The Battlefield series has, to date at least, been faithful to the ideas that made it a hit from the start. It's the chaos of letting 64 combatants loose across a giant map, free to rip through the ocean waves in boats, or rocket to the sky in a chopper with your team-mates buckled up. And then watching them bail out, one by one, as each slowly twigs that you have absolutely no clue how to control the thing.

Win or lose, this freedom remains the rigid backbone of Battlefield Hardline's multiplayer mode - as played on PC at a recent event, and soon to be rolled out as a public beta. Despite trading its army stripes in for the police badge, the cadence of the shootouts is a familiar one, and its reward for tight team play still holds a recognisable tenor. It might be Visceral Games' first stab at developing its own entry in the series, but Hardline appears on course to retain much of DICE's groundwork.

That's not to call it a palette swap by any means. Rather, series veterans will likely gel with the moment-to-moment action right away, while its cops and robbers theme is cleverly played out across a new suite of modes. As it goes, the best distillation of Battlefield's new flavour is the Heist mode.

Based on the Bank Job map, the robbers' task here is to simply invade vaults at the city centre to extract loot, and deliver the goods to a nearby chopper. Vehicles are disabled, and in their place there are decoy options, grappling hooks, zip-lines, and even ways to brute force new paths into the building. This last part is a small event that lets you sink ventilation machines through the ceiling, helping to open the map up.

Your team's meticulous plotting ends about there though. Once the first strike lands, the ducking and covering in the city streets puts us into familiar territory. Attention shifts from any illusion of a perfect heist coming together, and once the bullet hell sets in, it never really stops until the final score screen. Michael Mann's famous Heat shoot-out is an obvious tonal touch-point here - but it's tempting to imagine how a slower, more procedural heist mode could have played out, if only for a bit longer than it does here.

Battlefield Hardline's other modes make greater use of traditional sandbox levels. Arriving next to new modes like Blood Money, Rescue and Crosshair, the open-ended form of Battlefield is perhaps brought out best with Hotwire. The new vehicle handling sticks out massively for this, a mode where criminals are tasked with hijacking cars dotted around the map, while police attempt to lock each down before the timer runs out.

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The Downtown map deteriorates the most spectacularly out of the maps we've seen so far, especially for longer matches.

It's fast, and the Downtown map makes one thing clear: going on foot is to go nowhere at all. With the map so broad and multi-layered, and with each target moving so quickly, it's not the best mode for a lone wolf scarpering across streets. Just as with Hardline's new desert map, Dustbowl, the winning tactic tends to involve squeezing as many team-mates as possible into a police SUV and sticking close to a robber's tail as they take fire.

From there, the new option to hoist yourself out of the car window for a full 360 degree view of the action makes a world of difference. Cars are considerably faster now, and the lenient handling on motorbikes shows just how much of a focus vehicles have been for Visceral as it fine-tunes the cops and robbers angle. It's not quite Need for Speed - another game built on this engine - but even in its beta state getting in a car or on a bike is a more appetising option than it was in previous games.

On that point, there's also a reprisal of the Battlefield 4's big bullet-point, levels that evolve (there is another term for this dreamed up by EA, but it's now officially banned from Eurogamer). This was a jaw-dropper for me at Battlefield 4's first E3 reveal in 2013, with entire skyscrapers crumbling to the ground as its big climax. In Hardline, the use of these triggers is more varied in scale, but in some ways more practical for opening up new escape routes, or blocking them.

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Visceral Games's experiment with the setting is a welcome one. If this works out, how about an ancient history Battlefield next?

On the one hand you get the giant, spectacular events that morph the battlefield's shape. The Downtown map has collapsing cranes ripping into the nearby skyscrapers to form fresh pathways up to their higher floors. From the perspective of a Hotwire mode player, it's rare you get to take advantage of these new routes given the focus on street-level pursuits. That said, it's a welcome twist for those embroiled in longer Conquest and Team Deathmatch games.

The Dustbowl map's trick is simpler, engulfing the town in a sandstorm past a certain point, forcing sniper play and helicopters to an abrupt standstill. On the smaller end of the scale, the Bank Job map is resculpted in a myriad of smaller ways; a zip-line laid here, a ceiling smashed through there. And to back that up is the series' Frostbite driven physics model, leaving a footprint of each exchange across each chipped car window and smashed fence.

With Battlefield Hardline's release delayed to March 19 in Europe, the extra polish seems to be paying off. It's as massive and chaotic as a Battlefield game should be, but knows when to rein in the scale to benefit its new theme. And of course, you can judge for yourself soon enough, with a multiplayer beta rolling out tomorrow across all formats, both old and new.

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About the author

Thomas Morgan

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.