It's hard to really understand EA's Battlefield reveals. When DICE, once revered as the kings of multiplayer before all that messiness with Battlefield 4, make a new game, it's the lacklustre single-player that's always first sent blinking into the wider world. When Visceral, the studio that cut its teeth in the savage single-player adventures of Dead Space, steps into the fray, it's the multiplayer that we see first. Surely they've got that the wrong way round?
Still, the Battlefield Hardline beta that accompanied the announcement of the game this summer at least proved Visceral knew what it was doing when it came to throwing together 64 players in expansive, toy-filled maps and then asking them to have fun with guns. It needed a little longer in the oven, yes, but that lovely Andrew Wilson at EA was apparently kind enough to let Visceral back in the kitchen as they pushed the release date back to March next year.
In the meantime we've had the chance to get a proper play of Hardline's single-player, and it's looking pretty good. An improvement on DICE's efforts, for sure, and a spin on the well-worn first-person shooter campaign that's thankfully brought along some neat ideas of its own. A return to the headier days of the last big Battlefield offshoot, Bad Company? Quite possibly.
You start life as a cop in Battlefield: Hardline, and Visceral has fun working in elements of law enforcement between the inevitable ballistics. It makes for a fairly compelling backdrop, your first mission placing you in the storm-washed streets of an urban Miami that's full of lovely incidental details - there's a real sense of menace on each corner as you're eyeballed by the project's suspicious inhabitants. A shame it's all for nought, really, and Hardline presents a strangely sterile picture of life on the beat. You're Nick Mendoza, a young rookie cop from the wrong side of the tracks who does things his own way and oh lord why am I crying right now. This isn't The Wire, of course, but it's still hard not to be disappointed that it's a third-rate CSI.
If such opportunities are wasted by the story they're at least taken up elsewhere. There's an emphasis on non-lethal takedowns, made that little easier when you can flash your badge at a crim to freeze them on the spot. A neat little mini-game ensues when there's more than one of them in your sights, asking you to keep your sights on all parties lest they reach for their own guns and raise the volume of the encounter.
Clearing out a rundown school in Hardline's opening mission puts all this into action, and it's a smart spin on an ageing formula as you quietly clear rooms out, dealing with patrols one by one before the inevitable firefight as you await extraction. When the shooting does start, though, it's enjoyably crunchy stuff - the dynamics and audio are in line with Battlefields past, and it measures up to the series' heritage.
A later level taking place after a pivotal, quite obvious plot twist we've been told not to disclose reinforces how many options are at the player's disposal. You've got to infiltrate an office building, and thanks to gadgets made available to you in your own personal loadout there's a fair few ways to do it - silently by strapping a zipline onto the second floor, or making a more dramatic entrance through the front doors. It's nice enough having options, though they all ultimately funnel you through to the same firefight - so the illusion of choice is soon shattered.
Battlefield Hardline is at least trying a different approach to the modern first-person shooter, and were it not for the filth that swills across its Miami streets I'd go as far to say it's a breath of fresh air. It's certainly the most promising campaign since the days of Bad Company, even if it's lacking that bold sense of character - this is a po-faced, bloodless world of law enforcement that's already feeling a little bit creaky - but it's certainly a step in the right direction for EA's series.