My favourite part of the single player stuff in the preview build I recently played of next year’s Battlefield Hardline’s was being a policeman. My least favourite, the Battlefield bit.
You see, the early police procedural moments here are a glorious change of pace—full of arrests and tiny little shoots outs with handguns in hallways when it all goes awry. They’re almost intimate: just you, a few bad guys and the PUP PUP PUP of small arms fire bouncing off the walls (Battlefield’s always done excellent gun noises, and with smaller weapons you can really savour those shots).
This? This is excellent.
Later on, though, it’s just Battlefield. All the guns you can eat while remembering to go “RRRRWWAAAARRRR!” as you clench the trigger and a building probably explodes behind you. It doesn’t matter which one.
I’ve done that last bit. Loads.
What I haven’t done is flash a badge at two drug dealers and nervously approach them to make an arrest, juggling my aim between the pair to prevent either going for their gun.
What I haven’t done is accidentally squeeze off a shot off when a third unseen criminal’s shout makes me jump. Then watch, almost as if from an out of body experience, as my previously clean drugs bust dissolves into a Tarantino-like montage of everyone shooting everyone else, more out of surprise than actual malice. Something my imaginary police chief will later call “A MONUMENTAL FUCK-UP” as he screams at me across his well-thumped desk.
In this imaginary scene I’ve also got my arm in a sling as it happens. Just enough to show I was injured but not enough to slow me down when the action starts again. I might also be pulling that ‘I can’t believe this shit’ Bruce Willis face.
Not that one.
The very fact that I’ve created a make believe police chief and a set of rules I don’t play by in the first few minutes of Hardline probably emphasises just how much potential the cop idea has.
That badge-flashing mechanic is great, for example. After showing your ID to literally ‘FREEZE’ criminals, you have to keep your gun pointed at them as you approach to slap on the cuffs. If there are multiple perps then it soon becomes a juggling act as you whip your aim nervously between them to empty a slowly filling meter, indicating they’re about go for a gun.
The tension this creates is brilliant: perfectly capturing that TV cop image of moving towards the bad guy, step by cautious step, as you snap the barrel on to whoever looks like the most trouble. It’s the reason my bust went south. I was so invested in the approach, so wired by the thrill, that the tiniest noise made me flinch and shoot a bad guy. I think the technical term is ‘negligent discharge’. (I negligently shot him a couple more times after, just to be safe.)
What I wanted Hardline to do was that, all the time. But, as the action heated up, it’s as if the mould used to stamp out the early police action popped back into a more familiar shape. Another mission has you trying to infiltrate an office packed with armed security, which still works along the vein of cops doing unofficial under-the-radar things. However, by the time I was swinging from a helicopter smashing into exploding skyscrapers, after fighting off a heavily armed Spec-Ops team and armed with more guns than most armies see in a lifetime, I’d long ago forgotten that ‘FREEZE’ was an option. Or that I was meant to be a cop.
According to Visceral Games’ Steve Papoutsis you’re a police officer throughout, even when undercover as a criminal, so arrests are possible all the time. [Update: EA has asked that I replace ‘undercover’ with ‘impersonating a cop’, requesting that “Steve [is] not to have been attributed as saying that you play a Cop throughout”. See below for more.] There’s also an as yet undecided police-themed rating system that will score how you deal with enemies— arrests, non-lethal take downs and good old fashioned shootings all rate differently. However, from what I played, it feels like there’s a point past which the badge simply becomes a stealth tool to delay inevitable shoot outs, rather than a defining part of the game.
That’s not entirely a bad thing: this is Battlefield, so the shooting’s good. It just feels like EA grabbed the next installment’s design document in a meeting, scribbled ‘make it cops’ on the front and announced “Done!” to the room before walking out. There’s an initial flavour to the ideas presented that is interesting, but all too soon swamped by the familiar thunder and flash the series is more known for. That said it’s difficult to tell how the plot will develop from the preview build I tried. The three levels played went from ‘cop’ to ‘slightly dodgy cop’ to ‘vault robbing, exploding tower block, army fighting cop’. [Update 2: EA has also been in touch to say I played two levels, not three. More below.] Not an entirely improbable plot arc for, say, a police movie, so I hope the final game can draw this transition out more gracefully.
If nothing else, though, it’s confusing. You’ve got all the series’ recognisable equipment and mechanics, largely lifted wholesale, only without a war or army to explain it all. Throwing down medical packs, for example, or sliding down ziplines fired from crossbows, or opening up identical chunky weapon crates packed with huge guns that are inexplicably scattered about levels. Obviously ‘healing’ and ‘more guns’ are things you need in a shooter, but by presenting them in their pure, unadulterated Battlefield format, it makes it hard to work out if this is a spin off or sequel, as neither seems a suitable description. (There’s also a new enemy distraction mechanic where you can throw a coin to make a noise, and it’s very specifically explained that only one bad guy will go to investigate at a time, which is just weird.)
Visceral Games’ Steve Papoutsis told me that the single player was “an opportunity for us try something different”, but currently I’m not convinced it’s different enough. Especially as he pins the ‘Battlefield’ title justification more on to the multiplayer, saying, “in terms of the name on the box? It’s the destruction, it’s the strategy, the team play, the ‘holy shit I can’t believe you did that’ stuff people made videos of— that’s why it’s Battlefield on the box”. That I have no problem with. I enjoyed the beta—it was plot-free, and the tenuous cop element was easily forgotten as superfluous set dressing in the online carnage. However, I’m not convinced the single player side of things will get a free pass.
[There are two updates to this article. One where I mention three levels, when I actually played two. This was due to a load/cut scene break I counted as a split between stages. The second is where I attribute the statement “you’re a police officer throughout, even when undercover as a criminal” to Steve Papoutsis. This was due to confusion relating to the use of the term ‘undercover’. Here’s the full interview passage for clarity:
Leon: What’s the split between being good cop and undercover criminal? My favourite bit in the whole thing was doing the arrest, flash the badge and the gun back and forth, Does that stop?
Steve: No you can do that in episode nine. That’s available to you
Leon: Even when you’re a criminal?
Steve: Yeah, you’re basically just impersonating a cop. The bad guys don’t know if you’re a cop or not. You got like, ‘hey, I got a badge’.
I hope that’s made everything clear.]