Visceral Games, a video game developer known for its work on the acclaimed trio of sci-fi, action-horror games in the Dead Space series, isn’t exactly a newcomer to the Battlefield franchise and its dealings with all out, combined arms, modern warfare. You may recall Battlefield 3’s End Game expansion, which was, in fact, handled by the guys and gals at the California-based studio and was even remembered as one of the game’s more exceptional add-ons.
Two years since, Visceral is once again in hot pursuit of delivering yet another Battlefield experience, this time as a fully-realized, all-encompassing standalone shooter set in a Hollywood-inspired cops and criminals universe. As a rarely explored context inside the competitive first-person shooter scene, perhaps aside from Counter-Strike’s terrorist and counter-terrorist units, facing off as fully-armed combatants on opposite sides of the law in a modern, more relatable setting is a dream come true for almost any shooter fan.
One week after launch, is Battlefield Hardline the definitive cops vs. criminals shooter we’ve all been waiting for, or is Visceral guilty of failing to live up to the Battlefield name and the identity it hopes to achieve?
Before we take a step behind the yellow tape in search of clues that might lead us to our final verdict, let’s bring in the primary suspect for questioning; let’s talk about Battlefield Hardline’s launch. Depending on how badly you were burned by the series’ history of offenses, Hardline’s excellent delivery may not completely annul EA’s imaginary criminal record, but it’s certainly done an exceptional job restoring some faith in the franchise.
Not only was I able to connect to servers at zero hour flawlessly, but the first week into the live environment has proven to be almost entirely free of disconnects, crippling lag, or “rubber-banding”. Things took a bit of a nose dive at the end of day two, but as far as my understanding goes, that instance had more to do with uncontrollable outside circumstances. Somebody lock up those pesky DDOSers! Still, it’s clear that EA and Visceral knew they had to get launch day and launch week right, and, so far, I think they nailed it.
What’s certain is that EA and Visceral’s decision to err on the side of caution and give Hardline those few extra months of development time has undoubtedly paid off. The result is a stable game and a fleshed out cops and criminals multiplayer experience that draws from a rich fiction of iconic Hollywood heists and highly adrenalized car chases.
Hardline might be a pseudo-Battlefield game without stealth jets, armored tanks, and attack choppers, but you won’t miss them one bit after getting into the thick of things and stepping into the shoes of a cop working undercover, an armored SWAT member, a reckless banger, or a professional thief. Role playing in Hardline is made all-too-easy thanks to the believable character design and authentic but often hilarious M-rated dialogue heard on both sides of the law. But if that won’t sell you on the setting, Hardline’s exciting vehicular gameplay, quality multiplayer maps, and unique game modes will.
Four-door cruisers, two-door muscle cars, motorcycles, and armored trucks might not provide the same sort of firepower you’d get out of Battlefield 4’s more fiercely-equipped vehicles, but they offer just the right amount of function and help you to keep up with Hardline’s faster pace and infantry-focused gameplay. Transport options can be just as deadly though, especially when an armored truck or a sedan full of gun-toting individuals leaning out the windows rolls on by. Some vehicles can also be customized to carry machine guns or rocket launchers in the trunk, both of which have been removed from regular soldier loadouts for balance purposes.
Oddly, vehicles can only be customized during a match and aren’t included in the main out-of-game customization menu along with all the other weapons and gadgets, which is a small frustration. The pumping music and police sirens are a nice touch that help settle you in the proper mood to resist or make arrests. It’s also nice to feel the improved controllability while behind the wheel, even though it’s still very possible to get stuck on objects or tossed around by wonky vehicle vs. vehicle physics.
Naturally, vehicle selection varies depending on the map and game type, some of which extend the pickings to transport helis, scout choppers, patrol boats, and airboats. Whatever your preferred method of transportation, you’ll want to grab a ride when one’s around in order to zip between objectives as fast as possible, support your squad mates, and experience the thrill of the chase.
The nine maps in Hardline’s roster, all centered around locations in Los Angeles or Miami, are generally small to medium in size in order to accentuate the game’s satisfying and fast-paced gun-on-gun combat. You won’t find anything as grandiose as Battlefield 3 and 4’s Caspian Border, though maps like Riptide, Derailed, Dust Bowl, and Everglades are almost as comparable. All four stand out as exceptional Conquest and Hotwire maps with more moderate Levolution events that affect gameplay to a degree, some visually and some geographically. Sadly, destruction in general appears to be toned down dramatically on most of the new locales, save for two standouts, Hollywood Heights and The Block.
Hollywood Heights brings back the sorely-missed Micro-Destruction that was a key highlight and fan-favorite of Battlefield 3’s Close Quarters expansion. Bullets shred through walls of the luxurious mansion overlooking a brightly lit Los Angeles, creating new lines of sight and even new pathways. Meanwhile, a few well-placed explosives will send nearly half of the building crumbling into the pool below. The Block, undoubtedly Hardline’s smallest map with a simple three-lane layout, unexpectedly boasts the highest amount of destructibility. Entire buildings can be taken out section by section, completely changing the face of the suburban battlefield by the end of a match.
What strikes me, however, is the jarring difference between these smaller, more destructible environments and larger play spaces with nearly zero destructible buildings or objects. It leads to a very inconsistent experience across Hardline’s entire offering, as if there’s a constant trade-off between map size and things that can blow up. I suspect it’s likely due to memory constraints and performance considerations, but I have to wonder if the need to run on older generation consoles is the culprit here. It’s unfortunate, as Hardline could have been the perfect melting pot of both visual spectacle and practical destruction that would have put a smile on any Battlefield: Bad Company fan’s face.
Bank Job and Downtown, as many of you may remember from Hardline’s public betas, are the poster children of Visceral’s shooter and for good reason. Both are clear nods to the sort of inspiration the art and design teams drew from during development, including memorable scenes from movies like Heat and The Dark Knight. Recreating recognizable downtown Los Angeles settings, Bank Job and Downtown play very well as medium-sized maps that fittingly standout most notably in Hardline’s new star game mode, Heist. A strong dose of verticality in each also provides ample opportunity to make good use of the new Grappling Hook and Zip Line gadgets, making those successful rooftop getaways all the more rewarding.
Where Hardline really sets itself apart from an otherwise strictly military family of first-person shooter games is its offering of successfully unique game modes that bring the cops and criminals fiction to life. Heist, as previously mentioned, is easily the winner here.
Similar to Rush, which Visceral opted to do without this time around, players are tasked with a sequence of objectives, including breaking into or defending a vault, stealing or securing a pile of cash, and then performing or preventing a getaway. Unlike Rush, Heist is unpredictable and forces you to think and act quickly on your feet or constantly stay one step ahead of your enemy. I suggest starting your Hardline multiplayer experience here as it will help you familiarize yourself with key locations on each map as well as learn useful escape routes to different objectives.
At first glance, Blood Money struck me as an overly simplistic variation on Capture-the-Flag with a repetitive ruleset: get the money from the unsecured money pile, put it in your vault, repeat, etc. But as you realize that you can start messing with the enemy’s plan to do the same, like planning ambushes, laying traps for vehicles, or even stealing money from their vault, things get a little more interesting. It also means you and your team need to be careful about divvying up attack and defense responsibilities so the enemy can’t do the same to you. So, what starts off as an simple goal eventually turns into a more complex battle of team tactics and mind games.
Hotwire revs up the fun and rounds off Hardline’s trio of character-defining game modes. Imagine Conquest, then replace stationary capture points with moving vehicles that will only score your team points once you reach and maintain a certain speed. This one’s all about epic chases and explosions, but expect a rough ride dodging incoming grenade and rocket launchers and steering clear of breaching charges laid out by infantry.
In fact, Visceral will likely need to find a way to tone down the explosive spam significantly once players catch word of how effective RPGs and breaching charges are at scoring ‘E-Z’ multi-kills. Otherwise, trips won’t last for more than a few seconds and drivers won’t be as enthused about playing the objective. Hotwire, as it turns out, is also the best way to earn in-game money which can be used to buy weapons, attachments, gadgets, and customization items. It’s not really fair to those who get more enjoyment out of other modes, so I think the balance here really needs to be looked into. Scoring in some of Hardline’s more competitive modes, for example, can be underwhelming and often discouraging.
Much to my delight, Hardline showed up this season with a very strong offering of competitive, 5 vs. 5, round-based, no-respawn game types. Rescue mode is no surprise; secure the hostages and escort them back to base or eliminate the enemy team. In Crosshairs, the VIP must successfully extract at one of two locations with the support of their rescuers. The criminals’ only concern is to take out the high-value target, so things can get pretty intense and rounds usually go by pretty quick. Following death, players are free to spectate surviving team members.
Rescue and Crosshairs are the types of modes that are as fun to watch as they are challenging to play in an eSports setting, but in public matches, the challenge is often lost amidst a plague of early quitters. While other shooters with similar modes do them better, I’m still glad both game types are present here in Hardline, as they make fantastic organized private match options.
Since it wouldn’t really be a Battlefield game with out them, both Conquest Large and Conquest Small make an expected return, but with a focus on infantry-based combat accentuated by transportation vehicles, as I touched on earlier.
64-player Team Deathmatch caps off the list of seven modes in total, and while the player capacity increase sounds like a bundle of fun, severely broken spawns lead to some very frustrating deaths. Not only do they appear to be completely random, but I’ve been spawned into enemy lines of sight and have had enemies spawn in mine on countless occasions. If you’re only in it to grind out weapon kills and don’t take your TDM too seriously, you can get some enjoyment out of the mayhem. Otherwise, I’d stay away from this one and spend your time in more well-thought out modes like Heist and Blood Money.
Combat in Hardline places a greater emphasis on movement speed and the distinction between various effective ranges of all four classes. Operators are most effective at medium range with their fully automatic carbines and assault rifles while Enforcers can either defend themselves at close range with shotguns or pose a threat at long range with battle rifles. Mechanics operate most effectively at close range with their extremely deadly personal defense weapons while Professionals will dominate at long to extra-long range with marksman rifles and sniper rifles.
Some classes are more effective in certain game types than others, and the Operator, which was previously the Assault class, once again reigns supreme as the most versatile, helpful, and powerful kit. What balance is present is thanks to the reduction of available gadgets and equipment compared to previous titles. Loadout options are made up of only a few class-specific gadgets, which not only helps define each kit more clearly, but also helps cut down drastically on the explosive spam that nearly sucked the fun out of Battlefield 4. Less is more and I think Hardline proves that.
I’d normally say that the smaller selection of weapons within each class also leads to more meaningful loadout decisions, but within my relatively limited experience of game thus far, I’ve already discovered that some weapons are clearly superior to others. You could argue that, to balance it out, they’re more expensive to unlock. But, in Hardline, money equals time and we know there’s plenty of that. So, if you’re one to only concern yourself with equipping the the most effective items for your favorite class, you likely won’t find much variation here.
The weapon models themselves are also presented differently from previous titles, both in their appearance and how they’re held. To my eyes, they look much cleaner and better cared for, and because they’re carried closer to your hip while running and walking, large optics and other attachments no longer obstruct your field of view.
Visceral’s decision to move from a progression-based unlock system to a currency-based one also affects the way you earn attachments, which means you no longer have to grind through Battlepack after Battlepack in hopes of randomly unearthing that one attachment you were after. My big concern here, however, is that if we’re to spend our hard-earned cash on unlocking items, there must be a way to test them out before making the purchase. I spent tens of thousands on the SA-58 OSW battle rifle only to realize I don’t like the way it kicks, nor do I find it very visually appealing.
It also doesn’t help when the pricing system is a tad too confusing. Why is the Micro T1 red dot sight more expensive than the COMP M4S when they both offer the same magnification? Is it just some arbitrary cost attached to the sight? Is the game telling me that the Vertical Grip is better than the Stubby Grip because it costs more? Again, it just means more time spent on experimentation, but a test range of some sort sure would make life a lot easier. It might be a bit of a step backwards, but Hardline does take the necessary steps forward in its loadout design, now with up to five different presets, making switching in-between deaths a much more pleasurable.
Movement speed in general is just a touch quicker than previous Battlefield titles, though switching to a secondary weapon or sidearm will boost your speed even further. Get used to swapping at round start in order to make it to objectives and choke points quicker. The faster pace, along with an overall tightening up of movement in general, leads to some of the most satisfying and responsive infantry combat I’ve experienced in a Battlefield game yet. I feel more in control of my soldier than ever before and gunplay is as ‘snappy’ as it was back in the Bad Company days. Dialing in shots with a long-range sniping also no longer feels as clumsy. Time-to-kill might feel a tad quicker than some are used to, which I think that can be attributed to the lighter recoil on most fully-automatic weapons.
While Battlefield Hardline is chock full of gameplay improvements that are all worthy of praise, I think what fuels the argument that ‘it should have been Battlefield 4 DLC’ is its lack of any technical innovation.
There are nearly no notable graphical improvements over Battlefield 4, nor are there any prominent advancements in the audio department, even though the series’ sound design has always been best-in-class. I still feel like the hit notification is as imprecise as it has always been; I’m still taking damage after taking cover and losing health quicker than I suspect I really am. Worst is the handful of resilient audio and graphical bugs that seem to pop back up with every Battlefield release, the most annoying being the continuous sound drop outs. I wouldn’t consider these things a deal breaker, but improvements in these areas sure would have helped Visceral’s case for Hardline’s $60 price tag.
4 / 5
A greater effort in creating a more unique identity for the shooter would’ve helped Hardline stand on its own two feat, though Visceral still managed to put some real character back into the series that was missing since DICE’s Bad Company spin-offs. As it just so happens, Hardline is also the most fun I’ve had in a Battlefield game since then and there are revisions here that even DICE, the father of the Battlefield franchise, could learn from.
While it isn’t wise to rely on downloadable content to patch in what’s missing at a game’s launch, I can’t help but look forward to some of the themes Visceral might potentially explore in future expansions to fine tune Hardline’s subject matter even further. A re-creation of a 1950s New York City caught in middle of a war between the NYPD and a notorious organization of gangsters comes to mind as something that would make for a meaningful addition. Thankfully, Hardline’s refined combat, thoughtful map design, and appropriately-themed and addicting game modes will make the wait until then a pleasure.
For now, case closed.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of Battlefield Hardline provided by Electronic Arts. It’s also available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PC.