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Battlefield Hardline Campaign Review: As clichéd as they come

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This is going to be a long one and it’s not pleasant, because this game is not pleasant, nor what it represents. I will be talking about the game's own handling of social and race issues - amidst its gameplay and other aspects. If social and race discussion makes you uncomfortable, I don't recommend reading this review. Plenty of other reviews exist, but this is mine. 

Bad games can be an artifact of history, a product deserving of mockery and shame. Duke Nukem Forever, Air Control, Bound By Flame – these are games universally panned by critics as worth avoiding, yet which remain fascinating in how awful they are. The stories behind their production, the reasons why they are bad, can be implemented in other games beyond simply “Don’t do that”.

But sometimes a game isn’t merely bad, but boring and uncertain, juvenile and insulting, pandering and frustratingly lacking in self-reflection. This is Battlefield: Hardline.

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Hardline exists on this strange plane – of being functional, stable, gorgeous, workable, solid, but being monumentally uninteresting and tedious, confused and loud, ignorant of its issues but loud in its bombastic neutrality and amorality. Sure: It’s light-years ahead of most of its competitors – certainly more interesting than any of the recent Battlefield titles. But I rarely thought that I was being challenged, from a gameplay or morality perspective; I didn’t feel excited or exhilarated, which is what these B-Grade action movie set pieces should, at the very least, do.

While I fought in an airfield owned by racist American patriots, with weapons and tanks and rocket guns, I realised I was more entertained by my kitten’s entrance into the living room. Men were screaming, cars were exploding, but my small cat chasing her tail easily won my attention. Here’s the rub: I’ve seen both kinds of things hundreds of times, as have you.

It almost feels like effort to make Michael Bay setpieces boring, but Hardline manages to do just that.

Bay Sick Instinct

The latest in the first person military shooter franchise from EA, this one developed by the talented folks at Visceral, Hardline puts you in the bloody shoes of police officer, Nicholas Mendoza. Set in a near-future America, you work the vice squad, with two fellow officers: One who is an almost literal carbon copy from Infamous Second Son and the other played by Kelly Hu.

The performances have no right to be this good in a game this bland. Barring the main character, everyone delivers an incredible performance. Mendoza himself is another boring male lead with the personality of wet cardboard, though the game tries to give him depth by talking about his abusive father and escape from Cuba. As you’ll see throughout the game, Hardline loves to sprinkle genuine social ills onto its plot, but then does nothing with them.

The plot is as clichéd as they come, with corrupt cops, gangs, drugs, rich people, cops just trying to do the right thing – it screams about how bad drugs are and how they must be stopped (no justification is given, except it’s illegal); it wants you to feel hateful of corruption, after you’ve shot hundreds of men.

After I had used live rounds in a hotel with civilians, killing hundreds of men, I walked in on my partner beating up a man. This shocked Mendoza – not the bodycount on the other side of the wall, where civilians cowered.

There’s no engagement with the awful War on Drugs that is screwing up America; there’s no showing why you should morally support Mendoza, other than that he’s a cop – even though we see corrupt cops throughout the game.

There’s no engagement with militarisation of the police, even though – like all military shooters – it revels in firepower with a pornographic sensibility: you are literally rewarded with bigger, more dangerous weapons and given descriptions of its deadliness. Then you can add a hundred different attachments, decorate it how you like – I’m surprised they didn’t let you name the guns too and let you stroke it with the D-Pad. When America – and the world - is reeling from gun-loving police and militarisation of a force designed to protect people, this is in horrifically poor taste.

Oh, the game rewards you for arresting over shooting. But you can guess what rewards are: Yeah, more guns, more ways to kill. Not exactly preaching non-violence, when your reward is a bigger death machine.

The sound of the police

What does it mean to be a police officer? Nothing different to a video game soldier in a foreign country, apparently; indeed, even this title for your character is discarded a few episodes into the game. While it was great to have a Cuban-American male lead, soon you see him in cuffs and he’s just an escaped convict. Nice way to play into awful stereotypes about Americans who aren’t white people, folks - this could’ve easily been avoided by just keeping him as a police officer (even if he is really boring).

Weirdly, the game is aware of the race dynamics, but only halfway: several times, dangerous white men make racists comments about Nick – including saying he must be a thief because he “looks Mexican”. Indeed, other characters call him Mexican, even though he’s Cuban-American. I don’t know why Nick doesn’t respond to this; why it’s not a theme in the game that lets him establish what it’s like to be a Cuban-American, or a police officer who isn’t white but arresting white men. Players could’ve actually been educated about the fact that calling Cuban people Mexican is insulting; like calling all Asian people Chinese. But, no. Like the rest of the game, it drops in a social dynamic people live with and then shrugs it off to shoot men.

And shooting you will and won’t do.

The cop aspect allows Nick to arrest almost anyone. Get close enough and a prompt comes up, allowing Nick to flash his badge. This has a magical effect on men: they drop their guns and immediately adhere to Nick’s commands (mostly). You can then arrest them and they magically pass out. You seem to have in infinite number of handcuffs, too.

It’s a bit strange when you’re still arresting people despite not being a cop anymore (remember, you spend a great deal of time as an escaped convict and you play a Cuban-American… who becomes a convict because plot). Again, even after becoming a convict, Nick magics a zillion handcuffs and people just obey. He doesn’t flash his badge, he just points. Guys in full combat gear carrying fully-automatic weapons, even when they’re in a party of three, drop their guns and obey: It’s pretty silly.

If there is more than one dude, you need to aim your gun at the relevant individual, since they feel brave enough to reach for their gun. This is a careful effort involved here and even your angle of approach determines whether you succeed. This was about the only challenging aspect of the entire game.

Some missions can be completed without killing anyone, thanks to sneaking and arrests, which is as close to blasphemy for a Battlefield game as we can get. And breaking dogma for boring shooty franchises is a good thing - we need more progress, it’s just a pity it looks like this.

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Yet, some sections do force you into combat. Again, given the gun porn on display, you can be sure there are more than enough ways to kill men – just don’t expect blood or gore or impact. Despite all your firepower and leery view of killing men, including a chokehold (because, yes, let’s make a game where you play a cop putting a suspect in a chokehold and say nothing about it after), it’s very scared of blood. It’s terrified that you might see the impact of your violence; so often, your guns feel more like air rifles than weapons of mass murder.

The game also laughably asks you to do some investigating: This consists of using a magical cellphone that uses software like the Batman: Arkham series’ Detective Mode. It’s as basic as you can imagine, since it consists of just finding green highlighted objects. Once you find it, a case file is opened that provides background to the story and how and why certain events happen. The story is so uninteresting, you won’t care, though. It’s also laughable how the device says “There’s some evidence 5 metres over there”. Like… how does it know this? How does it know what is and isn’t evidence? How does this device magically know this piece of paper out of all the papers in the room is a shipping manifest for drugs?

There are no sidequests to follow through, you don’t unlock missions, there are no NPCs you talk to – this is a world where all citizens have guns and kill.

This tool also highlights enemies and targets those who have a warrant out for their arrest. Arresting these men nets you a lot of extra points. Again: if you want all the guns, this is the only way to get them. I saw no point in this, as all the guns eliminate men when you aim it at their face.

Enemy variety is diverse in terms of race, but nothing else: the same body-types, the same voices. If there was some difference in armour, I didn’t notice. There are no enemy types that require you to change strategies on the fly (like, say, a melee expert who rushes you or assassin who is invisible). It’s always the same strategy: tag, sneak, avoid their coned line of sight, shout “hands up!” and arrest as many as possible to try avoid a gunfight. If you want a gunfight, then just shoot and get it over with. Again, they don’t employ impressive tactics, they don’t vary: they’re the same faceless goons who just shoot. It’s not interesting at all.

(Oh, they can toss grenades; you can’t.)

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Oh what strong set pieces you have

The game’s major strength, aside from its performances and visuals, lies in its set-pieces. They are massive, multi-tiered, beautiful and varied. They’re all amazingly destructible like few games I’ve seen: debris flies everywhere when gun fights happen.

But variety is key: You go from dilapidated slums to swamps, from train yards to a shopping mall being torn apart during a hurricane. There was so much that could’ve been done with these stages, but nothing was. You still just journey from one area to another, arresting men, pushing buttons. (Indeed, it’s the Destiny problem all over again.) While it’s wonderful that it wasn’t just boring corridors or urban settings, so little was done with these, it didn’t matter too much.

The only one that was fully realised happens during a robbery in a skyscraper – where you have to break in, sneak to the top, defend yourselves, then fight back to street level. (There’s a lovely little part at the end of this level where you crash into a room full of men and the button prompt for “freeze!” comes up - I wish the whole game had been these ten minutes expanded throughout its short campaign.)

The other great aspect was the race diversity in the game: That you play a Cuban-American with a partner who is a Vietnamese-American woman – and she’s not a love interest, but your terrifyingly smart and hardcore partner. Again, the game plays with race dynamics here, by having a character remark on her “karate abilities” (because of course). Her response is it’s Krav Maga, which is Israeli martial arts, and that karate is “mystical bullshit”. You also have a hacker friend who is African-American. It’s a pity then that the game’s mature handling of recognising race variety doesn’t follow through into its general handling of social issues. Indeed, as mentioned, your character becomes a wanted criminal, which is part of a racial stereotype in America which the game itself acknowledges!

And this is the game’s central problem: an acknowledgement of problems, hints at finding ways to reflect maturely on it, then shrugging its shoulders to shoot men.

In negative light

It’s frustrating viewing the game this negatively, in light of how much it attempts to change the boring grim-faced man shooters of old. I am one of many that wants that progress; and I dislike being this negative about what is undoubtedly progress, after all my wishing for it. Progress is: Non-lethal takedowns, a lead character who isn’t another white guy, a female lead who isn’t a romantic interest, race variety. And the game has those!

Yet it’s boring; it’s insultingly pornographic about guns for police officers, at a time when militarised and gun-happy police is a serious social problem many, including players, live with and face; it plays into the very racial stereotypes it seems to know are awful; it does nothing with its brilliant set-pieces; it has a small sense of humour, but seems far too serious about its really boring story.

Further, in terms of value, it doesn't warrant what seems like a glorified mod for Battlefield 4. I can't see why that massive install and player base, most of whom are finishing their DLC for multiplayer, would abandon their teams and routines for a game that offers little. The campaign, of course, is short - about 8 or 9 hours - but, as should be obvious, I can't recommend you pay full price for it. This is not value for money, even if it is the strongest single-player of the Battlefield (in modern times) series.

But there's another element that probably sounds harsher than it's intended to.

I’ve never said this before about a game, even ones I hate (like Skyrim or Destiny) but I think this is a game that should’ve been scrapped before it reached a significant portion of completion. I don’t know how you look at the problem of police brutality that is on the front of so many people’s minds and continue to make a game like this. I do understand this was people's jobs, of course; but I'm here appealing at the people at the top who makes decisions that result in projects and payment for employees. There's no reason it had to be this project.

Many have defended the game saying that, like any medium, it’s important games “talk” about uncomfortable issues. I, among many, fully support this since games are art – and art is a space which opens up dialogue for difficult discussions. It can be a safe space to test and prod our moral parameters, to engage civilly with those who might disagree.

The problem is that assumes Hardline has anything to say about a difficult subject.

See: It’s one thing to raise a difficult topic, in a way that allows for self-reflection and moral grappling. But Hardline presents these issues already fried in the oil of juvenile ignorance and ready for consumption; they’re not raw to be seasoned by moral engagement. Hardline isn’t asking asking hard questions, it’s vaguely gesturing at them, while plodding on.

What’s “uncomfortable” isn’t the topics (though they are difficult and complicated and many of us, like myself, already deal with them in our careers anyway); it’s that Hardline is using these topics for a boring plot to justify spending full AAA price on a boring shooty man game. People like myself aren’t “offended” – we’re saying, ideally, companies shouldn’t make games which utilise ongoing disputes about people’s actual lives as mere cardboard placements to move a plot forward. If you’re going to deal with a current issue – the militarisation of the police, the impact of drugs, race issues – do it maturely.

Hardline almost seems like it comes from the mind of a teenager, who looked at pictures from Ferguson and thought: “Those cops look hardcore”. And this thought wasn’t fearful of what an armed police force could do, but excited by what it meant for playing cops and robbers. Games can do better. Games should do better.

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

 

Tauriq: Twitter / MWEB GameZone: Twitter | Facebook

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