Battlefield Hardline opens at dusk in a bleak suburban neighbourhood of Miami. You—intense cop Nick Mendoza—banter with sidekick and fellow intense cop Khai, as the dull glow of TV emanates from drawn curtains. Conspicuous deals go down on rubbish strewn street corners, while boomboxes blast syrupy rap. Men lounge around on front lawns drinking from spirit bottles and tinkering with gutted cars. Travelling through this dystopia, I immediately felt something I have never felt before in a Battlefield game: interested. The atmosphere’s been cribbed straight from Season 3 of The Wire.
As we travel the mean streets I’m waiting for the magic to subside and for the game to invite me to kill something, but Hardline has different plans. Normally you’d whip out an automatic and start mowing down anyone brave enough to exist in your vicinity, but in Hardline you’re a cop. You can’t just kill folk willy-nilly. Or rather, you can, but you feel like maybe you shouldn’t.
This is the prologue to Battlefield Hardline. We’re on some mission to capture some guy to get some information. There are a bunch of tough looking gangsters blocking one of the suburb’s thoroughfares, so we’re forced to sneak through some nearby housing projects. This is where Hardline’s stealth mechanics are introduced, and they’re strongly reminiscent of those found in Far Cry 3: enemies have detection meters which increase the more exposed you are, while flicking a bullet shell in any direction will distract and draw an opponent to that general area.
According to Visceral Games VP Steve Papoutsis, you’ll be able to play the majority of Battlefield Hardline in the shadows or at the very least passively, doling out death only in heated defence scenarios (we’ll get to those later). As a cop you’re able to brandish a badge and quell, albeit briefly, up to three enemies at once, but you’ll need to keep your weapon pointed in order to keep things under control. A swift non-lethal takedown is the best way to handle these situations, but be careful: not everyone is impressed by your badge.
The prologue takes us to a dilapidated school, now fallen into the hands of a local gang. The guy we arrested back in the projects is our mole here, and using the new police scanner we’re able to trace his progress through the school from a nearby rooftop. The scanner also marks enemies and can pull up police records where relevant. Inevitably the plan falls into disarray when a couple carloads of gangsters turn up, presumably warned by their comrades that this mole is, well, a mole.
Now Khai and I need to get inside the hideout to investigate. There’s the option to shoot my way in, but I opt for stealth. Once inside the belly of the beast—and once I’ve captured some story-advancing evidence with the police scanner—I’m inspired to shoot my way out. Which I do, but the firefight is mercifully brief and thus meaningful. Shooting baddies in Battlefield single-player campaigns is usually a numbing affair: you keep picking fellas off until they cease to spawn. Here, the shootout is over within a minute but it feels like there’s real blood, sweat and tears involved.
Battlefield’s single-player campaigns have a terrible reputation for bad pacing and laughably earnest storytelling, but Hardline has an almost Guy Ritchie romance to it. The dialogue is short, sharp and free of the kind of impenetrable military jargon we’re used to suffering in previous Battlefield games. The episodic nature of campaign (there’s ten episodes and a prologue) indicates that Visceral is going for a season boxset feel, and it shows. When you load your game you’ll be invited to watch a “previously on” segment, while exiting a game will offer an (optional) “coming up next” presentation.
While I got a feel for the game’s tone, the preview build I played didn’t offer much opportunity to follow the actual story, as once I’d finished the prologue I was fast-tracked to Episode 9—the penultimate mission. We’re in a lustrous central business district and a nearby skyscraper is our destination. We need to get to the top and blow something up in the penthouse suite, but there are three ways to go about it: through the front door guns blazing, around the back sneakily, or through a car park. I opt to go around the back.
There are a bunch of tools at your disposal in Battlefield Hardline. The weapons are accessed via caches littered throughout levels, where you can change your loadout for both guns and gadgets. The latter includes ballistic shields, laser tripmines, breaching charges (remote mines, basically), a zipline, grappling gun, first aid kit and gas mask. The environment offers its own options too: once I’ve penetrated security through the back door I switch off the alarm system before happening upon a security room. I take the guard out silently and, via the CCTV, mark all the enemies on the floor. Importantly, I feel like I’m in control, and I don’t fear the game is going to script my best laid plans away.
When I sneak my way to the top of the building and start blowing things up, I'm inclined to turn to my gadgets for the first time. Khai warns of a gaggle of oncoming security guards so I place a couple of tripmines around the penthouse to catch them unawares. With the help of a barely touched shotgun I maim the guards as they arrive from every direction. There’s no hiding behind a single piece of cover in this scenario: I needed to move around and react to the environment. This encounter is one of the aforementioned defence scenarios where you’ll have to kill to stay alive, but again it’s mercifully brief. Two rounds of enemies arrive and die relatively quickly, before a hilariously overblown cut scene has Mendoza flailing in the air on an untethered zipline cord.
And that’s it. The weirdest thing about Hardline is that it doesn’t really feel like a Battlefield game. The gunplay is customarily smooth, but it’s actually not a primary concern. Indeed, guns kinda feel like just another gadget - a problem solving tool—not a core component of the game. If Hardline’s final build manages to be as interesting as the two missions I played, then we may see a reverse to the usual Battlefield predicament, which is to say: we may see a solid single-player shooter marred by its sameish multiplayer offering. But however things pan out, I was totally ambivalent to this game last week, but now I’m looking forward to a Battlefield single-player game. It’s an odd feeling.