In 2013, EA and DICE learned the dangers of going to war with the army you have. The half-baked launch of Battlefield 4 and the myriad technical problems that followed consumed DICE's full attention, leaving Visceral to fill the void with a new, unnumbered entry in the series. Hardline branches off the tried-and-true Battlefield formula with the kind of different ideas that you might expect a new developer to bring to the plate. However, some things about war never change: Like other recent entries, the single-player campaign falls flat while the multiplayer shines.
Despite Visceral's best attempts to tell a good story, Hardline's single-player campaign is a mess. The military shooter's transition to a cops-and-robbers theme has shifted the gameplay focus from open warfare to sneaking up on and arresting people; stealth sequences make up the majority of the campaign, and despite taking obvious cues from the Far Cry series, they fail to deliver the same highs or tactical variety. Shootouts are still frequent, but your limited arsenal (you can only have one firearm and a handgun at a time) and the superhuman accuracy of your enemies make them more frustrating than exciting. The driving sequences are so slow, dumbed down, and scripted that they almost feel like on-rail segments. Aside from an explosive standoff at an abandoned airstrip, most of the set-piece moments are forgettable.
The story of wronged-cop-turned-renegade Nicholas Mendoza starts rough and ends with a facepalm-worthy final revelation. Downtime abounds as characters frequently and clumsily reflect on their own backstories, and a number of nonsensical plot twists undermine the personalities and motives of most of the cast. Everyone ends up being bad, but unlike The Wire – where flawed characters get mired down in shades of grey – the cast of Hardline constantly contradicts themselves with sociopathic behavior. If Hardline was only its single-player campaign, it would be one of the biggest flops of the year.
Thankfully, Hardline isn't just a solo cop drama gone wrong, and the heart of the franchise beats on – albeit at a different tempo. Hardline's multiplayer scales down the maps and vehicular combat for a more condensed and faster-paced experience that's still worthy of the Battlefield name.
Even Hardline's biggest maps, like the desert town of Dust Bowl and the industrial depots of Derailed, pale in comparison to the sprawling warzones of previous Battlefield games, but each one still serves up plenty of interesting and dynamic locations to fight over. The shift to mostly transport vehicles (tanks and jets are MIA) also limits the scale of combat, but I appreciate the focus on infantry, which is what most players spend their time on anyway.
Some diehard fans will dismiss Hardline as the further COD-ification of Battlefield, but the gunplay isn't any twitchier than previous iterations. The smaller maps simply mean you have less downtime before getting into the action. This can make it harder to get your bearings (especially when spawning on a squad member), but the players who come out on top are still the ones who understand the pros and cons of their chosen weapon, make smart use of their items, and coordinate with their teammates.
The downsized maps mean that smaller player counts are better; 32-player Conquest delivers the thrills you know and love about the timeless mode, while the 64-player matches can devolve into total chaos. Thankfully, most of Hardline's new modes are geared toward smaller player counts. Hotwire's mobile take on Conquest delivers plenty of thrills, while Heist and Blood Money both offer interesting twists on capture the flag – and you won't think twice about them all capping out at 32 players. Crosshair and Rescue evolve the one-life, five-on-five formula of Battlefield 4's Defuse mode, and are entertaining diversions as well.
Visceral also changed up player progression with a new cash-based system, and after a week of multiplayer, I don't think I can ever go back to a linear unlocking scheme. Buying the guns and items you actually want with the money you earn from matches just makes sense, and eliminates the annoyance of grinding XP to get past an unlock you know you're never going to use. Items that aren't class-specific are universal unlocks, so you're not starting from scratch when you switch roles. At the same time, weapon attachments and some special firearms do have requirements before you can purchase them, so you can't just buy the best gear possible from the get-go. The ability to save multiple loadouts for each class is an obvious yet very welcome addition to the game as well.
Perhaps the best praise I can heap on Hardline is for what nowadays constitutes a miraculously smooth launch; aside from a single isolated DDoS attack on Xbox One, the servers have been rock solid since release day, and the server browser has offered up endless lists of near-full matches to join. I have yet to be disconnected from a single match, and lag has been almost nonexistent as well. I'd like to see a few more options for getting together and playing with friends, but squads are functional and performed flawlessly during my playtime, suggesting EA learned its lessons from Battlefield 4's failures. It's a commendable and necessary achievement for the future of the franchise.
Some fans of the series have been quick to declare that Hardline isn't a "true" Battlefield game due to the changes it presents. In truth, I sometimes miss the larger scale, slower pace, and heavy ordnance (not to mention the old killcam) of Battlefield 4's multiplayer, but they don't have to be mutually exclusive. Both experiences are appealing in their own way, and I don't plan on taking Hardline out of my rotation anytime soon. Just do yourself a favor and skip the single-player campaign.