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    Battlefield Hardline: Preview

    Delaying games into 2015 seems to be the in thing right now. Seemingly cognisant of that fact, Battlefield Hardline is right on trend, with developers Visceral announcing that the game has been pushed back from its 24 October release date into early 2015. Are we disappointed? Yes, because, for one thing, we like Battlefield and for another, we’re curious to see what Visceral can do with DICE’s series.

    Before we start complaining about the games delay, though, let’s remember Battlefield 4. When it worked, it was bloody brilliant, but its launch was beset by server issues and bugs that left many fans criticising EA for releasing a broken game. With Hardline, then, let’s hope that this is a case of EA learning a lesson. As much as we’d like to play the game in 2014, if delaying it into 2015 means that we get a game that, to put it bluntly, works, then it will be worth the wait. Now that we’ve got its launch delay out the way, let’s move on to talk about the game itself. Given that we recently got a chance to go hands-on with the single player, we’ll start there.

    One of the most intriguing elements about Hardline's campaign is that it's broken up into episodic chunks. “We really like a lot of the crime dramas on TV and the way that they get paced out,” Hardline's executive producer Steve Papoutsis tells us, explaining that each level is structured as if it’s an episode of a TV series. Indeed, an episodic structure feels like a more natural fit for an experience that’s likely to be played in chunks over a longer period of time, as opposed to trying to emulate film, a medium that works best watched in one sitting.

    Pacing is not the only element that’s been taken from TV. “When you come back and it’s been a few days, now you can watch a ‘previously on…’ that tells you what was going on in the story so that you're caught back up,” says Papoutsis. Conversely, if you're debating whether to go to bed or play one more episode, you can tease yourself with a ‘next time on Battlefield Hardline’. It’s not something that we'd call a game changer, but it certainly sounds like a cool little feature.

    As to the specifics of what we played, the first level was very much a scene setting, tutorial like level in which protagonist Nick Mendoza and his partner Khai Minh Dao cruise through a rough LA neighbourhood in search of a perp. The immediate impression we got is that Hardline will pay closer attention to establishing and developing its characters than we’ve typically seen in Battlefield games, though we can of course only glean so much from the limited amount we’ve played.

    Over the course of that opening level, we were introduced to a number of mechanics that will form a part of the Battlefield Hardline arsenal. Perhaps our favourite is the ‘freeze’ mechanic. This allows you to whip out your badge and have your enemies down their guns. It's necessary to keep your gun trained on the bad guys until you've cuffed them, lest they decide to try and grab their weapon when they perceive your attention waning. The reason we like the mechanic aside from the fact that it’s just cool telling people to freeze is that it shows developer Visceral hasn't forgotten that you're meant to be a police officer; it doesn't always make sense for you to be popping heads. Being able to halt and arrest enemies is a small touch, but one that plays well into the fictional premise of the game.

    After playing through Hardline's first mission and a level from much later in the game, we got the impression that the game allows you to control the pacing to a much greater degree than in recent Battlefield campaigns. It seems that there will be relatively linear sections and action set pieces, but these are counterbalanced with what we're inclined to label mini sandboxes. To give an example, we were confronted with a level in which our objective was to get to an elevator in the lobby of a heavily guarded building. This is a first person shooter ,so, naturally, the option to waltz though the front door guns blazing is there. However, it is also entirely possible to go for the stealth approach and try and sneak your way through.

    As it turns out, we went for a combination of the two. Climbing the stairs of the parking lot next to the building we were tasked with infiltrating, we used our vantage point to tag enemies with the police scanner so that we could track their patrols. With that recon completed, we snuck to the back of the building, distracted the guards posted to that entrance and took them both out with silent takedowns. We then crept inside, disabled the alarms and quietly took out one of two more enemies before we were spotted and a shootout ensued. With the alarms disabled, there would be no back up, so it was simply a case of finishing off the few guards that were left.

    In giving you the ability to tag enemies, plan your own approach and use a mix of stealth and violence to achieve your goal, we couldn't help but be reminded of Far Cry 3’s base liberations.

    Early indications suggest that Hardline won't quite have the scope and flexibility of that game, but we found the process of planning and executing our own strategy enjoyable nonetheless. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can give to what we’ve seen of Hardline's campaign is that we’re interested in playing it when Hardline releases. Recent Battlefield campaigns have been throwaway at best,so the fact that Hardline has managed to intrigue us with its single player mode is not insignificant.

    However, let us not forget that Battlefield is first and foremost a multiplayer game. Though what came out of the game’s multiplayer beta was generally positive, there has been some concern that Hardline won’t fully leverage the potential of its cops and robbers set-up and, consequently,  will end up feeling like a reskin of a standard Battlefield game. That’s something Visceral is well aware of.

    “That’s definitely been a criticism we heard early: ‘it’s just going to be a re-skin or it’s just going to be a DLC at best’,” says Papoutsis. “Obviously, as people working on it, that’s absolutely not what we want to hear and that’s absolutely not what we're doing.” Papoutsis explains that Visceral intends to “lean into the fantasy” and ensure that the game’s multiplayer modes tap into the spirit of the cops and robbers setup.“We created the Heist mode that we had, which is kind of your classic bank caper bad guys trying to break in and steal money, the police trying to stop them. We had that in the beta and that seemed to go over fairly well, as well as our Blood Money mode. But there were things that we noticed coming out [of the beta] that we could improve to strengthen that tie to the fiction, so we’ve been incorporating that stuff,” Papoutsis says.
    In that vein, alongside classic modes like Conquest and Team Deathmatch, Visceral has recently unveiled its hostage rescue mode and car chase based Hotwire mode. In regards to the latter, we have concerns about how well Battlefield maps will work, given that you're presumably going to end up driving around in circles, but it would be unfair to judge until we’ve had a chance to play it. For us, the important thing is that Visceral is conscious of the need to structure its modes around the cops
    and robbers fantasy. After all, what is more strongly associated with cops and robbers than a good ol’ fashioned car chase?

    With lessons learned from Battlefield 4, the extra development time that the game’s delay has afforded, and with DICE on hand for advice, you’d imagine that Hardline’s multiplayer will be solid at the very least. The real challenge for Visceral is that it not only has to capture the idea that we’ve all got in our heads about what a cops versus robbers game should feel like, but distinguish itself from what’s already out there. If it can’t do that, if it can’t substantially delineate the experience of playing as a criminal or a police officer, then it’s difficult to see how Hardline will impress on release.

    The good news is that the game’s delay suggests that Visceral's beta was about more than marketing and paying lip service to the idea that it wanted fan feedback. The message Visceral has heard is that it needs to do some more work and, credit to the team, it’s now giving itself the time to do it. We see a lot of potential in Battlefield Hardline, a lot of things that could work from the episodic single player campaign to the cops and robbers themed multiplayer modes. All that remains to be
    seen is whether the game’s delay will result in that potential being fully realised.

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