Saturday, 28 March 2015

Whiskey Reviews: Battlefield Hardline

Info:
Platform: PC
Release Date: 20 March 2015
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Where to get it: Origin, Here
Price: £49.90 (standard edition), £59.90 (delux edition), £99.90 (ultimate edition)

Battlefield Hardline is the latest entry into the rapidly sinking ship that is the Battlefield series. But can a game on a malfunctioning engine, in a failing series, from a bad publisher actually be decent? Hit the link to find out!

From my experience with the Frostbite Engine, from Battlefield Bad Company on the Xbox 360 right up to Battlefield 4 I've always considered it a bit shit. At best the engine was barely functional, pooping out pretty graphics and smooth first-person animation but with absolutely terrible net code, the inability to be launched without the Battlelog system or Origin and optimization on par with a beta release.
Dragon Age Inquisition proved that the engine can manage single player, and it can be optimized well. Hardline changed my mind about the rest too; it's not the Frostbite engine that sucks, it's DICE as a developer. Visceral have taken something that should, by all expectations be absolutely terrible and turned it into one of the best first person shooter experiences I've had in the last couple of years.

Note: All screenshots are from the single player portion of the game, there's no graphical difference but it was easier to grab quality shots.

I'm going to have the review segmented into three parts; first I'll talk about the game as a whole, then single-player specifically and finally multiplayer.

The Whole

As I said earlier, the engine runs smoothly. On an i7 4770k and GTX780 with 16GB of RAM the game runs at 60fps or higher with all the settings cranked up to full. Visceral have done an excellent job of ensuring the engine runs smoothly even when particle effects are cranked up and physics are handling debris and vehicles the fps never takes a significant dive. Small hiccups do occur, dips of 5 or 10 frames in particularly intense scenes do happen but are quite rare.
Water and lighting effects are especially impressive on surfaces, particularly the characters. Beads of sweat look realistic and soaked clothing or water running down a face looks incredible. The lighting is also outstanding, with the glow of police equipment in a car lighting up the passengers or highlighting the visor of your gas mask.
Look carefully at the top right half of the image to see the effect I was talking about.

One complaint I have with the engine still is the sound handling. The surround effects are excellent but the actual sound processing is a bit naff, even with the preset on "War Tapes", typically the loudest and punchiest setting you're left with assault rifles that sound like a particularly lame car backfiring and in-game cars that sound like an electric lawnmower.
It's not enough to detract from the experience, but when everything else is so high quality it feels like a bit of a let down when you squeeze the trigger.

The voice acting however is outstanding, characters convey emotion  and nuance. It's so subtle and expertly acted that you can pick up on small hints on the second or third playthrough that will sail right over your head the first time around.
Helping along the voice acting is the excellent facial animation, lips match words and expressions match the tone of a scene. The flesh tone never changes, even when someone's shouting (you'd expect them to get a bit red in the face at least) but the character models manage to sell the whole thing, actually doing better than an actual cop show cast.
Above: Not a case of scoliosis, just a badly timed screencap.

Unfortunately, the uncanny valley is present with these character models. They're generally on the right side of things throughout most of the game but there's a handful of points where one will do something to remind you they're not quite right.
It's little things like lips being too angular in a smirk, or eyes that don't blink for too long combined with the realistic skin textures and high quality models that send you tumbling into the uncanny valley from time to time. Thankfully these moments pass quickly, scenes tend not to linger and the fun factor is high so you tend to shrug off the little illusion breaks and just keep moving forwards.
Preferably in a sweet ride.

Gunplay too is smooth and accurate, feeling a little more like Call Of Duty this time around. That's not an insult either, Call Of Duty has the smoothest gunplay of this style with possibly only Unreal Tournament games topping it.
Shooting is your typical affair, either off the hip via crosshair or aimed via whatever sights your boomstick has. Guns aren't one hundred percent accurate though and over medium distances you'll start to see variation in your shots, it's not insane like previous Battlefield games but rather more subtle and fair; think deviations of several inches rather than several feet, hitting someone in the arm instead of the chest.
You can also customize your arsenal, not just in multi-player but also single-player, either before missions or at weapon caches scattered throughout levels in single player. 
The attachments are fairly standard stuff, grips, sights, barrels, suppressors, etc. Being in a police setting allows you access to some nifty gadgets like gas masks, a taser or a bullet soaking armoured vest, or you could go for a grappling hook and zip line, or an ammunition box and breaching charges.
The customization isn't wild but there's a very solid selection of weapons and attachments and combinations of gear will let you approach the game in a variety of play styles, maybe you'll drop into one you're familiar with or want to experiment, either way just tuning your loadout can offer a decent amount of replayability.
Having played as a criminal I am legally obligated to call this a "gat" at least once.

Physics and destruction go hand in hand on many objects and buildings but in single player especially they can lead to confusing or annoying glitches such as a destroyed door blocking your view, or a plank of wood hovering in the air through a cutscene.
To be fair, some of these glitches can be hilarious.

Single Player

The single-player campaign may not be the meat of the package but it's a substantial offering with eleven missions, each averaging in at about three quarters of an hour to complete coupled with collectibles, challenges, an XP system and unlockables to pad out the game time to a very respectable twelve to fifteen hours to unlock everything, minimum.

For a first person shooter to offer such a large single-player mode is fairly rare, especially with the rest of the series being multi-player focused but Visceral have some tricks up their sleeve to make playing both modes worthwhile.
For starters, completing case files and finishing campaign levels will net you battlepacks for multiplayer, starting with the lowest level of pack for early missions and ramping up to the gold battlepacks for the last few missions.
Not only does this entice gamers who might not play single-player into the mode, but it also encourages finishing the whole thing, even the collectibles and case files, in order to get a sizable amount of boosts and unlocks for multi-player.

These three screenshots, tangentially related.

Gameplay in the campaign is a mix of stealth and action. A Metal Gear Solid style stealth system, with vision cones on the minimap indicating where enemies will see you, powers the whole system and getting spotted will instantly transition the gameplay into a shootout where you'll be suppressed, flanked and burned or gassed out of cover by a competent AI.

Staying in stealth however allows you a number of actions; quietly knocking people out or flashing your badge to freeze a group of enemies will allow you to arrest them, providing you can keep them from pulling a gun on you. 
Gadgets like the taser and silencer allow you to quickly and quietly dispatch targets from range at opportune moments while some levels are impressively open and allow you to use the grappling hook and zip line to gain vantage points or alternate routes.
Aiding in your quest to bonk isolated guys on the noggin is the ever present ability to throw a shell casing to make a sound. It behaves exactly like you'd expect, making a sound at the point of impact that will draw the attention of nearby guards. It's easy to understand and execute but you'll probably still make the occasional cock up by drawing vision cones in the wrong direction or pulling multiple opponents at once.
Boom! Headshot! Or somesuch dated reference.

The stealth is always optional. Many players prefer to go in guns blazing and Visceral have avoided the gaming cardinal sin of forced stealth, though the opposite; a forced fight is on the table more than once.
A fight typically means you desperately trying to defend a location while outnumbered, outgunned and often half blind from a gas grenade but you can tip things back in your favour by recognising solid cover over destructible cover, wearing a gas mask or laying a trap and retreating.
Skill certainly plays a part but the game's lenient health system, especially on normal and easy modes, coupled with the armoured vest gadget means that even a gamer of low to average skill should be able to finish the campaign and feel like they've conducted themselves like a badass lone wolf cop.
Your badass parade.

Meanwhile the story moves along at a decent clip, shuffling you from set piece to set piece at a moderate pace; not letting you get bored of one setting but not really rushing you off. It's not perfect, with a couple of early levels pottering on a bit too long while building atmosphere and establishing story.
The narrative heavily focuses on the characters. Nick Mendoza has his own background and motivations but has just enough room on his slate for the player to project themselves into the game, making him more Master Chief than Gordon Freeman.
A strong supporting cast of cops and criminals lend their weight to the experience, each unique and sometimes surprisingly complex though all feel like they'd be right at home in a TV drama like Miami Vice or CSI. That's a back-handed compliment but there you go.

Environments vary between linear and impressively open, though even in cramped areas you often have enough room to maneuver and sneak around. Some of the maps even have a kind of character of their own, either fleshing out the personality of another character or lending emotion and atmosphere to scenes well enough that a TV producer would be proud of these sets.
Dark car park, visual shorthand for shady dealings.

Collectibles round out the package in three forms; some guns can be unlocked simply by picking them up. I'm still missing two after finishing the campaign four times and unlocking everything else.
Secondly you have warrants, these are individuals in a mission that can be arrested for a reward, some of them also carry evidence, which brings us to;
Evidence, items or information that can be recovered throughout missions by using your cell phone/scanner to locate them, picking these up offers a bit of text and a short audio clip but completing a set, called case files of which there are several, will yield a short movie explaining a little more backstory to what's going off.
Completing a case file also awards you a battlepack for multiplayer and unlocks a selection of guns or attachments for single player missions too, the ungodly powerful M240B is hidden behind a case file you can't complete until the end of the game for example.
Some of the warrants are particularly hard to serve, with targets surrounded by other enemies and acting kind of like a stealth action puzzle to get to undetected, though the taser offers a way to subdue them even if you're spotted.
Ooh a penny!

As a whole the single player campaign is very satisfying, though some replay value is hindered simply by unskippable cutscenes which can be pretty lengthy. The gameplay's tight and quick time events are nowhere to be seen, thankfully. Meanwhile your AI companions, when present, cannot be detected by the enemy so long as you're still hidden which can occasionally break the immersion but means you don't have to worry about them ruining your sneaky plans.

Multi-player

Multi-player in Hardline is again tethered and navigated via the Battlelog service, with all the functionality we've seen before; server browser, loadout editor, profile editor, assignments, etc. As much as I dislike the idea of having my server browser and other options separate from the game's executable I do have to admit that it works very well.
Even changes made to your loadout while in-game will transfer to Battlelog and vice-versa. You can tab out and change the type of grenade you have in Battlelog and it'll be ready and waiting the next time you respawn in game.

One of the big changes is the way unlocks are earned: you buy guns and gadgets for cash earned in game, with cash getting handed out like candy but somewhat challenging to earn large quantities of when you first start out.
Once you've purchased a weapon you have to gain 30 kills to unlock the sights, 30 more for attachments, 30 more for barrels. It's a system I'm not overly fond of, as I find many iron sights (particularly western style sights like on the M16) to be almost unusable.
Thankfully you get some attachments for your starting weapons and can also get vouchers via Battlepacks - a voucher allows you to bypass the unlock requirements for the item it's for and unlock it without spending any of your hard earned cash (in-game currency, not real).
Back in my day we didn't have all these newfangled gadgets, just kinky scuba sex in an elevator.

The standard classes have mostly survived intact and can each be customized to fill a few roles. The Operator is typically the assault rifle/medkits class, but you could give it a boost kit for cars instead and act as a kind of hijacker/driver. The mechanic could focus on repairing or destroying vehicles. The Enforcer could have gas grenades and a gas mask, storming buildings while opponents inside choke and can't see or you could buy a shield and escort friendly units through heavy fire, or a breaching charge and blow the bloody doors off. Meanwhile the Professional could be a marksman on the ground helping friendlies from nearby, or a sniper two blocks away, or scouting with deployable cameras.
It's not just guns you can cutomise this time either; an outfit slot allows you to slap on a different uh... outfit. 

Vehicles too benefit from this level of variety, with weapon mounts set by the player manning them and the vehicle's overall upgrades and countermeasures set by the driver. Some vehicles can even be loaded with heavy weaponry, hiding a rocket launcher or Stinger missile in the trunk allows a cunning player to make short work of a dominating enemy chopper or armoured truck.
Everyone gets to play their own way and it goes a long way to making the game feel like it's your experience, you might be getting your ass kicked by a superior team but it's not because you got into a helicoper and the pilot had different attachments than you're used to.
Vehicles also offer a new brand of combat, with passengers able to fire their weapons while riding, either from inside a vehicle or leaning out of the windows. Bikes and boats offer similar functionality.
Even the taco stand got the shits.

With the shift away from tanks and attack choppers being so refreshing, it's good that Visceral didn't count on just that to entice players, new game modes provide interesting new challenges and dynamics.
Heist sees the criminal team trying to break into an objective and steal two bags of cash while the cops attempt to whittle down their tickets.
Blood Money sees teams fighting over a pile of cash in a central point, with team owned drop points serving as both score and a tempting target to plunder for the opposing team.
Hotwire has both teams trying to capture marked vehicles, earning points towards victory while driving them around the map fast.
FPS staples return too, such as conquest and team deathmatch but they pale in comparison to the more energetic and themed objectives of the other three modes previously mentioned.
There's also Rescue, very much like Counter Strike's hostage mode. And Crosshair in which a player controlled VIP is the target with teams fighting to protect or kill him.
You're looking a little green sir.

The player base is still a problem, sadly a staple of modern online gaming is the insults, hostile atmosphere and staggering levels of cheating; I was seeing cheaters getting kicked for aimbots and wallhacks as little as two hours after the game's release.
Fairfight and Punkbuster have caught up, with most hackers getting shut down as they try to join a game but the odd one still sneaks through.
More off-putting is the community. Often just saying "hi" will earn you a tirade of expletives and team killers are rife on the official EA servers where admins are non-existent, simply team killing just to ruin the fun of someone else.
That said, keeping your head down and simply not saying anything or ignoring the trolls will usually let you have a decent game, if not a pleasant one.
Another matter however is teamwork, while some teams or squads pull together and manage to coordinate strikes and covering fire and such, more often than not you'll be bunched up with 15 or 31 morons who only care for their kill/death ratio or how much trouble they can cause for the people trying to play properly.
This is highway robbery!

Aiding in the quest for teamwork are the smaller maps, a decision that's earned ire from other parts of the community and something I was skeptical of before I played.
Lets be upfront, the maps aren't tiny, they're not Modern Warfare 3 size and they're not huge tracts of open desert or tundra like in Battlefield 4.
The smaller maps focus on an area, for example a bank and its surrounding streets and buildings. Or a small desert town and the walled off compound within.
What it all means is you won't spend five minutes getting back to the fight when you choose to get a vehicle from spawn, you won't be spending half the match flying the chopper away to a protected area for repairs and you won't be getting sniped by someone you can't even see because they're so far away they don't even get rendered.
As usual there's a downside too; namely that spawning on teammates often leads to your death. There's a small preview window on the deploy screen that lets you see what they're doing but in the moment between you hitting the button to deploy and actually appearing in game, they might have gotten into a huge battle or run around a blind corner into a camping enemy.
The maps are also packed with detail, you can enter most buildings and the large destructible effects have returned with a crane that can gouge a chunk out of a skyscraper among other things.
There's small scale destruction too.

I held this review back a week to give the novelty a chance to wear off so I could be more objective and I think I can safely say that the multiplayer, though lacking in maps (only 9 but more are on the way via DLC expansions) there's plenty to unlock and you'll need to earn hundreds of thousands of in-game dollars to unlock everything.
Whether for an all-day gaming marathon or a quick 15 minute bash, Hardline can entertain even after the honeymoon period is over.

More importantly, the delay allowed me to observe the way the game's working under the hood, especially with relation to two huge issues that Battlefield 3 and 4 suffered from; hitboxes and netcode.
Firstly, hitboxes - they seem to be fairly accurately sized, with a little leeway to make near misses (the bullet going within a cm of your target) sometimes count as a hit but they don't feel unfair and don't lag behind as you move quickly. Which neatly brings us to the netcode.
Visceral have managed to sort out the netcode, getting it functioning perfectly (at least in what experience I've had with the game). Every shot fired will hit something, all of them counting towards damaging the enemy or environment if possible.
As mentioned previously hitboxes don't lag behind, allowing you to take cover or duck around a corner without getting shot by a guy who fired after you were gone, there's no network smoothing making predictive compensation to things either so people are where they look like they are and you're not going to get nailed on the approach to a corner by a guy who already saw you come around it half a second before you actually would.
I can't believe I even have to talk about the netcode in a review - this is something we perfected back in 1999 and Visceral have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're competent developers compared to DICE's unforgivably shoddy work for the past several years.

Finally

Overall, Battlefield Hardline is a fresh take on the Battlefield formula that puts DICE's games to shame all the way back to Battlefield 2142. A sizable and engrossing single player campaign goes hand in hand with the sizable and entertaining multi-player portion and even though the price is a little high (about £50 for the standard edition), you'll get your money's worth on time alone. 
Whether as a game you'll dedicate your free time to, or an occasional romp, Hardline has stolen the show.
Just like this screenshot.

Score: 9 references to Dead Space out of 10.