What would happen if you took a studio known for atmospheric survival horror games and gave it the keys to one of the most popular shooter franchises in existence? We'll find out soon with Battlefield Hardline, a game set for release later this year courtesy of Dead Space developer Visceral Games.
Hardline marks an interesting departure for both Visceral and the Battlefield series as a whole. It's not rooted in sci-fi like Visceral's previous work, nor does it dwell on modern military conflicts like the most recent Battlefield games. Instead, Visceral is focusing on a cops-versus-criminals setting that draws influence from crime movies and police procedurals. And yes, there will be 64-player competitive matches with plenty of vehicles. At least on current-gen consoles and PC. (There will be Xbox 360 and PS3 versions as well.)
Want to know more? Let's run down some of the more pressing questions.
Why is Visceral making a Battlefield game?
Here's the story according to Steve Papoutsis and Karl-Magnus Troedsson, the heads of Visceral and DICE respectively. A few years back, the two general managers met at an EA studios summit and got to chatting. After Papoutsis professed his love of Battlefield and Troedsson boasted about completing Dead Space using only a plasma cutter, they realized there was a mutual admiration for each other's games that could lead to something interesting. That something went on to become Battlefield Hardline.
"The thing that I want to underscore is that we started this project inside Electronic Arts because [Karl-Magnus] and I thought it sounded cool," says Papoutsis. "It wasn't because somebody said you need to make this game. It was a very organic process, and I think that's what's exciting about it."
One interesting bit of trivia is that Hardline won't be Visceral's first work on the Battlefield franchise. As an exercise intended to familiarize the studio with the Frostbite engine, Visceral developed the final expansion for Battlefield 3, Endgame. They wouldn't say why this piece of information wasn't made public at the time, but given the Internet's propensity toward conspiracy theories, you can probably see why they played it close to the vest.
Why is it cops and criminals?
Visceral wanted a setting that would preserve what it calls the open-ended, "rock-paper-scissors" nature of Battlefield combat (that is, sniper kills engineer, tank kills sniper, engineer kills tank) but without the standard military backdrop. According to creative director Ian Milham, there were more than enough military games already.
"There had been a lot of modern military [games], and it felt like that was being taken care of," says Milham. "A lot of other [developers] felt that, and their response was to go science fiction. But I had just finished a bunch of science fiction games!"
Ultimately, Visceral settled on the world of cops and robbers. The team was intrigued by the uncertain relationship between police and criminals, the way lines between them are blurred by informants and corrupt cops. But as Milham explains, this also let them take a different approach to Battlefield campaigns by focusing more on the surveillance aspects of police work--the way undercover cops study environments and get a read on criminal threats before deciding how to approach a situation.
"We wanted to do something with a lot more player choice, a lot more style, a lot more [varied pacing]," says Milham. "We didn't want to just make a game where it kicks off right away, everyone's shooting at each other, you clear the room, and that's [the whole] thing."
What exactly makes this a Battlefield game?
That's the big question, isn't it? If we're going purely by the single-player campaign, it's hard to say. Over the years, not even DICE could figure out what makes a Battlefield campaign a Battlefield campaign. The Bad Company games imbued their action with a wonderful sense of humor and irreverence for military tropes, but the two most recent games in the series pulled a hard 180 in favor of very serious, very grim, and often quite rigid cinematic romps--the type of stuff that Call of Duty had already been doing for years.
So in that respect, none of the single-player content I saw really screams Battlefield. The multiplayer is a different story. I got to play a couple of hours of Hardline multiplayer last week, and it absolutely nails the feel of Battlefield's big, emergent multiplayer sandboxes. Instead of fighting in exotic warzones, you're fighting in places like downtown Los Angeles. Instead of driving around in tanks, you're driving around in armored SWAT trucks. There are obvious difference in the move from military to cops and robbers, but Hardline hits a lot of the same notes.
So...how is it?
Let's just get straight to it: Hardline's multiplayer is a lot of fun, and not just for the obvious reasons. Sure, the vehicles and general destruction echo past Battlefield games, but there's more to it than that. There's this impressive sense of free-form movement, the way you can use a grappling hook to clamber up to a hidden sniper perch, or use a zip line to get from the roof of one building to another despite an eight-lane freeway sitting right between them. And while the downtown LA map isn't the biggest by Battlefield standards, there's a ton of verticality to it, with overpasses, underpasses, five-level parking garages, and all manner of densely layered urban strata. That map design and the grapple-zip line combo just pair really well together.
(Side note about classes: Most gadgets are class-specific, like the enforcer's riot shield or the professional's surveillance camera, but the grappling hook and zip line work across all four. And while these four classes may have new names, they're more or less the same archetypes as in Battlefield 4.)
Hardline does some interesting things with the cops-and-robbers setting, too. One game mode, Blood Money, has the police and criminals fighting over a money pile in the middle of the map, then dashing back to their respective vaults (exposed armored trucks) in an attempt to be the first side to steal (criminals) or reclaim (cops) 5 million in cash. The fact that these armored trucks are exposed means you can skip the money pile and go straight for the other team's vault, leading to an interesting back and forth where no team is ever truly safe from a good ol' robbery.
Running around downtown LA with a giant duffel bag full of cash strapped to your back, debating whether to run back to your vault or help a teammate pinned down by gunfire behind a car--there are genuine moments when you feel like you've stepped into the iconic shootout scene from Heat. Sure, it's a much bigger and sloppier shootout. I mean, I'm pretty sure Robert De Niro never parachuted into a firefight from out of nowhere only to be crushed by the same helicopter he just abandoned moments earlier. But you get the idea.
And how about that campaign?
While I got a chance to play several hours of Hardline multiplayer, I saw only a few snippets from the single-player campaign. Visceral definitely wants to go for a stylish, fast-paced cop drama feel--right on down to the "previously on Hardline" vignettes you get when you resume your campaign progress. But the developers are also talking a big game about how they want this to not just be one big shootout. They want to play up the uncertain relationship between cops and criminals--those moral gray areas--and give you the opportunity to investigate crime scenes and do honest-to-goodness surveillance work.
The gameplay I saw had flashes of those ideas, but it was definitely dominated by more traditional shooter action. It didn't seem quite as rigid in its cinematic ambitions as the past few Battlefield campaigns have been, but there was plenty of straight-up action. I want to believe Visceral when it says it wants to focus on what makes a police story different from a military story, but I'll need to see more of the campaign before I get on board with any of those promises.
Still, though, it's nice to see Battlefield move in a new direction. It already looks like Visceral has what it takes to pull off a compelling multiplayer experience. Now we just have to see if it can do what DICE has struggled to do over the past few years by delivering a great Battlefield story campaign.