Battlefield Hardline Is A Self-Aware Stealth Game

After playing two chapters of Battlefield Hardline‘s singleplayer campaign, there’s one major thing I came away with that EA isn’t telling you: this is a stealth game. Where prior Battlefield campaigns placed you smack bang in the middle of large-scale combined arms combat scenarios, Hardline’s cops-versus-criminals campaign is about smaller, quieter moments.

Sneaking into a gang hideout–a two-storey building standing beside a moderately-sized carpark–is no easy task. As a cop, you aren’t dressed to the nines with modern military hardware. Instead, you’ve got a pistol, a taser, and a badge. Oh, and unlimited coins you can throw to distract unaware enemies. This low-damage output alone promotes a slow and methodical approach which the singleplayer campaign facilitates in a way that no prior Battlefield campaign has.

You can use a scanner to mark and track enemies prior to engaging them. Enemies have alertness meters that gradually fill up if you wander into their lines of sight, giving you a chance to sneak back behind cover. Non-lethal takedowns can be performed by creeping up behind crooks, knocking them to the floor, and slapping on some handcuffs. On the minimap, each enemy displays a vision cone that you should avoid wandering into. And if you do stumble head-on into a few bad guys, you can press a button to show your badge and yell “Freeze!”, which causes them to drop their weapons so you can silently cuff them–so long as you keep your gun moving between each perp as you approach. Performing all these non-lethal, cop-like actions earns you “expert points” that unlock more equipment throughout the campaign.

But if you have to go loud, the combat scenario descends into one that will be familiar to any player of Battlefield’s prior campaigns: a loud and dirty gunfight where walls are shredded by bullets thanks to the engine’s destruction tech. In the build I played, there was no way to escape this firefight and go back into a stealth state to try my luck again. Steve Papoutsis, executive producer of Battlefield Hardline, says it’s something Visceral has already addressed:

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“We’ve got a system in place now that we’re calling ‘last known position’. There’s two things you’re encountering: one, you get detected and everybody has heat-seeking AI. They know exactly where you are and start shooting you to death. That sucks, clearly. The other thing is, you don’t feel like you have an opportunity to get away from the guys and go back to that undetected state. So we’ve put in this idea of last known position. Enemies will now track where they think you’re at.”

Though Visceral is still tuning precisely how accurately enemies will track you, the system already sounds like a welcome addition. “Let’s say you’re standing where you are right now, and that’s the last time they’ve seen you–if you can move away from that position and stay out of their line of sight for X number of seconds–they will then cool back down and go into what we’re calling their search state,” Papoutsis explains. “So rather than being totally dumb and going, ‘Oh, nobody’s around, let’s go back to playing cards’, they’re aware of you, they just don’t know where you’re at. That puts them back in that state where you can then use a freeze on them, or stealth up behind them and take them out.”

“We’re taking steps to make it less punitive,” Papoutsis continues. “What people want is for it to be stealthy, but fair. You don’t want just one little mistake–that’s not fun. It’s our goal that the majority of combat provides for non-lethal approaches. There are, maybe a handful of encounters, where you have to defend yourself. They probably account for six, seven or eight combat encounters in the game.”

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This stealth approach also plays into the narrative. The player-character, Nick Mendoza, is portrayed as a person who tries to do the right thing–not someone who goes in guns-blazing. But over the course of the story, something will happen that puts Nick on the other side of the law.

“The idea is, as you go throughout this campaign, you’re going to learn about Nick,” says Papoutsis. “Something happens that puts Nick in a compromised position, but that doesn’t change his overall outlook on things – with the exception of wanting to get revenge on the person that did a very bad thing to him. Conceptually, Nick’s behaviour pattern is ultimately dictated by you, the player. You can determine that, hey, you just want to run around and shoot everybody–that’s your choice. But if you choose to continue his progression as you saw at the beginning of the game where he is very much more of a by-the-book kind of guy, then you’re getting more opportunities to unlock more stuff to play with.”

It’s our goal that the majority of combat provides for non-lethal approaches.

Papoutsis adds that Nick’s compromised position won’t prevent him from performing cop-like actions. “You can still scan enemies and acquire points. You can still handcuff guys and take them out and acquire points–but that’s up to you to decide if you want to engage in those activities. By the middle point of the game when this happens, you will have unlocked a lot of stuff. So if you chose to say, screw it, I don’t want to do non-lethal stuff–you don’t have to. This is really up to the player. But Nick’s personality as you see it in the beginning, he’s very much trying to do the right thing.”

How you play isn’t going to change the narrative at all, but is has changed how Visceral is writing the game’s dialogue. For a series where it’s not uncommon to kill hundreds of people over the course of a singleplayer campaign, Hardline’s smaller scale means the total body count will be lower–but even then, the game needs to be aware that a large amount of people may end up dead by its conclusion.

“There was a point about six months ago where we had some lines that were just preposterous,” Papoutsis admits. “For instance, there was one line in a defence-type of sequence where Nick kills like 15 dudes, and then turns to one of the guys who goes, ‘Hey, the cops are coming,’ and Nick goes, ‘We’re not shooting any cops!’ But he just killed like 15 dudes, and now you’re worried about a cop. That’s weird.

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“We’re trying to have the game be more self-aware,” Papoutsis continues. “That’s why we’re trying to put things in place like not allowing people to do really shitty things like shooting a guy with his hands in the air. That’s just shitty; we don’t want people doing that. That’s not what the game is trying to portray. We’re not trying to make a moral statement. But at the same time, we’re trying to have the game be more self-aware. So situations like I described don’t occur. I think there are comments throughout the game where the characters will say something like, ‘Shit, what the hell are you doing?’ But it’s not an RPG where it’s reacting to every single action you do.”

Though I only played two levels of Hardline’s singleplayer campaign, its strong stealth focus, smaller scope, and self-awareness left me surprised by how much I enjoyed it. If the rest of the game follows this formula, then this will not be your standard Battlefield campaign. For me, that can only be a good thing.

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