Last year, Call of Duty: Ghosts tried to get us excited about a dog. This year, Battlefield Hardline is trying to get us excited by throwing in a bit of, well, Dog Day Afternoon. Developer Visceral Games is adamant that this isn't the Battlefield you're used to, because it's shifting its focus from saving-the-world military battles to tense skirmishes in familiar settings.
"The soldier fantasy is a little bit more about engaging at a distance," says creative director Ian Milham, speaking to us just before we get to play the game at EA's Redwood City HQ. "It's about calling in close air-support [and] all sorts of flanking tactics. It's just different. The feel of the cops-and-criminals fantasy is a little more personal. The sides talk to each other. 'You'll never get me alive!' 'Put that gun down!'"
While Milham is a fan of the multiplayer shooter genre, he says he's become tired of the po-faced mood of the genre over the years. "The tone seemed to be going really serious," he says. "Really grim and self-important. That's when we started talking about this cops and robbers thing - a story and a tone and a type of a world that was more based on fantasy fulfilment.
"I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be a cop who doesn't play by the rules. I want to get yelled at by my captain. I want to use the word 'perp!' As a criminal, I don't want to take over the world - I want to rob banks! I want to have heists! I want to have cool getaways!" He stops short of saying he wants to be Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, but we all know he's thinking it. It's okay though: we're all thinking it too.
Coupled with a brief trailer showing high-speed chases and tense shootouts, this looks like it could be the Battlefield for people who aren't normally drawn to Battlefield.
Based on my handful of hours with Battlefield Hardline, however, it is not quite the game Milham describes.
Instead, this very much feels like Battlefield as you know it. All talk of a more 'personal' experience is thrown out the window when it supports teams of 32 a side (though it's possible some unannounced modes may be built around smaller groups). Series fans may be fine with this, but it doesn't really gel with the reinvention Milham is projecting. Meanwhile, the two multiplayer modes we know about so far, Heist and Blood Money, don't seem to do much beyond tweaking Capture the Flag.
The promisingly titled Heist simply tasks criminals with stealing one of two suitcases of money and taking them back to extraction points. There's no sending one person in to retrieve a password, while another holds off hostages near a safe, while another creates a diversion for the heat. Instead there's a lot of shooting. And more shooting. I get that it's a first-person shooter, but these heists just revolve around alerts telling you "the enemy has picked up the package" or "the enemy has dropped the package", which is hardly the sort of tactical thievery envisioned by The Dark Knight or Heat, which Papoutsis cites as inspirations. It's 2014, but this cops-and-robbers scenario feels undercooked compared to the likes of Grand Theft Auto 5, Payday, Monoco and even the decade-old Sly Cooper 2: Band of Thieves.
Blood Money is only a slight variation. This mode places three stashes of cash in the city, while two teams are tasked with capturing as much loot as they can and then transporting it to their vault. The catch is that your vault can be stolen from as well, and fallen foes leave their lucre behind, ripe for the taking. It's a mad, mad riff off CTF and chaotic enough to support a large quantity of players, but it's hardly revolutionary.
With relatively pedestrian game modes, one expects Hardline's toolkits and stylistic flourishes to do the heavy lifting, but Hardline doesn't seem to be pushing this all that hard - at least not in multiplayer. The dialogue is serviceable but never memorable. "That's a goddamned cop!" "No f***ing way, cop!" Etc. Milham says he wants to get away from the overly morose, vaguely sci-fi direction that the genre has gravitated towards, but this crime caper bears none of the light-hearted whimsy of Dog Day Afternoon's opening act or something like Ocean's Eleven. There's nothing wrong with playing things serious, of course, but the change from military garbs to street clothes and police uniforms needs to be pronounced to feel convincing, and it isn't yet.
Even the shift to a more familiar environment feels unconvincing - and if anything highlights the disparity between Visceral's French Connection-esque vision and the reality of what Battlefield already is. The downtown LA map we play on looks like Los Angeles, but it certainly doesn't feel like the City of Angels. This is largely because it's completely devoid of pedestrians and traffic. There are plenty of parked cars, but this only rubs in the shallowness of the environment, where 90 per cent of the vehicles littering the streets can't be controlled. Cops don't have access to just any police car, for example - if a vehicle isn't represented on the mini-map, then it isn't really a vehicle.
Changing tack, Visceral vice president Steve Papoutsis tells Eurogamer afterwards that one of the things the studio hopes to bring to the series is accessibility."We realise there are a lot of people that play Battlefield that are extremely passionate about it, but then there's this whole other contingent that maybe are overwhelmed by the size of it and the scope of it," he explains. "I've been in matches where some people maybe aren't that nice if you're not always on the ball. I'm sure a lot of us have had that experience of, 'I'll try flying the helicopter,' and then you crash and everyone's calling you a noob and making fun of you. That's not a fun experience."
It's funny he mentions that, because I am a good test subject for this sort of thing. I understand the series well enough, but I am not a regular Battlefield player and I get to play Hardline with a bunch of YouTubers who clearly know what they are doing. In this setting, I'm not sure I find it all that welcoming or intuitive, although at least my colleagues are polite enough not to mock my regular failures.
With that said, while it's not as welcoming to rookies as something like Titanfall (which gets around the issue by peppering the maps with dimwitted cannon fodder drones), Hardline does make some noticeable efforts. Papoutsis notes that the loadout progression system is less linear than in previous titles - you can buy whatever you like with the cash secured during rounds, which is a sensible way of tying the game's theme, currency and experience to one central core. Some actions have been simplified too. For example, medics can now heal a colleague with a med-pack, rather than go through the rigmarole of dropping it and waiting for the injured ally to pick it up and use it.
"What we want to do is make sure the veteran players are being rewarded by trying to be super skilful, but the new people that come in can have a fun experience and kind of see how they're progressing," Papoutsis explains. "So we've added some things at the end-of-round screen that really focuses on what you're doing, so it shows statistics around your play, so you can kind of measure yourself against yourself instead of seeing that big, giant scoreboard and seeing your name at the bottom."How a tiny studio invented Diablo, and the action RPG 'All the technology we built was based on a single screen grab from X-Com.'
I still find some joy in Hardline, although for me this often comes from hilarious screw-ups. My favourite tale involves following a squad-mate to the top of a skyscraper. The roof hosts a helicopter and zipline to descend from. I attempt to take the zipline down, but must be standing a centimetre off the context-sensitive prompt, because the next thing I know I'm in a chopper. Whoops! Little do I know that my compatriot just started piloting the helicopter and so upon trying to exit the craft and get back on the roof, I instead plummet to my death. Maybe I'm just accident-prone in this world. It's a backhanded compliment that my favourite moment with Hardline came from losing, but maybe that's the mark of a good game.
So is Battlefield Hardline fun? Personally I find the large teams and lifeless settings a little inconsistent with the pitch, although perhaps other elements of the game will stand up for that feeling of personal, close-quarters cops-and-robbers combat in a way my Heist and Blood Money experiences have not. It's also worth noting that I only got to play the game for a couple of hours with strangers, so prolonged exposure is needed to draw proper conclusions. For the time being, though, this feels like a solid Battlefield game, but the winning concept at the heart of it feels like it's holed up somewhere else in a safehouse. Hopefully someone will bust it out in the months to come.
This preview is based on a press trip to EA's Redwood City offices. EA paid for travel and accommodation.