Concluding what turned out to be a two-part review-in-progress of EA's latest big noisy man-shooter - part 1 is here. I wrote it in pieces purely because we didn't have code until US release day and I wanted to be useful to people thinking of buying the game ASAP; there'll probably be more of that sort of thing here.
Battlefield: Hardline is a stupid game. Clanging, colossal, cacophonous stupidity. It’s a morally ugly one too, implicitly endorsing the idea that American police should be Judge Dredd, free to take as many lives as they feel like without consequence, fighting the war on drugs as a literal war, celebrating American policing’s increasing shift towards the openly militaristic. Though, quite frankly, all that might just be a consequence of its unbridled stupidity. It really is very stupid.
I quite like it.
I’ve covered much of the singleplayer, including its attempts at stealth and why it's not simply CoD with a police hat on in this previous piece, and further progress through the game hasn’t changed my mind too much. I’ll add a few extra thoughts before proceeding to multiplayer (though I don’t agree that multi is necessarily the main event; nor, clearly, do EA, given quite how ‘big’ Hardline’s singleplayer is). Unsurprisingly, later levels entirely take leave of what few senses the earlier ones had. Plot-wise, it’s like headbutting a pavement. Everyone backstabs everyone backstabs everyone but wait what about oh no backstab but wait oh, look, just murder everyone even though you’re a police officer, but now you’re a convict but look you can still arrest people if you want and no wonder half the world doesn’t take videogames seriously. But!
There is something to be said for stalking people with a taser through a sprawling shopping mall in the middle of a hurricane. There is something to be said for airboating around the swamps of Florida (though I was disappointed at the lack of Gentle Ben references) then ziplining between observation towers because something something drugs. There is something to be said for a stealth-escape through a ruined mountain town that looks like a Fallout offcut. There is much to be said for the size and openeness of Hardline’s singleplayer campaign – choosing a route and choosing an approach in a way that Gruff Man With Gun games rarely allow. Hell, you even get to open all your own doors.
The nonsense narrative, though well-performed by its voice cast and boasting some excellent face rendering (yes, top marks for Renderface), gets in the way of this. Though at least it's big and brash enough to possibly distract us from a monstrous underlying sentiment that, so long as he’s not on the take, it’s absolutely fine for a policeman to murder anyone standing near a suspected crime scene. You’ll need to leave morality at the door and accept that you’re disappearing into a lurid Michael Bay fantasy which is, probably unwittingly, deeply insensitive with regard to recent events in America and, for less aware minds, might endorse some deeply sinister ideas about police powers.
There is, however, a pretty decent shooter campaign in there, at least by the standards of this series and post-Modern Warfare Call of Duty. It’s far less restrictive than the norm, and clearly a hell of a lot of time and money has been spent trying to make it more than the traditional tokenistic half dozen hours of mindless bombast put in to prop up new multiplayer maps. If you choose the stealth/non-lethalish route like I did, it’s also going to last you quite a long time. Far less so if you just blast your way through, naturally.
Onto multiplayer. It’s what an awful lot of people will buy Hardline for, and it both is and isn’t a big shift for the Battlefield series. Only a fool would interpret the police vs criminals theme as anything more than skin deep. This is still army vs army, with both sides having unfettered access to a huge variety of high-power weaponry and vehicles. It’s a police story only in the way that the latter half of Bad Boys 2 is a police story – men who identify as police behaving like a private army with limitless resources. (And also in that it is very visually dramatic but makes no sense, other than that it fetishises military might and extreme wealth).
That said, a shift from tanks and jeeps to cars and motorbikes and the occasional speedboat lends Hardline a madcap freneticism that Battlefield doesn’t traditionally have, even in its increasingly manic recent instalments. On some maps, it’s rough and tumble chaos – high speed car chases, giant tankers ploughing people off the roads, dudes grappling hooking to rooftops, and ziplining onto helipads... I missed the comparative calm and freedom to plan of early Battlefields, but sometimes I stood back and shook my head in disbelief at the widescreen carnage of it all.
There's a decent variety of modes which stray a long way from Battlefield's traditional Conquest point-control mode and into stuff like hostage grabbing, cash theft and car heists, and these do help keep things fresh, but it all boils down to a massive, apocalyptic dust-up. Maps are huge and ornate, riffing on major locales from the campaign – e.g. that big mall, those everglade swamps, a burning weed den - then turning them into elaborate death-traps. And there really is a lot of death, even by Battlefield standards. More indoor spaces and more verticality means so many places to hide and camp; so many devices with which to cause harm; some crazy imbalances based on what people have unlocked.
I laughed darkly, sometimes, at the frequency and unavoidability of my own demise, at how often I couldn’t even fire a shot before a rocket launcher melted my bones or a helicopter’s machine gun cut me to ribbons. But that’s part of the game, as much as I would learn to survive longer from extended play or by finding a steady team rather than just fetch up with unlocked-crazed, abuse-spitting randos. I caused my own fair share of sudden, presumably infuriating deaths too – Hardline is designed to be rolling, insane slaughter more than it is a co-ordinated clash of equally-matched forces.
The theme, loose and uncomfortable as it may be, also allows a little more liberation in the modes. Some revolve around the seizing of money, and in turn you get more car chases out of that, plus city streets which provide a more familiar pop-cultural touchstone than open landscapes peppered with future-tech. I mean, it’s Heat’s bank heist as re-enacted by Team America, but grab the cash and get out is far easier to get behind than go guard point A because some unseen general has decreed it.
The presentation and the atmosphere is so damned noisy, though. Hardline multiplayer is defined by, overwhelmed by its unlocks, by the stats and icons it batters you with either side of play, by the constant anxiety that the kit you have isn’t good enough. Add to that its maps not offering much breathing space – it’s all go, all the time – and I just generally feel this is a ranting, twitching fever pitch experience. Escaping a bank vault with a sack of cash in hand and a small army on your tail is thrilling, ripping a mansion that even Notch would blush at to shreds is spectacular, but I do miss the pace and tension of Battlefield as-was.
This really is Michael Bay in every way, entirely lacking in irony, entirely aroused by militaristic mayhem, entirely unrelenting. And with action on a scale few others can match. Any hopes of this being a police simulator in any sense are entirely dashed, but I don’t think a bigger, brasher Battlefield where barely a moment is spent not fighting is a bad thing. If this is Battlefield’s only future, that would be a terrible shame, but if treated purely as a mindless destruction derby spin-off it’s hard not to have a riotous old time with it. Its playing fields are humungous, its toys generate maximum mayhem, it will festoon you with new goodies even if you basically fail to do anything of note, and you get to drive a motorbike down a dried-up river bed like in Terminator 2.
Battlefield: Hardline is a stupid game. I quite like it.