Battlefield swerves away from the military to deliver fans of Xbox One a cops and robbers fantasy.
How frequent should multiplayer shooters see releases? Call of Duty enjoys a yearly launch cycle headed by three separate studios (and a bunch of additional collaborating studios). Some argue higher frequency of releases leads to stagnation. Some resent the lack of innovation, and more and more of us are refusing to purchase annual franchised game releases that fail to innovate.
Sections of the community are concerned that Visceral's Battlefield Hardline could represent the same for the Battlefield franchise. Just how far does it go to differentiate itself from Battlefield 4, which launched just 18 months ago?
Battlefield's single player takes a step in the right direction
Starting with the single player campaign, I feel as though Battlefield Hardline missed an opportunity to do something special, but the effort is appreciable. Visceral Games are known for Dead Space, a high-class horror game with a robust approach to storytelling. While Hardline certainly has issues it is a lot more appealing than Battlefield 4's 'dudebro' semper-fi snooze fest.
You play as Detective Nick Mendoza, a rookie cop trying to play by the rules in a seedy world of corruption, drugs and gang violence. The first few chapters take place in retrospect, as the beginning presents Nick slapped in irons and sent on his way to prison, taunted by a unlikable but wonderfully rendered prison guard. I shall not spoil the plot, but its far off modern crime dramas like The Wire or Breaking Bad. There's some interesting Michael Bay-like set pieces with explosions and shoot-outs, but the opportunity for thrilling plot twists and gritty character development has been widely missed.
That said, I did find myself caring about the plight of Nick Mendoza, Tyson, and the other characters. The Frostbite engine renders the virtual actors incredibly, delivering nuance and emotion other games often fail to impart. The episodic nature of the campaign lends itself well to future episodes via DLC, and the characters were interesting enough to leave me interested in a continuation.
What about gameplay? Visceral are a tad braver when it comes to new features in the campaign, although it still feels like a mod of Battlefield 4 and as such, some features work better than others. Nick can deploy a Batman: Arkham-like detective device, which allows you to spot evidence to help build your case, although these case files amount to collectables rather than a gameplay mechanic. Nick's device also allows him to tag enemies and follow heat signatures through walls, helping you to take advantage of the game's clunky stealth mechanics.
When crouching, Nick can sneak up on enemies and make them freeze, and subsequently arrest them, removing them from combat. It is a real effort to make Hardline play differently from 4, but as mentioned earlier, the stealth system is not on par with games dedicated to that style of play. Enemies have shockingly bad peripheral vision, laughably bad, and the arrest mechanics trivialises difficulty even on veteran mode.
Some enemies carry bonuses for being arrested for carrying outstanding warrants. It is a nice touch. However, sadly I feel that it simply incentivises playing in the most monotonous way possible - that being skulking around, luring enemies by throwing bullet cases and then arresting them, over, and over, and over. Every enemy reacts in the same way to being held up, and it can quickly become a grind.
Even as a shooter, Hardline feels conservative. There are no grenades or explosives, minimal environmental destruction (save for intentional set pieces), and there's a general lack of flavour across the board. I wish they'd have treated the single player with a little more compassion, perhaps adding more police-themed mechanics or scenarios. It all felt a tad unambitious, intrepid almost. It's almost as if Visceral / EA were willfully reluctant to change the formula.
Hardline sports a solid, but familiar multiplayer
While I was a little disappointed in Visceral's efforts on the single player side of things, it was not entirely unexpected. People pick up these games for the multiplayer component and judge it accordingly. So, on to the question: is Battlefield Hardline a full-price BF4 map pack? Alternatively, a different beast entirely?
It would be a lie to say BF:H plays perfectly like BF4. It is familiar for sure, but there are systemic differences that force you to reconsider your play style. Battles are on a smaller scale, there are no jets or tanks, and helicopters are limited to 1 per team, lacking the firepower of their BF4 counterparts. Weapons and artillery are on the domestic end, with rocket launchers and LMGs limited to field pickups rather than being a load out option. The result is fewer deaths by vehicles, fewer campers, and more close quarters combat in pockets of concentrated small-scale warfare. If you prefer Battlefield 4's smaller scale maps and game modes, you'll find a lot to appreciate about Hardline.
Gameplay modes take a cue from the game's theme, although classic modes like Conquest have made a return owing to fan outcry during beta.
Heist is an attack/defend type style that doesn't really go further than being a capture the flag variant. Robbers are tasked with invading a vault, planting C4 to (sadly specific) walls or floors, drilling open the vault, and then returning two briefcases to a collection point on the map. The vault invasion - the criminal part of the fantasy - is over before you can blink. Robbers typically spawn closer to the vault then the cops, making it more a case of flavour than gameplay mechanics, which is a shame. The briefcases can be picked up by a robber instantly but take a relatively long time to be re-captured by a cop, resulting in some gloriously chaotic skirmishes. The mode emphasises teamwork, as an individual police player cops will be too vulnerable to retrieve the briefcase back to the vault. Organised robbers can utilise zip wires and vehicle drops to take the prize back to base extremely quickly, which can result in dissatisfying short battles. For the most part, Heist is a solid gameplay mode, but the cops and robbers fantasy Visceral are gunning for comes across as relatively artificial here.
Blood Money is perhaps my favourite game mode and is another capture the flag variant. Maps load with a pile of money in the centre, and it is both team's job to retrieve it and then take it back to their home base. The first team to hit 150 units wins. Gathering cash from the pile can take a relatively long time. As such, you have the option to leave early with what you've been able to pick up, or risk death by remaining until your pack is full. It creates a tense risk vs. reward scenario I have not really experienced in other games. Speaking of risk - you can ramp it up by taking money directly from your enemies' camp. This thievery reduces their tickets and, should you deposit the cash, increases your own. You also have the option to steal cash from downed players. There's much potential for variety in this mode, do you go to the cash pile? Simply camp other players? Alternatively, go to your enemies' cash pile? Setting up escape routes with zip wires, grappling hooks, etc. I think it'd be cool if the win clause were higher, games in this mode can often be a tad on the short side, but it is much fun nonetheless.
Hotwire While I enjoy this style, I do not think it is particularly well thought out. Hotwire is similar to Conquest, which has players control nodes in order to deplete the enemy teams spawn tickets. However, the nodes are vehicles that need to be driven above a certain speed to be considered captured. Playing with my friends, I've had a ridiculous amount of fun setting up road blocks using other vehicles, sending enemy cars sky-high with C4 charges, and gunning people down in an attack chopper. The problem is, doing the fun stuff in this game mode can often result in a loss. To win in Hotwire, you essentially have to grab a car and drive around in a circle, actively avoiding confrontation. Often, nobody wants to be the one to do the driving. I've been in a game where a dude has driven a car around in a circle in a parking lot throughout a match's 10-20 minute duration, I cannot imagine how mind numbingly boring that must be. No matter how proficient my squad is at destroying enemy vehicles, if nobody is willing to be the one to do the monotonous circuit racing with Frostbite's contemptuous vehicle handling, then victory be damned.
Crosshair is a highly competitive 5v5 mode that removes you from the game upon death. One player spawns with golden guns and is supposed to be escorted to safety by the team playing cops, and it is the criminal's job to wipe the VIP from existence. It is a fairly standard gameplay type and doesn't do anything to challenge the formula, but is hard to fault. This game style is a "does what it says on the tin" sort of deal.
Rescue is similar to the above, in the sense that there's no respawns. Rescue takes a cue from Counter Strike's Hostage Rescue mode. Police players are tasked to extract hostages who are guarded by criminal players. The grappling hook can make this way interesting, as well as the various traps and gadgets you are afforded to keep players away. The competitive modes have significant potential for tactical play in dedicated teams, but as you'd expect, they can be frustrating if you play as recklessly as I do.
Beyond these new modes, you also have the standard Battlefield staples of Team Deathmatch and Conquest.
Gameplay wise, generally, Battlefield Hardline is rather good. While the new gadgets are fun to use and quite varied in their application, the advertised zip wire and grappling hook have pretty limited functionality. More often than not will get you killed if you attempt to use them in the frenetic primary game modes. The staple gadgets like C4 and trip mines make their way across, as well as Battlefield's vast array of weapons and accessory unlocks. Every gun I've used boasts individual pros and cons, but all handle well as Battlefield fans would expect. Hardline is complimented with a beefy array of maps reliable game modes offer good variety and, well, every aspect of the game is as it should be, but within lies the problem for me.
Hardline multiplayer is indeed a robust offering, it's Battlefield. It just doesn't do enough, in my view, to justify the jump from Battlefield 4. The removal of military hardware permeates through the entire game, creating a diluted experience. What Hardline does do, is make me want to jump back into a tank and level skyscrapers in Battlefield 4 again.
Hardline is good, but won't arrest everyone
For more casual fans like myself, you may feel a pang of disappointment throwing £45 on this, particularly considering Battlefield 4 is still expected to get fresh maps in the future. It simply doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from Battlefield 4. The things it did do were to impede things I like most about Battlefield, like environmental destruction and unbridled firepower. Those epic Battlefield moments still come, but are muted in comparison to its older brother, whose 5th instalment announcement will likely overshadow Hardline's existence entirely.
Battlefield Hardline is solid though. It has an engaging single player component, the server issues that plagued Battlefield 4's launch are thankfully absent, and the bugs are not nearly as prevalent. More ardent Battlefield fans are looking for something to tide them over while waiting for Battlefield 5, I think there's more than enough content on offer to be satisfied in the interim.
Battlefield Hardline is available now on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4 and PC.
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