Battlefield 4 was nothing short of a disaster for EA in 2013. The series’ first installment on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 was a broken mess, with its improved destruction system and excellent map design overshadowed by horrendous netcode and crashing problems that suggested the game should have been delayed by several months — that feeling was confirmed when these problems were not resolved until well into the following year. It appears that the publisher has learned from its mistakes for Visceral Games’ series debut, Battlefield Hardline; I didn’t encounter a single crash during my entire time playing it. Unfortunately, by making this cops-and-robbers spinoff a Battlefield game at all, it both limits the potential of its new ideas and offers a multiplayer experience that feels torn between its new ideas and the lingering legacy of Battlefield held over its head.
The previous two Battlefield games included short, dry campaigns meant as little more than an introduction to the features and mechanics of the multiplayer mode. Battlefield Hardline largely ignores this precedent, resulting in a single-player mode that bears little resemblance to Battlefield at all; the game even refers to itself as simply “Hardline,” suggesting that Visceral was more interested in crafting a polished, unique campaign than something that fit neatly within the context of Battlefield. The United States, largely Miami, replaces the war-torn Asia and Middle East of the previous games, but this drastic change of setting is among the smaller changes that Hardline has made. The linear, shooting-gallery sequences that drew comparisons to Call of Duty are all but gone, replaced with a stealth/shooter hybrid that only results in chaos when things go wrong. As detective Nick Mendoza, a “good cop” who is disgusted by his fellow officers’ excessive force, you’ll very rarely pull the trigger when you spot an enemy standing by himself. Instead, you have the ability to make an arrest, flashing your badge and handcuffing the suspect on the ground to avoid alerting others to your location. It’s a design choice that often conflicts with basic logic (enemies fall asleep after being handcuffed and don’t call out for help), but if you manage to suspend your disbelief, you’ll find a much more tactical, methodical system that forces you to think before you enter a new area.
Although the military firepower has been (mostly) eliminated and the campaign is confined to only a few areas of the United States, Battlefield Hardline’s level design is far more creative than anything the series has previously offered. Over the course of roughly six hours, missions take Nick to the Everglades, a shopping center during a hurricane, and even a libertarian military compound, each with an open structure that encourages experimentation. Each level includes pieces of evidence scattered across the map, which you can scan to gather information on several optional cases — the scanner can also be used to identify enemies with open warrants, and making sure that I captured them alive made for some of the best moments in the campaign.
But inspired mission design can’t make up for what might be the worst writing I’ve ever seen in a AAA game. Hardline draws heavily from the new wave of critically acclaimed television shows, even calling its missions “episodes” and offering “previously on” and “next time” teasers for each one, but Visceral seemed to forget that these shows are popular because of believable character development and groundbreaking narratives. What’s offered here is a retread of clichés, and bad ones, at that. Nick Mendoza comes from a broken home and, determined to be a force for good, he’s disgusted by the corruption and back-room deals that have poisoned the Miami police. Fear not, however, because he’s joined by a young techie sidekick who is just psyched to be taking down “the man!” There isn’t a single twist or plot device in the entire script that I couldn’t spot from a mile away, and the story is so afraid of showing its hand too early that it’s intentionally vague with revealing characters’ motivations. At one point, after being questioned as to why she would choose to help Nick, a former enemy offers a “let’s just say” explanation. Let’s not just say: tell me … unless, of course, the writers didn’t actually write an explanation.
In sharp contrast to the campaign, Battlefield Hardline’s multiplayer component sticks quite close to the series’ classic formula. The cops vs. robbers element is largely aesthetic for the classic Battlefield mode Conquest and shooter mainstay Team Deathmatch, but even the new, police-centric modes feel at home in the series. “Heist,” which tasks criminals with stealing packages while the police try to stop them, brings with it all the chaos of the absent Rush mode, while “Hotwire” functions largely as a mobile Conquest, as both teams fight for possession of vehicles that must be speeding to earn points. But these modes almost never provide the water-cooler moments that make Battlefield so special. Hotwire in particular is an interesting idea, with car chases being such a pivotal element of crime dramas, but it has a tendency to become surprisingly uneventful as cars race around and try to avoid the other team. And while tanks and fighter jets are, of course, not common in downtown Miami, the balance of infantry and vehicular combat simply can’t be replaced with the occasional helicopter and police cruisers.
When Hardline reduces its scale, however, the multiplayer manages to play to its strengths. The “Blood Money” mode has each team fighting over a giant pile of cash in the middle of each map, many of which are based on levels from the single-player mode. After retrieving it, teams must then travel to their own vaults to store it, but it can still be stolen back if the vault is left unprotected. This results in fast-paced shootouts where one or two people can decide a match, and in the game’s two super-small modes, this is taken a step further. The modes “Rescue” and “Crosshair” disable respawning and put only a handful full of people on a team, but it’s the un-Battlefield objective that make them so much more interesting. Rescue is similar to the upcoming Rainbow Six: Siege, with criminals holding hostages that the police must secure, while Crosshair puts one player in the role of a VIP whose death immediately ends the round. Had Visceral been allowed to release something without the Battlefield name attached to it, there could have been more of these modes available. They’re a much better recreation of the cops-and-robbers fantasy than anything else in the multiplayer, which largely seems weighed down by the classic franchise elements it had to include.
Battlefield can be used for something other than military shooters, and Battlefield Hardline is proof, but the cops vs. criminals concept would be put to much better use in something that doesn’t have to conform to franchise expectations. The best elements of Hardline are deviations from the series’ formula, and had Visceral based the multiplayer around the slower, small-scale gameplay that made the campaign so unique, it would have been a much stronger experience that wouldn’t be judged against the other games in the series. As it stands, it’s a competent addition to the series that oozes wasted potential. But at least the game works this time, and unfortunately, that’s pretty damn important to mention.