Battlefield Hardline Review: SWAT and Robbers
Battlefield Hardline came out only 15 months ago and yet I was able to buy a copy from EA’s own Origin store for only $5 just a few weeks ago. It’s amazing that a spin-off of one of EA’s flagship franchise could be discounted to basically free in just over a year from its release. It’s as if EA admitted that they missed the mark with their take on cops & robbers. The question is if the deserves its apparent lack commercial support is because gamers are burnt out in Battlefield or if Battlefield just doesn’t make for a good law enforcement game.
Well, I call Battlefield Hardline a cops & robbers game but that’s more a popular buzzword to describe the game. You play a police officer in the vice squad of the Miami Police Department. That means you’re on the drug beat trying to stop the burgeoning Miami drug trade and criminal underground as it enters war over a hot new drug.
If you hoping for a big budget take on a police game, you won’t get it here. They try presenting this as a TV series (each chapter is an “episode”) but it’s only really evident in that they attempt story elements and there are “previously on” and “next time on” videos when you load or exit the game. They’re the highlights of the game. It’s like a police action movie without the decent writing or characters. Everyone is written skin deep, if that, with no depth or interesting quirks. The dialogue is painful and isn’t helped by the fact that they had two actors (one of whom was only in the game for maybe 10 or 15 minutes of screen time) who tried to have fun with it and there was only one character worth a damn in the whole game.
BFH throws cop story clichés at you so that the only twists come from some attempted bait-and-switches that just end up more confusing than important to the plot. They confused who the big boss was because the mini boss dies in the middle of the game despite being the one that you should take down at the end because he’s the one you were in conflict with for the first half of the game. The final episode with the big boss is painfully underwhelming as he gets dusted in a cutscene. At least the under-boss had the decency to die in a jumped up QTE.
If you want to play this game for the story, you’re most likely to be disappointed. It was boring and predictable from start to finish except for the fact that you can underestimate the depths of disappointment that BFH’s story can sink to. Somehow, this is the same developer that made Dead Space and Dead Space 2. Would people be half as excited that Visceral has hired Amy Hennig if they hadn’t put out Dead Space 3 and Battlefield Hardline in succession? Visceral is capable of making great games but it seems that generic military shooters aren’t in their wheelhouse.
Oh, and this is definitely a military shooter. The prologue episode sees you use your badge to stop a room of criminals at an illegal drug sale slash poker game from shooting you, arresting a crim, watching that degenerate into a shootout, get into a foot pursuit and then ends with a car chase. It’s like a paint-by-numbers opening to every cop movie ever: Simple bust goes awry and ends in a blockbuster action sequence. Lose the badge and could have easily plunked that opening sequence in Battlefield 4.
From there, you’re pretty much thrown into gun battle after gun battle. Sure, the game does emphasize stealth. You can sneak up on people and arrest them which earns you points for your Expert Level. Killing guys does this as well but not as quickly as taking the more proper police approach. Of course, increasing your expert level unlocks more weapons to use to kill bad guys. They could have provided you more options for non-violent takedowns like long-distance tazers or stun grenades but that would be getting away from the core of Battlefield.
If you’ve played Battlefield 4, BFH feels largely like a reskin of BF4 but without all of the technical issues that plagued, and still do plague though to a lesser extent now, BF4 at launch. However, there are some new mechanics to differentiate the police game from the military game.
The first mechanic is arrests. As mentioned above, taking the non-lethal approach is rewarded with more points and taking the violent approach usually results in having to deal with more enemies than taking the cautious approach. To arrest someone, you sneak up on them, hit G to flash your badge, get up to three baddies to freeze and then arrest them. There are a few issues with that. Why a criminal in body armor and with automatic weaponry would allow himself to be arrested and then be perfectly silent on the ground in zipties, I don’t know. I was also disappointed to see that almost all arrests had the same animations and grunts as you manhandle a crim to the ground.
The second mechanic is the investigations mechanic. Tied to your Q key, you investigate using your cellphone as a scanner. It will vibrate (which is trippy when it sounds like your own phone vibrating) to tell you there is something of interest to your investigations to scan. Then you have to trace your phone back and forth across the environment until you scan the one random item that is relevant to an investigation. There are seldom any indicators as to what might be relevant to your investigations which makes this more tedious than rewarding. There are Expert Level points for finding investigation objects of interest but doing the investigations doesn’t change the game otherwise. Your character’s commentary on the evidence is virtually non-existent. It’s quite obviously tacked on because this is a police mechanic in a police game but you can tell that almost no effort went into this.
On top of the half-hearted police gameplay, there are random moments that make you question what they were thinking with this game. For example, there is a level that involves a tank and tank battles. I remember one of those from BF4 and was surprised that they wedged it into the supposedly police-focused BFH. The plot of the latter half of the game seems like an excuse to match up against heavily armed enemies rather than any means for character development. And the ending is a cliffhanger that the game doesn’t really earn. There’s a sequel that’s possible based on the ending but not one that really fits with the game unless you aren’t playing the same character in Hardline 2. Though starting with a rookie cop in Hardline 2 and going back to the drawing board on the story and police gameplay might produce a solid game.
A big portion of a Battlefield game is the multiplayer experience. Even at launch, Battlefield 4 had a bigger player base on PC than Hardline. When looking at the Battlefield Hardline multiplayer server list, it didn’t look promising. There were eight active servers with a couple hundred people playing. There were servers for Conquest, Team Deathmatch and Hotwire. Only Hotwire is a BFH exclusive game mode while the other two are standard for the Battlefield franchises. So multiplayer isn’t dead but it is very small and very limited.
So the multiplayer part of the review will be based mostly on what I remember from the two BFH beta periods that I took part in. Well, I suppose that I can say that apart from Hotwire, Heist and Blood Money, the multiplayer feels like your standard modern military shooter. I didn’t see any tazers or handcuffs come out during these modes. You’re running around with assault rifles and grenades to kill the enemy in a way that would be a clever commentary on the militarization of modern police forces if this game was attempting to make a point about the militarization of moderns police forces. Instead, it’s just a cut-and-paste multiplayer mode with teams divided into cops and crims and that only matters in the Heist mode.
Heist and Blood Money are the two best modes. Blood Money sees both teams try to take money from piles of cash in the middle of the map back to their base. The more you load up, the slower you go. If you’re killed with money on you, the other team can steal it. They can also take cash from your base if you’re not watching. It starts out chaotic as everyone rushes the money piles and turns into a tactical affair as people escape with money and the bases see bills piling up. For my money, it’s the best and most fun multiplayer mode in the game.
Heist is the classic game of cops and robbers. The robbers are trying to execute a heist and the cops are trying to stop them. The goal of the robbers is to extract the loot from a bank and deliver it to an extraction zone. They need to do this twice to win. This often results in a draw since the mode inherently has a defender’s advantage in that there are only three extraction points and up to two payloads on the map at any time. If all things are equal, it’s a little easier to stop the opposition than deliver the cash because all you have to do is hide behind cover to defend while you can’t hide to move the payload to the extraction point.
The Hotwire mode is supposed to simulate high-speed chases in which you try to steal one of the specified cars and drive it as long as you can to capture it and deplete the opposition’s tickets. When they run out of tickets, you win the game. It’s like Battlefields’ Conquest on wheels. Rather than turn into a series of high-speed chases, the captured vehicles drive around in circles to deplete the opposition’s tickets. You can get some potshots from the helicopter or when they circle by you in their car but they needed to borrow stuff like spike strips and PIT maneuvers from Need for Speed to actually make this mode work.
Speaking of things that need work, the whole Battlefield back-end could use a complete overhaul. While the game looks gorgeous, the environment is delightfully destructible (with a few indestructible cover spots helpfully sprinkled through levels) and it runs fairly smoothly, the load times are impossibly slow. I could start loading up a campaign mission and use the load time to go to the lavatory, grab a glass of water, refill the Brita (a necessity for over-chlorinated tap water) and get in a match of Clash Royale (more evil than my review lets on) and just catch the end of the loading screen. That might be a slight exaggeration if the Clash Royale match (and I should really uninstall this game) goes to overtime.
The other issue I have is with the Battlelog web browser setup. I’ve never understood why the general menu functions need to be through a web app rather than in the game when you can exit to a traditional main menu in the game. When you tell Battlelog to activate the game (for multiplayer or campaign), it opens the game in the background and you have to click to it because it won’t put the window up front for you to play. I have my Windows taskbar set to auto-hide and it’s kind of annoying to not see the game window pop up and you waste precious time dying while you don’t see the actual game. That’s a minor gripe but I still really dislike Battlelog. DICE doesn’t need to go full hidden servers like Battlefront (review coming eventually) but there is a happy medium of getting Battlelog in the actual game while still providing people with all the functionality they need to setup and select servers and game modes.
For just $5, it’s tremendous value for money. It’s a modern triple-A game that’s discounted lower than most indie games launch prices. Even at $10 (which it was bumped up to after the $5 sale) or $20 (it’s new regular price), it’s a seven to eight hour experience with top-notch visuals and sound. If the rating was about whether it’s worth the price, you’d be hard-pressed to argue against a 9 or 10.
That being said, I’m rating a video game and not a value proposition. Battlefield Hardline is a solid but unspectacular game. Sure, it looks and sounds like the action movie blockbuster that they wanted it to be but they really half-assed the transition from military to police shooter. If they didn’t bother with the police gameplay mechanics or try to pitch is as a police game, I’m sure that we would have thought of it more fondly. The end result is something that has a massive identity crisis.
Whether you want to buy Battlefield Hardline comes down to what you want from the game. If you want a police or detective game, you’re likely to be disappointed with BFH. If you want a stable shooter where the emphasis is on blockbuster set pieces and shooting rather than the police elements of the game, maybe grabbing Hardline for cheap wouldn’t be a bad thing. Granted, if multiplayer interests you at all, it’s straight to Battlefield 4 for you.
Battlefield Hardline was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs, and how much police work you want in a police game.