I’m not a big fan of multiplayer shooters. I tend to spend most of my time either crawling through vegetation looking for a point of interest, or staring at the stats of the person who has just killed me and wondering what I could have done differently. It’s mainly a sad, contemplative experience, and it’s an experience I can easily attain by booting up various Battlefields, Halos, or Call of Duties that I own across multiple platforms. When I cracked the plastic wrap on Battlefield: Hardline, I resigned myself to another go on this melancholy merry-go-round.
I had heard only bits and pieces of the marketing for Hardline, but one of the things I’d heard was that they were going to deliver on a strong story for the single-player experience. I’ll admit that I scoffed. I’ve played my fair share of shooters, all of which have either complex stories based on a lore that I’ll never understand or essentially boil down to killing the right mans with a side of “isn’t war terrible” thrown in. While I’ve been impressed with level design and certain environmental moments that shooters have been able to present, the actual story, plot, and characters have always felt a bit amateur hour to me. Would Hardline be any different? Could it?To some degree, of course, the answer is no. The pedigree of the console shooter has put Hardline in a box that can’t be escaped, because doing so would betray the player that picked up a box with the word Battlefield on it. In a year when the country is still reeling from the realities of police profiling, aggression, and the ensuing lack of consequences, it would have been sublime if Hardline could have been a nuanced take on what it means to be a member of the police force and what it means to be a human being.
That’s not what Hardline is. That’s not what it’s meant to be, and any attempts on my part to fit it into that mold are unfair; it’s like calling out Bones for not using a half season to address the dangers of federal overreach. Hardline is a buddy cop show with all the trimmings: melodrama, larger than life personalities, and a grandiose sense of presentation. Its big success is that it makes you feel like you’ve stepped into Hawaii Five-O, Miami Vice, or Bad Boys.
Every cop is a bit of a pompous badass (yourself included!), you’re never quite sure who’s crooked, and there are enough drug dealers to fill a stadium. The plot points, though utterly predictable, give the game a pace that serves it well – high excitement firefights and chases followed by calmer moments and stealthy bits. The game is literally divided into 10 episodes. When you quit, there’s a short “Next Time On” video that plays, teasing the next episode. When you load, there’s a short “Previously On” to recap what’s been happening.
The game encourages non-lethality by giving you points for arresting criminals instead of just shooting them in the head or clubbing them to death, which is a nice touch, but there’s no real consequence (other than unlocking certain guns or parts of guns slower) to shooting every single person you ever encounter. It’s a bit stranger in this context, just because you’re not in a warzone. A lot of the criminals are probably just underling gang members, following orders, trying to do what they know and maybe make a better life for themselves. They’re not enemy combatants. Still, none of them have any hesitance on immediately opening fire on a policeman.
Hardline surprised me. I’ve actually felt engaged with the story in a way that I don’t think I’ve felt with a shooter for quite a while, if ever. Part of it is the presentation; there are a large number of cutscenes that are proper cutscenes where you lose control and the camera pans around both the player character and his peers. It makes the game feel more cinematic, more story-driven than the common shooter in-game plot point, where you never leave first-person-view.
Also, there are entire sections that are played without ever firing a shot. It’s a calculated risk for the genre, but I feel like it pays off. It makes the story feel like it’s about more than just aiming the right gun at the right person and squeezing the trigger until they fall down. Sure, everything’s a bit over the top and campy, but Hardline stands out from other modern shooters for me because of those qualities. Instead of being bland and samey, it feels new. Or, well, new-ish. It has me legitimately excited about seeing where the story goes next.
Oh, and there’s also multiplayer, which is the exact opposite of all this and is all about shooting and being better than other people and flying helicopters into hillsides.