Back in the spring, I visited Electronic Arts to look at Battlefield Hardline, the newest iteration of the company's first-person combat franchise.
EA showed me a forgettable multiplayer map, set in an American city, in which cops and robbers chased one another and shot lots of people to death.
Battlefield Hardline was basically Battlefield, the high-tech war movie, re-imagined as Battlefield the overblown cop fantasy. It was all vaguely unimpressive.
Following negative reaction to that reveal, Battlefield Hardline was delayed so developer Visceral could work on addressing some of the concerns raised by the media and the public.
"Maybe we underestimated the audience appetite for something different," says creative director Ian Milham. "We were worried about pissing off Battlefield fans. Maybe we would do something too different and they'd say, ‘this isn't Battlefield, you just put Battlefield on the box because you thought it would sell more.' We actually had the opposite reaction, where people were like, okay, it's too much like Battlefield."
A few weeks ago I visited EA again, to take another look at Hardline. Now the company is trying a new approach, showing the game in its single-player form, as a cop procedural with real characters and a gameplay focus that differs from Battlefield's high-testosterone warzone iterations.
I spent a few hours playing a game that is significantly more pleasing than the multiplayer knock-around I looked at six months ago. It is also different enough from the likes of Battlefield 4, almost to the point where I begin to wonder what the point is, exactly, of branding the game "Battlefield" at all.
Sure, it's based on the same engine. There are also opportunities for players to make use of Battlefield's "levolution" gimmick, in which the game's landscape can be changed, via explosions and such. And, yes, ultimately, you are running around in combat zones firing off weapons.
But it's in the differences where I began to find Hardline's potential for existing as more than merely a spin-off.
I played the first level, in which I am a Cuban-American male rookie on the beat with my boss, a woman cop of Vietnamese descent. (I'm not sure how, but I managed to survive the intense culture shock of playing an action game without a white male lead.)
Anyway, the cops drive around a seedy neighborhood painted with a convincing eye for detail. This is reminiscent of GTA games except this portrayal is less about mocking the world of poverty, desperation and crime, and more about seeking to capture its essence.
The two characters interact with one another and with the world around them in a way that is scripted like a gritty cop show, and not like a bad war movie. So far, we are a long way away from the meat-headed narratives of FPS gaming, and that is OK by me. There are lots of military combat games, and I enjoy playing them, when I'm in the mood. But for Hardline, I'm interested in how the fictional angle of American cops can give us something new and different.
The cops go through some narrative rigmarole of interrogating street-thugs and we learn how to disable enemies with handcuffs, which is like a melee take-down. We also have guns.
There's a bit of "press button to trigger event" nonsense but through all this, I'm enjoying exploring a noisy urban world of underclass crime and violence. Nice place to visit, wouldn't wanna live there, and all that. This is what games do well, creeping around in places we wouldn't otherwise go.
There are information gathering cop-like gadgets to play with that direct me towards the heart of the mission, adding to the sense of an investigation, rather than a straight-up military operation.
Once I get into the center of the mission, things start to get interesting. I realize, with a jolt of delight, that I'm actually playing a stealth game, and one that is pretty challenging and interesting.
My cops are not armed to the teeth with rocket-launchers and machine guns. They are in the midst of criminal gangs who are heavily armed. And so, the smart thing to do, the fun thing to do, is creep. (I'm happy because ‘creep' is like my middle name.)
"This is not, 'I've got a big machine gun, I'm gonna unload on this base of dudes from a distance,'" says Milham. "It's about moving among them. They don't know I'm here yet. You can hear them talking and they can't hear you."
When I do make a mistake and I am discovered, I find out two things. First, you can't just wait in a cupboard and hope that the villains will forget about you. Once you are seen, you stay seen. Second, my weapons are not so useless that this game can entirely be categorized as stealth. I can shoot my way out of trouble, but only if I am smart. It turns out that there are a variety of winning strategies, including full front attacks, though they are not the easiest, at least not for me and my wonky gun skills.
Later in the game, I play as a criminal who is looking to get inside a heavily guarded office block to steal something or other. There are multiple ways into the building and there are vantage points from which I can formulate best strategies. This is what I like about cop games. You might recall SWAT 4 from a few years ago, in which players undertook missions in which the point was to win without killing people. Hardline is a little more gung-ho; you can play with only a passing nod to the notion of stealth, but that seems like missing the point.
What I enjoyed about my demo was not just shooting, it was also not-shooting. "We try to balance it," says Milham. "The person who enjoys a straight shooter experience can definitely play the whole game as a straight shooter experience. But the average difficulty, compared to a game that only offers the shooter experience, is going to be harder. Hopefully a mix is somewhere a lot of people end up."
Although I've only seen two sections of the game, it's pretty clear this title includes a much greater emphasis on character development, dialog and plot than in most first-person shooter games. This may be one of the factors that helps it stand apart from run-and-gun fantasies. Visceral has repeatedly said it is taking TV cop shows as its inspiration. Again, this raises the question of that Battlefield branding, because it's obvious that the biggest lesson EA has learned is that a cop game needs to be a lot more different than a soldier game than the company first appreciated.
One of the other lessons is that creating fantasies in more familiar landscapes than foreign warzones of medieval shires or space-stations is really, really difficult.
"Everybody knows what the real world looks like," says Milham. "The bar for suspending people's disbelief and really showing something is higher. A lot of us before this made Dead Space. Nobody could tell me what the USG Ishimura really looks like. We made it up. But people can tell me what this neighborhood in Little Havana looks like, what east LA looks like.
"If the paint striping is wrong on the road, even if it's technically excellent, it just sort of clangs. How do human beings behave? That's a lot harder to do than alien behavior. All that kind of stuff. It's taken a long time to get to the level where we're at, because everybody can spot it."