In Battlefield Hardline’s single-player campaign, I had as many chances to arrest the bad guys as shoot them – and I actually wanted to take them alive. That was only the first of many surprises.
Unlike most video game bad guys, these enemies actually respect the badge of a police officer, and that gives you options. If you can get the jump on a group of three or fewer, you can order them to freeze by pulling out your badge and shouting. From there, you can arrest them… or gun them down. If you can stay out of sight, cuffing them is usually the superior option because it earns you more points, which unlocks more weapons and gadgets.
If you’re really good, these levels are designed intelligently enough to allow you to sneak around arresting bad guys one by one until, finally, when you look around, all you see are handcuffed, knocked-out criminals. It’s not the kind of satisfaction I expected from a Battlefield game, but it requires patience and skill, and I was constantly delighted to see my enemies’ numbers dwindle while my magazines stayed full.
Again, you can also run around shooting everyone, and that works too. Part of Battlefield’s legacy includes realistic weapons that feel and sound great, and that’s no different here. When I forgot to disable an alarm and 10 enemies surrounded me, my rifle was a lot more effective than handcuffs.
Second, Hardline’s seven-hour campaign is – and I never thought I’d say this – just as fun to play in stealth as it is running in guns blazing. Before entering combat, you can scan an area and tag enemies, explosives, or alarm systems so they’ll appear on your radar. It’s rewarding to formulate a grand plan from afar before jumping into the action.
With proper preparation, enemies’ cones of vision appear directly on your minimap, Metal Gear Solid-style. If you can avoid detection, it’s entirely possible to make it through most areas without firing a single lethal round.
My biggest gameplay gripe is that the unlock system doesn’t appropriately award your playstyle. The best way to boost your level, which dictates the weapons and gadgets at your disposal, is to play stealthily. Strangely, mastering stealth mostly unlocks tons of big, noisy guns that made me want to shoot the place up. Likewise, if you want to shoot stuff all the time, you’re not going to get your hands on new guns as quickly as the stealth player who doesn’t need them. And there are very few unlocks that make stealth more interesting.
The third surprise was that I cared about the characters. My disapproving partner, my stern boss, and the motley crew of ex-cops, coked-up criminals, and more than a few traitors – all of them felt like people, thanks to good writing supported by strong voice and animation work. Make no mistake, Hardline’s drug-peddling plot is one you’ve almost certainly seen before, but it does such a fine job of making its characters funny, sympathetic, and believable that I wanted to keep playing to see what would happen to them.
Hardline has a few issues with some of its enemies though – specifically, a group of one-dimensional Tea Party caricatures in possession of a safe-cracking robot. They’re presented as over-the-top evil racists to give you an unambiguous sense of morality when gunning them down. They told my character “You look Mexican, so I’ll assume you’re a burglar.” An hour later I was facing off against their leader, who hooted and hollered as we engaged in tank-to-tank combat. It’s fun, but hard to take as seriously as the subject matter suggests it should be.
By comparison, the story’s main villain is devious and cunning. He’s not the most interesting or memorable bad guy, but he’s the kind of narcissist who keeps the secret switch to his penthouse vault inside a carved bust of himself. I can appreciate that kind of vanity, and going after him was less of a black-and-white decision thanks to a few shades of gray.
The last surprise Hardline’s campaign had for me was moments of comedy. Several laugh-out-loud moments make some self-aware fun out of its own crazy situations and mechanics. In one especially clever moment, after being flung into a room packed with enemies, the prompt to order enemies to put their hands up briefly flashes on the screen. In another moment, nearly $10 million worth of cocaine is ruined in an unfortunate forklift accident. It’s not forced, and those nods to Battlefield fans makes the campaign that much more enjoyable.
Battlefield has a history of looking and sounding excellent, and Hardline continues the tradition (though resolution is a disappointing 720p on Xbox One and 900p on PlayStation 4). Through gunfights, car crashes, and explosions, it all runs at a smooth 60 frames per second that stayed rock solid on PS4 and Xbox One.