"It'll be the '80s all over again," Nick Mendoza mutters at one point in Battlefield Hardline, inadvertently summing up Visceral Games' aspirations for their spinoff of EA's flagship shooter.
One part Miami Vice and one part Bad Boys, Battlefield Hardline wants to be one of the low budget action thrillers that Danny Butterman dredges up in Sandford's supermarket - a shooter as cheesy as it is self-aware. Instead, it plays more like a low wattage Michael Bay film, or perhaps a CBS crime drama, with surprisingly little to separate its campaign from the legions of Call of Duties and Battlefields that have come before it.
It opens with Mendoza running drug busts in Miami, his operations seemingly doomed to always go wrong. His partner is Khai Minh Dao, a cop with a cynical edge and an apparent hatred for karate ("Mystical bullsh*t," she grumbles when it comes up). It isn't long before the focus of the story shifts to a ring of crooked cops working within the department, which is in turn followed by gunfights, explosions, and car chases. It ultimately proves itself a fairly typical "corrupt cop" story, with Miami's drug trade serving as the backdrop. It has no pretensions toward being anything other than an action move, which is probably a blessing in disguise given the headlines over the past year or so.
The action itself is mostly old hat for shooter aficionados: Multiple prison breakouts, a stealth mission that takes place in a mansion (a trope that also appears in last year's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare), a turret battle, and a fight in a mall. The heroes are largely unremarkable, the most entertaining of the bunch being Boomer - a military deserter with a high degree of technical skills and a taste for crazy girlfriends. Only occasionally does Hardline break from the script and really have a bit of fun, setting one battle around a Japanese toy store, another in a right-wing isolationist camp replete with chatter about socialism, false flag operations, and martial law.
But here's the weird thing about Battlefield Hardline: For as heavily as it relies on familiar action game tropes, it's also secretly a stealth action game. Rather than barging into a room and opening fire, Mendoza typically sneaks toward his objectives, doing his best to avoid staying out of the range of enemy vision cones. "Arrests" replace stealth takedowns, with Mendoza carrying a seemingly inexhaustible number of handcuffs with which to bind his foes - a mechanic that persists long after it ceases to make sense in the context of the story.
The emphasis on stealth is interesting in some ways and problematic in others. With Mendoza ostensibly being a cop, it makes sense for him to want to avoid murdering enemies in cold blood, so it fits to have him stay out of sight whenever possible. To that end, he has a scanner - a useful device capable of spotting enemies through walls while also being able to highlight evidence, the latter which can be collected to deepen the story. Mendoza is also capable of tossing shell casings, which can be used to distract inconvenient enemies.
This is all fine. Where Battlefield Hardline gets into trouble is in details like the level design, which is often too linear and stifling - a feeling you don't want to have in a stealth action game. The best stealth games feel huge, offering you multiple options for completing a challenge. Battlefield Hardline, by contrast, frequently has one optimal path to take to avoid alerting enemies, which can only really be found with trial and error. Most levels offer a route through the middle (bad), or a route around the side (good), with maybe a handful of platforms and the odd side room for the sake of variety. Of course, it's also possible to just shoot your way through; but until you unlock the Armored Insert (there is a wide range of guns and accessories to unlock over the course of Battlefield Hardline's campaign), you're not apt to last long in a firefight.
Alas, when you try to marry two dissimilar genres by modifying an existing framework, the results are bound to be a little awkward, which is the case in Battlefield Hardline. The best that can be said for Visceral's approach is that it encourages you to try and find the odd alternate route in an effort to uncover extraneous documents or collect arrest warrants - both extras designed to increase Battlefield Hardline's replayability. It isn't what you would call elegant, but absent a few frustrating moments when you draw the attention of a room and get gunned down on the spot, it's fine for what it is.
Not surprisingly, the police elements become largely vestigial as the story progresses, with later levels bearing greater and greater resemblance to the military shooter from which it derives its name. There's even a proper tank battle at one point - a setpiece that is frustratingly rare even in Battlefield proper. It's unfortunate, actually, since I actually feel like there might have been a lot of potential in a properly executed police game. But then, making a police game is hard, particularly in the context of a shooter.
As with most shooter campaigns these days, Battlefield Hardline's story ultimately left me feeling... well... nothing. Visceral has seen fit to tinker a bit with the Battlefield formula, but the police elements are mostly superficial at best, and it is otherwise heavily reliant on shooter tropes that have long since worn out their welcome. Much as it wants to be what Nicholas Angel might dryly refer to as a "no holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride," Battlefield Hardline's story is apt to have all the staying power of the average episode of Hawaii Five-0. In this case, Visceral Games isn't being nearly cheesy enough.