This review has some limited story spoilers and focuses on the single-player aspect of Battlefield Hardline.
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Battlefield: Hardline is a bold idea that blurs the lines between military and police combat in video games. And in the real world we live in, that idea isn’t so far-fetched anymore. Drug wars, gang battles, and well-armed organized criminals have made the streets of major cities seem like war zones, and as we saw during the protests in Ferguson, Mo., local law enforcement looks more like the military these days.
That premise is why Electronic Arts decided to extend its Battlefield modern combat series into a crime drama, where heavily armed cops square off against bad guys in bloody scenes that will remind you of Miami Vice and Scarface. You’ll experience the intense emotions of being a cop in a gun battle in a beautiful glass house or in insane car chases on the Los Angeles river. You stay wary of bad cops and interrogate suspects, always unsure how far to push the limits.
The idea also makes a lot of business sense, as Battlefield: Hardline will encroach on the turf of Grand Theft Auto, which has become the best-selling video game crime series of all time. Whereas Grand Theft Auto games are set in open worlds, Battlefield: Hardline has a more limited universe that has been built to tell a single story. While GTA games deliver variety, EA’s Visceral Games studio aimed to excel in narrative the way similar to a cops-and-robbers TV show.
For the most part, Battlefield: Hardline succeeds in fusing the multibillion-dollar military shooter genre with the multibillion-dollar crime games. It even includes of car chases that seem like they’re out of an EA Need for Speed game. I’ve played the prologue and 10 episodes of the single-player campaign, and I’ve engaged in a few hours of multiplayer fighting as well.
Steve Papoutsis, the general manager of EA’s Visceral Games studio, gets the description right when he says that Hardline’s single-player and multiplayer combat scenes blend speed, strategy, and story. For the most part, Visceral nailed these three major features. Making use of the Battlefield Frostbite engine, Hardline has a lot more destructible environments than other games in the category, and the A.I. of its enemies is pretty smart. The missions show off different kinds of police action, such as stealthy stakeouts to crime scene investigations. Each encounter always gives you the choice of going in and arresting bad guys in a nonviolent way or assaulting the criminals head-on. And if you really want to play the bad guys, you can do that in multiplayer.
The result is a well-executed, but sometimes flawed, entry in the first-person crime-shooter genre.
What you’ll like
A good original story with believable characters
From the opening prologue, Hardlines seems more like a TV show. It focuses solely on the experiences of Nick Mendoza, a police officer from Cuba who wants to do good amid a corrupt police force in drug-torn Miami. Mendoza is voice-acted by the talented Philip Anthony Rodriguez, and motion-captured by actor Nicholas Gonzalez, and the animations that capture his performance are superb. He gets paired with new partner Khai Minh Dao (Kelly Hu), a hardened female detective who is familiar with Miami’s street thugs.
Their first car ride is a long one, but it lays the background for the story about a do-gooder cop in a tough police force amid a crime war zone. As the action unfolds, you have to follow Dao’s lead and learn the ropes in a stealth mission. You have to figure out how much to trust your partner as the evidence from your encounters points to dirty cops. The story isn’t about saving the world from nuclear annihilation. But it has good characters and good villains, with a number of plot twists. Mendoza learns some lessons along the way, like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And he has to deal with his own temptations and why he became a cop in the first place.
The good thing about Hardline’s story is that the episodes are not random. They’re connected through these themes, though the locations and junior villains change quite often. The other characters fit the role you would expect to find in a police drama: a mysterious partner with a serious nature, squirrelly informants; funny sidekicks; arrogant officers and crime lords; and bosses that seem more like politicians. By the end of the game, the story returns to the topic of just how good or how bad Mendoza is as a person. And I like that.
Big set pieces and some memorable gun battles
A few scenes in Battlefield: Hardline are unforgettable. I had a ball playing some of the levels that take you to the top of a glass penthouse atop a skyscraper and another that involved a pool house with a ton of glass sculptures in it. You’ll race against a train in a car and lead a car chase through the concrete walls of the Los Angeles level. And there’s the time where a helicopter gets tangled with a zipline and whips you around the air like you were hanging onto a rodeo rope.
The destruction that is possible with the EA Frostbite engine makes these levels much more fun, as the glass windows collapse around you. I also remember an escape scene where you spend most of your time trying to evade being captured by those hunting you. In this case, you’re the mouse, not the cat.
Multiplayer has lots of new modes, maps, and weapons
One of the best parts of Battlefield: Hardline is the multiplayer, which is often the only part of the game that many players will play. Hardline has seven game modes, including the familiar Conquest and Team Deathmatch modes. The new modes are split between e-sports levels and clever takes on the cops-and-robbers genre. You can move faster as a foot soldier than you could in past Battlefield games — a nod to the fun of Call of Duty games.
Hotwire is a speed mode, where you steal cars or stop them from getting stolen. I kept getting run over when on foot on this map, and I found it hard to shoot accurately while a passenger, so you might as well be the driver. It’s the ultimate car chase multiplayer game, like a “dogfight on the ground,” according to EA.
In Heist mode, criminal players have to rob a bank or an armored car. The cops have to stop them before they take the heist to a getaway spot where a helicopter takes it away. This mode actually takes some coordination. Blood Money is a mode where you fight over piles of cash, spread through the map.
Crosshair is an e-sports mode where five players challenge five players. One of the players is a VIP target, an informant, that a gang is trying to take out and the police are trying to protect. I enjoyed playing this map, and it reminded me that you really have to aim carefully or pick your shots wisely because you really only get one shot to take out an enemy. There’s nothing worse than getting in a gun duel with the last surviving player on the other team and then losing.
And Rescue is another 5-on-5 e-sports mode where the cops have to rescue hostages. In the e-sports modes, you face “permadeath,” where you only get one life during each round. It’s fast and it goes through four rounds. Destruction carries over from one round to the next. At half time, players switch sides and the destruction is reset. While the Growhouse map I played this on seemed simple, there were many different ways to win Rescue.
Like other Battlefield games, Hardline’s multiplayer has “Levolution,” where players can do something that triggers a change in the map, like a dust storm. And Hardline has 27 vehicles and 51 weapons for both criminals and cops. In a nod to realism, all of the players won’t have access to rocket launchers and other military-scale weaponry. But they will be able to find special weapons in the battlefield as prizes to fight over. You can use shaped charges or even a melee weapon to knock holes in walls and change the dynamics of a map.
The maps open up different tactics. The nine maps include Bank Job (a medium-size map with a big stone building that houses a bank); The Block, a downtrodden neighborhood map with a lot of destructible objects; Dust Bowl (a battle where dust storm blows through a town); Downtown (which came from visiting downtown Los Angeles during the E3 trade show); Derailed (a large map set in the Los Angeles River); Everglades (with fan boats that are great for hot wire and conquest); Growhouse (a marijuana warehouse that is good for Team Deathmatch and rescue); Hollywood Heights (with a lot of destruction where you can shatter big bay windows and take down a big building). There’s a wildfire in the hills as a backdrop; and Riptide, a map set in the beautiful beach houses of the Florida Keys.
The attention to detail is awesome in multiplayer, as it is in single-player. You hear, for instance, the muffled screams of hostages as you get near them in a hostage rescue mode.
Video games often simplify matters of right and wrong into black or white. But not everybody is who they seem to be. While Hardline appears to have a simple cops-and-robbers approach to gameplay, the story blurs the lines between who is really good and who is in it for other things, like money, revenge, or something else. With 10 episodes and a prologue, Battlefield Hardline has a lot more time than a movie to explore these themes. It doesn’t give you so much choice about what kind of person you will be. It is really about what kind of person Mendoza is, and the choices that he will make along the way as his circumstances change drastically.
This isn’t a tame drama. The F-word is plentiful in the dialogue. The cops aren’t saints, and neither are the people who they lord over. Police supervisor Julian Dawes says, “You’re convinced you’re on of the good guys. There’s no such thing, son.” This is nowhere near like some of the old EA games of the past in that respect. And it’s no surprise it is rated mature.
Clever writing and tech
Battlefield Hardline has a couple of funny moments. It starts out pretty serious, but as the partners become familiar with each other, they banter more. And by the time game introduces Marcus “Boomer” Boone, a techie sidekick who plays the role of the clever but cowardly foil who makes the bravery of Mendoza and the meanness of other characters stand out. It is the modern writing and characters like this that keep Battlefield Hardline from becoming as boring as Dragnet. Instead, it’s more interesting, like The Wire.
The tech gadgets also keep the game from getting boring. You can use portable zipline and grappling hook guns to create your own paths through levels where the enemies on the ground are too hard to beat. But they’re not a cure-all. I tried to zipline over the heads of a bunch of enemies in broad daylight, and they shot me out of the sky.
Weapons aren’t always lethal
You don’t have to kill everybody you meet. Because you’re a cop, you have to act with restraint. Early in the first episode, you come upon two bad guys and get the drop on them. You can hit the left bumper control to make them freeze, and then you point your gun at either one. A meter appears above each bad guy. If it turns red, that means the bad guy is about to shoot you. But if you keep shifting your gun aim from one bad guy to the other, you can make the meters go down until you get close enough to cuff one of them. Your partner will watch the other while you cuff the first one.
The freeze mechanic works with as many three enemies at the same time, and it’s a good way for a police officer to use the power of his authority to control a wider group of bad guys. It really only works when you surprise those enemies, and before they resort to violence. You don’t always have a choice in how the levels end, but you do have a choice in how you take out the bad guys in each level. That adds to replayability.
You can also sneak up on rivals and knock them out with a fist or distract them by throwing out a shell casing. That lets you cuff them and ship them off for an arrest credit, which earns you points in a larger meta game. Papoutsis made it through the game with only two kills. I didn’t do that, but I liked having the choice of going lethal or nonlethal, and it makes Hardline different from many of the others in the shooter and crime genres.
Cinematics and voice acting deliver authenticity
The gameplay in between the cinematic cutscenes is good. Most of the levels in Hardline’s single-player campaign are good. The first episode introduces you to Mendoza and his partner, a veteran detective named Khai Minh Dao, during a long car ride cinematic. Then you have to sneak up on some bad guys in a tough neighborhood that feels alive with ambient urban nightlife. As the officers patrol the neighborhood, a woman talks about a restraining order. Another bangs a garbage can with a lid and complains to the officer, “Lid doesn’t fucking fit.” The voice-acting is impressive, and it doesn’t get repetitive. That’s one of the small touches that makes you feel immersed in the experience.
Investigations akin to CSI
Battlefield games are grounded in reality. You don’t get too many sci-fi weapons. But the one piece of cool gadgetry you get to play with is your police scanner. This isn’t an old radio. It’s a tool that scans the environment for evidence. You can pickup a lot of clues that tell you about the story. And for completionist gamers, you can scour every scene until you find every bit of evidence and get a full picture of the story and earn points in a meta game.
The scanner also has a shotgun microphone built into it. So you can use it to listen in to the conversations of the people that you’re scanning from afar. You can identify them and figure out if there’s a warrant out for their arrest. The scanner tells you what kinds of chemicals you have discovered or the significance of a paper on a desk. And as you listen in on conversations, it lets you overhear the inane gossip of the guards in various compounds. You get a lot of ambient chatter, but some useful knowledge, too.
The scanner slows down the game’s speed (I view this as a negative), and you can’t do things like jump onto a dock while you’re using it. You also can’t shoot anyone while you’re scanning, so it is really a tool used while you are safe and casing out a target. You may not want to scour every scene for evidence. In one scene, you actually return to a crime scene in order to dig out something you may have missed.
A strong female character
Khai Minh Dao isn’t somebody that you mess with. She’s a hardened detective, not a rookie. She’s not the boss, but she carries the authority of someone who knows Miami’s thugs and tough neighborhoods. She has depth, mystery, and isn’t just a throwaway sidekick character. She isn’t a playable character, as Nick Mendoza is the only person you can play in Hardline. But unlike many female characters in games, she wasn’t created just to be eye candy.
She’s got some good lines, too. “We’re here to play bad cop, worse cop,” she said at one point. “OK, worse cop.”
What you won’t like
Designers could dole out better weapons along the way
The criminals take a couple of bullets to bring down, even if they aren’t wearing body armor. Some weapons like the MAC-10 machine pistol seem so weak that you have to empty a whole clip at a suspect to hit them or bring them down. Meanwhile, you run out of bullets or you get taken out by someone coming at you from another direction. It makes me think that our police forces are certainly underarmed when it comes to weaponry.
Meanwhile, it has many missions where I could have used a silencer to take out unsuspecting guards or alarm boxes. Instead, since I only had noisy weapons, I had to sneak up on the guards and take them out in tricky assassinations. If they turned around, they could alert the whole enemy force to my presence. Oh, if this were just Crysis, I could have just used a bow-and-arrow.
My weapon of choice turned out to an assault rifle, but for some reason, I had to make this my secondary weapon, as my police-issued pea shooter was always my primary weapon. Of course, this is more realistic. But the criminals were coming at me with everything they had. Sometimes my best option was to shoot one of them and steal one of their weapons for the course of the firefight.
Repetitive levels that remind you too much of Battlefield
I am tired of fighting battles that I’ve seen before, like a struggle for a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. The final level seems as if it came straight out of Battlefield 3, which also had a Hollywood Hills house. And in some of these levels, you fight an endless number of bad guys. You can dispatch them with some weapons that cops often don’t have access to, like a gatling gun mounted atop an SUV. That’s a little refreshing, but it feels a lot more like military action than police action.
But whenever the game designers throw a huge number of bad guys at you, they let you take them out using weapons from Battlefield, like the gatling gun, a cannon from a plane, or a tank. And when that happens, it takes the game out of the realm of police fiction and stretches it too far into the realm of modern military combat. As I said, I like the blurred line. But I don’t see military weapons as a good reason to have “Alamo”-like levels. In fact, one of the best levels is when you are trapped in a building, surrounded by crazed paramilitary soldiers from a meth organized crime group, and lightly armed against the soldiers who are shooting out your walls with gatling guns. In other words, it’s fun to be the underdog in a battle. But it’s a little crazy when the cops have access to their own giant arsenals.
The occasional level also just isn’t fun, like one where you have to escort an informant named Leo out of a hotel that is besieged by bad guys.
The under-used Florida Everglades
I don’t know why the game designers went to the trouble of building the beautiful replica of the Florida Everglades without making enough use of it. You can use airboats in multiplayer combat, but all you get to do in the single-player campaign is ride them around from place to place. And for much of that time, you’re hunting around for airdrops of illegal drugs. Nasty alligators are all over the place, but they don’t come into story or gameplay much. I was hoping to see a spectacular level with some chase scenes in the fan boats, as you can see in the picture above.
But this design decision — to fully exploit a map in multiplayer instead of single player — makes me think that the team put too much emphasis on the importance of multiplayer in this case. I understand that most gamers go straight to multiplayer and many don’t even complete the single-player campaign. But this kind of design decision perpetuates that emphasis, and it makes it seem like the campaign commands less attention.
Characters seem too similar
Tap. Tyson. Stoddard. They all seem like they’re played by the same actor. They’re street-savvy white males who have a lot of swagger and attitude. They crack bad jokes and they behave in predictable ways. Considering the game has a relatively small cast of 10 characters who get a lot of airtime, this seems like an oversight. I regularly got confused about which character was in a particular scene, even though each plays a very different role. They either just look too similar or behave alike, and that just leads to some unnecessary confusion.
This is the 10th Battlefield game, and at this stage in the franchise’s history, it isn’t easy to come up with fresh takes. Visceral Games has done that.
It has some flaws. Along the way, I felt like multiplayer took priority over the main campaign. You don’t get to fly around in an aircraft in single-player missions, even though you actually escape in one at one point. In other words, single-player experiences give you a taste of what is possible to do in these big virtual spaces, but only multiplayer really lets you live out that fantasy.
I won’t spoil the ending. But it’s a satisfying one that raises questions. It leaves the window open for a sequel, but it has enough closure to bring a full arc to the story of Nick Mendoza. Some people who want a lot more choice will find that Battlefield Hardline isn’t about that. It’s about telling one story as well as it can. If you like that, then you’ll like this game.
Overall, I think that EA and Visceral have established a new franchise within the Battlefield series, and one that could live on for many years to come.
Review score: 86/100
We’ll assign a final review after a few days of multiplayer. Battlefield Hardline released March 17, 2015, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with an Xbox One copy of the game for the purpose of this review. It is rated mature.