PC, PS4, Xbox One
Battlefield Hardline’s criminals are incredibly well behaved. That’s not to say the ne’er-do-wells have reformed their ways, or that they aren’t intent on bringing our investigation to a halt in a hail of bullets. But they’re a fair-minded lot – once arrested, they’ll lie contritely still, quietly waiting while we mop up the rest of their colleagues, not once thinking to alert them to the presence of the sneaky cop with a seemingly unlimited supply of handcuffs.
It’s a well-intentioned design decision that aims to make Hardline’s stealth-focused campaign gameplay more manageable, but one that requires no small suspension of disbelief on your part, and exposes the game’s occasionally oversimplified systems. You can lure a single enemy away from groups by tossing empty shell casings within earshot – nobody else will pay any attention – and they will tirelessly follow your metallic breadcrumb trail no matter how comedically drawn out it becomes. Slam a criminal to the ground ten feet from another armed suspect, and as long as that perp’s vision cone stays pointing in a different direction, even barked orders for your detainee to relinquish any weapons won’t pique unfriendly interest.
It might be simplistic and silly at times, but Visceral has clearly thought a great deal about Hardline’s setup and it doesn’t lack nuance entirely. Proximity AI issues aside, the game’s arrest mechanic does an excellent job of making you feel like a TV cop. Get in close enough to enemies and you can flash your badge, yell “Freeze!” and draw your weapon to make them drop their guns and put their hands up. You can tackle groups of up to three enemies at a time with this technique, though attempt to face down more than one enemy and brilliantly you’ll also need to rapidly switch your aim between each of them as you approach – leave someone uncovered and they’ll slowly reach for a concealed weapon. If you’re spotted by another foe while making an arrest, a firefight will inevitably ensue.
Further depth is provided by enemies with special warrants. If arrested, these confer a huge number of Expert Points, which allow you to unlock new gear. Figuring out how to detain them without triggering a gun battle proves an entertaining distraction and reinforces the sense that each area is a puzzle of patrol routes to be cased and expertly picked apart. The focus on stealth is a refreshing change of pace for this series, but Hardline’s most memorable moments come when your control of a situation hangs in the balance. A panicked arrest when you’re surprised by an enemy you simply hadn’t spotted, for example, or the dissolution of a meticulously planned raid into a desperate struggle for survival as 15 heavily armed enemies bear down on your now-exposed position. Later on in the campaign, you’ll find yourself holed up in a flimsy garage in the middle of the desert, with no hope of backup, as truck-mounted machine guns tear the building to pieces in a sequence that creates a throbbing sensation of terror as you’re hopelessly outnumbered.
These moments are lent further weight by Hardline’s frugal approach to ammo. You’ll rarely run out entirely, but Visceral has carefully balanced things to ensure that there are plenty of occasions when you’ll only have a handful of bullets left. Ammunition crates along the way allow you to stock up and customise your loadout, of course, and you’ll still be able to grab ammo from fallen foes – though you’re unable to confiscate ammo or weapons from anyone you arrest, oddly.
With its campaign, Visceral attempts to introduce a slower, more thoughtful pace to the unapologetically bombastic Battlefield series, but it’s not too long before the action starts to resemble a James Bond movie more than it does, say, The Wire. Early levels are refreshingly low key, keeping enemy numbers to a minimum and allowing the stealth gameplay to breathe, but this somehow segues into an ill-judged tank-battle boss encounter that feels like a dip into the old Battlefield asset library made for the sake of convenience rather than necessity. There are also plenty of occasions when the power to decide how to deal with a group of enemies is removed from you entirely and you’re forced into gunfights, jarring with the rest of the game. But Visceral’s dwindling grip on reality never obscures its ability to deliver standout level design along the way. In another break from recent Battlefield campaigns, most missions are relatively freeform, allowing you to approach objectives in a variety of ways, and even improvise your own routes by using the new grappling hook and zipline gadgets, additions that in a welcome turn aren’t restricted to predefined points, but usable on most flat surfaces and ledges.
An escape from, and subsequent assault on, a delusional cult’s compound in order to retrieve your equipment during the latter third of the game is a particular highlight. Do you choose to sneak in under a broken fence, scale an outcrop of rocks next to the perimeter wall, or grapple up to an old lookout tower? Of course, you could also walk in through the main gate, gun at the ready. And once in, is your first priority to disable the alarm system in order to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, or to pick off any high-value warrants quickly so as not to risk their deaths should things spiral out of control? It’s even possible to sneak in undetected, grab your kit bag and scarper without so much as a scuffle. Hardline’s at its best when it tosses ingredients into a sandbox and invites you to get stuck in, but you’ll have to trudge through more prescribed filler to reach each one.
At least the company’s good. Hardline’s cast of dirty, triple-crossing cops and robbers are a knowingly
It’s not too long before the action starts to resemble a James Bond movie more than it does, say, The Wire
clichéd, snappily written bunch. While protagonist Nick Mendosa initially comes across as someone who’s sitting on a police baton, he becomes more charismatic as the plot plays out and a memorable supporting cast settles into orbit around him. It’s schlocky stuff, but the game wears it well, Visceral’s good-humoured treatment and subtly expressive facial animations combining to ensure it’s easy to get caught up in the best Battlefield campaign since Bad Company 2.
Multiplayer suffers from the opposite problem, feeling much less essential than Battlefield’s large-scale warzones, despite offering up plenty of new ideas of its own. Alongside Team Deathmatch and Conquest,
Hardline introduces five new multiplayer modes. Heist, a twist on Rush, sees one team defend vaults from the attacking terrorists, who must also move any ill-gotten gains they make to an extraction point. Blood Money evens the odds by dumping a stack of cash in the middle of the map and asking both teams to grab as much of it as possible, taking it to their respective vaults. The frame for each team is different – cops are collecting evidence, while the criminals are lining their pockets – but playing on either side is identical. Combined with Hardline’s smaller maps and faster pace, both modes prove raucous, overwhelmingly so at first, and smart placement of the cash pile in Blood Money makes for entertainingly deadly chokepoints.
Hotwire is a new spin on Conquest in which capture points are vehicles. In order to control a point, you must drive the car, motorcycle or – if you’ve drawn the short straw – petrol tanker at a minimum speed. Friendlies can lean out of windows to provide some protection, and other unmarked vehicles can be used as close support or to chase down enemy-controlled cars. While broadly successful, it suffers when you find yourself on foot attempting to chase down fast-moving targets that always seem to be just out of range.
Finally, Crosshair and Rescue serve up taut rounds with just three minutes on the clock in which everyone has just one life. The former is simple VIP escort fare that works better on paper than in practice thanks to the overly short rounds. Crosshair matches can last as little as ten seconds, and in some sessions we’ve found ourselves spending more time on loading screens and in the lobby than playing. Rescue, meanwhile, is the obvious pick of the modes, and plays like a small-scale version of Heist. Instead of sports bags full of unmarked bills, however, the assets in play are two hostages. The criminal team must prevent any rescue attempts, while the police just need to get one hostage to the extraction point (pity the guy left behind). Both teams can win by eliminating every member of the opposition, too.
These modes take in nine new maps that range from medium-sized Battlefield arenas down to surprisingly intimate constructions, and the whole feels slight in comparison to the full-blown Battlefield 4. It’s difficult to shake the idea that Hardline would have worked much better as DLC than as a standalone title – even Rescue can’t quite stave off the feeling that you’d be having a better time if your Battlefield 4 disc was in the drive. This isn’t to diminish Visceral’s achievements, but the unfortunate consequence of building a Battlefield spinoff is that it feels like just that: a lowerbudget sideshow to the glitzy main event.
The collection of new police-marked and criminal vehicles in Hardline’s multiplayer spark memories of childhood games, and tacitly encourage a pantomime embodiment of your side’s stereotypical morality during play