I'm sitting in EA's gymnasium, which has been filled with chairs, tables, PS4 systems and monitors for a multiplayer review event. Food has been laid on as we soldier through the two-full-days affair, and we're hammering multiplayer matches incessantly. I'm getting a code to the finished game at the end of the week, and will play it further at home, but for now I'm evaluating the game as I see it, played out over a series of days.
This time out, the Battlefield series is throwing the military out the window, and is instead switching to a classic case of cops and robbers. The two sides face off against one another with similar, but asymmetric weaponry that gives each side slightly different cosmetic look and feel (think along the lines of AK-47's and Uzis versus standard police issue weapons). The game features four different classes. Operators are basically medics who carry assault weapons and gear that enable them to heal and revive teammates. Mechanics tote submachine guns, grenade launchers and repair torches that can be used to fix vehicles. Enforcers are essentially a support class that have heavy rifles and shotguns, and can carry high explosives, and lastly, Professionals are reconnaissance and fire support who wield sniper weapons and anti personnel devices.
There are five new multiplayer modes, nine new maps and four factions - SWAT, Street Cops, Thieves and Criminals. The game basically pits perps and the 5-0 against one another in spectacular shoot-outs played over a variety of locales that take you from downtown LA and the 'burbs through a high plains desert town to the Everglades. Each map is, of course, a multiplayer arena, but they do feel like more realistic renderings of environments than maps solely designed around a multiplayer game. By that I mean that when you play something like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the maps feel quite small, tight, and designed specifically to create many choke points that give little respite from the enemy. Battlefield: Hardline's bigger maps feel far more expansive, and if you're smart you can find places to hide and play cat-and-mouse with the enemy - and perhaps even avoid them almost the whole game as I kept on doing as a sniper. It's an interesting difference, and one that gives the game a completely different feel. Not all maps are like this, but the bigger ones like the high desert town, Downtown LA and the Everglades afford you plenty of opportunity to be a sneaky bastard, perhaps sniping from rooftops or using empty rooms to hole up in and ambush other players.
So far, I'm having fun. The new modes and the big range in terms of the size of the game's maps help deliver varied kinds of gameplay, from tight, intense firefights to large open areas where you have the opportunity to be highly mobile.
Rescue, Crosshair and Heist are played on smaller maps that feature points of focus where players are running in from the battlefield periphery, converging on central areas. Fighting over what are essentially nodes is exciting and helps keep the action contained in a tight area.
Team Deathmatch and small-scale Conquest run along similar lines, and can get pretty damn intense. Players are packed together and sometimes you barely have time to breathe between spawns before you're thrown back into the thick of things. It's a lot of fun, and if you're looking for a fast-spawning, no-respite firefight, these modes certainly deliver.
The more expansive maps are a big contrast, however. In games played out over large areas, Battlefield Hardline's action can be more sporadic. There can be periods where you don't run into an enemy for quite a while, and you can end up aimlessly meandering, looking for action. Even with vehicles in the game to help get you around the map more quickly, and being able to spawn next to squad members, periods of downtime can feel quite drawn out. And when you do find the action you're looking for, sometimes the encounter can be over very quickly. If you're the victim, that results in a respawn and more time spent returning to the action.
I had this happen in a game where I got killed three times in a row, and ended up spending a lot of time running around. It can be frustrating - especially when you get hit by a sniper and don't even feel like you stood a chance. This just isn't particularly exciting. Sure, large-scale maps can be fun when you're on a streak, but even so, the periods of searching for action can be a little too protracted. It almost feels like there need to be more players on the map - or the maps need to be shrunk a little to concentrate the action.
I'm complaining a lot about this, and in reality it's not like it's terrible. These periods of downtime just feel a little jarring – particularly after playing on smaller maps where the action is incessant. Even though it's clear that Visceral Games has done a lot to reduce those lulls by enabling you to spawn on other players when you die, and giving you transport to get back into the thick of it, sometimes it doesn't feel like it's quite enough.
I really enjoy playing Hotwired - that's fun and gives the game a change of pace. The focus is on driving specific vehicles around to earn points, and that makes for a completely different gameplay mechanic to any other mode. Also, hanging out of a vehicle as a passenger and shooting at stuff is highly enjoyable.
This mode definitely captures the thrill of a classic car chase. The only downside is that when you're in a vehicle, the maps can sometimes feel a little on the small side, and you end up driving around the same locations repeatedly. If you get on a streak, you end up building up a lot of points for your team – which is good – but the process of doing so can get a little dull, because you end up doing laps around the same roads repeatedly. Ultimately, it's somewhat of a dichotomy: Battlefield Hardline's largest maps feel a little too large on foot, and a little too small in a vehicle. I think the developer has balanced this as much as they can, but ultimately it's not a perfect solution - because I don't really think there is one.
Blood Money is a similarly entertaining mode. Here there's a central pick-up point where you grab cash, and then have to take it to your team's safe zone. It creates a more interesting dynamic where the action's focus is in three potential areas - the two sides' safe spots and the main central location.
I'm not that keen on Heist. It just feels a little messy. I always felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe that's just me, but it just doesn't feel particularly intuitive. I think for organized play, this mode will work well, and indeed will probably make for being a good spectator sport. However, for pick-up play where there's little coordination, it's not particularly engaging.
Rescue and Crosshair work very well, however. They're short, intense, intuitive 5 v 5 rounds that are played on small maps that keep the action very concentrated. Again, they're very team oriented and while they can be fun in pick-up play - as we were essentially doing during the review event - you can see their potential for e-sport organized play where both teams are coordinating their efforts in what is essentially a series of attacks on a defended location (in which both teams get the chance to be attackers and defenders over the best of nine rounds).
We also played an extended session of classic Conquest on one of the larger maps, and again I ran into the same issue that I've had with modes played on larger maps - and that's the sporadic action. Sometimes you can get lucky and have a streak where there's plenty going on, and then you'll spend time wandering looking for something to do.
SEVERAL MORE DAYS OF PLAY (AT HOME ON XBOX ONE)
What Battlefield Hardline can do is deliver some great moments. I've had helicopters crash down spectacularly right in front of me, and cars explode and roll over numerous times. Those "holy crap!" incidents are visually impressive - I just wish they happened a little more often.
The game also features super-destructible "levolution" mechanics from maps like Battlefield 4's Siege of Shanghai, and most levels have heavy destructible elements. In the case of downtown LA, players can bring down a massive crane and destroy a portion of the map, which essentially re-routes and changes the dynamics of the level's roadways. Again, these deliver great-looking set piece moments.
I'm also impressed with the amount of destruction on some of the levels. Interiors can be shot to pieces – quite literally – and after intense firefights, some places look like they're about to collapse. That's definitely cool, and the attention to detail is quite stunning. Some of the environmental effects are excellent too – the sandstorm that sometimes blows through the desert town is brilliant, and a storm can roll into the Everglades level, and that looks great too.
Another special mention needs to go to the sound effects. The engineers have done a stunning job of making the battlefield sound just like a war zone. From the radio chatter to the sound of different guns firing off in the distance, the game is a sonic marvel. Perhaps some of the best sound effects I've heard in a game of this type.
While the game is entertaining, I don't feel particularly invested in the premise and avatars. The cops and robbers scenario isn't particularly compelling, and while the weaponry is asymmetric, I don't really feel there's much of a difference between the two sides apart from the voiceovers. This is understandable in terms of ensuring the game is balanced, but it's not like CoD: Advanced Warfare where I feel ownership over my character. Sure there are tons of weapons and attachments to unlock, but there's not much fanfare surrounding unlocks and upgrades. It just feels like more of a routine than it does in other games, and doesn't feel particularly personal.
Stepping back and looking at Battlefield Hardline's multiplayer as a whole, for the most part it's rock solid and fun. However, it doesn't always feel as tight as it could be in terms of level design and the cadence of its action. The cops and robbers premise works best on small maps that deliver exciting shootouts where the action is fast and intense. The larger maps are a little hit and miss, and some modes just have too many lulls in the action.
In a way, Battlefield Hardline feels like it's trying to live up to its name in terms of its big-scale combat, and that's prevented it from realizing its full potential as something completely new, focused on what it does best – epic, shootouts in tighter, close-quarters locations.