After development studio DICE flubbed the release of 2014's Battlefield 4, publisher Electronics Arts handed part of the next game in the military franchise to another studio for the first time. Visceral Games is known for horror games, not squad-based first-person shooters, and here it was shifting the battlefield to the streets of Miami and turning the hardened soldier into a fresh-faced cop.
Between that jarring shift and the game's five months of delayed release, Battlefield: Hardline had an uphill battle to deserve my love. That was particularly true as it cut down the number of weapons available in multiplayer mode and toned down the franchise's focus on vehicular combat.
Fortunately, any problems with the distinctly un-Battlefield multiplayer aspect of the game were more than made up for by a stunning single-player campaign that is handily the best shooter campaign in the last 10 years.
Whoop, Whoop — That's the Sound of Da Police
I slipped the Battlefield: Hardline disc into my system with no small amount of trepidation. The Battlefield franchise has a habit of fetishizing the martial might of the United States, and I was deeply worried that it would similarly fetishize the militarization of American police forces. I didn't want to find myself playing as a well-equipped cop who ruthlessly guns people down.
Things didn't look good when the very first mission involved a room full of handcuffed suspects being shot. But the game quickly established that there are degrees of police morality. If you take the time to scan the playing field and find perps who can be arrested instead of killed, you'll earn more "points" that you can use to unlock an arsenal worthy of your favorite survivalist compound. We'll ignore how counterintuitive it is to reward good police work with supercool submachine guns.
The Breaking Bad of Shooters
Battlefield: Hardline has one of the more entertaining storylines of a shooter in the past 10 years. You're Nick Mendoza, a poor boy from Cuba who's shooting up the ranks of the Miami PD, when you're suddenly embroiled in a plot of crooked cops, drugs, mad militiamen and more double-crosses than a Game of Thrones wedding.
Also, you fight an alligator.
If the plot is compared to anything in television or film, it may look painfully mediocre. Yet after years of blasting Nazis, Russians and hapless folks from the Middle East in games, it's incredibly refreshing to spend my time blowing away (evil) red-blooded Americans.
Borrowing from television, Hardline calls each mission an "episode." Bowing out of an episode early earns you a fun teaser for the next installment, while returning to the game rewards you with a "Previously on Hardline" recap. It's a major push away from the big-budget cinematic approach games have lately taken to storytelling, and it works so well that it's surprising to find this is the first AAA game to employ the TV style.
Kelly Hu, Your Hide-and-Seek Game Is Strong
To be one of the good guys in Battlefield: Hardline, you have to make use of the game's extremely simple stealth mechanics to sneak up and arrest suspects without being shot in the head. Bad guys have a very limited cone of vision that you can easily circumnavigate. They also apparently have Mr. Magoo's visual acuity. I ran through many a wide-open field in broad daylight without earning a single peep from bad guys who were just a few yards away.
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More problematic than the bad guys' severe need for glasses was their complete inability to see my partner — ever.
The partner character, played by Kelly Hu, could have done the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of the bad guys, and they wouldn't have seen her. While I find Kelly Hu fantastic and watchable, it made for some really ridiculous moments, such as in the video below.
This leads me to ask precisely what the developers thought players would do when the stealth mechanics are so underdeveloped. While I was happy to move quietly from cover to cover and arrest perps in small groups, it seems as though Visceral Games assumed most players would blow through levels in an Archer-style rampage.
The game seems to want to strike up a conversation about the limited rewards of running and gunning as a police officer, but it also has no desire to penalize that play style.
Surfboard, Surfboard, Grinding on the Wood
Where the Battlefield series has always excelled is in its well-balanced squad-based multiplayer, particularly when compared to the rival Call of Duty franchise. There are four roles a player can choose: the sniper, the machine-gun-toting rampage machine, the healer and the vehicle-maintenance man. Hardline gives new names to the four roles and drastically tweaks them to better distract you from the complete lack of tanks in the multiplayer mode.
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Tank warfare is just a piece of the Battlefield multiplayer puzzle, but it has long been a tremendously fun one. Removing it makes Hardline feel decidedly less like Battlefield.
Instead, Hardline brings mad-dash multiplayer mayhem that's focused on teamwork in name only. My brother and I spent an entire level seeing if he could surf on the hood of my muscle car, Teen-Wolf style, and we still somehow managed to top the leaderboards. It was like the Battlefield franchise and Grand Theft Auto had too many wine coolers, and, nine months later — Hardline!
Can I Get Fries with That M16?
Hardline feels particularly like Grand Theft Auto in that you have to buy everything you want to use. While the Battlefield franchise has often been about acquiring cool new toys, it's never felt as limiting as in Hardline.
In Hardline, you have to make thoughtful choices on what kind of weaponry you want to purchase. The guns are all limited for use, depending on which faction you're playing. So if you spend $25,000 on an M16 for the police faction, you'll be stuck with a much less powerful rifle than if you'd been playing as a criminal.
As a result, you have to make strategic choices that may be deeply frustrating for more casual players, but the sheer lack of guns will be frustrating for all players. After being spoiled by the breadth of selection in Battlefield 4, I found myself shooting my standard-issue RO933 for hour after hour in Hardline, which made the meat grinder of murder feel more depressing than exciting.
I continue to be pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Battlefield: Hardline. Its dramatically interesting single-player campaign kept me motivated to keep playing, and while the stealth system is laughably lackluster, it still managed to keep me deeply entertained.
Yet, Battlefield: Hardline's multiplayer mode fails to provide the Battlefield experience. It's the bones of Battlefield sitting in a Grand Theft Auto flesh suit, but that's still a body I'd happily invite over for some weekend fragging.
Alex Cranz is the Assistant Reviews Editor at Tom’s Guide. When she’s not devising tests for new tech she’s figuring out the best way to run Plex on it. Follow Alex @alexhcranz. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook.