Battlefield: Hardline means franchise-reboot business for Electronic Arts' multiplayer first-person shooter. But a rethink was needed after 2013's Battlefield 4: which, although it had moments of brilliant fun with destructible building mechanics and the like, was released into the wild hamstrung by a litany of bugs and glitches.
Given the wave of disillusion that set among one of the games industry’s most loyal fan-bases, understandably Battlefield: Hardline takes something of a scorched-earth approach. New developer Visceral (of Dead Space fame) is at the helm, and the abandonment of the franchise's rather generic military vibe in favour of a cops-versus-robbers theme gives it a wholly different feel, one that helps segregate it from the Call of Duty titles.
Has Battlefield: Hardline taken the right line, or does its new approach feel at odds with the established franchise?
Cops and robbers
Such radical surgery offers both dangers and opportunities. One the one hand, EA runs the risk of alienating Battlefield's fan-base; on the other hand, it has a chance to pick up a new following which found previous iterations of the franchise forbiddingly hardcore.
It's difficult to predict how the purists will react to it, although its gloriously fettled control system has been preserved fully intact (sadly, however, we did encounter a few instances of BF4's sound-glitching bug), but there's no doubt Visceral has managed to make Hardline an awful lot more inviting for Battlefield tyros.
For a start, there's a single-player game which is actually memorable, innovative and worth playing – the word "derisory" would adequately describe the single-player elements of Battlefield games of yore. This time around, you play a cop called Nick Mendoza, who takes on Miami's drug barons and ends up discovering one of his colleagues is as dirty as they come.
Visually and atmospherically, Battlefield: Hardline's single-player element is impeccable, but what really makes it stand out is the mechanism which lets you steal around, flashing your badge and taking down enemies without firing a single shot. At the very least, you need to incapacitate a percentage of the baddies this way, in order not to find yourself outnumbered and outgunned.
Mendoza also has a scanner which lets him find evidence, LA Noire-style, and there are echoes of Far Cry in the need to disable alarms to stop reinforcements from arriving, and you also get some great gadgets, such as a grapple-gun and a zip-line (which, naturally, reappear online).
Playing through Battlefield: Hardline's single-player mode in order to get up to speed with everything you'll find in the multiplayer is a rare pleasure rather than a chore – which can't be said of all the previous titles in the series. Each of Hardline's 10 single-player episodes should keep you occupied for over an hour.
But everybody knows that Battlefield games are really all about the multiplayer experience, and that certainly still applies to Hardline. This time, though, that has also received a major makeover.
Multiplayer: Not just for seasoned players
Hardline has no fewer than seven multiplayer modes, of which five are new – Conquest, in which two teams battle for possession of three pinch-points, and good old Team Deathmatch have been retained from previous Battlefields.
By far the most innovative new mode is Hotwire, which will appeal particularly to those who generally find fast-twitch multiplayer first-person shooter action overly intimidating. If you belong to the robber faction, it encourages you to steal designated cars, then drive around in them while evading the police; the cops, meanwhile, must either get to the cars before the robbers or take them out when they are stolen.
There are nine hugely impressive maps, taking in locations like the Everglades, a marijuana grow-house in Miami and a flash pad in the Hollywood Hills. As these maps are large, Hotwire provides plenty to suit various gameplay tastes. You can, for example, spawn into choppers and wage aerial war at the controls of a fixed gun, or drive around causing havoc in an armoured van. And it definitely provides the sort of spectacular mayhem that we expect from a Battlefield game, with the odd example of "Levolution" scenery-destruction to be found on each map.
Heist and Blood Money are variations on a cops-versus-robbers theme. In the former, the robbers must blow open a bank vault, grab the cash, then make their getaway to a designated point where a chopper will pick them up; the cops, meanwhile must thwart them. Blood Money keeps the cash-collection theme, but dispenses with the break-in dynamic: each team has its own vault, plus there is a pile of cash between the two, so you must decide whether to go for that, defend your vault or raid the enemy's vault.
Both Heist and Blood Money are great fun. The former plays out on fairly tight maps, and is definitely best suited to those who like their fighting close-in and have mastered the shotgun (the default gun of the tank-like Enforcer class; the other classes are Mechanic, a good all-rounder like the Operator, and the sniping-specialist Professional).
A co-ordinated approach is required if either side is to make much progress in Heist, but Blood Money is much more of a free-for-all (bringing driving into play on the bigger maps) and for that reason, we prefer it.
There are plenty of precious experience points on offer for those who fill their bags with money and get them to the designated point, but filling your bag takes time, so the greedier you are, the bigger the risk you run of being gunned down in the act.
Rescue and Crosshair are also similar modes, aimed more at aspiring pro-gamer types. Both split you into two five-person teams, with Crosshair tasking one team with shepherding a VIP (armed with a GoldenEye-style one-shot gun) to an extraction point, while the other team tries to take him out. In Rescue, the principle is the same, except one team has to reach and untie a number of hostages. Both modes are chopped into 3-minute rounds with a best-of-nine format.
Team Deathmatch and Conquest are two modes that need little introduction, and both provide the sort of 64-player anarchy and spectacular moments that Battlefield is known for in spades, with all sorts of over-the-top vehicles for you to jump into (we loved the jet-boats in the Everglades maps, for example). But again, Visceral has tweaked the gameplay, to make everything a little less intimidating for newbies: no longer are you liable to get sniped milliseconds after spawning (the ability to spawn onto team-mates helps in that regard). Although that does apply more to Conquest than Team Deathmatch, which remains sufficiently hardcore to keep die-hard Battlefield fans happy.
Apart from the one mangled-sound glitch, Battlefield: Hardline is impressively polished and solid – perhaps no surprise given the five month delay – although we weren't able to test out its server infrastructure before launch. How that will cope with the heaps of gamers on board come Friday 20 we will have to wait and see.
However, publisher EA is adamant that Battlefield 4's problems didn't stem from its servers, and points out that seven million people took part in the beta. If the game experiences anything like the problems that afflicted Drive Club and Halo: The Master Chief Collection at launch, then we'd be very surprised.
Battlefield: Hardline will undoubtedly spark a debate among fans as to whether it goes too far in the direction of appealing to the non-hardcore at the expense of the die-hards.
But with its beautifully refined engine, superb maps (there are nine at launch), plus the presence of Team Deathmatch, Conquest, Crosshair and Rescue multiplayer modes, we believe it has plenty to give the Battlefield faithful, as long as they aren't too wedded to its previously militaristic bent.
For those who never previously bought into the Battlefield franchise, then be prepared to be impressed: in both single-player and online, it is by far the most seductive iteration of Battlefield yet. Which might just elevate Battlefield to mega-franchise status along the lines of Call of Duty.
In this case, EA's decision to bring in Visceral to perform franchise-reboot surgery looks like a brave, rather than foolhardy, one. Like its name, the developer has taken a hard line, but one that helps separate it from the increasingly familiar pack.