Battlefield Hardline had a tough case to make before its launch. Transplanting EA’s war FPS to a cops-and-robbers setting, the game was released in early 2015, less than a year after the events in Ferguson led to riots, looting, and, for many, what looked like the first seeds of a burgeoning police state. Hardline’s marketing didn’t do it any favors, either. The hardware and pyrotechnics of its E3 2014 trailer seemed loud and crass even before Ferguson reignited debates over abuse of police power and stricter gun control by depicting the streets of downtown Los Angeles as a warzone exploding with military-grade ordnance and collateral damage. These were supposed to be the cops? The only thing missing were tanks.
Needless to say, it felt awkward; fast forward to this year’s Battlefield 1 and its WWI setting, and the shift in tone feels like a massive gulf. 1 opens in the trenches — where else are you going to begin a WWI game — but not before a title card throws out a very unexpected description. “More than 60 million soldiers fought in the ‘War to End All Wars’,” the game states. “It ended nothing.”
Accordingly, the first level underscores the futility of the conflict as you jump from private after private, their birth date and death flashing across the screen each time you inevitably fall. Theres no way to win this segment — that’s the point — and while Battlefield 1 can only give the briefest of overviews of any one aspect of the war throughout its multi-front series of vignettes, the idea of heroism in the moment, or a good cause, is always tempered by the grimmer specter of reality. For a triple-A FPS, it neither celebrates nor revels in the hideousness of the war, and feels a bit remarkable because of it. But how exactly did we get here from Hardline?
In fairness, Battlefield Hardline is like any other shooter: It has to appeal to its multiplayer base, which means a fury of spent shells and blowing shit up. 1’s initial trailers gave me similar pause. It was unclear whether EA would take the careful, deliberate consideration and respect for the historical subject matter that would keep the game in good taste. (Thankfully, 1 has the tone and approach of a war film, where even the campaign set pieces don’t come off as contextually over the top.)
But Hardline and 1’s campaigns are not so far apart as you might think. To be frank, the formers E3 trailer — like any multiplayer-centric showcase — is not representative of what the game is. Its campaign has a definite Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys vibe, but it’s not the gleeful abandonment of law, order, and decency you might have been led to believe.
Does it have violent shootouts and car chases? Of course — it’s a video game. EA is not in the business of making Police Quest. Yet in the context of the script’s surprisingly strong dialogue-driven chops, there’s a lot of downtime, where you’re investigating crime scenes, scanning for clues. The game further incentives playing by the book, trading Battlefield 4’s Infinity Ward-style scripted action for open levels with optional stealth.
Take down goons separated from the pack and you can quietly cuff them, giving you bonus points for making arrests without stacking up corpses; if you decide to make enough noise the design seamlessly segues into an authentic FPS. There’s a touch of irony, possibly intentional, in how going in guns blazing hinders unlocking new equipment and upgrades.
Hardline’s script also has its fair share of playing fast and loose with the rules of a police officer, though it mostly gets around it by putting you in the shoes of detective reluctant to break the rules, and, later, simply by operating outside of the law entirely. For the kind of genre fiction it wants to play with, that’s fine.
And Hardline does ramp up to something more like, well, a video game as it goes on. In Visceral’s defense, that accurately matches the feel of a (perhaps pre-9/11) Hollywood cop movie; these aren’t random criminals you’re approaching with unnecessary aggression and abusive force, they’re crooks involved in a huge cross-country drug operation. Visceral forces you to buy into its narrative justification of police recklessness in a somewhat heightened, blockbuster reality — or simply turn the game off. It makes sense, no matter how much Hardline represents a quintessential snapshot of triple-A gaming in the noughties.
Battlefield 1, for its part, takes everything that was a promising idea in Hardline and improves on it. Hardline’s introduction of stealth (and to some degree the play-how-you-want freedom of a Far Cry or an MGSV) didn’t quite work — cuffed criminals on the ground went to “sleep,” a silly design compromise that it’s easy to see had to be done for any number of gameplay reasons.
In 1, the idea is recontextualized to fit the history — say, infiltrating an Ottoman Turkish camp as a lone Bedouin saboteur, or quietly scouting ahead in the German forests as the rest of your British tank crew waits for the all-clear. With both games, that you’re not constantly funneled into bombastic corridor battles feels less like the obligatory spec ops glory that’s been the norm since Modern Warfare. And when you have the freedom to approach a situation quietly, which, as in Hardline, isn’t always the case, the scenarios and motivations to stay in the shadows feel well thought-out.
Still, Battlefield 1 is a much more sober and straight-laced affair, as it should be; it seems that DICE considered Hardline’s subject matter after the fact as much as it did its design. Without the former taking those first steps towards turning the wheel in a different direction — and stumbling a few times while doing it — Battlefield 1 probably wouldn’t exist. When it comes to breaking the shooter mold, it’s a welcome change.