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    Battlefield Hardline: On The Run

    The game had, “already flatlined,” we said last summer, partly because we’re powerless to the charms of wordplay that apt but mainly because the next Battlefield wasn’t attracting much hype at the summer’s conference show floors, despite a wholesale shift towards the world of cops and robbers and an unexpected early access multiplayer phase.

    Now though, with Battlefield Hardline’s arrival so close we can smell the coffee and justice on detective Nick Mendoza’s breath, we have to hold our hands up like the hardened crims of its story mode and concede. Visceral’s trying to do something genuinely different here: a narrative-focused solo campaign boasting TV-style presentation and new mechanics bespoke to cop work, and a notably pacier, more light-hearted multiplayer that aims to keep the trademark scale of combat but lose the post-spawn trudging, the po-faced tone and the impenetrable wall new players are faced with from the off.

    Battlefield has always been the most hardcore of online shooters, and while Hardline retains that in terms of tactical depth, it gives you something of a breather with its revamped upgrade system and new approach to vehicular combat.

    Four play
    To understand Battlefield Hardline, and why its change of developer and departures from series staples are so important, you need to know a bit about Battlefield 4. Specifically: what went wrong with Battlefield 4.

    It was arguably the most ambitious of all PS4’s launch titles, bringing its signature 64-player multiplayer to PlayStation for the first time and with it enormous maps full of destructible scenery, scripted large-scale destruction events, and what was that other one? Right bugs. All the bugs in the world. Technical issues so profound that developer DICE had to cease work on all its other projects and code a bunch of bandages for it, stat.
    “To understand hardline you need to know about battlefield 4 and how it went wrong.”
    It got ugly several law firms threw class action lawsuits against EA on the grounds the company misled investors during the game’s development. One of those lawsuits has since been dismissed, but the PR damage was already done, and a steep 69% decline versus Battlefield 3’s sales was the painful result.

    Releasing Battlefield 5: This One Works Properly, Honest wasn't going to cut it. A radical shake-up was needed. With DICE now working on Mirror’s Edge 2 and Star Wars Battlefront, a new studio would need to take the Battlefield helm and devote its full attention to righting the juggernaut series’ course. And that studio was Visceral Games, of course. Visceral, of Dead Space fame, a proven safe pair of hands when it comes to narrative-led action/adventure gameplay, and no strangers to EA’s big online multiplayer IP having created Battlefield 3’s End Game DLC. 

    Dead Set
    EA’s choice to appoint Visceral says a lot it’s an acknowledgement that Battlefield’s single-player component was in dire need of a shake-up, and that’s exactly what the Californian studio has gone and done. Most notably it’s re-examined the traditional videogame story structure, and given it a logical new framing as an episodic TV drama complete with ‘Previously On’ and ‘Next Time On’ stings.

    Partly, it comes across as canny alignment with the TV renaissance happening at present thanks to streaming services, but there’s pragmatism behind it as well according to executive producer and studio manager Steve Papoutsis.

    “Everybody always says games are like movies, but when you think about it they’re not really. Movies are like two hours long, and a videogame is generally much, much longer. When you sit back and look at that,  the idea of ‘levels’ actually maps more to episodes. A TV series is a  bit more like a game in that you have segments that tie together to form the complete package. Of course, with the theme of our game being akin to a TV crime drama, it just made a lot of sense to go in the direction we did.”

    A quick recap on that TV crime drama for those who’ve recently emerged from the Earth’s mantle since Hardline’s announcement: you play streetwise cop Nick Mendoza, fighting a drug war on the Florida streets with partner Khai Minh Dao before events conspire to place you in the shoes of a criminal. Nick’s voice and face are frequent presences in cutscenes and in-game, representing quite a radical change in storytelling approach for the long-running series tell me the name of any of the series’ previous protagonists, or what they looked like, I dare you.
    “Visceral has recruited tv writers to serve as narrative consultants on the campaign.”
    There’s some amount of creative licensing of course: this isn’t Battlefield: Paperwork, and the policing you engage in falls resolutely towards the gung-ho approach. Hardline’s new mechanics concern themselves with prompting enemies to freeze by training your gun on them in groups of three or fewer, rather than telling off dog walkers for not cleaning up turds there’s a drug war on, after all.

    So does the single-player give off an unmistakable Dead Space vibe? You’d be reaching if you claimed it did. But does it exude narrative focus and attention to its characters? You bet. Visceral even recruited TV writers as narrative consultants, including Wendy Calhoun (Nashville, Justified), to give Hardline the best chance of telling its tale in a way you’ll remember.

    And that’s especially admirable when you consider the proportion of gamers who buy Battlefield titles for the multiplayer alone, leaving the other half of the game unexplored. It’s an understandable strategy, but based on what Hardline’s shown so far of its offline play, it may well be time to revise that thinking. This campaign is no token gesture or tech demo.

    Hit And Run
    However you approach the game at launch, it’s the seven multiplayer modes which will hold your attention in the long term, after the credits roll on Mendoza’s story. It’s here that the Battlefield identity re-emerges, albeit with a distinct tilt towards faster, more immediate play. Speed is one of the game’s core pillars, in fact. Lead multiplayer producer Thad Sasser explains the tweaks to player movement: “It’s actually faster than Battlefield 4. Not only that, but we’ve reduced the inertia on the character, so you accelerate faster too. Now when I say it’s faster, it’s faster in the forward direction, not in the strafe.” The devs don’t want people constantly dodging bullets by flitting from side to side lightning-quick, he says.

    It does feel faster, too. Not Unreal Tournament fast, or even as zippy as Call Of Duty. But certainly there’s a perceptible change from Battlefield 4, and the extra tenths of a second it gives you encourages bolder play such as vaulting over cover, or dashing out of cover near enemy fire to reach a better position or objective. Using a round’s temporary upgrade tree, you can make yourself quicker still. “The reputation system is your in-session reward; as you play you rank up in rep and at each tier you get a special reward,” Sasser explains. “Some of those rewards do things like aim down your sights faster, or reload faster, or swap weapons faster. So depending on the class and the tree, what you select in the match can give you these little bonuses to give yourself a little bit of an edge.” An edge that lasts only as long as that match.

    Cold, Hard Cash
    The long-term progression system is subject to major redesign too: unlike the linear unlock paths for each class in Battlefield 4, Hardline’s system is completely nonlinear and currency based, giving you moolah when you kill a guy, heal someone, win a round (basically anything that helps your team) and letting you spend or save that coin as you see fit.
    “Hardline’s unlocks are Completely non-linear, with a focus on earning Money.”
    You can buy a new primary weapon with marginally better range, or save up and finally blow it all on camo paint jobs and weapon attachments. Heavy weapons only show up as mid-round drops you need to run over to and requisition, while the operator class’ healing ability is reworked with a longer cooldown timer to prevent constant, farcical revives.

    These are quite dramatic changes to the formula, and there’s no doubt they’ll prompt some choice words from the odd Battlefield veteran who’s incensed the game has veered even slightly towards new horizons. For this lapsed BF player though, they’re a welcome shift towards more immediate action, rewarding teamwork and inventive use of equipment just as much as previous titles. Only now they help you to at least understand why you died, and contrive to make it more likely you fell defending a money bag or in an intense control point scrap, rather than clipped indiscriminately by the round of an overhead chopper’s machine gun.

    It’s that journey to the fight, the one that used to take three full minutes of trudging if you didn’t have a squadmate in a handy spawn position, which Hardline sets its sights on and wants to make enjoyable. Just try not cracking a half-smile while burning the length of the map on a scrambler, a squadmate spawning on the seat behind you. Beats trying to bum a lift to the action on Golmud Railway. One of the game’s new modes, Hotwire, effectively eradicates the journey in altogether. Since the control points themselves are vehicles, and the map is littered with cars, you’re guaranteed a crucial spawn point encased in glass and steel.

    Most telling of all Hardline’s cops-and-robbers tinkering to the Battlefield blueprint is the volume of priceless, ridiculous moments it delivers per session. Across just three modes Hotwire, Conquest and Heist and three maps Downtown, Bank Job and Dustbowl it dealt me a generous number. Playing as a mechanic with a repair tool unlocked and equipped, I developed a get rich quick scheme during Hotwire involving spawning in cars and spamming the blowtorch constantly to keep our wheels in perfect condition. It works a treat when the three teammates in your car don’t panic at the sight of flames and all bail, leaving you cruising helplessly, blowtorch still in hand, towards an enemy patrol car spitting angry lead at you. Uh Oh…
    “The great unanswered Question is this: will it work? and will the servers hold?”
    The feeling of abject abandonment disperses when another attempt at that tactic yields some absurdly close brushes with quadruple death, the driver veering between helicopter fire while I try to extinguish the flames with my trusty blowtorch (just like real life) and just work up enough car health to survive the breaching charge we drive over. In short, it’s a game ripe with dinner party anecdote material. Provided you attend dinner parties with Andy McNab.

    The great unanswered question is this: will it work? Will the servers stay online? Will you die more at the hands of clipping mishaps than gunmen? It’s an absolutely crucial question, on which the livelihood and future of the franchise depend. And nobody knows the answer quite yet.

    The Thin Blue (Hot)line
    After frequent and extended public access phases dating back to E3 last year as soon as the game was announced, Visceral must have a pretty good indication by now. Both builds we’ve played, at Gamescom 2014 and the most recent public Beta, were rock solid, but that’s not always an indication that the final product will be.

    Until launch day provides a definite answer, take comfort in the thought that Visceral changed its entire development process to get Hardline in gamers’ hands as early as possible, and as often as possible through its creation.

    “It’s a whole different world, actually,” Papoutsis tells us. “When you’re doing a Beta, you’re basically launching a game. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing the servers, the software, because you always want a really solid experience. When you’re early in development like we were at E3, you’re not done.

    “So it changes the way you approach things quite a bit. E3 was great for us… because we immediately got all this feedback from the community on how to make the game better. It was kind of a one-two punch, really satisfying and on the other hand like, ‘ooh, we’ve got a lot of work to do’.”

    Releasing a Beta immediately after announcing the game was an unprecedented step for EA and Visceral, obviously intended to send a particular message about playtesting, stability, and lessons learned from Battlefield 4. It might not be a message the once-bitten Battlefield community is particularly receptive to yet, but if Visceral’s hard work has paid off it’ll be a message that resonates across the whole industry. Here’s to day one success stories.

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