The overarching pretence of Battlefield Hardline is troubling.
The upcoming spin-off from the Battlefield series proper, is a cops 'n' robbers game where the crooks are presented as ultra-organised, sophisticated career crims and the police are judicious badasses - the kind of righteous stereotypes developed in un-reality shows like Cops.
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, and the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, this kind of simplification is unsettling. The robbers are presented as smart, efficient and ruthless, and they must be stopped by police officers who are incredibly well-equipped, both mentally and financially.
Like the representations of modern combat in other Battlefield games, it isn't at all true to life and could help calcify prejudice towards young criminals. This is a game that says the cops are always right and the crooks have to die. As recent news has shown, that mentality can have terrible consequences.
The extent of Hardline's politicising won't be clear until the game launches in 2015; not until the campaign mode, which writer Tom Bissell says is attempting to set "a tone games don't often have," is fully playable. But from the multiplayer demo I tried at EGX 2014, it seems this new Battlefield isn't taking the subject matter particularly seriously.
I'm not sure whether that's a good or bad thing. It could be that Hardline is so knockabout and silly that its social context is ignorable, and only prissy kids like yours truly will have anything to complain about. Or it could be that like the pretentious Call of Duty games, Hardline presents a veneer of awareness, while failing to engage with the people and topics it claims to represent. This could be a fun crime-themed shooter. It could also serve as propaganda for gun-ownership and life in a gated community. I'm not sure.
One detail from the multiplayer demo stands out to me. Whenever I got into a car, whether I was playing as the cops or the robbers, some hip-hop track would kick in, sometimes Public Enemy, sometimes stuff I didn't recognise. It lent the driving and subsequent shooting some energy, a bit of colour and humour, but it also prompted me to ask those questions about seriousness. It seems like such a minor thing to pull the game up on, but that music makes me wonder two things. Is Visceral just having fun with its ideas and going all in with vibe and style? Or does it actually think that this is what crime sounds like, and that by adding in a few rap records, it's lending Hardline a streetwise authenticity? Is it just aesthetic? Or is it a strained effort to be genuine?
Because if Hardline is a kinetic, hyper, Scorsese vision of crime and criminals then fine – I'm not a joyless dick and I can get behind that. But if it really thinks it's addressing questions about criminality and law, and it's going about it in any way that's related either to the trailers or the style of play I've so far tested, then that's a problem, because The Wire this ain't.
A previwer's cliché, but time will tell on that one. For now, I'm willing to give Visceral, and especially Bissell, who produces great game criticism, the benefit of the doubt.
Moving onto things I can discuss in concrete terms, Hardline seems a much more sedate affair than its spiritual predecessors. The games I played were between 16 players, befitting of the tighter, metropolitan settings. Other people have tested 32-player matches and rightly criticised them for being too busy, too hectic, given the game's urban aesthetic.
I enjoyed Hardline for the opposite reason I enjoyed Battlefield 4. Where in that game I got caught up in the chaos and carnage of a broad, simulated war, here I was involved in a smaller, more intimate gunfight between teams. It was exciting in different ways. Rather than sprinting between buildings, dodging mortar rounds and sniper fire, I was crouched over the bonnet of an SUV, waiting with a silenced machine-gun to pop the tyres on an enemy's sedan.
It won't be the last time you read this comparison, but Hardline feels like a shootout directed by Michael Mann, like the nightclub in Collateral, or of course, the heist in Heat. It's all about the sound – bullets shattering windscreens, cold, informative chatter on the police radio. The cacophony of noise in previous Battlefields is replaced with terrifying, subtle sounds.
And of course it looks great. Proving once again that the Frostbite 3 engine can handle more than generic forests and Middle-Eastern towns, Hardline takes place in a bunch of urban and suburban locations. The map I played was some swampy trailer park on the city's periphery, perfectly rendered to resemble something from The Boondock Saints or Point Break. It's coming to all consoles, but if you're fortunate enough to afford it, I'd say get this on the PS4 or the Xbox One. It's the only way to do the visuals justice.
I'm ready to enjoy Battlefield Hardline. I love crime movies and I've always been a fan of games that focus on small, intense gunfights rather than big ones, games like Metro and LA Noire. This could be my favourite Battlefield to date. I just hope that in terms fo narrative, it's got its head screwed on.
- Developer – Visceral Games
- Publisher – EA
- Platforms – PS3, PS3, Xbox One, 360, Microsoft Windows
- Release date – March 31, 2015
- Price – TBA