Hands on with Battlefield: Hardline, a cops vs. robbers throwdown like no other

There was a time not too long ago when gamers felt positively exhausted at the thought of another shooter set during World War II. The industry powers-that-be heard this and obliged with a veritable flood of modern military warfare games. That flood shows no signs of abating, but exhaustion creeps in once again, and the next frontier — as Visceral Games and DICE see it, at any rate — is the eternal struggle between cops and robbers.

Enter Battlefield: Hardline.

Story/Concept

Cop capers. Visceral wasn’t quite ready to chat about the story portion of Battlefield: Hardline at our pre-E3 first look. As fans of the Dead Space series will attest, the idea of that dev team tackling a Battlefield game is very promising. The foundation that DICE established in its shooter series holds a lot of narrative potential, but the story-driven side of the series hasn’t always delivered (the Bad Company games being notable exceptions). 

Visceral’s got some grade-A storytellers on staff, and they’re led by creative director Ian Millem, who oversaw the artistic vision on the first two Dead Space games before coming up with the cops versus robbers angle for Hardline. Millem confesses to feeling some exhaustion at the idea of another shooter set in a modern military theater, but his love of heist and caper flicks is what led him to rethink the Battlefield strategy for a different setting. All he’ll say about the plot at this point is that it’s a crime/revenge story.

Gameplay

Urban warfare. With campaign talk cast aside for the time being, our hands-on demo focused entirely on the multiplayer side of the game. Traditional modes like Conquest and Rush don’t really work in the context of cops and robbers duking it out over loot in the heart of a city, but their DNA clearly informs Visceral’s work on crafting this re-imagined Battlefield.

There are more to come, but two modes were on display for the purposes of our hands-on time: Heist and Blood Money. Heist features more of an asymmetrical take on competitive play, with the robbers working to bring vans loaded with explosives to a pair of objectives — motionless, cash-filled armored cars — then defend the explosives until they go off and ferry the newly accessible bags of money to two different extraction points, one for each bag. Meanwhile, the cops fight to prevent any of that from happening.

Blood Money is more straightforward, with the two teams moving out from their base locations to grab cash from an open vault in the center of the map and ferry it back to base. Players can only hold up to $500,000 at a time (which drops if they’re gunned down), and either team can steal money from the other’s base. The first team to reach a cash total — it was $5 million for our games — wins.

The feel of the gameplay and overall look is still fundamentally Battlefield. Everything from the overhead map that you view prior to respawning to squads to the user interface is identical to the latest games in the series. The types of vehicles have changed — police interceptors, SWAT trucks, armored pickup trucks, transport choppers — but the play remains the same. Certain controls differ (LT/RT now control gas/brake when driving, clicking RS as a car passenger leans out the window), but not in a way that dramatically alters the flow of the game.

Gear up. The four Hardline troop classes are Operator, Mechanic, Enforcer, and Professional which roughly equate to the Assault, Engineer, Support, and Recon classes, respectively, of earlier Battlefield games. As with just about everything else, basic controls remain the same as far as movement, combat, and making use of gear/gadgets goes.

There are, however, some new toys to play with. The grappling gun allows you to create climbing locations that players from either team can make use of. During one particularly tense firefight, we set up a grappling line to create more direct access to an overpass from the road below it, and our team proceeded to use the new access point to set up a more defensible high-ground position. There are other, fiction-suitable tools as well, including a zipline crossbow, molotov cocktails, IEDs, and more.

Presentation

Return trip. As we’ve already said, the change in focus doesn’t disrupt the inherent Battlefield-ness of the action and overall presentation. Hardline finds its closest comparison in Battlefield 4 (no surprise), with the lone map we played on — called High Tension — amounting to a bustling downtown location abutted by skyscrapers and multi-level roadways. A large, destructible crane creates the layout-altering “Levolution” possibilities that last year’s game offered, and an abundance of indoor spaces, above ground and below it, only add to the sense of scale.

If anything’s lacking, it’s the foreboding sense that the entire world might erupt around you an any moment. Game-changing presences like the map-orbiting gunship are gone (at least on High Tension). It makes sense, since cops wouldn’t rain destruction down on a city and crooks wouldn’t have access to such gear (James Bond villains aside). But everything feels slightly smaller, more contracted. That’s not a bad thing, and it certainly fits the fiction, but it’s the most clearly evident tonal change that the demo imparted.

Takeaway

Your Battlefield game for 2014 is a cops versus robbers throwdown, and that’s kinda freaking cool. It sounds like an odd fit when you first read about it, but sit down to play and you quickly see that the spirit of the series is alive and well. Battlefield: Hardline is definitely something different, and we’ve still got plenty more to learn about it, but this first look is very promising.

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