There is a lot to be ranted about Battlefield: Hardline.
It’s a stupid game. It tackles what is today a quite delicate subject matter with no sense of awareness. All of its gameplay is either entirely derivative of every other Battlefield and Call of Duty before it, or a pathetically stripped down stealth system which would have been considered outdated in the early 2000s. Its story is a load of boring clichés. And despite playing like a rushed effort with minimal attention to detail and absolutely no focus on innovation, it was made by two famed AAA developers with boatloads of money and published by one of the largest companies in the entire industry.
It’s that last part which frustrates critics the most about games like B:H. Over the last decade, we’ve seen remarkably innovative indie developers flood the market with games that do so much with so little, yet behemoths like EA turn out mediocre, outdated products like this. And it’s not like there isn’t real, or at least innovative talent behind B:H. Co-developer Dice made Mirror’s Edge back in the day, and the other developer, Visceral, pumped life into the AAA horror market with Dead Space. Of course, Mirror’s Edge was considered an ambitious misfire, and the Dead Space series has since run into the ground, but nevertheless, there are clearly people in both companies who know how to do something interesting with video games.
Yet, together Dice and Visceral, with EA’s endless supply of cash behind them, have created a boring, mediocre, and irredeemably silly game with Battlefield: Hardline. It’s not worth it to recap most of the game, because it isn’t interesting enough, but for what it’s worth, the story is pointless but functional, the shooting is bland but functional, and the level design is pedestrian, but functional. Overall, it was ok. I didn’t hate the single player campaign, though I probably would have if it was longer than six hours. I wouldn’t have paid more than… say, $8 for it, so I’m glad I played it for free.
I’m sure that most other review sites have perfectly adequate descriptions for the rest of B:H, so I’m not going to belabor it. Instead, I am going to focus on the one interesting part of the entire game. It’s interesting because it’s the only ambitious, innovate idea in the entire package, and it is absolutely awful.
Battlefield: Hardline tries to simulate being a police officer.
I would like to try to be fair with my assessment of B:H’s police mechanics. To the game’s credit, there are very few games in existence which actually try to replicate the experience of being a policeman. The only games I can think of off the top of my head which attempt it, are the early Drivers, Sleeping Dogs, and LA Noire. But the Drivers and Sleeping Dogs are about deep-undercover cops, so the player-character generally controls like a criminal anyway. I guess LA Noire comes the closest to real police work, but it’s focused on investigations. On the other hand, the player character in B:H not only uses his detective skills to solve crimes and uncover conspiracies, but he also rides a beat, has a partner, arrests people, and gets into small-scale shoot outs. You know, just like a real cop!
Well, sort of. Officer Nick Mendoza does solve crimes and uncover conspiracies, but with no player in-put whatsoever, besides taking out the ridiculous cell phone-scanner thingy and looking at certain objects which the game points out to you with controller vibrations. He does ride a beat, but only in one scene at the very beginning of the game, and then he never returns. He does have a partner, but she betrays him and he ends up hanging out with a motley crew of criminals instead. He does arrest people, but only through one of the dumbest, least immersive game mechanics I have ever seen (more on that later). And he does get in smaller scale shootouts than video game FPS protagonists typically tend to get in, until he has to fight a bunch of attack choppers and a tank with his very own tank, and later storm an island fortress to kill the head of a private security firm. So… yeah, the police simulation here needs some work.
I get why making a police-based video game is difficult. The problems are scale and context. Battlefield is working off of the well-worn modern military FPS template of the past games in its series and Call of Duty. In these games, the player typically controls one member in an elite squad of soldiers who goes to some exotic locale to mow down legions of terrorists or some other super evil individuals, with an assortment of beautiful military hardware. No, these games presumably are not especially accurate representations of what it’s actually like to be a solider in a modern war, but they reach enough of an approximation to feel like a power fantasy with a quasi-realistic backdrop.
The problem is that none of these attributes translate well to a police setting. Even SWAT teams don’t rack up the body counts typically amassed in military FPSs. Even if somehow such enormous quantities of criminals can be located at once, police officers operate within ordinary society, not within war zones, so it is virtually never proper to gun down hundreds of criminals in the same way it is generally permissible to gun down hundreds of enemy combatants in a war. It also doesn’t help that the enemies in war shooters tend to be terrorists, which are basically the most evil people on earth, while most armed thugs that the police deal with are drug-dealing gang members, who may not be the nicest people in the world, but given the recent shifting opinions on the drug war and a popular perception which has been shaped by shows like The Wire, the idea of slaying hundreds of impoverished inner city kids trying to sell products to consensual buyers doesn’t really play well any more.
In other words, if the developers just took a past Battlefield game, slightly modified the weapons to make them look like things police would use, replaced the terrorists with gang members, and swapped the foreign settings for Los Angeles, the result would be a dissonant disaster. The player would not feel like a police officer, even in the loosest, most absurd power fantasy sense. There simply is too great a distance between war zones and law enforcement.
On the other hand, if the developers completely stripped the military hardware for small-scale police weapons, drastically brought down the enemy count to realistic levels, required the player to actually respond to the threats in a realistic manner (ie. don’t just immediately shoot everyone), and replaced the terrorists with high school dropouts who are 100X more likely to run from a gunfight than shoot back at a police officer and risk life in prison, then… well, that could theoretically be an interesting game. But it would take an enormous level of creativity on the developer’s part. Pretty much every staple of the FPS genre would have to be rebuilt from the ground up, since the core gameplay would have to be something entirely different, like maybe a Telltale-style conversational mode. A game like this could be made, but it would be strange, experimental, and probably small-scale for such a pioneering venture, none of which is at all in the wheelhouse of the developers and publisher of Battlefield: Hardline.
So the developers were committed to making a cop game in the mold of a modern military FPS, but changing the formula too much would be an excessive deviation from the Battlefield franchise and too much of a risk for a massive, mainstream publisher. Meanwhile, changing the game too little would result in another generic shooter with really bizarre contradictory elements which would especially not play well in a time when many people are genuinely concerned about police excess. So their solution was to shoot somewhere in the middle, but clearly leaning towards the conservative, military FPS side.
The clearest example of the “middle approach” is the new arresting mechanic. The clearest example of the failure of the “middle approach” is how insanely idiotic the arresting mechanic is.
In roughly 80% of enemy encounters in B:H, the player starts out unseen, with the opportunity to stealthily approach the enemies or go in with guns blazing. While Nick Gonzalez can sneak up behind guards and knock them out, not unlike the knifing mechanics of most military FPSs, Nick can also arrest the enemies by yelling “freeze” and holding up his badge, at which point the guards drop their guns and hold up their hands until Nick approaches and handcuffs them one-by-one. If Nick looks away from an enemy for too long, the guard picks up his gun again and tries to shoot Nick, thereby triggering all of the enemies in the area to begin a normal shoot out. So to retain control over the situation, the player has to carefully keep rotating his gun between the one to three guards held up in each instance.
A part of me likes the basic concept here. Since B:H doesn’t take place in a war zone, it makes sense for enemies, especially random gang members, to opt for surrender rather than a fire fight to the death if caught off guard. But every single component of the mechanic is so dumb that it utterly destroys any semblance of realism it tries to create.
For one thing, the stealth mechanics which lead up to the arrests are sub-1998’s Metal Gear Solid-level. The enemies have sharply defined vision cones displayed on a radar, and if Nick is a millimeter outside of the cone then he is, of course, invisible. If Nick strays on the outer edge of the cone, which is maybe 20 feet from the guard, the enemy then becomes suspicious, pauses in his tracks, and then slowly meanders over to where he thinks he saw a 180 pound man armed with an assault rifle and an uzi. If Nick does come upon a route blocked by guards, he can throw a bullet casing (of which he has an infinite number) to distract the enemies and drive them into whatever direction or corner he sees fit.
First person games have never been great at stealth (allegedly aside from the Thief series, which I haven’t played), but between Dishonored, Far Cry 3 and 4, Crysis, and Alien: Isolation, clearly AAA developers have at least figured out how to make passable first person stealth mechanics. So what is B:H’s excuse?
Then there are the guard reactions. Once a guard is handcuffed and placed face-down on the ground, he falls asleep. No, the game never gives any reason why. I assume that if any gang member with a brain stem were subdued by Nick, he would call out for help with the knowledge that a police officer would not shoot an unarmed, handcuffed suspect in the head. So B:H’s solution to this problem is to have the criminals fall asleep as if Miami’s cocaine cartels only employ narcoleptics. Even when other gang members find arrested comrades, they don’t wake them up. The awake thug just cries out in dismay over his fallen thug-friend and starts/continues searching for Nick.
Then there’s the question of what exactly happens to these poor criminals after Nick leaves them. All of the levels consist of running through large, extended areas, so Nick is constantly moving between rooms. Sometimes he’s in public areas, other times he’s in remote warehouses, etc. In some early levels I guess I can see Nick calling in back up eventually to sweep up his handcuffed conquests after he finishes his immediate objective, but in later levels that becomes laughably and/or horrifically impossible. In one level, Nick leaves dozens of thugs spread out throughout a hotel complex in the middle of the day, so presumably they just got up and ran away whenever they woke up. In another level, Nick leaves a bunch of criminals on the floor of an open-air mall in the middle of a massive hurricane which is literally tearing the building apart. Finally, there’s the level where Nick can handcuff a bunch of thugs in a giant drug warehouse which ends up burning to the ground, so I guess Nick’s subdued suspects end up getting super high and then burn to death.
As stupid as all that is, it gets even better in the second half of the game when Nick is kicked out of the Miami PD by corrupt cops and vows to take revenge with the help of an ex-partner and some other criminals. Of course, Nick is no longer a cop, and doesn’t have a badge. So when he tries to arrest guards, he literally just holds up his hand in a position to suggest he is holding a badge… but he actually isn’t. The enemies still respond as if he is holding a badge, probably because he still has a gun, but it’s insane that the game never actually addresses this fact, especially when it makes even less sense that any of the subdued enemies would just lie on the ground silently and fall asleep because some random guy handcuffed them.
On top of all of its other problems, the arrest mechanic’s incentive is horribly applied. The only reason to ever arrest enemies instead of just shooting them like players do in every other FPS ever, is because arrests give the player “expert points.” These points are then used to unlock bigger and better guns which can be used to slaughter drug dealers more effectively. What developer thought up that line of logic? The entire point of the arrest mechanic is to allow players to at least remotely simulate the activities of real police officers, as opposed to say, approaching a group of unaware drug dealers and mowing them down with assault rifles. So why on earth does the relatively peaceful method of gameplay reward the player with ever-increasing means of playing the game in the most violent way possible?
(I also find it hilarious that the developers of B:H clearly didn’t think their players would actually care about the “expert levels” as evidenced by my arrest-focus play through maxing out my expert level three-quarters of the way through the game).
If video games are ideally supposed to achieve a merger between mechanics and narrative, then B:H’s arrest mechanic is an abysmal failure. It’s not a terrible idea, but the execution, especially in a game as brainless as this, is a disaster. Arresting criminals in B:H is not only absolutely nothing like real life arrests, it’s so distant and bizarre that it knocks the player out of the game so he can consider all of the moronic implications of his actions. While arresting an enemy in B:H, I never thought “it’s a good thing I restrained this thug so he can be brought to justice without excessive violence.” Instead I constantly thought of, well, pretty much everything I described in the above paragraphs. Why don’t these perps call out for help? Why do they fall asleep? Why do they pretend I have a badge when I don’t? What happens to these poor bastards I’m leaving restrained in the middle of an alligator-infested Everglades swamp? How quickly would I be fired and arrested for doing this even once if I were a real cop?
Ok, to be fair, I didn’t hate the arrest mechanic from a pure gameplay perspective. It certainly wasn’t deep, or interesting stealth gameplay, but it was a welcome reprieve from the same old shooting I’ve done in dozens of games. But in light of how ridiculous the mechanic was from an interactive perspective, I cannot possibly say that the moderate puzzle solving enjoyment I got from it could make BH’s arrest mechanic count as a success.
There are lots of little tweaks to the military FPS formula I could examine in B:H, and the arrest mechanic is by far the biggest, but I do want to note two other absurdities in the game.
First, there is this hilarious plot point concerning police brutality. Early in the game, Nick and his partner, Khai Minh Diao, meet up with a mid-level drug dealer to get some dirt on one of his competitors. But the rival drug dealer attacks the meet-up, so Nick, Khai, and the informant run away for a while before turning to fight them off. At one point, Nick gets separated from the other two, but when he finds them again, Khai is beating up the disarmed informant for seemingly no reason. Once the situation is resolved, the police captain notes the informant’s injuries, and warns Nick and Khai that Internal Affairs will be looking into the matter.
Ok, it does normally make sense that IA would want to investigate why a voluntary informant would be wounded after meeting up with two police officers. What doesn’t make sense is why IA would give a shit about that when the two police officers were just in a massive shootout across a hotel complex and a series of highways in broad daylight which destroyed half the building, totaled dozens of cars, left dozens of cartel gang members dead, and likely wounded or killed a bunch of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Nick even comments that he and Khai could attribute the informant’s injuries to their “bumpy” escape ride through a hail of gunfire and Twisted Metal-style vehicular combat.
This is just the type of thing that lazy AAA game writing tends to fail to deal with. Shooters need a lot of action to keep the player entertained, but often the sheer volume of action doesn’t make sense in their given contexts. It doesn’t make sense that there are so many damn bandits for Joel and Ellie to kill in the Last of Us. It doesn’t make sense that Commander Shepard’s three man squad can basically defeat any army in Mass Effect. And it certainly doesn’t make sense that two Miami police officers can go through such a massive fire fight and face no more repercussions than their boss being slightly annoyed for one scene. I’m not saying that there is an easy solution to this ludonarrative dissonance, but few games managed to jar me as much with their failure on this point as B:H.
The second issue is that the ostensibly heroic protagonist can and does kill lots and lots of people who almost certainly don’t deserve to be killed. At first it’s the criminals who Nick can arrest, but can also sneak up on and shoot. Yes, they may be dangerous gang members who are apparently not concerned with trying to kill police officers, but Nick is still supposed to be a cop, and therefore hopefully be inclined to try to arrest suspects so they can be tried in court, and not just shoot them in the head for looking suspicious in front of a suspected drug den.
But later in B:H, the game runs into nearly the exact same problem as The Order: 1886 in regards to its protagonist’s murder spree. For unclear reasons, the antagonist in B:H sets up a private security company, and Nick ends up battling the company’s forces during the last couple of levels. In the process, Nick kills dozens, if not more than a hundred of these private security guards. The problem is that there is no indication that any of these guards are evil, or even immoral in whatever murky sense that drug-dealing gang members are. It’s clear that the CEO of the company is evil, but that doesn’t mean that the thousands of employees of this massive corporation are all in on his conspiracy to take over the drug trade in America’s major cities under the guise of restoring law and order via innovative police tactics.
Basically, there are two possibilities at player here. Either, everyone, or nearly everyone in this massive company, literally down to random building security guards, knows what their evil boss is doing, and they are all ok with it because they presumably make a lot of money, even thought they would likely make vastly more money and gain international fame by blowing open the whole conspiracy. Or only the antagonist and maybe a small cadre of top-level supporters are aware of the conspiracy, and therefore Nick kills about a hundred innocent security guards who chose to work for a company whose founder miraculously seemed to end drug violence in Miami and told the world that he was intending to do the same throughout America via his new private security force.
So which one is it? Is this the most well-kept, large, secret conspiracy in the history of mankind, or is BH’s player-protagonist a mass murderer?