Review: Battlefield: Hardline

Battlefield: Hardline's single-player mode isn't going to set the world on fire and one shouldn't think too hard on the plot, but beyond that, it's a fun romp.  The weakness really is in the plot itself, which never really coalesces into something that feels like it has an impact, punctuated quite thematically by an ending that really gives closure without really having a point.  Nonetheless, with the stealth mechanic focus, the gameplay has evolved significantly, with better AI, gadgets that feel like more than gimmicks, and some noticeable improvements to weapon handling.  Although it's sad to say that the improvements to weapon handling were offset by enemies that even at the Cadet difficulty feel bullet-spongey.  All the same, it's a fun action romp if one takes it for the B-movie grade stupid plot that it's trying to be.  So in short: Do you like all those over-the-top "gritty" buddy cop movies Hollywood can't get enough of, and wanted it in game form?  Hardline's probably going to be fun for you, least in single-player.  Wanted the military guns and stuff that usually come with Battlefield though?  Well then, you're likely to have a bad time.
Review: Battlefield: Hardline
Date published: Jan 19, 2016
2 / 3 stars

Battlefield: Hardline is a modern military shooter developed by Visceral and DICE and published by Electronic Arts.  You know, I feel I probably was unfair in a lot of what I said about this game leading up to my review now.  There were a lot of comments floating around about it being "Battlefield: Cops and Robbers Edition", but while I can't really refute them, that's not really material to whether this is a good game or not.  And, honestly?  Yeah, actually I'm just going to say it: when Hardline lets down the trousers of pretention and just does what it wants to do, it is, actually a good game.  Not an excellent game, not a great game for the ages, but a decent enough thing.  It's ... kitsch, is what it is.  Fun in the moment and not all that bad in retrospect, but not the kind of thing I'd necessarily be quick to revisit.  So the million dollar question is: would I recommend it?  Well, yes, obviously, as this lead up has kind of been getting to, but that yes comes with a big pulsating asterix and a fair bit of disclaimer text.  So lets get into it shall we?

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It's almost impossible to talk about Hardline without addressing the elephant in the room, which is to say, the fact that the Battlefield series has always had a focus on the military in some form or another, but has shifted the focus onto the cops & robbers police remit with Hardline.  Personally, I find it a bit funny that the same people who complain that the series has grown stale and stagnant were also complaining about the series changing focus in such a way.

The bigger question here though, is whether you're getting the "Battlefield" experience if you're playing Hardline, and I'd answer that by saying it really depends on what you're looking for out of Battlefield.  If it's the shooter game experience with that military hardware you're not going to be too let down here - the same weapon system with gadgets is here and you're probably going to get a lot more mileage out of the gadgets here than before since they're actually useful to gameplay without being forced gimmicks.  If you're a mad person who actually liked Battlefield's poor vehicle controls then you'll probably be let down, though, as with a singular exception your vehicle segments are limited to MOH:W-style chase sequences, and not even many.  And of course, it's needless to say that if the appeal to was the military aspect of Battlefield, you certainly am not going to find it with Hardline.

BattleLog Drops A Log

One of the first complaints I have upon writing this review, going back to replay a few segments of the game for screenshots in to have for the review, is BattleLog.  BattleLog has always been the perennial tumor growing on the Battlefield series ever since Battlefield 3, and make no mistake, it's an anti-piracy DRM measure gussied up in the appearance of Facebook-style progress tracking, no doubt also getting some nice personal information and other data to sell to others.  This obviously is something familiar and not a problem to many a fan since most reviews never even seem to mention it, but personally, we already have DRM controls with it being on Origin, and then we have this on top of it, and personally, I find it egregious.  Especially since it's greasy tendrils extend even into the single-player version of the game.  Seems they didn't learn from Medal of Honor: Warfighter - I didn't mind BattleLog when it was at least pretending to just be a multiplayer match-making service, but once again, here it is forced on you.

This results in it's own problems too.  If your internet is being dodgy, as mine was at the time of my original playthrough, it can lose whole swathes of progress, and indeed that was the source of my irritation.  On my initial play-through I got done the Prologue through EP2 on the first day, and then EP3 through EP10 on the subsequent one, but because of the internet problems, my game didn't sync with BattleLog on day two, so all of that latter chunk of progress on the second day got kind of lost.  Why kind of?  Well, it does keep local saves, so you can still play all those previous episodes, but because all of the unlocks are controlled by code that calls home to BattleLog, I got none of the new weapons and gadgets that are supposed to be unlocked throughout the play-through of those latter missions.  So if I wanted any of that, I had to play all over again.  I despise when it feels like games waste my time for no reason, and measures like that are a grand way to do that.   A cursory poke at the usual suspects shows that the pirated version has been cracked to allow all those unlocks, so once again, it becomes a DRM measure that only punishes paying customers of the game who buy the game legitimately, to support the developer.

Good Guns and Gadgets - Ultimately, I find it difficult to get too down on the thematic change of Hardline because it improved the gameplay mechanics.  Gimmicky gadgets have always been something of a thing for Hardline, but the introduction of the police aspect gives the game an impetus to make them actually relevant, which it does with some aplomb, actually.  The grappling and zip-line are implemented in such a way that they’re never needed, and so don’t become intrusive and forced upon the player, but at the same time learning to use them will help you out in missions and they usually provide a more efficient path to  different goals, which contributed a lot to breaking up the usual amount of linearity in the Battlefield series by providing a Deus-Ex-like multiple path system where the central narrative is largely the same but you have multiple paths to achieve your objectives.  The guns are pretty varied too, and while some may criticize the smaller selection, it’s kept things to a variety of weapons that are actually differentiated from one another, which keeps design tight and weapons not just copy-paste job as they could be in the past.

The other main gadget - arguably the main gadget, is a little more of a gimmick admittedly, but still a useful.  The game gives you a "scanner" device that basically functions as two things.  Firstly, it basically acts as the binoculars in FarCry, allowing you to mark targets to somewhat track their location and line of sight, which is especially helpful if you're trying to go quietly through a section rather than loud.  It builds on that by allowing you to listen into some conversations between the enemies which is actually a kind of interesting way to build the narrative and more than I expected from Battlefield to be honest.  Secondly, it allows you to highlight "evidence" - which acts as the collectibles in the game and allows you to unlock the additional guns.

Additional gadgets include armour inserts which is a passive health bonus, a tazer for non-lethal takedowns, a gas mask that allows you to survive gas and some environmental hazards, and a breaching charge that provides a loud way to get into otherwise blocked routes.  Like the zip-lines and grappling hook, these aren't forced on you, since you have multiple routes, and I've had people argue they're kind of gimmicky too, but in honesty, I think they couldn't've made them more "useful" without forcing their use.  Essentially, what gadgets you pick and use will depends on your play-style, and in my opinion that's the better way to do that.

If I had any criticism of the guns themselves, its that most of these are still really military hardware, and it's one of the areas where the paint's peeled away to show the heart of the Hardline series.  Granted, in the United States the militarization of the police is a hot topic right now, but frankly, I highly doubt even if the police are using LAVs and assault rifles, they aren't using off-brand Desert Eagles, that's just silly I'd say.  Beyond that, however, the game seems to have improved fairly - the ballistics seem more believable with a certain je ne sais quoi to the recoil patterns that seems more realistic to me than arcadey, a problem I always had with COD and Battlefield both, though it still has a bit of a ways to go in that regard.  Muzzle flashes are toned down from the ridiculous lens-flare McBloom they were before, and the sound assets seem better as well, so all in all, other than the thematic clash, I had no complaints when it came to the firearms on offer in the single-player, though I suspect that may change in multi-player, we'll see when I do that review.

Hide the Railroad

Central to the conceit of the gadgets is how they disguise the linearity of the missions.  Regular readers may cast their mind back to my Battlefield 4 review where the utter linearity and non-interactivity of much of that game really grated me.  Really, Hardline is just as linear, but what it does well which addresses that problem, is you aren't taken out of the action nearly as much, and most of the stuff is at the very least minimally-interactive, which does leaps and bounds in the terms of making the game enjoyable.  You are no longer watching most of a Battlefield game, you're playing it, and it is such an essential, fundamental difference.

Hardline is divided into a prologue which acts as a framing device and then 10 seperate "episodes" - each of which are basically a mission, but the 'episode' title seems quite appropriate.  When you start a new episode in a new session you get a cheesy TV-like "This time, on Hardline..." complete with that overdone sort of narration.  It's very much a game that in terms of story terms plays like a TV cop serial, and if you like that sort of thing, you'll probably dig the story, actually, because it follows many of the tropes of the genre and format.  Other than bookending beginning and end of play sessions however, each episode gets a short usually around 2-4 minute framing cinematic, and a likewise length conclusion, and other than that, Hardline seems to make a point of keeping you in the game.  While I did start having flashbacks to the "slow walking, the game" with a couple of long, exposition-ridden driving sequences in the first couple episodes, the game has the good sense not to do this more than is necessary to establish the story.

Episodic nature is both a help and hindrance, but I would say on balance, probably a hindrance.  While it allows for casual players to have natural sessions of a reasonable length with natural beginning and end points, the problem that happens is that while each individual epsiode is actually fairly solid I'd say (except for some lengthy hand-holdy player training in the prologue and first couple episodes), the over-arching story suffers considerably for it.  It seems more like a series of events connected only by the people to which they occur than part of a coherent narrative and as such it feels very piecemeal.  That's not to say the story is bad per se, but someone playing it in mostly one play-through as I do is definitely going to notice some incoherence in that respect.  

The other big complaint with the story is that it's pretty damn short.  While my official Origin time of 6 hours is not accurate since BattleLog lost progress, this is a couple day's play at most.  This wouldn't really be such a bad thing in and of itself other than the value proposition of the game, but the game definitely feels like it's speeding to a conclusion towards the end, and feels "rushed".  Without spoiling plot elements, there is one dramatic heist mission that seems like it was the last mission they actually paid attention to, but it does not complete the plot at all, and as such, we're ushered into a fairly unchallenging lone wolf ending that I kind of expected to end somewhat like Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, but ended up going out with a whimper rather than a bang, so it feels like a game that ran out of something -- time, most likely, given the iterative schedule-centric nature of Battlefield development.  It's a shame, actually; while tropey, there's enough meat on the story's bones to make a very interesting story conclusion here if the developers were given time and resoueces to sort things out.  Unfortunately, it doesn't, and the weak pay-off at the end of the plot leaves quite a few things unresolved and doesn't feel like the story's complete.  At the same time, it's not really a sequel hook either, just a weak ending.

It's not all doom and gloom for Hardline in that regard.  Owing to the stealth mechanics the gadgets being fleshed out resulted in, the game got a fairly decent upgrade to artifical intelligence.  Don't get me wrong: the stealth itself is a simple patrol-route-based line-of-sight affair, but the enemies fight more coherently in squad units and in general will try harder to actually flank the player and group up together when the player engages, which makes them more challenging than before, a challenge sadly somewhat diffused by the omni-present regenerating health that requires you only to suck your thumb behind cover for a little while if you do take some fire from them, but nonetheless, it offers more of a challenge than the series did previously, so that was an improvement over Hardline's predecessors.  Thankfully, this extends to the AI companions as well.  While you still cannot really order them around properly, which would solve all of the problems the series has had in this regard, they do much better about moving from cover to cover, keeping up with you intelligently, and actually watching your back and trying to position themselves to prevent you getting flanked, except for a few kind contrived lapses hard-coded into the game for story purposes.

Spinning its Wheels

My final complaint with Hardline is that the driving controls on both keyboard and controller feels very loose and it is way too easy to end up caught on a traffic cone with a high-powered pursuit car or end up turned around.  The game developers seemed to realize this quickly because the game only has a few driving sections, but they're pretty universally frustrating when they come up.  I'd definitely recommend a pad here, but while the keyboard felt like it was far too large an adjustment per keypress, the controller felt like it was the opposite and I was basically breaking the analog sticks off either the DS3 or the XBox controller to get the vehicle to turn.  While that was fixed with sensitivity controls (thankfully), it was nonetheless irritating and not really something one should have to worry about in a high-production-budget "AAA" game like Hardline coming out of EA.

Nonetheless, the rest of the controls were fluid and response, with no noticeable input lag and a fairly intuitive-out-of-the-box setup that most probably won't change.  I particularly appreciated that while the game had multiple weapons and gadgets it kept switching them very easy to do, as someone with a mobility impairment, though I get the feeling this could be fiddly to others more used to using the number keys.  Nonetheless, the game is quite functional in that regarding and the only real miff here is that there is some very mild mouse accelleration with the port from analog thumbsticks to digital mouse movements, but I had little problem overcoming that with a higher DPI setting on my mouse and there's also an option in the menu for it.

All in all, Hardline is an aging engine but not an incompetent one, keeping it's one big bugbear (vehicle controls) but otherwise entirely workable.

Accessibility Notes

  • Keyboard and mouse controls fully rebindable
  • Controller usable but not rebindable
  • Combination of console FOV and heavy blurring effects to disguise pop-in could contribute to simulation sickness
  • Police lights, and other visual effects prevalent in the game could be a epilepsy risk

Battlefield: Hardline's single-player mode isn't going to set the world on fire and one shouldn't think too hard on the plot, but beyond that, it's a fun romp.  The weakness really is in the plot itself, which never really coalesces into something that feels like it has an impact, punctuated quite thematically by an ending that really gives closure without really having a point.  Nonetheless, with the stealth mechanic focus, the gameplay has evolved significantly, with better AI, gadgets that feel like more than gimmicks, and some noticeable improvements to weapon handling.  Although it's sad to say that the improvements to weapon handling were offset by enemies that even at the Cadet difficulty feel bullet-spongey.  All the same, it's a fun action romp if one takes it for the B-movie grade stupid plot that it's trying to be.  So in short: Do you like all those over-the-top