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Hands On: Battlefield Hardline

Caught by the fuzz

After a mixed reaction to the beta, including from our own Graham, Battlefield Hardline [official site] is looking to prove that it isn’t simply a reskin of Battlefield 4 with policemen instead of soldiermen. In many ways, it looks like it is going to have trouble shaking that assumption. But in one particular way (a single game mode called Hotwire), it is going to come out fighting. I visited EA to take a look.

Let’s go through the basics first. I got to play two of the multiplayer game modes. Heist is an asymmetric robbery mode where the criminals have to break into a secure location (in this case, a bank), grab bags of money and bring them to an escape zone. The police have to get in the way, and defend the vault and escape points. It's a bit like capture the flag, except the flag is a centralised wad of cash and only one team wants it.

When we played this mode, I found myself somewhat at a loss. As the criminals, there is a rush to break open the vault. And as the police there is a rush to defend it. All this meant I was often still fiddling with my loadout when the most interesting part of the match had already been fought through. All that was left after that was the back and forth of flag capture.

As the police, it feels like you have a slight advantage. The escape points are at the edges of the maps, making them fairly easy to defend. On the bank map, one escape route puts the criminals in the middle of a mostly-open road, while another puts them on a wide-open rooftop. Although the alternative, offering closed and well-covered routes, would make it too easy for the crims to sneak away, there is still a sense of uphill battle that starts to grate after a while. Meanwhile the cops’ job is far less interesting and far less challenging. The inevitable battles of attrition that break out make your criminal feel like a genuine underdog, but it also feels a bit stalematey.

The traditional complaint that all this feels nothing at all like an actual heist is still valid, as I feel it is for the Payday games. But at least Payday 2 tries to offer a “quiet” option (albeit against AI foes). With so much strange, asymmetric stuff possible within the crime sub-genre I’m afraid the Heist mode offered here gains no points for originality, even if it might satisfy a hardcore Battlefield player who bounces in to cleanse their palate between bouts of vanilla Conquest mode.

This is why Hotwire mode is such a gift. In this mode, players have to gain and keep certain control points, much like Conquest. Except in this case, all the control points are moving vehicles. You rush out into an abandoned city, or a sandy desert town and grab the highlighted cars, vans or trucks, keeping them in your possession and maintaining a high speed for as long as possible. Should the enemy team ram you and pump bullets into your special car until it explodes, a fresh vehicle will spawn somewhere on the map.

It’s a great, simple addition to the roster and arguably the most interesting thing Battlefield has done with its control point formula in years. The most fun I had all day was riding in the passenger seat of a ‘hotwired’ car as we were pursued by an enemy 4x4, bullets whizzing. I stuck my head out the window and threw two explosive charges on the road in quick succession, then as the 4x4 drove over it, I pressed the detonator. In fact, all the best moments had something to do with a moving vehicle. Swerving out of the way as a helicopter crash-landed on the road. Looking out the window in the back seat as a crane came down beside us into a skyscraper (yes, “levolution” is back).

Giving you a reason to use the vehicles, aside from getting from A to B, was always going to be more of a problem for Hardline than its predecessors, since most cop cars don’t house a giant cannon on the top to swing a battle in your favour. But in fairness, Visceral has done a lot to keep vehicles useful. As well as making them the main attraction in Hotwire mode, cop cars and stolen rides have trunks full of ammo and weapons, making them mobile resupply units. Both teams have a large armoured truck that acts as a mobile HQ in Conquest mode, allowing spawns wherever it is parked, meaning whole squads will spill out of its backside over and over, like some terrifying armoured version of Mary Poppins’ handbag. The only thing I didn't really take to where the motorbikes. As in real life, motorbikes just get you killed.

But there are also a lot of things that strike me as odd. The unusable cars that litter the maps while other, useable ones are placed among them is only one example, but it's the worst offender. I never quite got used to checking my mini-map to make sure the sedan I was sprinting toward was present and correct - a little grey car icon symbolising its availability. I imagine after I’d played each level the requisite one billion times the unusable scenic cars would no longer bother me, but it is such an obvious let-down. There are all these seemingly interactive things lying around without purpose, except to camouflage the things which are actually interactive. It is the Door Problem all over again. Sadly, it does not feel like Hardline has reached its own reliable solution to this yet.

It's not just the level design that brushes up against the limits of credibility. Hardline's theme has come in for criticism as well, some of which is deserved. The idea that police SWAT teams are roaming around stopping car thefts with rocket launchers and parachutes is ridiculous, as many people have noted. The game has even attracted some light criticism of a different kind. Recent events in the US have led to sensitivity regarding the militarisation of the police, calling into question their supposed role as “protectors”. As a result, some view Hardline as a game which is, at best, uncomfortably timed. At worst, it's seen as needlessly controversial.

My personal take is that any such interpretation is overblown. While the box art from last year is the result of cack-handed thoughtlessness, the game itself (or the multiplayer portion, anyway) is a purposefully unrealistic, over-the-top cops and robbers plaything with no pretensions. The political events of reality are of the utmost importance, but the game that I saw this week doesn't really fit into that narrative at all. There is as much - perhaps more - to be troubled about in the depiction of military intervention abroad in Battlefields past. As another in a long line of shooty-shooty bang-bangs, Hardline commits more sins of cliché than it does of offensiveness.

To return to the game, Hardline’s multiplayer doesn’t try to do a great deal that hasn't been seen before. Its crime is not one of insensitivity but one of unoriginality. The loadout screens offer a similar spread of weapons with similar pros and cons as seen in previous Battlefields. Perks (here renamed ‘Gadgets’) also offer the same type of extras, with a few new things thrown in.

The Stunt Driver perk gives you a nitrous boost while driving, for example, but it is not noticeably speedier than usual and it sits next to the ever-useful bomb charges and tripmines every FPS player clings to for survival, so who knows how often the new additions will even be used. Zip Lines and grappling hooks are intended to add even more fun to the mix but, speaking honestly, I did not notice one scenario where either of these devices would be more useful than pointing my gun at someone and shooting them in the head.

All this said, I don't mean to sound overly negative. Hardline is a solid team-based shooter - as solid as its older brethren - and in its finer moments, racing around in a stolen lorry, smashing into everyone you see, it can be exhilarating. But Hotwire alone is not enough to draw me in at the moment, even if it strikes me as the kind of high-octane addition loyal players will adore. Most importantly, the Heist mode is another sad waste of a good crime caper opportunity. It looks like cops and robbers games - which arrive rarely - are still waiting for the perfect job.

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