Broken glass and the corpses of armed bodyguards litter a drug kingpin’s swanky pool house. Amid all the carnage, Nick Mendoza glances at his former partner and quips, “Well, at least we won’t have a lot of paperwork to do later.”
Such is the callousness of Mendoza, the Miami detective-turned-escaped-convict who ranks as the closest thing to a hero in Battlefield Hardline. Its writers have said the story was inspired by the hard-boiled crime fiction of Elmore Leonard, the self-described “poet laureate of wild assholes with guns,” whose novels always luxuriated in profane con men and wise guys. It shows. Crooked cops, self-interested criminals, and corrupt politicians and journalists all pollute the power structures of Hardline’s Miami like the slimy gunk that coats the surface of the swamps you boat through in an early level. It’s the equivalent of the autobiographical screenplay written by a skeevy loan shark in Leonard’s Get Shorty. In the book, B-movie producer Harry Zimm takes one read of the script and dismisses it. “There’s nobody to sympathize with. Who’s the good guy? You don’t have one.”
Zimm isn’t the only one demanding the existence of good guys. EA’s decision to paint its entire fictional world of cops and criminals in a similar shade of murky gray comes at a discomfiting cultural moment—a moment when our politico-media complex often casts police and lawbreakers through a prism of absolute good or evil. Controversial events in real-life (the troubling deaths of African-American men in Ferguson and New York City) and questionable depictions in media (like the portrayal of Chris Kyle in American Sniper) have sparked an intense debate among the chattering classes on the moral nature of our men and women in uniform.
Here’s what Battlefield Hardline adds to this national conversation: nothing. The nuance in the story is not an act of bravery, but an accidental result of leaping out of the way of controversy and statement-making. Hardline so desperately wants to avoid any association with real-life that it frames the game to resemble a serialized television show—complete with a slick opening credits sequence and “previously on” and “next on” montages. It serves as another layer of distance between us and the action. You’re not playing as cops in a video game, see, you’re playing as actors in a cop drama inside a video game. On top of that, the TV show it emulates isn’t, say, The Wire but a contemporary Miami Vice minus the white blazers and New Wave soundtrack. The two share the south Florida setting and also a love for gratuitous shootouts and an attitude of cynical cool bordering on nihilism.
The early part of the story follows Mendoza and his partner Khai as they traipse through shady warehouses and marshy wetlands to the top of a distribution ring dealing a new drug called Hot Shot. It’s not an easy task, as each new lead in the investigation comes with dozens of trigger-happy armed men. You’re free to shoot them with an array of weaponry, but the game nudges you toward arresting them with the promise of bonus points and new guns and accessories as a reward for non-lethal takedowns. (How’s that for irony? Good job not killing that guy. Now, here’s a new tool for killing guys!) It adds much-needed variety to encounters—forcing you to make strategic decisions about the best way to approach a guarded outpost—but it doesn’t draw the player closer to anything resembling real police work. Pursuing arrests over assassinations just turns Mendoza into a half-assed ninja who sneaks around and uses handcuffs as a tool of incapacitation instead of nunchucks.
Loyalties and roles twist and turn until it’s hard to tell the difference between police and the policed. No one is completely clean. Mendoza is double-crossed by rogue cops halfway through the game and loses both his badge and freedom. He busts out of custody with the help of an ex-con and teams up with a ragtag group of semi-sympathetic criminals (“Boomer,” we learn, can’t get an honest job because of his spotty military record) to take down the less-sympathetic criminals—the masterminds behind the drug trade and the police department’s corruption. The pretense of protecting and serving fades away as Mendoza and crew’s motivation becomes a personal revenge fantasy and the body count increases. You can almost feel Hardline trying to shake off the shackles of its contrived police procedural structure.
But that straitjacket doesn’t come off completely until you switch to the multiplayer half of the game. This is Hardline at its best, when it accepts its own limits and doesn’t feign an interactive version of cop drama. These are the competitive team shoot-outs of Battlefield past—dressed up in blue uniforms and plainclothes instead of military fatigues—but with more compact maps and well-designed tweaks. The best addition is “Hotwire” mode, which turns the conventional “capture and hold a point” multiplayer setup on its head by choosing cars as the objectives. The only way to score points is for a team to drive like Keanu Reeves in Speed, cruising designated vehicles at a high speed for several seconds without slowing down. “Hotwire” is crafted in a way that continuously funnels players toward thrilling car chases and high-speed shoot-outs. There is no real sense of cops and robbers roles here, no moral calculation, just two equal teams indiscriminately shooting each other for points.
Some cultural critics have condemned Battlefield Hardline as distasteful entertainment. Against the backdrop of Ferguson, as the argument goes, inhabiting the role of a militarized police force that shoots (or handcuffs) first and asks questions later is troubling. But that’s giving this ridiculous fantasy more power and credit than it deserves. At its core, Hardline dodges the burden of social responsibility—reflecting contemporary law enforcement about as much as The Walking Dead realistically portrays life in rural Georgia. It borrows the cops and robbers theme and wears it like a cheap costume at a theme party. Battlefield Hardline doesn’t want to be a hero. It wants to be a toy. And despite what Harry Zimm might think, that’s okay.
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: Xbox One