For about as long as the series has run, Battlefield has been a pillar of the multiplayer shooter genre. With nearly every installment, it has pleased longtime fans with the series’ vehicle-centric, map control-focused brand of online warfare. Battlefield 4 proved to be the exception to the rule. While some users – including this reviewer – were able to enjoy the game as intended, many others experienced crippling performance issues that made the game all but unplayable.
Battlefield 4 endured ignominy as a byword for launch issues, a cautionary tale, and an ongoing public relations disaster for developer DICE and publisher Electronic Arts, with top executives lining up to promise consumers that future online games wouldn’t be a “Battlefield 4”.
Despite DICE’s frequent genuflections at the altar of cinematic storytelling, singleplayer was never the Battlefield series’ long suit. DICE’s campaigns were largely treated as a distraction when multiplayer servers were sparsely populated.
Battlefield Hardline represents the first time a Battlefield title has been developed outside of DICE’s cosseted Stockholm studios. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what makes Visceral Games’ take on the Battlefield franchise interesting is how it excels in areas where DICE has not.
Best known for its Dead Space series, Visceral has bonafide credentials as a singleplayer developer, and it demonstrates that talent in a cops-‘n’-robbers story about Nick Mendoza, a Cuban immigrant who ends up working on both sides of the law.
According to Visceral, developers have been mistaken in their rhetoric about striving for game experiences that are “cinematic”. Games have much more in common with modern TV dramas than they do with anything coming out of Hollywood, maintains the studio. It’s a tidy insight that compares levels to episodes: each is self-contained narrative that contributes to a larger “season”. Hardline follows this logic doggedly, building levels around TV’s three act construction and using fades and cuts to signal this to the audience.
For the most part it works, and Visceral only takes this line of thinking a step too far when highlighting the credits of production advisors who also worked on TV series including Justified and True Detective. It’s an unfortunate decision that sets expectations higher than can reasonably achieved in games – even on a sophisticated engine like Frostbite 3. Hardline lacks the nuanced performances and subtexts that makes those shows so engaging.
Stripped of those expectations however, Hardline is an enjoyable, twisting action romp on a smaller and more personal scale than AAA gaming is usually prepared to risk. Occasional comedic flourishes help to remind us that Hardline isn’t trying to be the treacly patriotic war flick that so many others aspire and hopelessly fail to be, and it’s better for it. Visceral’s success here further demonstrates that the ‘empty vessel’ protagonist the player is supposed to fill with his or her own world-view and biases is increasingly out of date. Like so many who have come before him, Mendoza is despairingly short on strong or interesting opinions.
Hardline’s multiplayer is at once flatter and broader than Battlefield’s usual offering. Vehicles still play a tremendously important role in many modes but their ubiquity and supremacy has been tuned way down to create a different kind of experience that is better attuned to the cops-‘n’-robbers theme. There are 27 different vehicles in the game, and while some of them have mounted weapons, most are only useful for their speed.
That change has a profound impact on the multiplayer experience. Whether hanging out a car window or shooting from behind the teller’s desk in a bank, much more of the game is fought using load-out weapons. Conquest – once Battlefield’s signature mode – is one of the least interesting modes on offer, replaced at the top by a couplet of tight new competitive offerings.
Hotwire has been earmarked as Hardline’s flagship competitive mode, and it’s based loosely on Conquest. Designated cars are capture points and players must drive them, attack them, and defend them to bleed tickets from the opposition. It’s a fun, fast, low-stakes mode with broad appeal that could only ever work with Visceral’s reconfigured vehicle game, but how much longevity it has on live servers remains to be seen.
Heist plays directly to the cops-‘n’-robbers theme by tasking a team of criminals first with breaking into a vault, then by making an escape. The dynamics can variously create intensity around chokepoints in some instances and a sluggish meat grinder in others.
Blood Money makes the multiplayer game’s tickets a physical commodity that can be stolen from a central pool, or from the opposing team’s vault. With its multiple strategic objectives it harkens back to what makes Conquest tick.
Two small-scale competitive modes round out the multiplayer offering, and they represent by far the most interesting ways to play Battlefield Hardline. In Rescue, a SWAT team must attempt to extract one of two hostages being guarded by a team of criminals. In Crossfire, a SWAT team must escort a player-controlled informant to one of two extraction points.
Both modes limit team sizes to five, restrict the length of rounds, and give every player only one life each. They’re small, highly intense multiplayer vignettes that will strongly appeal to hardcore shooting fans.
These sweeping changes to the Battlefield formula are supported by a number of clever new additions and tweaks that speak to a fresh pair of eyes looking at the series. A new interrogation system allows players to extract the location of enemies from their comrades. Players can now take health and ammo from operatives and enforcers without requiring these classes to drop caches on the ground. A ‘junk in the trunk’ system allows players to stash powerful weapons in the boots of vehicles – choose the RPG for the Sedan in Hotwire.
The aesthetic similarities to Battlefield 4 are undeniable: Visceral’s Battlefield Hardline is built on bones assembled in 2013 by DICE. Where Battlefield 4 had a typhoon hit Singapore and Paracel Storm, Hardline has a hurricane slam into Miami. What’s impressive is how Visceral has pulled apart DICE’s work and reassembled it to create an innovative Battlefield multiplayer experience. When paired with an improved campaign that's more than a mere diversion from the mental exigencies of online play, Hardline represents a rare case of a student rivalling the master.
◆ The multiplayer portion of this review was conducted at EA's headquarters in California. James Cullinane traveled to the event courtesy of EA.