After playing Battlefield Hardline extensively for over a month, I can say with absolute clarity the game is a disaster, and everyone involved with its release should be embarrassed.
If that sounds like hyperbole, know that I debated for some time whether Hardline deserved the dishonor of being designated the worst game in the Battlefield franchise’s history or if it was simply a failed but interesting experiment. Unfortunately, what few things Hardline does even competently doesn’t come close to outweighing the game’s multitude of problems. Battlefield Hardline isn’t just bad in comparison to other Battlefield titles, it’s a genuinely rotten game–not an average, flawed-but-fun 7/10 like the rest of the gaming press would have you believe.
The game’s campaign, heavily promoted by publisher Electronic Arts due to developer Visceral Games’ pedigree from the Dead Space franchise, is one of the worst big budget single-player shooters I’ve played in a long time. Everything, from the story, characters, writing, pacing, level design, to the gameplay is downright amateurish, outclassed by a number of budget shooters.
Battlefield is known for its explosive action, but the cops and robbers focus of Hardline actively discourages players from engaging in shootouts beyond scripted action sequences where the only way to progress is to shoot everyone on screen. Hardline, for all its bombastic, action-packed promotional trailers, is a stealth game, which, despite the complete disconnect from the Battlefield brand, would have been acceptable and maybe even an interesting change in tone… if it wasn’t such a terrible stealth game. The gameplay is often nothing more than crouching and creeping around the game’s boring levels to sneak up on enemies either to knock them out or arrest them.
The AI for Hardline‘s enemies is laughable, allowing you to easily approach foes and then either knock them out or freeze them in their tracks by flashing your badge to arrest them. You can freeze up to three enemies at a time this way, and the game tries to introduce some risk into these group encounters by having a threat meter build up on enemies who you don’t actively have in your gun sights as they try to reach for their guns.
Players will quickly learn this threat is a useless gimmick that can be neutralized easily by positioning themselves so that enemies are standing in a line one behind the other. Despite the fact that you can’t see each foe at this point, the game recognizes them as all being within your line of sight, causing them to all stand patiently and quietly as you arrest each one in turn.
You may wonder how often that actually happens in Hardline, but the levels are designed in such a way that these convenient groupings of enemies can be found everywhere with one or two lone enemies moving about each area in slow, predictable patrols. You can distract enemies by throwing shell casings near them, causing them to investigate the noise, but again, the AI is so dismal that you’ll almost never need to use this. It’s much easier to simply approach a group of enemies and arrest them all at once than to waste time trying to distract and pick them off one by one.
Wait, you might ask: if this is a stealth game, what’s to stop these handcuffed enemies from crying out to the rest of their teammates and giving away the player’s location? The designers anticipated this; once you handcuff an enemy, a “ZZZ” icon appears above his head. So, yeah, it’s never spoken of, but you have magic sleeping potion handcuffs.
So if the stealth gameplay is horrible, why not just just play Hardline like a traditional shooter? You can, but the game punishes you for doing so. Weapons and equipment are gated off behind an experience system. Shooting enemies gives no experience, so the most effective way to level up is to arrest them, forcing you into the boring stealth gameplay. Other weapons are locked unless you complete Hardline‘s investigation metagame, forcing you to search for random pieces of evidence throughout levels. Missed a clue in the game’s second or third level? Congratulations, you’ll never be able to use the weapon that required you to finish that investigation.
If you’re hoping that the game’s story can salvage the awful, dull, and repetitive gameplay, let me stop you right there. Hardline‘s story is one of the most contrived and asinine plots you’ll have the displeasure to slog through. The dialogue is painful, the character development banal, and the conclusion nonsensical. Spoilers ahead.
- At this point, I’d be more surprised by a AAA action game not including a terribly telegraphed betrayal of the main character. Oh, your commanding officer who took a mentoring role for you early in the game actually turns out to be a corrupt mastermind behind all of the crimes your character is investigating? What a shock for everyone who hasn’t heard of the LAPD Rampart scandal that has been adapted in countless other forms of media at this point.
- There is absolutely zero character development in this game. The actions and motivations of everyone in Hardline are either too clichéd for words or completely nonsensical and exist solely to keep the plot trudging forward. Why in the hell does the main character trust his partner-turned-betrayer-turned-ally in this game? The “answer” to that question leads to one of the most laughably inane exchanges of dialogue you’ll find in a game in decades.
- The game tries to set up a morally ambiguous ending where you’re not sure if the main character will turn to a life of crime just like the game’s antagonist. What other choice does he have? He’s an escaped convict, the only people who can prove his innocence are dead, he’s been involved in a prison break that undoubtedly killed several corrections officers, bombed multiple buildings, caused the death of a civilian news crew, and murdered his former commanding officer and multiple members of his private security firm that, to the outside world, are innocent of any wrongdoing. He’s not just an escaped convict at this point; he’s a domestic terrorist. What other choice does he have than assuming the mantle of his former adversary?
If you’re hoping that Battlefield Hardline‘s multiplayer modes can salvage the game in spite of the single-player campaign, save yourself some time and abandon that hope now. Whereas multiplayer has been the focus of past Battlefield games, Hardline‘s online modes feel like an afterthought to the terrible campaign. The modes are half-baked, balancing is non-existent, and the unlock/progression system is one of the worst grinds you’ll ever encounter.
Instead of the military combat that has been the staple of the Battlefield franchise since its inception, Hardline‘s cops and robbers setting is brought online, with one team playing as the police and the other as criminals. As a result, Hardline makes drastic changes to the design and balancing of Battlefield‘s maps, classes, and gameplay, all for the worse.
Multiplayer character classes have been significantly changed from the kit selection of Battlefield 3 and 4, beyond just the name change from Assault, Engineer, Support, and Recon to Operator, Mechanic, Enforcer, and Professional, respectively. The Operator still has access to assault rifles, health packs, and the ability to revive downed teammates but loses the grenade launcher that has been standard equipment for the class ever since Battlefield: Vietnam.
The Mechanic instead comes equipped with a grenade launcher by default but no longer has access to anti-vehicle weapons like rocket launchers and mines. Mechanics can unlock a Sabotage bomb that can be placed on vehicles or objectives that will explode when an enemy interacts with the booby-trapped target, but it’s largely useless and rarely seen in matches. Mechanics can still repair vehicles, but without the inclusion of offensive vehicles like tanks, APCs, or attack helicopters, this ability isn’t particularly needed, as vehicular combat is an afterthought to on-foot fighting. This class does get the Sat Phone, which functions as the mobile spawn beacon that snipers used to have in Battlefield 3 and 4, serving as one of the few ways in which the Mechanic can be useful to the team effort.
Professionals, as a result of the mobile spawn beacon being taken away from them, contribute much less to meaningful team play, with equipment and weapons that reinforce the tendency to operate as lone wolves around the battlefield (trip mines and cameras to stop players from sneaking up on them) plus absolutely useless unlocks (Stealth Training, which marginally reduces the noise of your footsteps and opening doors, is the most ineffectual class unlock I’ve ever seen in the franchise).
Finally, the Enforcer can refill teammates’ ammunition and… that’s about it. This class’s weapons are extremely situation specific, as they can only equip either shotguns that are ineffective beyond a few feet or battle rifles with the most unwieldy recoil. Firing more than a single round at a time from these guns is a waste of ammo, making them only suited to long range fighting. Of course, using them as such turns them into substandard semi-automatic sniper rifles, aping both the accuracy and damage output of the actual semi-auto sniper rifles that Operators can unlock–so why wouldn’t you just play that class instead? Enforcers can also equip ballistic shields, which won’t do much to protect you due to Hardline‘s terrible hit registration, and breaching charges (AKA C-4), which are mostly useless given the lack of armored vehicles or environmental destruction.
That’s right: the environmental destruction that has been in each Battlefield game since it was introduced in 2008’s Battlefield: Bad Company is nearly non-existent; some fences and interior drywall in houses can be destroyed, but that’s pretty much it (one map allows you to collapse a single building). Gone are the dynamic maps where walls could be blown out to change the momentum of a match or buildings collapsed on the heads of pesky campers. The “levolution” events introduced in Battlefield 4 are still present in Hardline, but these gimmicky set-pieces already wore out their welcome for many Battlefield fans. They don’t come close to making up for the absence of the game-changing environmental destruction that Battlefield players have come to expect.
It doesn’t help that the map design for Hardline already feels lazy and uninspired in comparison to other games in the series. The verticality that fans of the franchise have come to expect and that Battlefield‘s direct competitor made a focus in its latest release is largely absent from Hardline‘s maps. Aside from Downtown and Bank Job, two maps set in the middle of an urban cityscape, the rest of the maps are mostly flat with small two- or three-level structures only found at some of the arenas’ strategic points.
Hardline features seven multiplayer game modes (Heist, Hotwire, Blood Money, Rescue, Crosshair, Conquest, and Team Deathmatch) on nine maps, all of which are largely forgettable. Of Hardline‘s modes, I found Blood Money to be the only real standout, as it is the only mode to require coordinated teamplay, makes use of each class’s tools and gadgets, and makes the most of the game’s disappointing maps as both teams try to steal money from the middle of the level and return it to their base while simultaneously defending their base’s cash pile, which can also be stolen from. It’s the only mode where I occasionally enjoyed my time with Hardline.
The other modes are either poor in their design or execution. Particularly awful are the game’s Team Deathmatch and Hotwire modes: Team Deathmatch has always been an uncomfortable fit since it was first introduced to the Battlefield franchise, but it feels all the more egregious in Hardline as it highlights the flaws in the game’s fundamentals. Hotwire is an interesting attempt to refresh the series’ Conquest mode, in theory, but ends up being the most poorly executed mode in the game. Instead of static control points around the map, players capture designated vehicles that become mobile control points. As long as you keep the car moving at sufficient speed, you earn points for “Cruising” and deplete the enemy team’s respawn tickets. It all falls apart due to the classes’ ability changes.
Since the Mechanic doesn’t have access to rocket launchers anymore and Hardline has stripped out any meaningful offensive capabilities for vehicles in the game, the only means of destroying enemy vehicles is to continuously pepper them with small arms fire (which won’t amount to anything if a Mechanic is riding in the car and repairing it faster than your weapons can damage it), find a rocket launcher somewhere around the map, or try to booby trap vehicles or locations on the map with the Mechanic’s sabotage bomb or Enforcer’s breaching charge. Again, even these options are rendered largely useless due to the insipid map design of Hardline.
It is far too easy to make a beeline for one of the control point cars at the beginning of the map, then quickly drive it back to your team’s spawn area and drive in safety for long stretches of time in a small loop or simply back and forth in a straight line while players not in the car set up a defensive line to keep away anyone bored enough on the other team to actually venture out of their own spawn area and fight you. I’ve racked up thousands of points in matches doing this, and I’m not alone. Everyone bothering to play the Hotwire mode appears to recognize it’s the easiest way to grind out points, and it’s not uncommon to see entire servers doing nothing but cheesing away like this.
And with good reason: Hardline‘s progression/unlock system is the worst I’ve ever seen in a Battlefield game, or any modern shooter for that matter. Instead of new weapons and equipment being unlocked by gaining levels, it’s all tied to a cash system. The points you gain in game also function as money, and the only way to unlock anything is to spend that dough. Oh, except you will need to reach a certain number of kills to even be able to unlock the option of earning attachments for your weapons, so you have to grind kills for that, and then you have to spend money on each individual scope, grip, muzzle attachment, weapon skin, etc.
And did I mention that beyond the starter weapons that each class receives to begin with that almost every weapon is restricted as either a cop or criminal specific weapon? That’s right, the $20,000 you just spent on your new assault rifle can only be used half of the time. You’ll need to buy a matching weapon for the other faction if you’d like to use a new gun.
Don’t worry, though, you can unlock a weapon license for the game’s guns that allows you to use them regardless of which team you’re playing on… after you get 1,250 kills with them. There are 30 different faction-locked weapons in Hardline. That’s a minimum of 37,500 kills you’ll need to be able to play with every weapon regardless of which side you’re on. Good luck with that.
It might seem mind boggling as to why Hardline would feature such a slow and frustrating progression system until you consider one factor: microtransactions. Yes, microtransactions in a full-priced retail game. Microtransactions in a full-priced retail game with a $50 season pass for the game’s DLC (and which also grants you access to player and gun customization options that have been gated off to those who only buy the base game).
You see, Hardline allows you to buy “Battlepacks” with either in-game or real-world money. Inside those Battlepacks are cosmetic customization items and experience boosters, the standard for-pay items that finance free-to-play games. Congratulations, the slow grind of Hardline can now speed up slightly by sending even more money to Electronic Arts on top of the $110 you already spent on the game and the season pass.
Finally, from a technical standpoint, Hardline is a significant step back from previous games. The visuals, despite running on the latest version of the Frostbite graphics engine, are noticeably worse than what was seen in 2013’s Battlefield 4. Animations are stiff and disjointed, the physics are a mess (driving vehicles off of any paved surface will result in either completely random bounces into the sky or environmental clipping that makes it seem like the bottom of the vehicle is glued to the landscape), and the environments seem bare and lacking in detail. Technical issues also abound: it’s common to see character models, weapons, and even vehicles clipping through level geometry, and audio bugs cause game sounds to cut in and out at random more often than not.
There are countless more flaws and annoyances with Hardline, but frankly, I’ve had enough in terms of wasting my time on this game.
Battlefield Hardline is a case study in how to destroy a franchise. The Battlefield brand was at its weakest point in the series’ history prior to Hardline‘s release as a result of the disastrous release of Battlefield 4. That game went to market in an unfinished and virtually unplayable state, which wasn’t properly fixed for a full year after it launched. To release something so off-brand, so dull, so fundamentally flawed, and so abusive to consumers when your fan base has already lost faith in the franchise isn’t just incredible corporate hubris, it’s unforgivable to many gamers. Unless EA is content with running one of their signature franchises into the ground (see: Medal of Honor, Rock Band, SimCity, The Sims, et al.), they had better have something amazing up their sleeve for the next Battlefield release.
But hey, at least the multiplayer is stable. In Hardline‘s case, I honestly would’ve preferred if it wasn’t.
Follow Noah Dulis on Twitter @Marshal_Dov.