This article candidly discusses a few of the major plot beats from Battlefield Hardline. If you do not wish to read spoilers for this game, this article might not be for you.
As a freshly-minted detective in the Miami police department, Nick Mendoza sees himself as an ultimately good person, occasionally forced by his peers to bend the rules in order to keep everyone happy and safe. He covers for his partner, wanders out of jurisdiction in the pursuit of a suspect and turns down a bribe from the stash of a recent drug bust. His fellow officers peg him as a goody-two-shoes, the type of law enforcement whose adherence to the code makes life more difficult for colleagues interested in efficiency.
But that’s not the Nick Mendoza I know. I’ve witnessed him first-hand letting his partner beat a suspect within an inch of his life. I was with him when he left an unarmed, nonviolent civilian in handcuffs, smack dab in the middle of the cul-de-sac of a rough neighborhood. In the first two minutes of Battlefield Hardline’s campaign, I even watched him gun down two suspects who were disarmed and restrained when someone else burst through the door with a weapon. Nick never thinks twice before hitting someone in the head from behind, or shooting armed suspects who might easily comply if he walked up and flashed his badge. There’s no two ways about it: Nick Mendoza is an unstable, mass-murdering monster who should have had his badge taken away after the prologue.
The story told by Nick’s indiscriminate brutality doesn’t line up with the story Hardline wants to tell, either. Split into TV-friendly “episodes,” its campaign wants to be the next CSI Miami or Blue Bloods. You have the wide transitional shots of a bustling city, a police force that tosses around playful banter, a mix of both classic and top-charting music (though you’ll never hear Run the Jewels or Death Grips in a cable drama) and even a poorly-thought-out “Next time on Battlefield Hardline” bumper that spoils bits of the episode you have yet to finish. It desperately apes the glossy police procedurals that fill our networks daily, hoping that the right coat of polish will transform the rampant, lawless murder into something attractive and enticing. It doesn’t.
There are three ways you can interact with other humans in Battlefield Hardline. You can arrest them, shoot them, or sneak up behind them and knock them unconscious with your currently equipped melee weapon (which could be anything from a nightstick to a rusty metal pipe). When you lawfully get goons to surrender and handcuff them (or get a not-so-lawful drop on them with your club), the game gives you a small pat on the back with experience points, which unlock new weapons that don’t feel much different from what you already have. If you choose to shoot someone instead, the system simply looks the other way as a limp body hits the pavement. Hardline knows exactly what happened, but if it were asked to testify in court, it would probably claim the only thing they saw was a “thug” resisting arrest and endangering the lives of officers. If this discrepancy felt more intentional and was couched in a different narrative, this mechanic could serve as a scathing critique of certain real-world policemen evading justice. Instead, it reads as yet another moment where the developers are oblivious to what their game is actually saying.
Halfway through the campaign, Nick is actually taken in, but not for his own, numerous crimes: rather, he’s framed by his captain and compatriots for a scheme he never committed, and while he’s stuck in prison for 3 years, only 5 minutes pass from the player’s perspective before he’s free again. It’s framed as a switch from cop to vigilante, though beyond his street clothes and lack of a badge, nothing has changed: you’re still handcuffing suspects, fulfilling warrants and indiscriminately gunning down anyone who gets in your way.
Well, “almost” anyone. During your prison bus breakout, you have to get around other police officers. Suddenly, their weapons are replaced with tasers, and Nick will only knock them out, followed by an apology for striking another officer. It appears that shooting the captain’s privatized officers and civilians are fair game, but in Nick’s mind, anything more than a bump on the head of Miami P.D. is a bridge too far.
If anything, the game wants you to shoot MORE people, as it starts moving in guards who are already alert and conveniently stationed right next to red, exploding barrels. Nick’s quest to get his revenge on his former captain is just another excuse to keep ending lives and asserting dominance over the many foot soldiers he disables.
This is a Battlefield game, after all: despite its attempts to pull you into a cop drama, at its core, Hardline is about shooting people to death. This foundation is even more visible in the multiplayer, which ultimately feels like a modification or expansion for Battlefield 4. Sure, it has a handful of new modes, and you unlock new weapons by spending in-game cash instead of waiting to hit a certain level, but in practice, it’s indistinguishable from its militaristic kin. You’re still hopping into gun-mounted helicopters, tanks and other heavy weaponry, only wearing a badge instead of a flag (made all the more disturbing by the military supplies trickling into real-world police departments).
This lack of adjustment only amplifies the ugly message in Battlefield Hardline’s very soul. It wants to sell the cop vs. criminal fantasy as an exciting free-for-all where no weapon is too dangerous, no show of force too excessive. Games do not exist in a context-free bubble: we’re in the midst of a dark age in law enforcement. Officers can choke a black man to death on camera and get away scot-free, and military-grade equipment is making its way into the inventories of nationwide police departments. Over seventy innocent lives have been ended by the police’s use of reckless force and brutality. Just last week, a schizophrenic man was shot dead on his doorstep for simply holding a screwdriver.
In this day and age, someone made a police game that not only swaps clothes with a military FPS but also looks the other way when you shoot handcuffed suspects. Someone wrote a police game where the protagonist refuses bribes out of ethical concerns, but has no problem illegally entering residences, or breaking the law again and again to uphold his own set of rules. Someone designed a police game that prioritizes adrenaline and bloodshed over serving and protecting. Someone funded, marketed and published a police game that fantasizes about the very same attitude which led to Ferguson, to “I can’t breathe,” and to countless other moments where an officer robbed an American citizen (predominantly black civilians) of their life.
I will not mince words. Everything about Battlefield Hardline is a shameful disgrace. Visceral Games, EA Games, DICE and everyone else responsible for this project ought to think long and hard about what they have created. It’s a celebration of the mindset where anything goes, as long as you’re the one calling the shots with your badge and gun. No matter how hard they worked on the AI, however many millions they poured into modelling detailed slums, or how talented their actors were, they failed to exorcise the rotten heart from Battlefield Hardline: the message of “ends justify the means” police work. And that’s worse than any buggy, half-finished game could ever be.