The field of first-person shooters is extremely competitive and overcrowded these days, with new intellectual properties showing up seemingly every month and established juggernauts like Halo, Call of Duty, and Borderlands constantly churning out new installments that sell in droves. The Battlefield series has long played second fiddle to the Call of Duty series as a straight military shooter, so it makes sense that developer Electronic Arts was willing to hand the series over to a new developer, Visceral Games, and let them take the series in a completely different direction to stake out its own territory. Battlefield Hardline is that new direction, a game that trades traditional warzones for the more small-scale war on drugs in Miami. There’s less of a focus on big-budget action sequences and cut-scenes, and more emphasis on stealth, gathering evidence, and peacefully getting suspects to surrender, while still retaining the core first-person shooter gameplay that made the series famous. Unfortunately, while these new ideas mostly work well, a half-baked story and Visceral’s inability to fully commit to the small-scale joys of a police simulator keep the game from realizing its true potential.
Hardline tells the story of Officer Nick Mendoza, a new detective on the Miami P.D. who joins forces with a new partner Khai Minh Dao to get to the source of a new drug called Hot Shot that’s sweeping the streets of Miami. Nick and Khai work their way up the ladder to bust a number of drug kingpins as well as root out the widespread corruption plaguing their own force, but the story never gets all that interesting or adds much to the game, sometimes detracting from the fun with lame plot twists and telegraphed double-crosses. The game commits to a diverse cast and hints at depth in the characters, but it’s never explored in any meaningful way – Nick grew up in the streets of Miami and had an abusive father, but so what? Partner Khai turns on Nick once and eventually regains his trust, but it’s never explained why she did this in the first place and the issue is dropped almost immediately. Plenty of significant story threads are left dangling by the end of the game, yet none of them feel strong enough to warrant a sequel.
Still though, Hardline does manage to have a lot of fun with its sting operations and general detective work. Before entering into any well-guarded buildings, Nick is able to scope the area out to identify any potential evidence worth investigating or any suspects with warrants out for their arrest.Once he starts sneaking around, Nick’s only real means of stealth is to stay out of any guard’s field of vision; as long as he doesn’t make any loud noises like shooting his gun or falling a large distance, Nick can stand right behind a guard without alerting him. Single bullet shells can be tossed around to lure guards away from each other, which is the key to executing the game’s coolest mechanic – arresting suspects. Yes, where so many other first-person shooters get their kicks from executing villainous fodder by the hundreds, Hardline manages to make things more interesting by allowing Nick to sneak up on up to three guards at a time and flash his badge, in an attempt at a bloodless arrest. It’s not always easy, as arresting more than one person at a time can leave Nick vulnerable to attack, but when executed just right, it’s immensely satisfying. The advantages here are two-fold – not only will making an arrest not alert any nearby guards, but it results in a much higher payout of experience points used to unlock better guns and gadgets as the game progresses.
If Nick is spotted or messes up during an arrest, however, Hardline’s shortcomings quickly become obvious. If one guard is alerted, all of them are, at which point the game turns into the same boring slog that all bad first-person shooters can be. It becomes less a test of actual skill and more a test of patience, as the player must wait for health to regenerate, slowly creep around corners, and wildly spray shots before retreating again and repeating. Enemy AI is poor at developing any sort of tactics, as is Khai, ostensibly there to support Nick in firefights and heal him when hurt, but usually just getting in the way or hanging back far enough to be no help at all. There’s no way to really hide or run away from a gunfight long enough for enemies to lose interest, which seems odd for a game that pushes stealth as its main point of design. This almost-certain death sentence would make some sense if it were only deployed as a punishment for failed stealth, but the game frequently drops Nick in situations where guards are already shooting at him, so it’s impossible to get through the entire game using only stealth.
In addition to his scanner, Nick is equipped with a few high-tech gadgets to assist in his seemingly one-man war on drugs. Early on in the game, Nick can set up ziplines and grappling hooks, or lay down trap mines to catch unsuspecting guards, but each of these items wears out its usefulness quickly. Ironically, Battlefield Hardline’s best two levels relieve Nick of all of his weapons and gadgets altogether. Nick is taken prisoner twice over the course of the game (some cop!), and each of his escapes take place in a well-designed level that pushes Nick’s stealth abilities to the brink and allows him to make use of some environmental hazards and traps. It’s at these points where Hardline shows what it really could be if it committed to its own gimmick, but Nick is eventually given his guns and tons of ammunition and expected to shoot his way through another few dozen armed guards like every other gun-toting protagonist.
Battlefield’s first attempt at breaking from its military-infused past wasn’t quite a rousing success, as the problems of most first-person shooters eventually rear their ugly head here too. There are a few good ideas here, especially the process of freezing enemies with a badge and arresting them rather than letting every enemy encounter devolve into a bloodbath. The mechanic could use some fleshing out, however; perhaps the player should be able to move bodies around, or maybe AI enemies should be able to free each other from their confines. There’s potential here for a franchise if the stealth aspects are improved upon in a sequel, but for now Battlefield Hardline is nothing special.
3 Chicks out of 5