Battlefield Hardline is an odd patchwork of action crime flicks and large-scale Battlefield 4 warfare. I've been playing the closed beta , and though speeding down a freeway in a cop car is a new experience, it feels a lot like BF4 —except that seeing a uniformed police officer wielding an RPG is uncanny. A few days before the E3 reveal, I asked Visceral Games VP and GM Steve Papoutsis to explain why, for instance, the cops and criminals have military-grade weapons.
Aside from Hollywood inspiration and "pretty gnarly things on TV," the bottom line, according to Papoutsis, is that “there are similarities to Battlefield because it's a Battlefield game.”
Of course there are similarities, but I expected such a different theme to warrant significant changes to how it's played. "There are certain things we want to make sure feel familiar and comfortable to players," said Papoutsis. "If you think of Battlefield multiplayer as an e-sport and you compare that to, say, baseball or football, you don't drastically change the rules year-to-year, because it's going to confuse people and confuse the players. So we took a very measured approach to the things that we changed and the things we didn't change.”
I don't see Battlefield as an e-sport, but Papoutsis isn't really talking about tournaments. Hardline feels like Battlefield 4 because Battlefield 4 is its template, and the template holds whether or not it makes much sense. I commented that everyone still has a parachute, and isn't that weird?
“It's just fun,” said Papoutsis. “Jumping off a skyscraper and being able to deploy your parachute before you hit the ground is just fun. We've got great gadgets like the zipline and the grappling hook that really encourage verticality—the last thing we want to do is give you a bunch of tools that only lead to frustrating failures, so we kept that in.”
And why do the cops and criminals have symmetrical gear? “Once you open that Pandora's Box, then you start presenting players with the decision of 'well, which side do you want to play?' And that really starts to feed into the dilution of the competitive balance of the game.”
Before I sound too hard on Hardline: I'm not saying Visceral just slapped a coat of black and white paint on BF4. There are new animations, vehicles, weapons, gadgets, voices, maps, and modes, plus a single-player campaign to be revealed later. When I'm racing down a vacated freeway in a busted-up sedan, one guy with his torso sticking out of the passenger window spraying submachine gun fire at cop cars, I'm sold—at least until I smack into cannon-fire from an armored truck, or get blown up by an attack helicopter. I wonder what it would be like with only cars?
I've also only played two modes—one asymmetrical, the other symmetrical—on one map, and the maps will be a huge factor in whether or not I like Hardline. Papoutsis says they'll “span expanses like the concrete jungle all the way to more organic types of settings.” I'm glad. Driving around rural dirt roads might feel even weirder, but could turn out really cool. I'd have been disappointed if they were all urban.
I'm most concerned that Hardline will be like Battlefield 4 in the worst way: with players still experiencing latency compensation issues and glitches, I asked Papoutsis how we can trust that Hardline won't be more of the same.
“The folks at DICE and folks at Visceral have been hard at work on addressing some of the issues that you're surfacing,” said Papoutsis. “There's been a lot of effort going into a variety of fixes, and we've got folks on our team that are looking to them as well. This is an issue the franchise takes seriously, and EA takes seriously.”
That's the usual line, but Papoutsis did also tell me that any fix going into Battlefield 4 will be replicated in Hardline. As for the campaign, Visceral can't talk specifics yet. The BF3 and BF4 campaigns didn't interest me, but Visceral has an unusual background—what kind of Battlefield campaign will the creator of Dead Space make? “We have a lot of flexibility there,” said Papoutsis. “We're just kind of running with it.”
That could be interesting, but Battlefield's soul is multiplayer. As the biggest thematic leap for the series—even bigger than the sci-fi Battlefield 2142, I'd say—I was hoping Hardline would make some fundamental changes to BF4's gameplay. The other asymmetrical modes might be the key to that, or some really unusual maps, or some surprise mutators. I mentioned earlier that car-only matches might be interesting, and I can imagine lots of other ways Hardline can experiment with the theme. What about a mode designed specifically for high-speed chases down long stretches of freeway?
Something so drastically different would feel very un-Battlefield, but Papoutsis' suggestion that Battlefield should be treated like a sport, where the rules are only tweaked year-to-year, isn't true to me. I don't care if it doesn't instantly feel familiar. If it's going to have a crime theme instead of a war theme, I want it to be designed as a crime game first. I don't think it has to lose what makes it a Battlefield game—big maps, big teams, lots of vehicles—to do that.