Available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3 (Xbox One and PS4 reviewed)
Suspension of disbelief plays a crucial part in any action movie. Engage the audience emotionally or keep them in suspense, and they’ll take on all kinds of stuff and nonsense as long as the magic holds. We’ll happily believe that a Schwarzenegger or Stallone can take on an army single-handed, or that Bruce Willis can bungie-jump off an exploding rooftop with a firehose wrapped around his waist. It might not be realistic, convincing or plausible, but we’ll buy into it provided we’re having a good time.
Suspension of disbelief also has a big part to play in Battlefield: Hardline’s single-player campaign. This is a game with almost laughable stealth mechanics, where enemies will ignore you in broad daylight provided you avoid their pitifully myopic cone of sight. It’s a game where your cop hero will train a gun on two criminals, and both will cheerful acquiesce to being handcuffed, and even go to sleep once restrained rather than shout to alert their comrades. Even better, the second guy will even wait calmly with arms raised while you’re busy cuffing the first, and not attempt to go for their gun or raise the alarm. If this stuff sends you around the bend, Hardline could drive you potty.
Us? We can live with it, for the simple reason that Hardline succeeds where we didn’t expect it to. Visceral Games has combined the technology and core mechanics of Battlefield with the kind of scenarios you might see in a big cop action movie and created something that’s more than just Battlefield in a different uniform, but a surprisingly fresh twist on the all-action FPS.
Visceral has talked a lot about the influences on Battlefield: Hardline’s story, but it’s still closer to Michael Bay and Bad Boys 2 than Michael Mann and Miami Vice or Heat. The script has more in common with Lethal Weapon or The Last Boy Scout than it does The Wire.
Hardline follows a hard-working, honest young cop as he helps tackle a drug ring, falls afoul of police corruption then tries to set the world to rights. It’s a plot that seems determined to pack in every imaginable cop movie cliché, but wins you over thanks to entertaining dialogue, a little personality and a desire to put you in the thick of some amazing action scenes.
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Some of the pillars of previous Battlefield games return: this is still primarily a first-person shooter where you’re propelled along from one objective to the next. Much is made of the series’ signature destructible scenery, which sees solid-looking stud walls torn apart by shotgun blasts, and a rusty trailer offer little protection when you’re under assault from buggies with mounted heavy machine guns. Yet Hardline does bring something new to the table, by emphasising stealth and infiltration over all-out warfare and by focusing on non-lethal takedowns as well as headshots. This is a game where arrests count for more than corpses.
Play on Veteran difficulty level, and the run-and-gun approach soon shows its limitations. Instead of taking cover and blasting, you learn to pick your way through each scenario, sometimes sneaking up and taking down each enemy in turn, sometimes arresting them with badge and gun. Playing this way means ranking up faster and unlocking new weapons, customisations and gadgets you can use within the campaign, while the same goes for using your handy scanner to find crucial bits of evidence. You’ll still find sequences where you’ll be forced to fight your way through waves of attackers in a more standard Battlefield style, but these tend to be lobbed in as climactic set-pieces – and even here there are rewards for playing smart. In short, Hardline actually makes something of its whole cops and robbers premise, even if it can’t resist the occasional shoot-out.
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What’s more, Hardline isn’t afraid to mess further with the formula, mixing the pace up with crazy tank vs helicopter scenes out in the desert, a car chase through industrial zones or a frantic escape through a ramshackle town and down a mountain, hiding from searchlights and patrols. A lot of action games claim to be thrillers, but Hardline can be thrilling even when it’s not pushing the body count skywards. Sure, the stealth is suspect and you can’t hide the bodies, but who cares when it so regularly puts your bum on the edge of your seat?
Most surprisingly, Hardline isn’t as restrictive or heavily scripted as you might expect. While there’s plenty of the classic Call of Duty ‘follow this guy and do what they say’ kind of stuff, some episodes are happy to give you an objective and a wide area full of possible routes and bad guys, and leave you to make your own way through. New gadgets, including a grappling gun and a mobile zip line, play their part, giving you ways to find a way in from the rooftops or over the wall. It doesn’t always work, with suspiciously brilliant sharpshooters, alarms and minimal checkpointing spoiling the fun, but it’s great to play a mainstream FPS that actually trusts you with some agency. There’s even one chapter that feels like a Battlefield take on the original Far Cry.
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For every thing that causes a frown, there’s something else that turns it upside down. Maybe the CPU-controlled allies you’re saddled with are bigger on banter than blasting accurately or staying out of your way, but we love the way you can change load-outs before respawning, so that you can better equip yourself for the current peril. Perhaps the onslaught survival sequences are horribly tough, but they force you to think more carefully about what materials you hide behind, and work out strategies for isolating and eliminating foes. Your hero might seem vulnerable, but by making him so Hardline achieves a feeling of tension that’s too often missing from your standard shooter. And did we mention how all that exploding plaster, shattered glass and torn studwork looks really cool?
The destructible scenery is better than ever, but we’re not always in awe of the campaign’s visuals. Some of the architecture is generic or boxy, and realistic vegetation doesn’t seem to be a strength. Some of the textures are surprisingly low-resolution, particularly in multiplayer on the Xbox One. Character models, skin and shiny surfaces look fantastic, though, and Hardline has probably the best leather jacket textures of any current video game. If nothing has the jaw-dropping spectacle of Battlefield 4’s collapsing aircraft carriers, Hardline has the look and lighting of a modern action thriller down. The soundtrack deserves just as many plaudits, both for a great score where every track seems to fit the action personally, and for some of the most hard-hitting, ear-whacking gunshot effects in town.
This is the best Battlefield single-player campaign since Bad Company 2. The good news is that it’s joined by an equally impressive set of cops vs criminals multiplayer modes. Now, not all are that brilliant, and of the five new game modes, most are new in the sense of ‘new to Battlefield’ rather than in the sense of ‘new in general.’ Rescue, for a start, is basically Counter-Strike, even if only one hostage needs to be saved for the cops to win. Crosshair, meanwhile, is your standard target/VIP mode, where the cops escort a snitch to the extraction point while the criminals do their best to take him out.
Heist promises to be an objective-based mode, but soon turns into a sort of asynchronous Capture the Flag, where one team has to grab a bag from a vault and take it to the extraction point while the other team try to stop them. Even Blood Money is really just a variant on the Bagman/Cash-collecting mode that dates back to 1999’s Kingpin: Life of Crime. Beneath the most meagre of narrative veneers, it’s still just two teams fighting over one big pile of money, with each player doing their best to grab some loot and take it back to base without another player killing them and stealing it.
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Sometimes Hardline doesn’t play to Battlefield’s strengths. For close-quarters combat on small maps it doesn’t feel particularly distinctive, no matter what mode you’re playing, while the maps can seem a little dull. But once you tackle Heist, Blood Money and Conquest modes on larger maps – and preferably maps with vehicles – the action suddenly takes off.
Blood Money is a bit smarter than previous takes, for example, because the teams can attack each other’s vaults. Suddenly, daring motorbike raids on the opposition’s vault becomes a viable approach, not to mention taking a van in with several players onboard, loading up quickly, than heading for home at speed. At its best, Hardline stops feeling like Call of Duty dressed up as Miami Vice or Heat, and more like a brilliant, cinematic action caper.
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And that goes double for Hotwire mode. This is Battlefield’s conquest mode on wheels, where key vehicles turn into control points you can conquer by taking them and driving them fast. The more time you spend in the vehicle, the more points you score and the faster the opposition’s respawn tickets bleed away, and with more participants than control point vehicles to contest, plus a range of cars, trucks, bikes and copters available to both teams, Hotwire can get seriously insane.
Large maps with undulating landscapes see the bikes, trucks and cars bouncing all over the bumps, with grenade-launcher duels and hot pursuits the order of the day. The city maps see huge pile-ups at the junctions and explosions bringing structures down around your ears. Hotwire is the mode where you’ll find yourself trying to snipe from the back of a speeding dirt bike, or taking a tanker out with a grenade launcher while leaning out of a car’s open window. Even Hardline’s weakest modes are entertaining, but Hotwired leaves you grinning from ear to ear.
If you’re concerned that the move to cops and crims might see a reduction in depth, don’t be. Hardline’s four classes – Operator, Engineers, Enforce and Specialist – cover a range of roles and class-specific capabilities, and with loads of unlocks and weapon upgrades available, there’s no shortage of scope for detailed customisation. Similarly, the maps won’t yield up all their secrets overnight, with vantage points to discover, interactive elements to mess around with and some great rooftops and towers where you can put the grapple gun and zipwire to good use.
So far, it appears that Visceral, EA and DICE have learnt from the horrors of the Battlefield 4 launch. Playing on Xbox One with the EA Access Trial, we’ve had a couple of times when we’ve struggled to connect, but once hooked up to the server we haven’t had any problems. We’ll return and update this review after launch, however, to reflect how Hardline is handling the workload of the full release.
Battlefield: Hardline can be ridiculous, with stealth and arrest mechanics that stretch the very limits of credulity. All the same, the single-player campaign works brilliantly as the video game version of a big, dumb action thriller. Cracking set-piece firefights are mixed with stealth, escape and exploration, and there’s scope to play some sequences your way, not just follow the objective marker. Multiplayer, meanwhile, is fiercely enjoyable, and in Hotwired boasts one of Battlefield’s finest hours. Look past Hardline’s minor faults, and you’ll find the best all-round Battlefield since the great Bad Company 2.