Battlefield Hardline - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Battlefield Hardline is the red-headed stepchild of EA DICE’s long-running first person shooter series. Developed by, the sadly now defunct, Visceral Games, Hardline places the player in the shoes of Officer Nick Mendoza — a detective with the Miami Police Department. And so the game moves away from Battlefield’s traditional military shooter trappings and into the unknown.
Taking shape in the form of ten individual episodes — complete with all the set dressing and “previously ons” of an American TV cop drama — Hardline evokes the semi-grounded, gritty, and frankly played out stories that you’ll have seen if you’ve ever watched CSI or The Shield. Even some of the establishing shots could have been pulled straight out of Miami Vice and they wouldn’t look amiss.
Twenty Minutes In
Games have come a startlingly long way from where we were in 2015. Already I’ve been bashed over the head with played out storytelling tropes, poorly written (and often delivered) dialogue and more cliches than I know how to handle. Combine that with three years of technological advances, and Battlefield Hardline struggles to make a fantastic first impression.
Still, the TV cop drama presentation is unique. I’d like to see both this genre and style of storytelling implemented more often. However, right off the bat, it becomes apparent that we’re dealing with something more of the Michael Bay variety than a top class HBO drama. It does try though, with a more low-key moment shoehorned in immediately after a car flipping, explosive (rough handling) car chase.
I’ve essentially sat through ten minutes of cutscenes. The first introduced me to the uninteresting and unlikeable core cast of characters and the second showcased some seriously tone deaf writing. Macho boys in blue barking orders and slamming would-be criminals into their cruisers came off poorly upon release and it certainly hasn’t aged well. Don’t get me wrong, I can see what they’re trying to do but their aim is way off.
Oh look: a stealth section!
One Hour In
It took me a while for the mechanics to click — I suppose that’s what a frustrating auto-fail stealth section will do — but after a couple of chapters I’m starting to get to grips with Hardline; it's a mechanically sound shooter that does the basics well. Sometimes I felt like a camera with a gun attached as opposed to an actual person but, floatiness aside, I’ve got no major issue with how Hardline plays.
My main gripe with the game thus far is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Through cutscenes and in-game dialogue I’m being told I’m a fresh-faced, rookie detective tasked with shutting down the Miami drug cartels whilst, at its core, the game is still a modern military shooter in a blue uniform.
Hardline reminds me of Danny from Hot Fuzz: All he’s seen is action movies and that’s what he thinks being a cop is like. Already, I’ve played out some crazy set pieces, been served a bundle more cliches and have faced more grit than a day at the beach. So it often feels strange to use a grappling hook to reach a high platform, zipline into a hotbed of thugs and then start flashing my badge about like I’m in an episode of The Bill.
The ability to arrest people — working like a silent takedown if played right — is Hardline’s defining mechanic. After again having to fumble my way into understanding how the system worked, it was all I wanted to do. It seems like that’s what the game wanted of me too — offering up more XP for arrests than simply gunning down enemies. Extra XP is offered for arresting ‘Warranted Criminals’ who show up when scanned using Hardline’s equivalent of ‘Detective Mode’ — a doohickey that can tag criminals, objects of importance and evidence. This offered up a new approach when entering an area — one that forced me to assess my environment more before making a move.
With the mechanics all falling into place and the story… doing whatever, I started to get a sense of Hardline as a whole. It could be better — a lot better. But I’m sure it could be way worse too. A lack of polish was a big problem, with weird clipping, floaty controls and technical weirdness like randomly opening doors the biggest culprits I’m constantly having to remind myself that Hardline is a three-year-old game, and not in a good way.
However, upon reaching the hour mark, the biggest disappointment for me was the writing and voice acting. I actually wondered if I wanted to carry on playing. Story is a big part of why I play games and this is doing very little for me. It’s occasionally skirting the ‘so bad, it’s good’ line, but never fully commits.
It was with morbid curiosity and a feeling like I’m not giving the game a fair shake that I chose to continue. Well, that and a compulsive need to finish a game that I’ve started.
Four Hours In
It took me a while — a week if we’re counting — but upon finally jumping back in to Hardline my outlook had softened slightly. Notes like “it’s so easy to be critical of this” were no longer being written. I knew what I had gotten myself into and my stance had certainly softened. And then…
That’s right. Gator. Attack. At the time, this felt like Hardline jumping the shark (pun very much intended) but, having played into the game’s second half and having gained a wider context it makes sense. Kind of. Well, not really. But I understand it.
I’ve got to admit, reaching Chapter 5 (the halfway point) was a slog. I was ready to quit on a number of occasions. Pro tip: Breaking up the linear shooting missions sounds great on paper, but replacing that with overlong semi-open world stuff is not the way to do that.
To its credit, Hardline didn’t force me into any unnecessary side stuff and a bizarre introduction of ridiculous gadgets made for some interesting ways to take out the hordes of enemies (see: grappling hook and zipline), but for the most part playing this game felt like wading through treacle.
However, as I reach the game’s mid-season finale it finally — FINALLY — starts to show its true colours. At this point, I’d hovercrafted across the Florida everglades, taken out an army of gun-toting thugs in a hurricane with little more than a badge and taser and encountered my fair share of crooked cops. All in a day's work for Detective Nick Mendoza (whose name I have to shout like McBain at every opportunity).
It’s here that I really start to realise what Battlefield Hardline could have been. It’s got some great ideas, but never worked out what it actually wanted to be. Until now, that is. Don’t get me wrong, I still faced plenty of technical hitches and endured another forced round of hide and seek, but in the back half (maybe the final three quarters, with the context of what was to come) this game was actually enjoyable. Frustrating, yes. But enjoyable nonetheless.
Six Hours In
With Mendoza’s situation irrevocably altered, it seems like the writers and the team at Visceral just went and pushed the ‘screw it’ button and decided that every episode after the fifth was going to be a self-contained action movie.
The shackles of being grounded removed, Hardline becomes a total romp with more than enough opportunity for hijinks and experimentation. I stopped caring that the story made no sense. It didn’t matter that the character motivations were all over the place. Hardline actually started to feel fun. It’s just a shame that it was still just a bit broken and being held back by a now frustrating lack of polish.
As I reached the end of the game, I strung together all of my gadgets, knowledge of the occasionally janky mechanics and potentially broken level design (although I’m not entirely sure) to slip through the level like James Bond before finishing the game and watching, baffled, at the final cutscene.
Battlefield Hardline is a game built on solid foundations, but one that needed more time, something that’s even more unfortunate knowing what would later happen to the team at Visceral Games. Its unique setting and the addition of some interesting new mechanics make the game stand out as a promising spin off and a potential successor to the much-loved Battlefield Bad Company games. Alas, Hardline is a mediocre shooter that is only saved by its final acts.
I might be sticking my neck out there, but the back half of this game was the dictionary definition of a caper. In its final throes it pays homage to some of the biggest, most ridiculous, action movies ever and it’s there that Hardline shows what it's all about. The fact that it begins as a straight-laced cop drama and ends so wonderfully absurdly, I suppose, echoes the story of Nick Mendoza himself. However, it comes across as never truly knowing what it wanted to be and that really holds it back. Had I not committed to finishing this game knowing what I know now, I’d be gutted. However, it suffers some near fatal flaws throughout its eight hour runtime and, therefore, I don’t think I can fully recommend Hardline. No game should take almost half of the overall playtime to feel fun.
In a lot of ways, Hardline is exactly what the Battlefield franchise needed. However, in leaping from gritty faux-realism to untold ridiculousness, it was also technically unsteady, making Hardline’s worst crime the ability for the player to see what could have been.
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