Battlefield: Hardline [official site] went on sale in the US today, and unlocks for the UK on Friday. We didn't have access until today, so I'll run this review in chunks to give you some sense of what we make of it without having to wait too long. In this first part, I'm looking at the first half or so of the campaign, which details a Miami police officer becoming embroiled in an escalating drug war with a side-helping of corruption in the force.
It's OK to want to be The Shield (Hardline does, so much so that pock-marked old Captain Acevada's in its supporting cast). But if you're going to try and be The Shield, be The Shield. To meaningfully investigate amorality, you have to be unflinching about it, but Hardline (so far) is flinching at every turn. It wants to be heroic far more than it wants to be challenging, but oh, it so wants to be foul-mouthed and cocksure and steeped in blood. It wants a bodycount to discomfit a dictator, and it wants that to happen at your hands, but it wants you to be a shining, gleaming bastion of morality too. It wants you to murder a hundred men then be appalled when a colleague beats up one, it wants you to shoot dozens of suspects in cold blood without consequences, then feel disgusted when you're offered a bribe.
Maybe all this pulls together in the last act of the game. I'm sure there will be TWISTS and BETRAYALS and DILEMMAS, but at the very least, any last act cleverness would be deeply at odds with the messy, contradictory tale of Miami cops embroiled in drug war that Battlefield Hardline has screeched at me so far. Even when it's not asking me to forget about the trail of corpses in my wake so it can be all appalled about some infinitely lesser crime perpetrated by a fellow officer, it's choppily scene-jumping with chaotic abandon, feeling like a patchwork of action movie and police procedural vignettes stitched together at random (or, perhaps, a more coherent on-paper tale torn into tiny pieces then haphazardly glued around the edges of extended shoot-outs).
It's a hot mess as a first-person shooter too, which I'll get into shortly, but it seems sensible to declare at this point that I'm somewhat enjoying Hardline despite its many, various and sometimes ridiculous failings. I am not accustomed to first-person shooters with 'Battle' or 'War' in the title attempting to be anything other than straight-up gunplay interspersed with the sort of hoo-ra patriotic bombast that even latter-day Clint Eastwood would frown at. Hardline is genuinely trying to offer a little more choice, and while its stealth aspect might come across like toddlers playing hide and seek compared to the Metal Gears and Thiefs some of us were raised on, and while its 'open' aspects might be pale, tiny and stiflingly mechanical imitations of Far Cry 3/4, it is sticking its head above the parapet and seeing if that huge audience of digital gun nuts are prepared to try something a touch more substantial.
Perhaps it shouldn't seem absurd and almost special to complete a level of a game like this without having killed anyone. Perhaps we should have had these options long ago. We have it now, though. I did some thumping and some tasering, but I spilled no blood. Sadly, the in-game chatter and the post-mission response from fellow officers seemed to believe I was spraying bullets everywhere, but maybe that and the game's disinterested shrug when I do commit mass slaughter suggest that Hardline exists in an alternate reality where every police action routinely involves hundreds of casualties. Still, my satisfaction at having been non-lethal is its own reward.
To be clear: Hardline's stealth is woeful. You can flash your badge at an enemy stood some ten feet away from one of his allies, at which point he'll shout something pithy but lower his weapon, leaving you free to knock him and cuff him while his chums remain oblivious to noises which could wake half a street. You can chuck a shell casing to lure a foe elsewhere, but only ever a single foe - lob it near a group of three baddies and the other two will just hang around. You can fire grappling hooks and ziplines directly in line-of-sight of an enemy, but so long as they're more than about 20 feet away he simply won't notice. You can leave a trail of unconscious foes with pretty little Zzzs streaming from their mouths, and the guys just around the corner will never, ever notice.
It's ridiculous. I thought it was atrocious to start with, but gradually I adapted - both into having a clear sense of the rules of this world and how to use them to succeed in my bloodless quest, and into finding it an amusing experiment. What's the shortest range at which I can knock-out a guy without his friend noticing? Can I build a pile of ten tasered men? Can I basically just walk right to a level's end just by keeping a bit of distance? (Yes). Seeing a COD-type game lumber around trying to do stuff that's far beyond it is almost sweet, like if the dude from Nickelback tried to sing opera or Keanu had a go at Hamlet.
Something (or someone) deep inside Hardline clearly wanted to make a non-lethal approach the 'true' approach, given that stealth takedowns and arrests yield extra progress towards unlocks, whereas the straight-up killing which is otherwise infinitely better-supported (some levels are impossible without lethality, there are dozens of lethal weapons on offer, and perversely even more lethal weapons are the sole reward for extensive non-lethality,as far as I can establish) has no such rewards. And, of course, the narrative concerns itself with the one good cop in the system, not with a psychotic mass murderer who gets a bit grumbly about very specific types of corruption. I hope that whatever, or whoever, motivated this aspect of Hardline gets to come more to the fore next time around, but in the meantime I am glad to see a game like this leave its comfort zone even this much.
When I did opt to shoot my way through, I found the gunplay routine and a little meatless, not having done anything to meaningfully differentiate between (over-familiar) military and police in anything other than theme (and maybe there's a metaphor for modern America in there somewhere), whereas the rudimentary, near-comical stealth did offer a new form of challenge. It's not actually easy, despite its limitations, as getting spotted even once will stick everyone in the area into perpetual high alert, forcing some extreme caution and quick-thinking if you intend to remain non-lethal. The taser is very slow, very limited range and only has ten shots, so using that once it all kicks off is a game in itself. (Sadly/strangely, clobbering with a baton is considered lethal if done when an enemy can see you, so tasing's your only post-alert option). The stealth is bad. The stealth is bonkers. I kind of like it.
The other thing I've been enjoying is the regular switching up of environments. Hardline's art department visibly burn money at a staggering rate, as is latter-day Battlefield and CoD's wont, but whereas this stuff usually just winds up being an excess of pointlessly glossy background detail, there's something more to be said about stealthing around a drug neighbourhood at night one minute, and boating around the Florida swamps the next.
This ties into Hardline's episodic structure, which even entails Previously On and Next Time On... cutscenes (the latter shown when you exit the game - a genuinely lovely touch amidst what's otherwise some pretty clumsy TV-aping), freeing it up to have big thematic switches as the cops move on to a new case or the next stage of an investigation. It manages to feel a little different every few hours, and it isn't anything like so reliant on huge, contrived setpieces to do this as so many CODs are. Instead, it mostly just transplants its guns/stealth choice to the new setting and sticks a police procedural cutscene either side of it. And, you know, there are car chases and grappling hooks and alligators. It really goes for it, and if nothing else I'm in for more just to see what it throws at me next.
I'm less positive about the unlock system. Some stuff you get for meeting objectives, others for levelling up via non-lethal takedowns, and others still for finding 'evidence' in the levels. This is achieved with a Scanner gadget that shows distance to and quantities of local evidence, and the result is I spend half the time playing in green-screen, crawling about looking for a piece of paper or a bag of drugs that will help unlock some gun I don't even want but feel compelled to win. In other words, it all gets a bit Batman: Arkham - the impossibly important mission gets waylaid by trying to hoover up all these scattered goodies. The evidence system just isn't fleshed out enough to be anything like detective work, and so I'd much rather win my goodies by meeting certain targets than keep getting distracted by a tiresome treasure hunt.
Yes, so far it's felt a bit of mess, but a reasonably ambitious one, and not actually a disastrous one. Its dialogue is peppered with cliché and the sort of mindlessly repetitive, meaningless swearing of boozed-up football hooligans, but its lead characters manage to be surprisingly amiable company despite this. The actors are decent, the graphics tech does reasonably human things with facial animation, and the lead pair have a few conversations rather than simply shouting orders or grating bon mots. From what I've seen so far, I don't know that I'd go all the way to recommending Hardline to anyone who historically bounces off CoD or Battlefield campaigns, but I certainly wouldn't be actively warning them off it either. We'll see how it all winds up as this (probably three-part) review series concludes, but right now, Hardline feels like a step forwards. It has all the bombast of any of its peers, but it is very clearly trying to have more substance, and in some cases it succeeds.
More soon, including on the all-important multiplayer.