Battlefield Hardline: Hands-on with Visceral’s cornucopia of cops, criminals, and carnage

Woop woop’ may be the sound of da police, but it’s also the rally cry of a new breed of Battlefield, as a lengthy multiplayer session at EA’s Guildford HQ confirms. Hardline is The Shield. It’s Miami Vice. It’s NYPD Blue. And it’s better than we thought.

Here Dead Space developer Visceral is spilling Battlefield onto the weird and wild streets of America for a good old cops vs robbers caper. The team meant to launch the game in October last year, but with two public betas under its belt the past months have been a learning experience. Take grappling hooks and zip-lines. “There are lots of different things that can go wrong when you’re trying to implement a grappling hook,” says lead multiplayer designer Thaddeus Sasser. “How many resources do you want to spend on something like rope physics?

That can be pretty performance expensive. Wouldn’t we rather have 64 players and a lot of customisation options on weapons and gadgets? Or do we want a full rope simulation? So we had to make some hard choices.” No wonder they called it Hardline.

Cruel intentions
Thankfully we’ve reached the end of development, and the final figure is nine maps, seven modes, a solid seven-hour campaign, and a whole lot of mayhem. First we try the new and improved Heist. Here a team of crooks must break into a bank and make off with sacks of cash. Since sneaky beta players figured out cheap ways to win, Visceral has added a short defend loop where criminals must reach a drop-off point that’s randomly determined by whatever mood the AI helicopter pilot is in that day. It’s an effective if blatant twist on capture the flag, and full of unique instances. Like when the criminals slam the vault doors and buy themselves a few precious seconds. Or when a giant crystal chandelier crashes down on some dude’s head. Or when a sudden rooftop cave-in gives way to a fresh escape route. Despite the smaller scale, Hardline is packed with big moments.

Not too big, mind. “I think that in the cops and robbers fantasy you don’t really have a lot of rocket pods on helicopters. It doesn’t really match very well,” says Sasser. “Again it was one of the bits of feedback we had from the beta. We had heat-seekers and that felt outside the scope of the fantasy. Realistically is the LAPD going to respond with rocket pods in the heart of downtown Los Angeles?” No, Sasser, they are not. Still, with sheer eye-watering speed the core focus, it’s not like Hardline has morphed into The Wire. Smaller levels are more immediate to force quicker encounters, and there are fewer dogfights. Players snap into sights faster. Oh, and the UI is more efficient, now featuring a timer indicating when vehicles respawn, and a number next to each class to show how many teammates have chosen it. And Visceral doesn’t skimp on the gadgetry either. There are car bombs, mobile cameras, decoy noisemakers, and tasers.
“It’s full of unIque Instances, lIke when a gIant crystal chandelIer crashes down on some dude’s head”
That famous Battlefield environmental destruction makes its way into Hardline, but don’t call it levolution. “Our philosophy is that we like players to change the map, and the most interesting gameplay isn’t spectacle, it comes from the ability to open up a new route, or open up a line of sight. For example on the Growhouse map there’s a giant fuel tanker and if you blow it up it opens up an underground route in the back.”

A whole new world
Hollywood Heights is more about micro destruction: break through dry wall, ambush foes via makeshift peepholes. Dustbowl and Riptide lean more on nature’s wrath than man’s, with dust storms and hurricanes aplenty. Destruction isn’t necessarily about removing things from the environment; it’s about creating new opportunities.

These interactive levels come into play during Hotwire. Here teams must jack cars and joyride them for points think Conquest on wheels. Downtown feels purpose-built for it, a carved-out crisscross of Los Angeles with linking roads that give high-speed chases manic momentum. Funny things that happen during the game: a guy steals an oil tanker and prompts a movie-style multi-man pursuit; someone activates a row of bollards and stops a hurtling vehicle in its tracks; we take the lift up to a skyscraper and provide absolutely no benefit whatsoever (but it’s nice to know you can do that).

It took two betas and a car chase-worthy swerve off schedule for Hardline to know what it is, but now its identity is clear. And what is that? Well, despite the smaller scale and the recycling of some old ideas, it's the fastest, freshest Battlefield yet.

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