Battlefield: Hardline, The Hard Way

As metropolitan LA erupts into violence, I’m stepping into a lift.  A calm, female voice intones ‘going... up’ with that strange, thoughtful pause reserved only for last-decade vocal-processing technology. As that final syllable emerges, the lift shakes dangerously, continuing for the duration of my winching up through Downtown’s most prominent spire. Far from the pristine lobby I entered from, the office I step into is devastated. A falling crane has carved a 12-storey wound into the opposite side of the building.

As I take my first step into this headed-notepaper wasteland, a light fitting falls at my feet. I approach a room I now know well, shooting out the executive glass doors, and stop a moment to pick up an RPG stashed beside an antique desk. I force a serrated machete through the closest window, leap onto the wind-lashed window-washer’s gondola outside, pick an intersection and use one of my infinite number of parachutes to BASE jump onto it. I have plans, dreams of revenge and the weapon to succeed. As I fall, I arc a rocket into the concrete next to a passing police cruiser. As I land, still reloading, a 40-tonne truck hits me square in the back and I return to a spawn screen.

Battlefield: Hardline , perhaps more than any of its war-centric predecessors, is about that single moment . The skillshot, coincidence or mistake you wish you’d been recording; that event only your particular perfect rectangle of vision was there to catch. Perhaps it’s in the removal of the, well, battlefield. Stripped of that fiery context the expectation that there should be constant screaming bullets, smoke-frothing explosions and crouching enemies unexpectedly ramming a defibrillator into your guts every ludicrous action suddenly seems a little more implausible, a tad funnier. Playing amid realistically bland Americana, this hyperactive war on crime seems insane, and those cop-movie-in-action events spectacular. It also makes the time spent waiting for those moments, or having them ruined, all the more disappointing.

But let’s look back. After last year’s Hardline beta, Visceral was left with some precarious remodelling to do. Players’ first introduction to this sideways step in the series a take on action-movie silliness rather than the grandiosity of war was a mixed bag, and the feedback was two-tone. On the one hand, the  Dead Space developer had played it too safe, simply transplanting the expected Battlefield  experience to a less-expected setting. On the other, its willingness to constrain traditionally gigantic multiplayer maps to tighter, taller areas removed some of the large-scale tactical interplay the best of  Battlefield  can offer. Oh, and on a jittery, sickeningly disembodied third hand, it also didn’t really work properly first time around.

My closed-doors test of a new beta, the results of which many of you will have sampled by this point, couldn’t tell me much about that last point I was locked in a sterile box filled with computers linked by a high-speed local connection and patrolled by brand representatives who would laugh overenthusiastically at even the least-remarkable kill, presumably to make me feel good about myself.

What the experience did prove, however, was that Visceral was making good on its promise to listen to community feedback after the last test Hardline is both more unique and more tactical for the work performed since its previous public outing. The basic setup remains the same teams form, choose their loadouts and set about a specific, violent task (and, mostly, ignore their designation of cops or criminals). The difference lies in the details. The audio has been improved, certain gameplay loops refined and maps tweaked. But perhaps the most important difference is how you now get your hands on the big guns.

Thankfully, heavy ordnance tends to be an unusual sight in your local town centre, and Visceral came to realise that should probably be the case in its down-home settings, too. While it’s still available, players can’t simply equip the kind of rocket-launcher that costs a few grand per trigger-squeeze any more stripped from class loadouts, the big stuff is now scattered across each map, hidden in alcoves, under ramps or, yes, behind executive desks for some reason. It leads to a feeling more akin to Halo than  Battlefield, tactical micro-climates that see players from both teams fatally squabbling over weaponry almost as much as they do choke points and objectives.

That’s never clearer than in the new Hotwire mode, a Domination-on-wheels frenzy that sees two sides fighting over five vehicles, each driver earning their team points when travelling above a certain mph. Think Speed, but if Keanu and Sandra had each had a hefty e-sports sponsorship. There’s rarely been a more action-packed  Battlefield  mode. In a series famous for its slow-motion tug-of-wars, scrapping for tickets over huge stretches of land, to have five points of interest (and, often, spawn points) speeding around the map almost constantly, is a huge change in dynamic.

Stealing an opposition vehicle is obviously the intention cracking a few shots through a windscreen and nabbing whichever sedan, van or tanker you’ve just redecorated with blood is the safest way to turn the ticket-tide. More often than not, though, you’ll just want to blow them up, which leads to a new vehicle spawning elsewhere on the map for anyone to jack. My preferred tactic was choosing the Professional class (essentially a trap-laying sniper), dropping one of their tripmines on a particularly enticing ramp and, with the addition of over-aggressive licensed music playing on car radios, ramps seem particularly enticing these days then waiting for an unsuspecting thrillseeker.

It’s uniquely thrilling at its best full-on, soundtracked car chases erupting at a moment’s notice, passengers leaning from windows taking each other out as wilier players line up the perfect shot with a bazooka, or try to suicide-land a helicopter on top of an enemy breaking the speed limit. But it also highlights  Hardline ’s biggest challenge combatting the dry spells in between those moments. Against a lesser team, taking points in Hotwire amounts to simply driving in circles around a city. Or worse one fun-sponge I played with found a car park and drove in circles around it for 15 minutes, racking up a winning score as they did. Visceral’s rush to give players a rush means that anyone not taking part in the action-movie theatrics often spends most of their time running towards them, before finding out they’ve since moved half a mile away.
There’s rarely been a more action-packed mode than Hotwire
Conquest mode fares better where Hotwire turns new map Dust Bowl, a deserted desert town, into an open range for vehicular destruction, the now-traditional 64-player marathon becomes a tenser affair than we’re used to and not just because no one can drop a mortar on your head from a kilometre away any more.  Hardline’s squarer level design means that Conquest relies less on a team making their way down a string of holdpoints, and more on them being able to manage holding four or five of them in close proximity at any one time. Sniping becomes both more important and more visible, teamwork is everything, and ambushes become as frequent as front-on assaults (never more exciting than when a team enters a motel forecourt and six attackers pop up from windows to mow them down).

This does come with its downsides as teams spread thin across multiple points, it’s far easier to find yourself taking an abandoned control point, happy to gain tickets as you grimace at missing all the fun happening elsewhere. Similarly, Visceral’s insistence that this should be the “fastest Battlefield ever” only means that arriving amidst an extant gunfight more than often results in a deathly slug to the sternum vast, open spaces don’t agree well with twitchy speeds approaching  Counter-Strike  level, basically.

A focus on speed could come to bear in areas I haven’t played yet. New modes Crosshair (a souped-up VIP-protection mode, in which a team of assassins has to take out a designated member of the defenders’ team) and Rescue (defending crooks are tasked with stopping the police from extracting their hostages) are both five-on-five skirmishes where players have a single life each. The idea certainly holds to a tenser, faster style, as well as offering Hardline the kind of variety in modes that Battlefield has often lacked.

But without seeing those modes in action, I can’t work out if that change is for the better it’s hard to tell too much about the full scope of Hardline from a single, restricted snapshot. In a way, it’s its own Battlefield moment, a chance for us all to find something we want to talk about, without a sense of the full scope of things. We can take heart in the fact that Visceral moved in the right direction last time around this is a better, smarter, sillier game than in 2014 but whether this anecdote ends with the studio making the shot or getting hit by the truck, we’ve yet to discover.

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