Battlefield Hardline takes the series' now familiar formula and gives it a new theme. It's still about large teams of players killing, capturing and controlling vehicles in various objective-based multiplayer modes. But instead of visiting exotic locations and fighting as a military force, the game takes place in the streets of Los Angeles and players play the roles of cops and robbers.
I've been playing the closed beta since last Friday, and in between rounds of criminal mayhem I've been thinking a lot about meaning and structure in multiplayer game design. Now that the beta has opened up to all, let me exorcise those thought-demons here.
The screenshot that heads this article is of two police cars. Except not really. The police car on the right is a driveable vehicle, claimable via a team's base, as is always the case in Battlefield games. The police car on the left is a scenery object, unenterable. It's an item of cover for players to hide behind. It's a wall dressed to sell the fantasy of a city district locked down by a crime-turned-disaster in-progress.
This is not a police car. The one on the left does not mean what it appears to mean. Neither does the one on the right, really. So it goes with Battlefield Hardline.
I'm about to be overtly critical about a game that's in beta; it's not done, it's liable to change, and there's only a limited amount of it that you can go play right now. For as long as game companies continue to offer pre-orders for games months before release (Hardline is £50), I think it's fair game to honest about experiences even during preview.
The current beta includes a single map and two modes, Blood Money and Heist. In the latter, an in-world scripted sequence causes two armored trucks to crash at a city intersection. As the criminals, you must plant bombs on the trucks, get the bags inside and take them to an escape point elsewhere on the level. As the cops you're aiming to stop that from happening by killing the robbers and resetting dropped loot until the timer runs out.
To help both sides accomplish this, bases begin equipped with motorbikes, cars and armored trucks, and the map offers limited access to helicopters for both sides. Vehicles are skinned different for each side - in civilian or police colours, essentially - but there's already a strange disconnect between the experience the game is selling and the pieces it offers players to make that happen.
During one round as the robbers, I found a helicopter atop the skyscraper that acts as one of the levels' escape points. I hopped in as the gunner and, with a decent pilot, we made our way towards the point where the second of two packages we had to steal was positioned. Hovering above the crashed armored truck that the package sat inside, I was able to use my mounted weapon to mow down half a dozen members of the cops' team. This brief moment of coordination between me and my pilot felt great, till he parachuted out and I failed to notice until the ensuing crash and explosion killed me.
I respawned back at base, grabbed a street bike and sped off back towards the package. As I drove - the bikes are fast and carry two, including a passenger able to fire their weapon, but there's no finesse to their physics - the ground began to rumble. A crane which acts as a centerpiece to the map was coming down, crumbling presumably due to some unseen player action. Battlefield 4's level evolution in action, the crane's new position created slightly modified routes between the Los Angeles streets and buildings.
These are all exciting words, and I'm trying my very hardest to drain my descriptions of their innate vitality. Because when I was experiencing these moments, I only felt lost.
How many robberies escalate towards armed conflict? How many require the use of helicopters armed with gatling guns? How often does the prevention of a crime justify the destruction of entire city blocks? How many police officers - or criminals - habitually carry parachutes at all times?
More importantly, how does this offer the experience I signed up for?
This is not cops versus robbers. Battlefield Hardline's theme and setting do not mean what they appear to mean.
As far as templates go, there's worse upon which to base your game than Battlefield. While BF4 experienced a woesome launch, riddled with bugs and balance problems, I've been fond of the series since the beginning. It offers bombastic scale in its battles across land, air and (occasionally) sea, and its four classes and dozen or so vehicles offer choices for how you want to play with every new life. Even its Squad and (occasionally) Commander system do an excellent job of carving moments of teamwork from public servers; incentivizing sticking together, following directions, accomplishing objectives as a unit.
If the only thing wrong with Hardline was a touch of ludonarrative dissonance (drink) then I wouldn't even mention it. But it feels like the mixture of already strange abstractions (most soldiers don't habitually carry parachutes either) and assumptions about what being a Battlefield game means (big maps! lots of players! vehicular mayhem!) could serve to obscure the presence of a bunch of chaff and stop Hardline from ever delivering what it aims to.
What it seems to be aiming for in Heist mode - based on the E3 presentation, anyway - is an escalating drama in which players shift from attacking/defending a van, through to a thrilling zipline-escape and car chase, through to a tense final standoff and escape. That sounds excellent.
But this progression is stymied at every turn by Battlefield's underlying structure. I've not once seen any part of it coalesce into anything slick or dramatic or explicitly heist-y. As a robber, you might successfully grab the loot at the start of the game, but if you die on your journey towards the escape point, you spawn back at base and must slog back towards the spot where you died. Vehicles stop being props in a thrilling car chase and become a quick way to get back to the frontlines.
There's a line in the tutorial video produced to teach Heist mode: "Cops can work together to coordinate an assault on the escaping criminals." I've yet to see anything approaching coordination: the fantasy of four police officers simultaneously firing grappling hooks to reach a vantage point is compelling, but it's far more likely that the team will be spread out, players in different parts of the map, driving their own vehicles (because it's more fun than being a passenger) and fighting in their own skirmishes (because it's more empowering to shoot and score points than to rush for and likely die trying to recovering the object that centers the mode).
It's tempting to say this is all because I'm playing on public servers, with inexperienced teammates, instead of with friends or a clan or after months of practice. But good multiplayer games lead player behaviour through strong design. The shape of Counter-Strike's levels lead players to work together even if they don't realise it, and securing objectives is heavily incentivized by the weapon system. Intruder sells the fantasy of its asymmetrical heist fantasy by making players vulnerable, by its round-based structure making life valuable, and through its audio mechanic encouraging quiet and thoughtful decisions.
If we're to launch coordinated assaults, why do Battlefield's large maps, fast and disposable vehicles, and infinite respawns all encourage the opposite?
It's also not uncommon for multiplayer games to experience this kind of disconnect - a venn diagram depicting the fantasy they want to offer, the mechanics required to jostle multiplayer into life, and the shitload of awkwardness that exists in the overlap.
The solution to these problems isn't to embrace the grim austerity of the real world, nor to jettison urbanity entirely in exchange for contextless floaters. Purity and cohesion aren't always desirable. Battlefield Hardline might represent a step down a longer path, one which follows in the footsteps of Dota 2 and turns all this mechanical pidgin into creole. What does "recrow" mean in Valve's lane-pusher and why is it called that? Why do these robbers and policemen carry parachutes? It could be that I'm wrong in everything I've criticised it for, and a successful sequel from now I could come to accept these as unquestionable facts in the same way I stopped seeing the weirdness of being an inter-disciplinary omni-soldier in the rest of the series. A new language of multiplayer first-person shooters could be born here.
But I'm betting people will dodge the worst of that weirdness by playing the other modes instead of Heist. Blood Money - in which both teams must rush a central repository of money back to their own vault - is less ambitious and better suited to the structure of Battlefield. It works more straightforwardly in the rounds I've played. The big map, lots of players to shoot and vehicular bombast are all fun in the usual Battlefield way.
This is fine, but I hope Visceral Games are able to execute more completely on their ideas before release, because right now it looks like all Hardline means is another Battlefield.