Saturday, 14 February 2015

Battlefield Hardline

Battlefield Hardline

The handcuffs are off as the cops-and-robbers shooter comes to Xbox – and we’ve gone hands-on with the beta

Balancing a game of cops and robbers can’t be easy – not with all those doughnuts those police officers keep stuffing down their throats, right guys? – which is one of the reasons why Battlefield Hardline’s release date slipped from last November to this March.

After gauging feedback from a multiplayer beta test on PC and PS4 last summer, the decision was made to delay the game so Visceral could make some further balancing tweaks. By the time you read this, the second (and hopefully final) multiplayer beta, which began 3 February, will be in full swing – and this time Xbox owners are invited to the party.

Three maps are playable in the beta, and it is on one of these – Downtown, a sprawling urban grid decorated with skyscrapers and multi-storey car parks – that we discover how Visceral has come through with its promise of delivering quicker engagement with the enemy, without sacrificing either scale or tactical freedom.

We’re playing Hotwire, a mode that, ostensibly, has the same rules as stalwart game mode Conquest. That is to say, the objective is to claim set points on the map and hold on to them, draining the opposing game of tickets. Except this time, one of the points is hurtling towards us at 200 miles per hour, into our legs and crushing us against a concrete wall.

Battlefield Hardline

The ‘points’ are souped-up cars and lorries, and the objective is to reach them, hotwire them (or ‘take control’, if you’re playing on the blue side of the law) and then drive them at high speed in order to suck tickets from the other team’s cache like some kind of smokebelching succubus. What at first seems like an absurdly tacky reimagining of classic Conquest (which is also playable in the beta) soon gives way to rich cerebral warfare, as you learn just how difficult it is to take down a hotwired car in full flight and just how much teamwork is involved in clawing back a ticket deficit.

The obvious way to take down a car, of course, would be a heavy weapon such as an RPG. Visceral grew wise to players overusing them during the first beta, so now heavy weapons are few and far between – limited to a few prized pick-ups scattered across the map, often in murky car park corners. While they’re worth pursuing, for the most part the best tactic is to commandeer a vehicle (you can spawn with muscle cars, bikes, sedans or, if you think you can tame it, a helicopter) and cajole a few teammates to hop in and act as your artillery, transforming your standard roadworthy vehicle into an all-round offensive terror.

But you’ll struggle to bring down a target without backup, not least because these maps are built for the chase. Downtown in particular begs for pedal to hit metal – its cramped interiors are enveloped in a network of criss-crossing roads that allow fleeing cars to loop round the map in elaborate circuits.

Battlefield Hardline

If you’re struggling to bring your target to justice, you could always try levelling the playing field. Literally. Battlefield 4’s ‘Levolution’ feature – which enables you to trigger catastrophic events that change the landscape of the map in dramatic ways – returns, here in the form of a construction crane that can be smashed into a row of buildings, causing devastation and breaking up the road layout.

Other Levolution events are more organic – such as the howling, blinding sandstorm that kicks into gear as matches on the desertscape Dust Bowl map approach their conclusion. The storm turns a map famed for its long sightlines on its head, letting infantry make their move without fear of their brains getting sniped out. A vast, sprawling map littered with niggly buildings, there’s plenty of cover for foot soldiers but plenty of scenery for cars to get snagged on too, so players who’ve bagged a target are well advised to vacate to the hilly, dusky exterior of the map, where they can hit top speeds, but with the trade-off that there isn’t much cover from choppers.

Dust Bowl is purpose-built for Conquest and Hotwire games, and manages the trick of feeling ‘right’ for both. But other match types, such as Heist, require their own levels. And so we have Bank Job, an urban map with a fairly self-explanatory theme. It’s a compact map that crams in a little bit of everything – the bank itself is framed by wideopen pavements with long sightlines that converge into chokepoints. Inside, mazy office spaces give ample room for camping, and a stairway overlooking the main entrance gives dastardly players a lookout from which they can dropkick grenades onto unsuspecting enemies.

Battlefield Hardline

Heist is an altogether more energetic, twitchy affair, with players typically engaging at shorter ranges. Again, the benefit of a beta shines through with the mode’s balancing. Previously, the criminal team were making short work of breaking into the vault and scampering to the extraction zone. In this updated version, they now have to hunker down and defend the zone until the ’copter arrives to whisk them away – a ’copter that can be shot down, if the police have their act together.

Hardline is an almost unnecessarily bold reinvention of one of Xbox’s most universally loved multiplayer first-person shooters (when the servers are working, that is). It’s faster and louder and more hip-hop-y and – dare we say – more gimmicky. But, after an initial ‘huh?’ period, we have to say it works. While we wouldn’t flush that copy of Battlefield 4 down the toilet just yet, Visceral, in its full Battlefield debut no less, has crafted something very different, yet something that manages to encapsulate what it is that makes Battlefield the thinking gamer’s Call of Duty. Now, if only all of this beta testing can translate into servers that work from day one… Alex Dale