In a real way, Battlefield Hardline is nothing new. It’s just one more story about police.
As a culture, we tell lots of stories about law enforcement. We report on heroic sacrifices and institutional failure. We watch movies and TV shows where detectives battle personal demons and political enemies. We play games starring super cops and amoral investigators. Crime fiction is filled with sharp sleuthing and violent interrogation. These stories—both fact and fiction—do not mesh together neatly. Or to the degree that they do, they paint the most complicated picture. I have to at once hold in my mind the killing of over 75 unarmed, black men and women by police along with my memory of the burial of Delmar. Delmar from round the way. One of many black officers on his force. Delmar, the good dad. Delmar who looked out for folks. His brother, his kids, in tears.
But, also: Over 75 dead.
Why do we tell stories about police? Or, considered more productively: What work might “police stories” do for us personally and socially? Core to every police story is their position as exceptional. I don’t mean that as a superlative: I mean that police act in ways we are denied. They speed down highways. They can intervene where social mores (and fears) keep us quiet. They wield the force of legitimized violence.
At the core of many police stories, then, is something both aspirational and managerial: What sort of person deserves that power? How should it be used? What do we wish we could do—or flipped, what do we wish the police would stop doing? Sometimes that answer is material: A safer neighborhood; an old injustice brought to light; the end to the absurd and costly war on drugs. Sometimes the answer is more fantastic, more explosive: The libidinal freedom of Fastlane’s Bill Belamy leaping onto a car, Desert Eagles blaring violence.
But we need to be more specific. To identify what work a particular police story does, we’d need to look not only at content but at context, too. It would be easy to understand LA Noire only as a game about post-war, 1950s America. But understood in the context of its release, you can just as well read it as a game about post-war, 2010s America. The dry proceduralism of the Police Quest games emerged alongside computers that could represent the idealized, binary rules of “good” police work. And I still haven’t figured out what to think of the EuroSim-style Policing games—but there’s something there, right?
And so Battlefield Hardline speaks to our context, too (whether or not that’s what the developers would like). It speaks a politics even as it flails in the single player campaign, desperate to avoid saying anything about the dead black boy on the pavement—about 75 unarmed black bodies on the ground. It flails in the multiplayer, eager to wave aside any critiques of police militarization. It flails and flails and flails. And the flailing is the message.
Of course, the most charitable thing to do is to take Hardline on its own terms. Those terms are clear before Hardline’s campaign mode even starts. Called “Episodes,” the single-player portion of Hardline is modeled after the character-driven police procedurals of American network TV. It sells this over and over with a plethora of structural and aesthetic qualities: An opening credits sequence that rivals whichever of the four iterations of CSI you prefer; wide-angle transitional shots of cities moving at high speeds; “next time” and “previously on” whenever you quit out of or load into an episode; an inter-mission stats screen that feels lifted from Netflix’s interface. But while Hardline’s single player campaign manages to adopt some of TV’s most familiar elements, it never really knows which sort of TV it wants to be.
“Episodes” kicks off with former Miami cop Nick Mendoza sporting an orange jumpsuit, on his way to prison, before jumping back three years to deliver the “how he got here.” (Again: very television.) This story is rolled out over the course of the first five episodes, and during those missions Hardline apes “serious” cop dramas to varying levels of success. Mendoza (the player character) and his partner, Khai, prowl through low-rise projects, stomp through Everglade swamps, and investigate warehouse after warehouse while rooting out the source of a new drug that’s flooding the streets (and adjacent to that, a corrupt cop.)
Hardline is at its best when it’s leveraging its Gulf Coast setting, evoking the eerie (and beautiful) wide-shots used by True Detective. A waving palm tree. The overrun ruins of abandoned wetlands infrastructure. A distant plane overhead and a swarm of little bugs in the foreground. Quiet steps through the outdoor mall, soaked in neon and rain as a hurricane pounds down from above. These moments felt atmospheric not only because they’re well crafted, but also because Hardline’s “investigation” mechanic made me slowly move through these places. Investigation is, itself, empty: Press R1 to hold up your camera and locate glowing green items in the environment. But the slow pace encourages you to linger, and lingering feels unique in this class of game.
Unfortunately, Visceral didn’t only want to make True Detective, they also wanted to capture the punchy-witticisms and grey morality of Justified. But while Hardline’s principal digital actors all deliver their lines well, and though their character models emote with nuance, the writing just doesn’t hold up. Plot and characterization are often confused and rushed. There is, for instance, a lot made of Mendoza’s relationship with his ex-partner, but the whole of that relationship is depicted in the game’s 20 minute long prologue. Bad guys telegraph their evil from a mile away, and no twist comes unexpected. This isn’t Justified, it’s a canceled CBS drama that you can’t quite remember the name of.
And it doesn’t stop there: in the second half of “Episodes,” Hardline steps away from Cop Drama all together. Mendoza joins a rag-tag group that takes aim at the real bad guys! It’s only in this second half of the game that Hardline seems to settle into the regular rhythm of network TV. Each mission connects to the larger story, but also feels like the warm (if empty) “filler” content that makes up the majority of shows like Criminal Minds. The writing also shifts: Gone are the lingering moments in the car with someone you can’t quite trust. They’ve been replaced by a snarky black friend and a smarmy white ex-con. These episodes even take on the “torn from the headlines” approach: One episode features a Rush-Limbaugh-Meets-Cliven-Bundy right wing extremist who I could swear I’ve seen on an episode of The Mentalist.
“Episodes” is tied together with combat that owes more to other popular first person shooters than to network TV. While Hardline takes cues from previous Battlefield games and Call of Duty, it mostly reminds me of the later games in the Crysis series. Most missions feature long levels built from little sandbox arenas. Guards patrol and chatter, and you quietly figure out the best order to take them out in (or rashly decide to go in, guns blazing). But just as it never settles on a single narrative style, Hardline also struggles to remain coherent in its combat design.
What separates this from previous Battlefield games is the introduction of a handful of mechanics meant to simulate the special motivations and techniques of policing. After all, in most cases, even TV police aren’t supposed to kill suspects. And given the context of this release, Visceral knew that they had to encourage players to be Good Cops.
It’s like this: If you sneak up on an enemy and knock ‘em out instead of shooting them, hey, good job for you! 100 “Expert Points!” And on top of the typical “left-trigger-to-aim, right-trigger-to-shoot” FPS combat, Hardline lets you tap L1 to “flash your badge” at up to three unaware enemies at once, freezing them in place and letting you cuff them. You did it! So, have 250 Expert Points for each cuffed suspect. A handful of enemies in each episode are marked as “warranted,” and if you arrest one of them, you’ll get a bonus, wow! 1000 Expert Points! Hardline’s version of policing feels less like Special Victims Unit than it does a five year old vision of gamification. And this depiction of policing doesn’t exist free-floating in the ether. We live in a world where law enforcement agencies deal with bureaucratic quotas, stat-driven mandates, and new forms of worker incentivization. More fundamentally, though, it just doesn’t work.
I spent nearly all of my time playing Hardline committed to the ideal of using “less-lethal force.” In the first four levels, I fired Mendoza’s pistol only in the times that the game absolutely required. Otherwise, I played Hardline as a sort of inverted Hotline Miami. I stalked carefully from room to room, scanned for my optimal route, and went for it. When things exploded into violence I carefully “zoned” my enemies, drawing them into the short range of my Taser so that I could knock them out instead of killing them. (Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that knocking someone out inside of a burning building is basically murder. Hey, I got Expert Points for it, so it must be good!)
At the climax of Episode 4—the open air mall, the neon signs, the hurricane force wind and rain— I noticed something. With my experience bar nearly full, I slammed a “Warranted” suspect to the ground and collected my Expert Points. But I didn’t level up. Less than halfway through the game, I’d capped out at Expert Level 15. Only then did I realize how empty this incentivization was. What do you get for unlocking expert levels? New, more lethal weapons. New scopes. A laser sight. Special, more deadly slugs for your shotgun. I couldn’t add a scope to my Taser. I couldn’t unlock new ways of safely apprehending suspects. Being “Good Police” only offered me new ways to be the worst sort of police. And that wasn’t the end of it.
I realized that time and again, the game had acted as if I’d been gunning folks down when I wasn’t. Even when I carefully and cautiously arrested every single enemy in a level, Mendoza would sprint into a cut-scene, out of breath and covered in sweat from a gunfight that never happened. “Jesus Nick,” one character said, “Nice shooting. I’m officially scared of you.”
I stomped back up to the starting point of the fourth episode, the top floor of a parking garage. I reached into the trunk and pulled out the AWM Sniper Bolt Action Rifle (Expert Level 15), suppressor (Expert Level 13) attached. I ditched the little revolver for a Tec-9 Machine Pistol (Expert Level 11). I switched the Taser and Armored Vest out for remote-controlled breaching charges and laser tripmines (both Expert Level 9).
I went to town. I danced around the level as lightning cracked and the wind lifted signage off the walls. I ducked behind one of those SUVs that malls raffle off sometimes, and a suspect lit it up with an incendiary grenade. It glowed so bright, little strings of white and purple and orange in the rain. It was beautiful and it was dynamic and it was fun—it was so much more fun than the stealth game I’d been playing.
As it turns out, you can’t simply layer a set of new systems over old ones and expect something meaningful or consistent to emerge. No amount of external incentivization (not least of all this sort of incentivization) could counter the fact that Battlefield Hardline is a game built for lethal violence. At one point, a character in the second half of the game jokes about the benefits of leaving law enforcement behind: “Well at least we won’t have to fill out a bunch of paperwork later.” But you never had to. There’s never been any disincentivization for violence in Hardline. There’s only been the most limited encouragement imaginable to keep your weapon holstered. Only bonus points.
Bonus points aren’t enough. We don’t expect the police to arrest people instead of shooting them so that they’ll get bonus points. We expect them to arrest suspects because, however cynical we might be, we generally hold out the hope that someone who seems guilty could, maybe, be innocent. Tamir Rice. The best of us believe that even folks who have (allegedly) committed petty crimes deserves the chance to live healthy, productive lives. Mike Brown. We tell stories about “proper” use of legitimized police violence because the very notion that they might use it wrongly—that they might murder someone in broad daylight as he begs for help, as he begs for air—is so devastating, so terrible, that we can’t bear to confront it alone.
75 unarmed black bodies in the street.
For many players of Battlefield Hardline, none of this matters. Not only because they’re uninterested in this sort of critique, but also because they primarily play Battlefield as a multiplayer game. But Hardline stumbles even here. Just as Visceral tried to layer an “arrest” mechanic over its single-player shooter campaign, their attempt to transform Battlefield into “cops vs robbers” relies on the most superficial of changes.
The center piece is a set of new competitive modes: Heist charges the “Criminal” players with breaking into a fortified position stealing loot; Blood Money tasks both cops and criminals with recovering a centralized stack of cash; Hot Wire is king-of-the-hill, except the hills are high speed cars and explosive fuel trucks. These add to a litany of other, more traditional competitive FPS modes like VIP, Hostage Protection and Battlefield-standard Conquest.
I admit that I wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow if these modes popped up in a Battlefield 4 expansion. But here, they feel wrong for one big reason. Whereas Battlefield 4’s multiplayer conflicts between the US, China and Russia reflect on open war between nearly-matched factions, the “cops vs robbers” premise of Hardline demands (and fails to deliver) asymmetry. Whether in reality or in fiction, criminals rarely engage in sprawling 32 vs 32 shootouts with police. They cower in small rooms and struggle to maintain spatial and logistical control. They leverage the ethical motivations of police and civilians to maintain an advantage. And in 2015, criminals simply don’t have the firepower or hardware that police have gained access to via post-war military runoff.
From a design standpoint, this is a huge dropped ball. What makes the Payday series interesting is the asymmetry: You and your friends have time, hostages, a plan and little else. This is also true for competitive game Due Process (and, one can hope, it will also be true for the upcoming Rainbow Six: Siege.)
There is a second, more political problem with this depiction of symmetrical conflict between police and criminals, though. It contributes to this persistent fantasy that the police live under siege, when in fact it has never been safer to be in law enforcement. This notion is not cordoned off to the multiplayer, either. It runs through Hardline from top to bottom. As the full breadth of the single player plot comes into view, two characters voice their concern about the impending drug war: “Whoever wins is going to end up with a lot of money and a lot of guns” … “Yeah, and then they’re gonna come after us. It’ll be the ‘80s all over again.” And this fear is all they need to make the pre-emptive decision to pull the rifles out.
The creative team on Hardline did not set their sights high. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Tom Bissell, co-writer of Hardline (and well-established games critic), who told Gamespot that “Shooters are not stately; shooters are narrative rosaries strung with beads of pure chaos. Videogames are at their storytelling best when they introduce you to memorable people and give you memorable things to do.” Hardline does this. I’ll remember that mall in the rain. I won’t forget the ambient yawn of the Everglades. There were even a couple of jokes that’ll stick with me. So if we are to be charitable, if we do take Hardline on its own terms, it succeeds.
But why should we?
The cop shows Hardline apes all reach beyond “pure chaos.” Why can’t Hardline? Why don’t we expect more?
Those shows work because they leverage multiple characters. They have B plots. Side stories. This is true of even the schlockiest CBS crime show. The best cop fiction goes even further by situating character drama in narratives that put the systemic, institutional and psychological causes of crime (and often, of police brutality) at the forefront. These stories build worlds that are complicated, that run on a mix of structural motivations and immaterial pressures. But in Hardline we never leave the perspective of Mendoza except for when we play multiplayer, where Mendoza’s great fear of a war-on-cops comes true. In Hardline we only see criminals with AKs in hand. We never see what moves someone to crime. No amount of “thug chatter” can fix this.
Worse, in Hardline the “big bads” are the safest sort of conspiratorial villain. I understand how this might seem almost progressive (”The real bad guy isn’t the gangsters, it’s the corrupt cop!”) But conspiracy theory like this is reactionary. It is a promise that everything is fundamentally alright. It tells us that if we can only prune the wild edges our garden will be fine.
Our garden is not fine.
At one point, that Limbaugh stand-in (with his radio-perfect drawl) addresses your funny, black sidekick. “Race is not a factor here,” he says, so sure of himself. So anxious to cut off any critique. “My dislike of you is strictly personal.” As if he knows his own heart so well. As if to say “I am not broken in the way you think I am.” But he is. And so is Hardline.
You can’t shoot institutional racism to death. There’s no door that you can kick down to erase the increasing militarization of police forces. What kills unarmed folks isn’t a mustache twirling villain, it’s the strange tightening in an officer’s chest when he sees a big, black boy. Police corruption is more than an individual instance of framing an innocent civilian, it’s the slow transformation of a neighborhood into a revenue source. There are ways to tackle these issues in a game. There are even ways to tackle it with “memorable people and memorable things to do.” And I think Bissell and co. know this. In its final moments, Hardline tries hard to swing back in the other direction. But it’s too little, too late.
Folks have said that Battlefield Hardline doesn’t say anything about the history of police violence and excessive force. I disagree. With its conspiracy theory plot and its monologuing villains, with its absurd reload animations and its wild car-chase multiplayer, with its CBS Original Series credits sequences and it’s funny black sidekick, it’s clear that Hardline is desperate to fill the quiet. It’s afraid of an awkward silence. So afraid of letting your mind wander. It shouts and yells about multiplayer wackiness. It gives you bonus points.
And Hardline could be better. There are shades of it here, now and then. Games in general can be better. But they never will be until we raise our expectations. When even the best of us feels limited to writing “narrative rosaries strung with beads of pure chaos,” how do the least of us stand a chance?
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.