Jazz is the magical product of music as a freeform exploration. It’s not just about the notes that make up an improvised solo; the spaces between each note are just as important. Jazz is what happens when a composition collides with chaos and unpredictability.
What a perfect metaphor for developer Visceral Games’ successes in Battlefield Hardline.
The spaces between the tactical choices you make in Hardline matter just as much as the path you choose to follow. The choices aren’t as obvious as the usual loud vs. stealth decisions that pass for choice in most shooters. Do you go loud from the rooftops? Scope everything out and silently separate then arrest each criminal? Zero in on capturing a high-priority target and fill the rest with lead?
Hardline is unexpectedly dependent on choice, and it makes a massive difference.
Hardline is unexpectedly dependent on choice, and it makes a massive difference. In stepping away from the Call of Duty-aping, linear roller coaster that’s been the focus of other recent Battlefield campaigns, Visceral smartly plays to the series’ strengths. Fans of the open-ended structure of the two Bad Company games: This one’s for you.
Each of the 10 missions, framed as “episodes” in a TV-style plot progression, minimizes heavily scripted set piece moments in favor of wide-open spaces filled with baddies, multiple angles of approach, and piles of equipment that enable even more tactical flexibility. The goals are pre-ordained, but your path to achieving them is not.
There’s always a pick-and-choose in Hardline‘s campaign. Do you tote along the grapple gun and zipline crossbow, opening up rooftop access and quick plunges into the heart of the action? Perhaps you prefer to rely on a taser instead, supplementing stealthy arrests with the occasional zap of electrical current. Maybe pair that with a gas mask, so if the s–t does hit the fan, you won’t choke out when the enemy starts lobbing non-lethal grenades in your direction.
Hardline emphasizes stealth without requiring it (though a handful of moments force you to raise up and embrace the bloodlust). There’s nothing stopping a loud-and-proud gun nut from marching through each episode and treating it like yet another fight-for-inches modern warfare landscape. But in Hardline‘s predominantly urban jungles, non-violent resolutions are an option just as frequently.
The game encourages stealth in different ways. Most of Hardline’s campaign scenarios begin as a quiet creep between easily accessible vantage points that give players an opportunity to scope out their surroundings and mark patrolling enemies with a handy cellphone scanner. This also opens the way to “collectible” arrest warrants, with each episode featuring a handful of VIP criminals that come with cash bonuses when you manage to arrest them.
Arrests are a product of the new stealth bits. If you manage to get the drop on an enemy, you can tell him – the baddies are all “him” in this game, sadly – to freeze and, once prompted, slap the cuffs on. It’s completely intuitive and uncomplicated, and Hardline takes care to ease players in during episode one. Suddenly, each potential battle arena doubles as a puzzle of drawing armed baddies to remote locations and zipping them up for later incarceration.
There’s no understating just how much the addition of stealth changes the fundamental flow of the game. It puts the brakes on Battlefield’s typically fast-moving campaigns, bringing the pace closer to the tactical play of the series’ sprawling competitive multiplayer modes. Much like the squad-based showdowns that play out online, the campaign’s push for stealth encourages players to really sit and think about their plan of attack before they act.
This is, without a doubt, the strongest take on the series since the days of Bad Company.
In what amounts to a fun reversal, Hardline also injects a fresh sense of speed into Battlefield’s PvP, with a handful of new modes that manage to maintain the epic scope of 32v32 multiplayer. Hotwire is the uncontested highlight, a twist on the flag capture Conquest mode (a Battlefield staple) in which each control point is a moving car. You’ve got to drive fast to “capture” the point, which means everyone’s always zipping around and shooting wildly out of windows. It’s a blast.
Heist and Blood Money are just as fresh. The former tasks criminals with breaking into a location, robbing it, and getting valuable packages to an escape point while cops give pursuit. The latter pits cops and criminals against one another in a race to move money from a central location to their respective home bases, both of which can also be robbed by the opposing team.
These three modes, along with fellow newcomers Rescue and Crosshair – both of which are marked by short playtimes and one-spawn-per-match rules – all embrace Hardline‘s evolved, cops-and-robbers interpretation of the Battlefield brand. Conquest and Team Deathmatch modes are included as well, but they’re out of place in Hardline, serving primarily to demonstrate just how much the slightly tweaked play mechanics change the flow of the game.
Speaking of flow, the story’s episodic structure has the same game-changing effect on the campaign side. Visceral treats it like a TV series, with “previously on” and “next time on” bumpers bookending each new chapter. The script from Rob Auten and Tom Bissell pairs well with the action, in a way that suggests that the writing team worked closely with the design team. Too often, the plot portion of story-driven games is at the mercy of the set pieces dreamed up by designers.
That’s not the case in Hardline. The relatively small cast of characters is a well-crafted bunch, fueled by good-or-better voice performances all the way through. It helps that protagonist Nick Mendoza speaks, but the win here is bigger than that. This is a coherent story with a very clear beginning, middle, and end. The characters have enough life behind them that their motivations come across, and make sense. It’s tough to unpack the idea that you’re a cop gunning down both criminals and other cops in this post-Ferguson landscape, but the effortless plot helps to keep that dissonance at bay.
Best of all: The story’s successes, welcome though they may be, are secondary in every conceivable way. Visceral’s long experience in crafting story-driven adventures (see also: Dead Space) shines through, but it unfolds in a way that cleverly taps into the elements of play that make Battlefield games great. This is, without a doubt, the strongest take on the series since the days of Bad Company.
It’s freeform. It’s improvisational. It makes you think carefully about the spaces between the action. Battlefield Hardline is an unexpectedly jazzy number, and is worlds better for it.
Also, the multiplayer seems to work after launch for once. Good times!
This game was reviewed on an Xbox One using a code provided by Electronic Arts.
- Best fusion of story and Battlefield play to date
- Stealth elements completely change the flow of the game
- Embraces cops-and-robbers fiction in smart, fun ways
- The game is out and online play still works!
- Lots of baggage in a post-Ferguson world
- Conquest, Team Deathmatch modes don’t fit in