Developed by: Visceral Games
Published by: Electronic Arts
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
“Battlefield Hardline” opens with a familiar scene: you’re a cop on a drug bust. After kicking down a dingy apartment door, you cuff thelll four drug dealers inside, nervously training your gun from person to person. Suddenly, an undetected fifth person jumps out of the bathroom and a few panicked seconds later everyone is dead except the cops. As in many other police procedurals, we know little about who is in the room, what evidence has been used to accuse them, or what processes have determined the criminality of their alleged acts. And though “Hardline’s” plot is just beginning in this scene, the unquestioning violence of it signals everything that’s to come, a cop story fixated on making the nonsensical seem irrefutable.
The first in the Battlefield series to set aside global warfare, “Hardline” tells the story of Miami vice detective Nick Mendoza, who is on the trail of a new form of liquid cocaine called “hot shot” being sold on the streets and in posh night clubs. Mendoza’s investigation leads him through a tangled network of distributors and manufacturers, before eventually revealing a small group of dirty cops playing both sides. Mendoza is framed by the crooked cops and spends the rest of the game trying to redeem his name and expose his former colleagues, one of whom has a master plan to use the drug wars in order to sell a plan for replacing police across the country with private security firms.
Earlier Battlefield games were built around long-distance gunfights that reduced enemies to an inch of black pixels or a stray flashlight beam at the far end of a town square. “Hardline” breaks from this tradition, focusing on interior spaces that make gunfire ungainly and ineffectual. It’s far easier to creep up behind a criminal, flashing your badge to freeze him in place, aiming your gun at him until he drops his own weapon, then hitting a button prompt to slam him to the ground and roughly apply handcuffs. If you don’t keep your gun aimed at the criminal, a meter indicates how close he is to shooting instead of surrendering.
This tense concession reduces everyone to an identical marker of threat, a small meter that only stops filling when you have your gun out. While not technically killing, the game’s arrest system conveys a fundamental hostility toward anyone in the play space that isn’t a cop. The animation of each take down is indignantly violent, a theatrical show of excessive force against a subject that has just given up. Even after Mendoza’s badge has been taken from him, he clings to this tactic, a fugitive who can’t wean himself of the habit of frisking and cuffing everyone in his path.
I performed this act hundreds of times over the game’s 11 episodes, and over time it starts to feel ritualistic. “I would say you are not a subject or human being, you become one,” Alan Badiou wrote of his political awakening during the student protests of 1968 “You become a subject to the extent to which you can respond to events…You discover truth in your response to the event.” In this light, “Hardline’s” arrest system is an event in search of its post hoc truth. Its repetition simplifies our assumptions about the essence of police, less personal narrative than automatic response. It’s a system that characterizes your behavior as something that happens to you, not as a choice but as an unfortunate consequence of an absence of alternatives.
“Hardline’s” co-writer Tom Bissell said the story was meant to channel the “goofball seriousness”of an Elmore Leonard novel, embracing an ethos of character over plot. “Ian [Milham, creative director] didn’t want the characters to talk about ‘the plan,’ or where to go next, or how evil the bad guys are and how awesome the good guys are,”Bissell wrote in a blog announcing his work on the game alongside writing partner Rob Auten. “Rather, he wanted characters that revealed themselves as messed up, funny, compelling people.”Embedded in this sentiment is a desire to keep identity separate from events.
“Hardline” works best in its multiplayer portion where it abandons the pretensions of police work and storytelling. Playing Battlefield online is stepping into a sprawling tempest of gunfire with 63 other players. Here, violence has a cross-canceling effect, in which neither side is granted automatic authority and every power and ability can be questioned by the other side. Taken alongside the laboriously large maps and the forced dependence on 31 other teammates, the multiplayer produces a kind of humble resignation to having only so much authority.
There are some who can dominate Battlefield’s multiplayer with an Olympian efficiency, but the overwhelming majority are marooned in the middle, where the concussive sound of bullets and the smoldering plumes left by grenades aren’t signs of domination but reminders that you’re still on your feet, not dominating the world, but surviving in it for another few seconds. There’s genuine awe in these moments, a beauty particular to video games, demanding respect for scale and the necessary investment of thought, coordination, and time to accomplish simple acts like moving a duffel bag from A to B. It’s a poetic antithesis of the game’s story mode, proof that order can more easily come from conflict than from conflict’s preemptive repression.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen
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