I'm starting this review with one of the most loathe introductory formats that any writer can commit to screen – the justification for existence. So, with that out of the way, this review was needed, because this is a game that has been unfairly maligned for all the wrong reasons. Having been released alongside real-world headlines that have brought to question the militarization of police force equipment and training, the game was immediately dismissed by the critical community as having been in poor taste. Battlefield: Hardline was characterized as a tone deaf contribution intended solely to broaden the appeal of EA's comparatively beleaguered Battlefield franchise. The problem is, this game represents no such narrative. It's a game, for all its minor faults, that is no more or less offensive than any police procedural television show or movie. This is in tone Bad Boys II: The Game, but with a Latino protagonist and female Asian-American partner, where every negatively portrayed character is a usually a somewhat older white male. Cultural sensitivity is not the greatest flaw of this game, as so many were quick to assume.
Presented as a first person shooter, Hardline is not "just a Battlefield mod" in civilian clothing. You play as a character whose role at first seems straightforward, that of a narcotics officer in Florida, but as the back of the game box reveals/ spoils this soon turns into a "...story on both sides of the law". That story, and the characters that convey it, are inconsistent in terms of their realism. At the lowest point one inconsequential female character vies for the award of "Best Portrayal of a Human by a Scarecrow" , whereas the main protagonist has a story, that while brusquely presented, is true to his motivation. Again, the story lies at the middle point between Bad Boys II and LA Confidential, which may seem like a denigrating characterization but puts it above most games and movies in the genre.
The genre is also something more than the Battlefield name would suggest. Stealth is the preferred mode of operation in this game with all non-boss levels allowing a non-lethal approach. Besides gunning down your antagonists you have the choice of a non-lethal takedown, or even subtler, a simple handcuffing when less than three opponents are within sight. Early in the game the difficulty on the "normal" setting encourages less gunplay, though the game forgivingly puts you back where you with minimal time penalties.
As you progress through the game, you unlock several weapon and equipment upgrades, which make gunplay a more attractive option, and nicely coincide with changes in the narrative. This slow burn marriage of mechanics and story reveal that several thoughtful and talented developers and artists remain at EA's Visceral and DICE studios. While heaping praise on EA, the sound design of the game, outside of one execrable voice acting segment set in the desert, was masterful. Guns and explosion popped and boomed realistically, engines roared and elevators hummed, all with wonderful balance and clarity.
DICE is to be credited on their incredible engine that allows for destructible environments on a level I have not seen before. While playing I slowly discovered what walls and materials would provide cover and what could be avoided (or exploited) by shooting directly through them. Drywall quickly relented to even weaker weapons, while shelter could be obtained from cars and marble counters. In one scene (and there are many that feature a full range of ballistic damage), a structure that appears to be sturdy is comically demonstrated as a plaster fake. Combined with the stealth elements this was an instance where the engine enabled creative exploitation of the environment. Why mundanely go downstairs to confront an enemy when you could deploy the element of surprise by shooting through the floor?
The story is not moralistic, the cultural baggage I was expecting to carry while playing the game non-existent, the characters demonstrated a depth I was not anticipating, and the gameplay was better than almost all stealth games I have played, and on par with the better than average shooters available. All said, Hardline was a game that could have stood on its own and the Battlefield name was clearly added just to help it break through to the mainstream consumer. Unfortunately leaning on the name is what undermined the critical appreciation of what is a solid, better than average game.
- Phil Fogg