The most amazing thing about the Battlefield Hardline beta on PC? It works. No black screens. No hard crashes. No rubber-banding. What relief after months of tussling with DICE's rarely functioning Battlefield 4. Those struggles had started to feel like features. Yet Visceral's debut in the Battlefield universe (as it will likely be called from now on) runs like clockwork, even at this stage.
Admittedly, it's only having to host one fairly small map and a pair of game modes, so all is not necessarily rosy just yet. The map here is called High Tension, an approximation of downtown Los Angeles - appropriately for E3 week - constructed around a central hub of tunnel and overpass, while towering skyscrapers peer onto the carnage below.
Despite EA's protestations that Hardline is a cops-and-robbers simulator, this is still very much the Battlefield you know and love/hate. Appropriate, given then game's name, and obviously compelling, but also off-putting to those expecting a completely new experience. Here military jeeps are replaced by cop cars (or silver sedans if you're playing as the criminals), Engineers are called Mechanics, and M-Coms are now Vaults. Squint, though, and you're back in Siege Of Shanghai.
So the casual observer might not see the difference, but what about those who've been hunkered down in DICE's trenches for the best part of a decade? Well, at this stage at least, we're looking at two new modes that don't fundamentally alter the Battlefield experience, but do offer new ways to enjoy it.
The modes, as Jeffrey explains in his Battlefield Hardline hands-on, are called Blood Money and Heist. Although the latter sounds like it should be the signature game type, conjuring up images of De Niro and Sizemore or Trevor and Michael, it's actually Bloody Money that proves the more thrilling. Here, the two teams must battle to fill their respective vaults with cash, grabbed from a central stash in the middle of the map.
What could be a very simple capture the flag variant actually mutates into something far more organic and tactical. For starters, any player that reaches the central stash has to decide how much money they're going to nick. The classic circular progress bar rotates for every 100K you snatch. Hang around too long and you might get away with a lot of money, but chances are someone is going to find you and put a bullet in your head.
Once you've grabbed the money, you scoot back to your vault, the location of which is only revealed once you've grabbed some cash. Take the money to the vault and it's deposited. The team who reaches a financial benchmark first wins. Brilliantly, though, as well as stealing cash from players you've killed, you can also plan daring raids on the enemy vault (only revealed once you've actually stumbled across it), robbing their money and trying to bring it back to your base.
Clever squads will react to the ever-changing flow of a match - one vault raid can turn certain defeat into victory. Even in the brief beta window, players were already figuring out smart ways to approach each cash-grab. One favourite is sending a sniper to the top of a skyscraper and having him protect the central stash while his team makes small runs in and out. Another match saw a crew speed up to the enemy vault on police bikes, clear out the stragglers with ruthless efficiency (including, embarrassingly, myself) and speeding off with the lot, winning the match in the process.
Unlike Blood Money, a mode that offers an easy-to-grasp central idea and expands upon it in excellent ways, Heist currently feels a little undercooked. The 'heist' is a bit of a misnomer - in that the vaults the criminals are trying to crack are located in the open and always in the same place. The match starts off with two secure vans tumbling into the street; the criminals quickly try to blow the doors off while the police scramble to stop them. Should the crims get the 'loot', they then speed off to a drop-off point (typically on a skyscraper roof). The police, then, must try to stop them and then stand near the loot until it's reset. This immediately shatters the fiction - surely the 'loot' would then be under police control? The reset might make more sense from a gameplay point of view, but it damages the cops-and-robbers fantasy.
The main issue with Heist, as it stands, is its relative paucity. The battles over the initial vaults are classic Battlefield - classes working together, protracted firefights, exploding vehicles - but the chases that follow are just too short. High Tension is very small for a Battlefield map, and despite the trailers' chopped-up clips of police chases through the city streets, most of these pursuits happen on foot, if at all.
It's still an excellent Battlefield game type, but what should be the go-to concept for Hardline just serves to highlight its limitations. Not only are there none of Payday 2's more complicated interactions, there just isn't the space for an epic GTA-style chase. Of course, other maps might serve Heist better and High Tension could always be extended, but I clearly had more enjoyable matches playing Blood Money.
Visceral is promising all manner of modes, some of which will hopefully lower the player count - 32 combatants makes for a very hectic and explosive scrap that undermines the potential subtlety and craft of a criminal endeavour. At least we can enjoy the new equipment it has stuffed into the beta; grappling hooks and ziplines unlocked not through levelling, but through cash earned in-game. It's an interesting twist on Battlefield's traditional grind and presumably streamlined for the beta, but it's great to know that taking a few weeks off playing doesn't necessarily leave you straggling behind the community as they play around with high-level gear.
Hardline is most certainly a Battlefield game then, but that shouldn't necessarily deter you. Already we have a truly excellent new game mode and the renewed focus on gun-on-gun combat (there are no tanks and only one chopper per team) makes for a different flow from a Battlefield 4 match - especially as Hardline doesn't feel the need to boot you to a blue screen whenever it fancies it.
Battlefield, more so than its FPS peers, is all about moments: the unscripted, unexpected and sometimes unbelievable collisions of vehicles, soldiers and weapons, creating a kind of chaotic harmony. Hardline maintains this and adds to it in small but exciting ways, and for many, that's all it needs to do. Apart from work. It really does need to work.