campaigns have been derided for being too derivative and not providing the wealth of options you’ll find in multiplayer skirmishes, but here you given free rein in how and where you attack (minus all the tanks, helicopters and jets, of course).

Ridding areas of enemies is akin to the ‘choose your approach’ mentality of clearing guard outposts in Ubisoft’s open worlders, and not only can you switch out the gear you carry in the field at regular weapons caches but can also decide between lethal and nonlethal methods. Do you zap lawbreakers with your stun gun or knock them out with a thump to the cranium, restrain them with a limitless supply of handcuffs (seriously, where does Mendoza keep them all), or let your guns do all the talking?  The latter indisputably shows off the Frostbite 3 engine at its best looking and sounding, but it quickly becomes apparent that Hardline is really a stealth game at its heart, and an unexpectedly competent, although simple, one at that.

Keeping with the Far Cry comparison, Visceral have cribbed a few other pointers from Jason Brody’s and Ajay Ghale’s ventures. In any given scenario you’ll likely tag a bunch of targets with your police scanner, throw some bullet casings to cause a jingly distraction, or sabotage those pesky reinforcement-calling alarm systems. Short of leaping from rooftops and plunging a machete deep into an unsuspecting criminal’s chest, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Far Cry protagonists had decided to pursue a career in law enforcement after their slaughterfests in the Rook Islands and Kyrat (a hell of a thing to add to your CV, mind). Meanwhile, onscreen are helpful directional stealth meters, which fill up when you’re about to be clocked, while a mini-map displays enemy vision cones in need of tiptoeing around.

This new stealth slant might seem an odd fit for a Battlefield game to adopt at first, but mechanically it works and contextually it fits. The rules are always consistent, with no criminal more or less oblivious than the next, and it makes sense for Mendoza to sneak his way past a fight than tackle it head on. Some of Hardline’s better moments are when you’re keeping to the shadows, which prove to be more memorable than either of the two disappointing car chases Visceral clearly wants you to enjoy more than you probably will. Staying out of sight to evade capture in episode five, stripped of weapons and optionally blowing up a meth lab to cause a diversion, is a particular highlight, no doubt due to its welcome change of pace, and choosing to incapacitate homicidal gang members one by one in a shopping mall while a raging hurricane wreaks havoc outside helps to demonstrate Hardline’s stealth at its ludicrously best.

Taking things stealthily also yields the rewards of the progression system quicker than you would by going loud. Each of the fifteen tiers to work your way up grants new weapons and gadgets to play with, yet using them won’t get you any further. While knocking a felon unconscious or cuffing them will earn you points towards the next level of unlocks (arresting criminals with open warrants will net you the most), shooting them stone dead will get you nowhere. Is it a deliberate move by Visceral? Maybe, but rewarding you with more tools of destruction for acts of pacifism and yet never incentivising their use makes for a somewhat muddled system. Granted, you’re not punished for delivering a bullet-flavoured justice, but your marksman skills aren’t shown recognition either. It matters little though, for completing missions and gathering collectable evidence propels you further through the ranks anyway, and chances are no matter your playstyle you’ll have exhausted the unlock tree not too long before the end.

There’s a progressive sense of escalation and silliness as you play through Hardline’s ten part series, which bows out just as it starts to run out of steam. Each episode takes you somewhere new and rarely grows repetitive, but come the not-quite-grand finale you’ll feel like you’ve had your fill, having reasonably enjoyed the best and most experimental Battlefield campaign to date. However, as we all know, Battlefield is a game of two halves, and the single player has always played second fiddle to the multiplayer main event. Hardline is no exception.

Just to be clear: Battlefield Hardline is not a reason to trade in your copy of Battlefield 4. Rather, Hardline compliments its older sibling’s grand-scale conflicts with smaller maps and a tighter focus on infantry warfare, all the while without treading on COD’s toes. But fret not series veterans who may be feeling hot under the collar at the thought: even though you won’t be rolling over hills in tanks or soaring through the skies in jets, this still feels very much like a proper Battlefield experience through and through, albeit slightly pared back.

Teamwork has always been the core and defining tenet of the Battlefield franchise, and it’s no different here. While it’s always possible for lone wolves to aid their team under certain circumstances, more so here than any Battlefield before, chances are they’ll find themselves cut down by a more organised squad before long. And in Hotwire mode it pays to have allies at your back more than any other.

Hotwire is a vehicular twist on Conquest mode, and is Hardline’s headline addition. In it, teams must control a number of capture points which just so happen to be on wheels, with points accumulated by driving the target vehicle at top speeds within a designated zone on the map.  Ideally, you’ll want a Mechanic armed with a repair tool and grenade launcher in the passenger seat, and two more teammates in the back leaning out the windows (providing it’s a four door vehicle), to maintain the car’s health and keep any pursuers at bay, maybe even taking out a passing enemy controlled capture point as well. It’s by far the most popular game mode, and it’s easy to see why. It’s fast, frantic and furious, with immense scope for some nail-biting car chases. But there are problems.

For one, the driving zones when in an objective vehicle are too small, meaning most players will resort to driving laps around the outer edges, making them an easy and predictable target, whereas smarter players will learn to weave in and out of the middle ground to avoid popular chokepoints. Those that do will easily find their way to the top of the leaderboard – perhaps too easily. Hotwire is so keen to dole out points to both drivers and passengers it almost makes the other modes feel obsolete; you can probably rank up two or three times quicker playing Hotwire exclusively and, arguably, five capture points is a couple too many. With fewer target vehicles, it might force some players to actually give chase rather than lazily wait by the side-lines for someone else to do the hard work for them.  These are problems that can’t be fixed with a patch and new maps of course, but even if they persist, Hotwire is likely to be the source of many multiplayer anecdotes for months to come.

Heist, meanwhile, is the closest equivalent to Rush, and it’s possibly the best and most tense mode on offer. The setup is simple: criminals must grab the loot and offload it at a random pickup point, and the boys in blue have to stop them. Obviously, communication and coordination is central to both sides’ success, as is the need for a balanced team of the four classes. At the moment, Operator (Assault) seems a little overpowered, but, being a Battlefield game, the three other classes of Mechanic (previously mentioned – Engineer), Enforcer (Support) and Professional (Recon) all have vital roles to play. Whether you’re healing teammates as an Operator, restocking them with ammo as an Enforcer, or providing reconnaissance as a Professional, there are always numerous ways you can support your team.

It’s this well thought-out and balanced interplay between players that has always lent Battlefield an accessibility its peers lack, and Hardline feels more welcoming to newcomers than previous games. Maybe it’s down to the smaller scale – you won’t trudge across a map for minutes on end to re-join the fight only to be picked off by a sniper – or maybe it’s to do with the revamped progression system, which now runs on currency you earn in-game, as opposed to points unlocking fixed items. Either way, if Battlefield’s equally hardcore reputation has always been a turnoff for you, there’s no better time to give it a go.

Rounding the seven modes off are classic Conquest, token Team Deathmatch, and the new Blood Money, Crosshair and Rescue. Conquest is a Battlefield staple (Domination, essentially) and Team Deathmatch speaks for itself.  The other three, however, are conceptually more interesting. In Blood Money, teams must gather cash from a central pile and bring it back to their vault, but they can also steal from the opposing team’s vault as well, making for some intense to and fro battles of daring bravery. The Mechanic’s satellite phone (a mobile spawn point) and the Professional’s stealth training (quietens footsteps) really prove their worth here. Sneaking around the back of the enemy’s vault, opening the doorway for others with a satellite phone and nabbing the cash can be deviously satisfying. It can also be maddeningly infuriating when it happens to you too. All’s fair in love and war.

Looking at Crossfire and Rescue, it’s clear they’ve been designed with eSports in mind. They’re not necessarily suited to Battlefield or what fans want from it, but they do fit the cops and criminals theme. Both are round-based modes where players get only one life. In Rescue, cops have to extract two AI hostages guarded by the criminals, whereas in Crosshair a player takes the role of a VIP, armed with a Desert Eagle (here called Bald Eagle) no less, in need of extraction by the law or murdering by the criminals. Both will likely generate a dedicated following, but with little of the scale or diversity Battlefield’s multiplayer is famed for, it’s hard to see these modes taking off, especially when Counter Strike does it better. They’re a curious aside all the same, though.

Elsewhere, there are smart changes and welcome additions to the formula, such as defibrillators operating on a cooldown timer to avoid spamming, the grappling hook and zip-line gadgets helping players to make the most of the increased verticality, and certain maps feeling tailor made to specific modes as opposed to being retrofitted or compromised to suit all. And, of course, Battlefield 4’s highly vaunted (and awfully named) Levolution makes a comeback, both in big and small ways. While Downtown’s collapsing crane and Derailed’s exploding freight bring undeniable spectacle, some of the slighter touches, like shooting a chandelier down on top of an enemy’s head in Bank Job, are just as easy to appreciate.  On the whole, then, all the critical components, servers included, come together to make Battlefield Hardline not only a worthy alternative to GTA Online and Payday 2, but arguably the year’s first must-have multiplayer game as well.

  • A surprisingly above average stealth-focused campaign
  • Hotwire and Heist are set to become firm fan-favourites
  • A more accessible multiplayer
  • Another knockout performance from Frostbite
  • Multiplayer isn’t broken
  • Muddled single-player progression system
  • Although an improvement on the past, the story’s still weak
  • Online isn’t completely free of issues, naturally

Battlefield Hardline is the most experimental, diverse and accessible Battlefield to date. The campaign, while a million miles from perfect, shows a willingness to try new things for the series and manages to partially deliver on the Battlefield fantasy of actually allowing room for meaningful choice in how you play. It also has a sense of humour, something Battlefield has been lacking for five years. And it’s a typically strong showing over in multiplayer.

An assortment of new modes, a suitably smaller scale, and some welcome tweaks makes for another fine chapter in the shooter franchise’s online heritage. Plus, having learnt lessons from past mistakes and two public betas, Hardline’s launch is possibly the smoothest in Battlefield history. It’s an impressive showing altogether from Visceral, then, even if it’s not quite as essential as a full fat Battlefield from DICE.

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