In efforts to assert its own distinct identity, Battlefield Hardline marks considerable departures from earlier titles in the series; the bombastic is mostly discarded, replaced instead by a more grounded, human narrative. Delivered in an episodic fashion, each mission is rather self-contained, though an overarching narrative is present. Given this manner of storytelling, missions begin with an explanatory, stylized cutscene, conveying the motivations and objectives in the mission proper. This uniqueness equates to an inherent sense of player engagement. But simultaneously and paradoxically, this structuring ultimately dampens narrative strengths. Missions become almost isolated, the narrative fast growing disjointed, and, accordingly, difficult to follow; the game is unfocused. But whether successful in delivery or no, the game shows admirable narrative ambition, one thread explored focusing upon the topical matters of police corruption and brutality, which runs rampant throughout the campaign. Here, it is shown that even the seemingly incorruptible can in time become corrupted, an excess of tragedy also accompanying narrative progression. Morally, matters are grey, the narrative naturally compelling, especially when regarding what came before, Battlefield Hardline totally breaking with its predecessors, as with the shedding of the first-person perspective in the game’s many cutscenes, only enhancing a cinematic quality which was relatively minimalized in earlier titles. Excellent voice acting and character modelling also elevate narrative strengths, the characters’ psyches intensely and affectionately probed, though this psychological component is relatively underdeveloped, even as Nick Mendoza, the protagonist, shows considerable character development.
Presentation is excellent throughout, with considerable environmental variation, though most missions transpire in more dense, urban environments, principally the cities of Miami and Los Angeles, that first metropolis serving as milieu for much of the narrative’s first act. Here, a commanding sense of scale is established, the beauty of the skyline made manifest, most notable in the many panoramic shots which are displayed in many of the cutscenes. Los Angeles, when visited, is similarly beautiful, having the same if greater vistas to its sister city countless miles away. In that location, one of the towering skyscrapers is actually explored; at some considerable distance from the ground, the darkness of night overtaking all, beautiful, illuminated windows in the distance – it is a remarkable level and achievement, conveying man’s smallness, his immense capabilities of creation. But just as soon as these cities are explored, other environments are sometimes visited, one notable excursion seeing exploration of the vast Florida Everglades, reached by boat and peopled by violent, ravenous alligators, eager to consume Nick and his partner, Khai. Highly atmospheric, here is another success, which is built upon as an arid desertscape is in turn explored, a derelict mall is navigated through, buildings and shops collapsing, while beautiful weather effects bolster the strange sense of beauty accompanying this decay – this significant degree of environmental diversity and technical mastery truly elevates the title, capturing the diversity of America as country; a sort of odyssey is conveyed, then. But while draw distances are traditionally very large, in actuality the environments are rather small, the game embracing very heavily linearity.
Whether exploring environments dense or sprawling, the gameplay is universally excellent – if decidedly unoriginal, offering no real innovation. Here, two traditional gameplay pillars are present, focusing on stealth and gunplay. In determined efforts at modernization, elements of other titles from the time are here incorporated; ripped directly from the Far Cry games, a police scanner is present, which can tag enemies and highlight their positions, even through walls. A necessary – and appreciated – inclusion, it somewhat elevates stealth gameplay, even as it is very basic in construction, centering mainly around line of sight, though sound production is somewhat important. Still, it is viable in many engagements, though here the player is not punished upon detection – there is the gunplay. An immensity of satisfaction accompanies continued evasion, the gradual depletion of enemy forces through stealth, performing upon them various non-lethal takedowns, all well animated. Similarly, a taser weapon is available, providing greater player flexibility in stealth. A shell casing can be tossed to distract an enemy, to alter his movement patterns and accordingly make him more vulnerable. A meter gradually fills up upon detection, alerting the player of potential detection – and dangers. All of these things have been done countless times over, and have been better executed countless times over. Still, while basic and uninspired, these stealth systems are functional – and strangely satisfying.
Identity assertion extends also to the gameplay, though even these more novel elements remain underdeveloped, underutilized. Nick, as police officer (for much of the narrative, anyway) wields a badge alongside his more traditional weaponry, which is employed rather frequently. Advancing upon an enemy undetected, the badge can be flashed when finally in close proximity, causing the opponent to discard their weaponry, to raise their hands in sign of submission; they are made vulnerable, which Nick seizes upon, grabbing them, positioning them upon the ground, and promptly pacifying them with handcuffs, their threat – but not their life – extinguished. Up to three opponents can be frozen in this manner, though the system is rather finnicky, inconsistent – when seeking to take down these three targets, enemy agitation is often the end result, the badge meaningless as they shoot upon Nick. While novel, again here is underdevelopment, and, in some instances, failure and inconsistency – these inclusions seem forced, signs of admirable experimentation, merely because some degree of experimentation is always expected. But in a major failing, this system is greatly enforced, funneling the player in a certain direction, destroying their freedom.
This failing manifests itself in the experience system in place, here dubbed “expert” level, which gradually increases as more noble, human actions are pursued – gunning down an opponent, even as he fired the first bullet, is almost looked down upon, rather strange when considering the narrative’s repeated emphasis upon the accepted nature of police brutality. Instead, handcuffing and non-lethal takedowns receive predominance, awarding considerable experience points, the former action granting massive experience, though the latter still awards ample experience. An illogical decision – or a mere oversight – is here present. An incapacitated enemy has fallen to the ground, knocked unconscious – why can they not be handcuffed now? This entire progression system is rather bizarre. Acting as a police officer should logically be rewarded, but the skew on offer here, the dispensation of rewards, is almost unfair, highly restrictive – punishing the player for engaging in open combat inherently limits experimentation and flexibility. The inclusion of these systems is a welcome inclusion – the end results are frequently satisfying, new guns being awarded at regular intervals. But with a few tweaks to the progression systems, the game would soar further.
The police scanner marks further ambitions of innovation; serving a far greater role than enemy tagging, it is employed frequently, its acquisition and employ again logical when considering Nick’s role as officer. Scattered about the game’s many environments are pieces of evidence, some seemingly mundane and pointless, others greatly expanding upon the narrative. In order to locate these objects, the scanner must be manipulated; as a tool, an arrow is present, indicating the location of the object, while a distance meter is also present, decreasing as the object becomes closer, ever closer. Interesting in theory, this one object contributes greatly to a destruction of pacing, its frequent usage damaging to the gameplay; fumbling about the environment for documents and evidence inconsequential is a frustrating endeavor. Even here, the developers infringe upon player freedom, as this evidence acquisition is greatly encouraged, many tangible rewards accompanying that attainment, be they weapons or attachments for those weapons; indirectly and unintentionally, then, progress is often stalled. Similar systems exist when considering the “warrant” system. Certain high-value targets are identified at an episode’s beginning; tracking them now, flashing the badge and promptly hand-cuffing awards substantial experience, roughly fourfold that awarded by standard grunts. Playing the developers’ game, I actually seized upon these other, secondary features, partially as I am a completionist. Still, sometimes trivial tasks are given undue, unjust priority, a major failing, all in efforts at uniqueness.
Whether experimenting with innovation or no, ultimately Battlefield Hardline is a shooter at heart, and here succeeds where stealth can sometimes fail, given its rampant basicness. The armory is massive, with dozens of guns accessible. Initially, the arsenal of available weapons is naturally restricted, consisting mainly of a few meagre pistols. Principally, weapons are unlocked through the “expert” system, though certain, powerful weapons can be dropped by enemies, the warrants traditionally possessive of the most damaging weapons. The progression systems are flawed, the means of acquiring weapons sometimes lackluster. But ultimately, the unlocking of that weapon – finally being able to use it and experiment with it – was a joyous affair, to such an extent that I viewed the “expert” system with persistent eagerness; whatever their failings, whatever playstyle the developers force upon the player, the progression system is very engaging. Beyond this diversity, weapon modelling is highly detailed, the game seeking a true-to-life aesthetic, which is expertly captured – even here, the game’s excellent presentation shows itself. Even basic bullet drop is present, contributing to the aura of realism, an inclusion which makes sniping particularly enjoyable and rewarding, given the difficulty and the learning curve; mastering those difficulties was similarly satisfying.
Playing on this hardest difficulty, death was a common occurrence, arising most often alongside boldness of approach – remain outside of cover for any protracted duration, and death is sure to follow, encouraging a cautious approach. But the game’s most remarkable achievement here shows itself, something which should be adopted by other titles in the same genre – upon death, a loadout can be selected, as is the case in a traditional multiplayer shooter. This inclusion actually prompts player experimentation, whereas it is lacking in so many other aspects of the title. An especially difficult engagement might bring with it repeated, brutal deaths, the odds seemingly insurmountable. But here, those failings and deaths can actually be compensated for, a different approach adopted; merely swipe out an assault rifle for a sniper rifle, and the ultimate outcome could change drastically. Furthering this experimentation, highly useful “gadgets” are in place, many of then explosive objects which can drastically alter the nature of an engagement; explosive charges or mines, when positioned correctly, can dispense with countless aggressive foes, excitement and satisfaction accompanying that dispensing, while their employ displays the impressive degree of the game’s destructible environments, concrete and other, more flimsy objects literally torn to shreds, serving an almost tactical role as cover is transient.
More imaginative gadgets are also present, the game again – as always – seeking to assert its identity, though even here underutilization emerges. These novel objects are twofold – one is a grappling hook, another is a zipline. While theoretically enhancing player freedoms, bolstering options for locomotion while also offering new, useful lines of sight or permitting rapid movement in any particular direction – while theoretically these things are possible, rare is the chance to actually use them in this manner, their employ mostly occurring only in scripted predetermined scenarios, the campaign forcing them upon the player. First introduced while exploring the Everglades, an excess of excitement accompanies their introduction. And then, that excitement is deflated, given the scarcity of locations for their usage. A major error – a loss of this identity, of the potential creativity inherent in these gadgets – occurs towards the game’s conclusion, while exploring the desert wastes. Highly protracted, here much of the game’s strengths and uniqueness are totally departed from, the game merely devolving into mindless shooter, aligning itself with its brethren in the series. Almost feeling as though the bombastic must be embraced in some fashion. An anti-aircraft gun is manned, used to slaughter advancing tanks and helicopters. Immediately succeeding this, a tank is piloted, a totally bizarre occurrence. These sections, likely included for the players’ empowerment, actually has the unintended role of deflating the experience, the game losing its way, everything which might make it special, memorable. One minute, streets are being explored, criminals handcuffed. And then, a tank is piloted; it is all very frustrating.
Another simple change could be implemented to enhance the gameplay considerably. For much of the narrative, Nick is accompanied A.I. companions, most frequently being his partner in the police force, the impassioned, enigmatic Khai, whose allegiances constantly waver to and fro, her true motivations often unknown, changing always. Beyond Khai, other companions also accompany Nick on the journey, the most frequent being Tyson, crucial to the narrative, highly erratic yet somehow likable, given his resoluteness. As companions, they fortunately have no health bars, and therefore cannot die – no tedious reviving is ever present here, the player permitted to actually enjoy the gameplay, deriving some assistance from the companions, though only a bit; they certainly draw enemy aggro and can occasionally drop med-kits, but their damage output is slight. The banter which exists between these figures can also be highly compelling. But the method of improvement centers around one key potential wrapped up in these systems – the game would be perfect as a co-op title, Khai or Tyson replaced by a friend or a random online. It seems logical, and is accordingly a glaring oversight, even as I have no real interest in co-op titles. As perfect illustration, there is the handcuffing mechanic. One player could go in and make the arrest; the other could keep a firearm trained upon the frozen enemies, preventing their retaliation, permitting also a smoothness of arrest. Everything seemingly supports co-op; it is a glaring omission.
With a fairly short playtime of seven or eight hours, something appealing exists about Battlefield Hardline, easily beaten, easily digestible. Its greatest novelty – the episodic structuring – mostly succeeds, though it suffers occasionally from a disjointed, disconnected nature, muddling the narrative, sometimes robbing it of focus and coherence. Other attempts at novelty are repeatedly made in gameplay systems, too, with the emphasis upon non-lethality, of not only pacifying enemies, but also on placing them in cuffs, the ultimate humiliation for a criminal. Whether soaring or sinking, a central, compelling message is conveyed here, the game intending to instruct and stimulate, to reflect on matters difficult, rather than merely to entertain; the potentials for bleakness inherently wrapped up with the police force is here seized upon, to fantastic effect. The existence of this message is made all the more notable – and admirable – when considering everything which has come before. Battlefield 3 may see the player piloting a jet, deploying flares to ward off pursuers, flying about wildly, erratically, the tones and objective completely over the top, the military stylings embraced to the last; Hardline is greatly removed from these dogfights, being more grounded, human. Its evocation of place is also an achievement, Miami depicted faithfully, both beautiful and hostile, idyllic and grimy. While rich in detail, with the developers ambition, manifold other environments, also technically impressive, are similarly explored. Here, though, one is not leaping from Hong Kong to New York, half the world away. Here is a voyage from Florida to California, again reflecting the grounded, plausible tone. Repeated are the game’s efforts at identity assertion; many failures result from that assertion. But enough successes are here present to warrant a playthrough, to experience something on the fringe of novelty but which cannot totally dispense with the past.