Battlefield: Hardline’s campaign aspires to be the next great serialized television show but in video game form. The next The Shield or Justified, and since the game was revealed, it’s been touted as having an episodic, TV cop drama focus.
Strangely enough, Hardline’s single player story is at its best when the TV and cop trappings fall away and it more resembles a Fast & Furious film where the crazy action set pieces remain but the cars are traded in for guns and handcuffs.
Note: This is only a review of Battlefield: Hardline’s single player mode. Judging the multiplayer aspect without extensive playtime would be a disservice to the actual experience.
Hardline follows new Miami detective Nick Mendoza (Nicholas Gonzalez) as he comes to terms with working in a corrupt system. He’s partnered with detective Khai Minh Dao (Kelly Hu) and captained by Julian Dawes (Benito Martinez). Almost immediately, he discovers that he’s a cop trying to stay on the right side of the law in a world constantly demanding he give in to the wrong side.
It’s almost cartoonish how much wrongdoing plagues the halls of this police station, but Mendoza fights against it until the desires and schemes of his coworkers supersede his good nature.
Hardline’s campaign is divided into two distinct portions. When all of the corruption—and Mendoza’s reluctance to give in—comes to a head, the game jumps in time, transforming the nature of the story into an absolute thrill ride. The first half of the game sees Mendoza out on patrol missions that, while fun, don’t rise to the level of ingenuity and outright bombast of the second half. None of the story beats reach car-jumping-between-skyscrapers levels of insanity, but there’s some truly exciting moments peppered throughout.
But little of it is necessarily thanks to the game’s push to be a TV series-style program. Each “episode” is simply what any other game calls a level or mission, and there’s nothing particularly arresting about the “Previously On…” segments or opening credits the campaign includes.
The game does pull from one important television aspect, though: character development. While a few of the major players make sudden on-screen personality transitions that are written off to the three-year time jump, there’s some great Ocean’s Eleven-style camaraderie by the end of the game. The final crew Mendoza works with bounce off one another with a believable chemistry (aided greatly by the talented cast involved). It won’t rival the great ensemble casts of its TV or film influences, but it succeeds enough to build a thrilling and engaging momentum as the characters and plot progress.
But Mendoza’s law enforcement days are intrinsic to the gameplay, and offer the campaign’s true surprise—it’s fun to play nonlethally. When it comes to a first-person shooter, the expectation is that there’s going to be an embarrassing amount of, well, shooting. Hardline will certainly scratch that itch for those who want a competent shooter, but the game often presents the opportunity to subdue criminals with handcuffs rather than bullets.
Every time this option arose, I took it. Not only are there better incentives to cuff enemies (more points for the game’s leveling system are awarded), but the process made each level simply more fun to work through. Locations felt like puzzles to be solved, determining the best way to systematically take out foe after foe.
There are, of course, sections that require shooting, and they’re normally well staged and exciting scenarios (though I quickly found a firearm combination that worked for me and never felt a need to experiment). But Hardline shines most when it lets players act like a cop—even when the whole cop procedural aesthetic does little for the experience.
Also worsening the experience is the voiceover audio quality, the sound itself, not the actual performances. It’s wildly inconsistent, which can easily pull the player out of a scene. And I dreaded whenever the game put me behind the wheel of a car. No vehicle has the proper sense of speed a scene wants to convey, killing the fun and pacing of the experience.
Visceral Games hasn’t necessarily achieved the television-style goals that Hardline (or at least its marketing) aims for, but it has achieved an unexpectedly enjoyable experience. The door is left open for a sequel to Mendoza and his crew’s missions, and it’s one I’d gladly experience.
Battlefield: Hardline may have a bit of an identity crisis. But the identity it eventually settles on sticks the landing as a fun action-adventure shooter, not a lofty, serious cop drama, that can, surprisingly, be at its most fun when it’s not actually about the shooting.