EA’s latest shooter shuns soldiers and all things military in favour of cops, car chases and organised crime. Set amidst Miami’s seedy underbelly, the single-player campaign sees police detective Nick Mendoza being paired up with the headstrong Khai Minh Dao to find those responsible for the influx of a new drug known as Hot Shot.
It soon transpires that not everybody on the police payroll is quite who they seem, knowingly leading Mendoza into increasingly messy situations. At what point does stopping a fellow officer from heading to an early grave count as aiding and abetting? For Mendoza this fine line is blurred right from the outset – no time at all is wasted getting the storyline up to speed.
The plot is a clear cut above other games of this ilk. New faces are introduced frequently while the story takes Mendoza and Khai to Miami’s slums, city streets, hilltop villas and even the surrounding swamp land for an unexpected free-roaming mission involving an air boat. The quality of facial animation during the cutscenes impresses, as does the voice acting, and there are a fair few decent one-liners. Also: one-liners that fall woefully flat. A reference to Candy Crush Saga meanwhile falls somewhere between the two. Nevertheless, Hardline does a remarkable job of reminding us how far storytelling has come in videogames over the years.
It’s also evident that DICE/Visceral Games wanted the single-player campaign to offer something slightly different from the countless other shooters out there. Even on the default difficulty setting, Mendoza can only take around four shots before hitting the dirt. AI controlled cohorts do sometimes stick close and throw health packs in your direction, but in most missions Mendoza goes in alone. As such, a low profile has to be retained throughout. This means avoiding enemy paths, deactivating alarm systems and throwing empty shell casings to create distractions. Standard stealth routines, basically. And basic they are – staying out of sight is a pretty easy task, which is partly down to general stupidity of the enemy AI. Once we even went unnoticed while arresting a gang member in the same room as another.
Arresting enemies is another mechanic that although new to the franchise feels a bit underwhelming. Being a cop and all, Mendoza is able to flash his badge at unalerted enemies before performing a silent takedown. If another enemy catches you doing this then all hell breaks loose, so it’s essential to only arrest those isolated from their group. At first we thought this idea would result in dozens of unexpected moments – bad guys unwilling to co-operate, running off when your back is turned, pulling a hidden weapon, etc – but everybody Mendoza faces is seemingly happy to comply with the law. Try to arrest three enemies at once and the last may start shooting before you get round to putting the cuffs on, but instances like this are remote and you’ll quickly learn to only arrest a maximum of two criminals at once.
Hardline does at least offer chances to create your own unscripted moments elsewhere. This is all down to the lockers and cases full of tactical gear found in every episode. Mendoza can take two gadgets into battle, including a zipline and grappling hook. Unlike Call of Duty – which features similar gadgets but only allows players to use them when prompted – Hardline lets you experiment as you please. On more than a couple of occasions Mendoza is tasked with seeking entry into an enemy territory, and it’s entirely up to you how to achieve this. A smartphone camera with enemy tracking abilities makes the task at hand slightly easier. An incredibly handy accessory, it also shows the locations of enemies with a warrant to their name. Arresting these ne’er-do-wells – as opposed to putting a bullet in their head – assists in moving up the ranks. Sadly, this is another underwhelming aspect – we reached maximum rank around halfway into the story. Although you do earn random item Battlepacks for use in multiplayer after hitting milestones, their worth is pretty negligible – even silver Battlepacks are prone to containing little more than weapon skins and a couple of new patches to add to your battle card.
The presence of TV-style recaps and teasers for upcoming episodes suggests DICE/Visceral believes the majority of players are simply going to dip into and out of the campaign when the mood takes. This is by far the best way to experience it – we slogged through all ten episodes over the space of three evenings and started to grow tired of the same, elongated arrest animations and predictable AI routines long before the story came to its conclusion. Speaking of conclusions, the collectable items are nicely done with each taking the form of a piece of evidence. They relate to separate cases and once all evidence has been found a short video linking them all together unlocks. Prompting environments to be thoroughly searched, it’s one of Hardline’s better incorporated features.
When Hardline’s ending credits rolled we were left feeling a little conflicted. It’s an enjoyable enough campaign and the plot manages to engage thanks to the sheer number of twists and turns, but at the same time the stealth sections feel dumbed down to appeal to a casual audience. Those who have played the likes of Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid 4 will find it a breeze. Maybe even a little patronising.
But while the campaign’s events will likely be forgotten by the time the next Battlefield comes around, we dare say that Hardline’s servers will still be busy. Again, steps have clearly been made to rejuvenate the experience and while multiplayer may not feel entirely fresh it does feel slicker and more accessible as a result. We’re also pleased to report that the online components behaved during the week or so we spent trying out the numerous multiplayer modes. Well, aside from the occasional error when trying to access Battlelog mid-match.
The cops and robbers theme is prominent in the Hotwire, Heist, Rescue and Blood Money modes. Slightly less so in Conquest and Team Deathmatch. Those expecting a similar, but slicker, clone of Payday 2 will be disappointed – both Hotwire and Heist lack the ebb and flow of Starbreeze’s crime caper, and the focus on teamwork is wavered.
Hotwire sees players stealing vehicles and keeping them in a drivable state until the rival team’s tickets expire. Here, a well placed satchel charge can turn the tide of a match in a heartbeat. Heist meanwhile entails breaking into a building, stealing two bags of loot and transporting them to a helicopter. Matches are often chaotic, but not always in the best possible fashion. From our experience, about half the players in a team crack on with objectives while the remaining half treat the mode as a typical deathmatch. Ignoring the fact that a bit more guidance with objectives wouldn’t have gone amiss, strictly speaking this isn’t DICE/Visceral’s fault.
The starting weapons for each class are incredibly basic. The Operative’s sniper rife in particular feels like it has come straight from a fairground shooting gallery. Every kill, assist and objective completed earns cash while promotions in rank unlock the previously mentioned Battlepacks. The deadliest of weapons cost a small fortune, and as such will take a while to add to your arsenal. Heck, even the electric taser – which has one of the few multiplayer focused achievements linked to it – takes considerable time to unlock.
There is however a quick way to earn cash, and it just so happens to be one of Hardlines less prominent features. To wit – in certain matches a single player can become a hacker. The hacker is provided with a top-down view of the battlefield and can upload hacks and perks to each squad, revealing enemy locations, reducing cooldown rates and such. Squad leaders can also request perks to be bestowed, although the infrequency of this would suggest that many players are unaware of this ability.
It’s just a shame that the campaign is a case of style over substance, giving the package as a whole a slight whiff of inconsistency. Indeed, Hardline improves on many existing features but despite DICE/Visceral’s best intentions a lot of the new features feel malnourished. The saying “good intentions will only get you so far” applies to developers as much as the rest of us, it would seem.