Battlefield: Hardline Review: Sins of Abstraction

The following contains SPOILERS for Battlefield: Hardline. It focuses solely on the single player campaign.

Battlefield: Hardline isn’t worth the attention that’s been lavished on it. In ordinary circumstances it would be forgotten within six months not because it’s bad, but because it’s unremarkable. It’s a shooter, and while some elements are objectionable, it’s not more so than countless other games, films, and TV shows.

But these are not ordinary circumstances. While most of Hardline is generic, the noteworthy parts are unusually relevant to current events. There’s never a good time to make a game about police violence, but early 2015 is a bad time to release one because it’s impossible to write about the game without reference to Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and the many other victims of police aggression.

So is Hardline a manifestation of everything wrong with race relations and law enforcement in America? Or is Hardline merely the product of bad timing?

If it’s the latter, what does that mean for those who want to enjoy a few mindless hours of violent entertainment?

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In the Line of Fire

Hardline tells the story of Nick Mendoza, a Cuban immigrant and the proverbial good cop unaware that he works in a department full of crooked ones. After spending the first half of the game investigating the corrupt Detective Stoddard, Mendoza is shocked to learn that his boss, Captain Dawes, is the true criminal mastermind. Betrayed and shipped off to prison, Mendoza escapes and spends the second half of the game seeking revenge with a ragtag cast of criminals and his former partner Khai, who previously helped betray him.

It’s standard Hollywood cop drama, with an emphasis on plot twists rather than authenticity. Taken on those terms it’s serviceable entertainment. The design acknowledges that police work is theoretically supposed to be non-violent, rewarding the player for arrests rather than kills. Hardline also sidesteps the racial undercurrents that are integral to discussions of police violence in the news cycle.

Race just isn’t a significant factor in Hardline. That’s not to say race isn’t an issue – you could well argue that Hardline is avoiding it – but the game’s depiction isn’t all that problematic. Hardline has an uncommonly diverse cast of heroes and villains that don’t enact racial stereotypes. They’re cops and criminals who happen to come from a variety of different backgrounds.

That complicates the meta-narrative surrounding the game. It would have been easier to condemn Hardline for racial insensitivity and then move on, but it evades such reductive analysis. Its biggest failings take place at a structural level, and parsing the machinations of institutions is a more abstract endeavour, especially since Hardline does not present an innocent vision of law enforcement. The primary antagonists are dirty cops actively working to subvert the entire law enforcement system by outsourcing police work to private corporations.

Phrased differently, that means that Hardline is police fiction in which the police make and accept the case that the modern police force is irrelevant.

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The contradiction would be more interesting if it weren’t based on fundamentally inaccurate assumptions. Dawes implies that major police departments are happy to go along with his scheme because they’re eager to offload the most dangerous aspects of the profession, and if officers were regularly engaging in shootouts with dozens of armed thugs without backup, then sure, I’d let someone else take that responsibility. But the reality just isn’t as dangerous as Dawes (or Hardline) would have us believe. There would be a lot more dead cops on the news if the combat galleries in Hardline were commonplace.

But since it’s Battlefield, the gameplay was in place before the narrative and the plot is designed to ensure that the player doesn’t feel too guilty about the shooting. The violence is supposed to create a tone, or to deliver periodic shots of adrenaline. Any parallels to the real world are secondary considerations.

Those priorities are reflected in the design. The gameplay structure casts Mendoza as the underdog, outnumbered and outgunned in isolated settings without recourse for backup. The imbalance feeds the power fantasy, the image of one man fighting against odds that favour the criminals and not the good cops who chase them.

However, the opposite scenario is probably more common. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund places the number of police deaths in the US at 126 for all of 2014. Of those, 50 were related to firearms (most of the rest were traffic accidents).

Meanwhile, the FBI reports roughly 400 justifiable police homicides every year, and the actual number of police homicides – as in, people killed by police officers – is likely closer to 1,000. Law enforcement is a difficult job, but it’s far more dangerous to be on the receiving end of it.

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That’s noteworthy because it indicates that the balance of power favours the police in most shootings in which they’re involved. When police shootings make the news, there are usually more police officers than perpetrators or victims. In such cases the police aren’t maligned underdogs. They’re front-runners, going in with greater numbers, better guns, and the backing of the law to take down children, unarmed civilians, and the mentally ill. Yes, there are incidents that more closely reflect the ‘action’ scenarios in Hardline, like the recent killing of Robert Griffin III during a gunfight in a GameStop. However, such incidents are exceptional, and the tragic results aptly demonstrate why they are so rare.

The truth is that shootouts are unnecessarily dangerous for people on both sides of the equation, and criminals are seldom more eager to die than police. That’s even a plot point in Hardline, which suggests that drug cartels are moving to the US because jail time in Miami is preferable to a beheading in Mexico. But the villains need to fight back in order to create the desired gameplay effect, so it starts with the assumption that routine police work is as perilous as a wartime detail in Iraq.

I’ve been critical of military shooters that glamorize the American colonial machine, but after playing Hardline I finally appreciate the necessity of the setting. I don’t live in a war zone, and neither do any of the characters in Hardline. They only think they do, and they’re not shy about invoking that fallacy to justify their actions. It’s war games, war rules, as Khai helpfully explains on one of the many occasions she goes off the record.

That mentality causes an unanticipated amount of dissonance. Though earlier Battlefield games often gave short shrift to the victims, from a gameplay perspective, a certain amount of gunfire is to be expected during open conflict. Call of Duty may exaggerate the violence, but rarely does it feel like it doesn’t belong.

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The same is not true of gunfire in a shopping mall during a hurricane in Miami. The violence is a break from the norm, noteworthy precisely because it is so out of place. Hardline takes place in a setting where people are not supposed to die, and then sets out to find reasons to allow it. If I’m good at my job – if I seek to arrest people instead of kill them, or if I wait for proper backup – then none of this is supposed to happen.

Unfortunately, it does happen, and the effect is jarring because the game makes no effort to reconcile the façade with the gameplay fantasy beneath it. Murder is always justified because the game takes great pains to craft a kill-or-be-killed dichotomy where violence is the only rational solution.

That moral balm gives solace to the player, but more often than not, the violence breaks out because of hasty or sloppy police work and Hardline doesn’t take issue with those methods. Police brutality, cover-ups, and smokescreen warrants are all OK as long as you have pure intentions. If, like Nick Mendoza, you use those tools for good then you’re a good cop, even when you’re a criminal. If you use those tools to build a corrupt empire like Stoddard and Dawes, then you’re a crook who deserves his judgment.

At no point does Hardline make the association between methods and outcomes. It never considers the possibility that violence erupts because the cops are willing to circumvent the regulations in place to prevent it. The logic of the war zone – that violence has to happen in order to get the job done – makes violence inevitable, because it allows violence to be the first recourse rather than the last resort.

Everything else exists to support that system. When Khai beats the hell out of a suspect, Mendoza covers it up because cops look out for one another. He enjoys the same privileges. In the encounters that allow for stealth – encounters that prove that lethal force is not necessary – you’re explicitly told that your fellow officers will overlook your aggression. Similarly, when Stoddard shoots a surrendering suspect to keep him quiet, the official story is that Mendoza was in danger, a rewriting of the truth to evade culpability.

In Hardline, the Miami Police Department isn’t a public service as much as it is a cartel. Loyalty to the organization becomes more important than the mission of that organization. The institution is successful as long as it survives.

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The Joys of Violence

The kicker, of course, is that Hardline is fun. The presentation is slick, the plot twists are humorously predictable, and the gameplay is solid. I could have written about the stealth mechanics and the caliber of the guns on offer. But there’s no need to repeat that drill. The game works fine. If you like shootin’ stuff, Hardline amply provides.

Besides, enjoyable gameplay only amplifies the dissonance when it’s so at odds with the aesthetics. It sounds paradoxical, but you just can’t have the same kind of mindless fun in a civilian environment that you can have during a war. The more exciting the violence gets the more it feels out of place.

Hardline is filled with such logical inconsistencies. It rewards successful stealth with noisy guns. It also suggests that police corruption is rampant while advocating for the police as a vital institution. There’s little to be gained from unraveling such a poorly thought out tangle of contradictions, but they’re there, and they resonate in the gameplay. I tried to be the good cop, making arrests instead of killing if it was at all an option, but I get the impression that the game things I’m a coward. When Mendoza points out that an everglades operation can’t be taken to a District Attorney, Khai opines that it doesn’t matter because it’s fun.

“I swear you guys get off on this shit,” one criminal says during a rough arrest.

“Yeah, at first. Then you just get bored,” replies Mendoza.

It’s a recurring theme, the notion that ambiguous police work is more fun than the letter of the law. That’s probably true generally (paperwork is dull), and it’s certainly true within the game. After a while, I lost my patience for stealth. I got into more firefights, and the plot gradually faded into the background. The context ceased to matter the more I embraced the violence as the mechanics and the challenge came to the fore.

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The cut scenes, however, are nothing but context, and that’s where the endeavor falls apart. Mendoza is supposed to be the good guy. He wants to bring people to justice even though his colleagues view discretion as a waste of time. The game seems to agree. Mendoza doesn’t get results until he becomes a vigilante. The best way to stop Dawes and Stoddard is to kill them.

That image of the hero cop – the man charging in with guns blazing, with the full weight of the law shooting from the tip of his shaft – doesn’t gel with reality. It’s an image designed to make people feel good about themselves because it’s gratifying to view oneself as a warrior doing an important job in a dangerous world.

That becomes a problem when the image supercedes reality. If asked, I’d wager that most officers view themselves as Mendoza, as the hero who always does what’s right. In truth, I suspect that most are probably like Khai because most human beings are decent-yet-flawed individuals that are understandably afraid to fight against the power of corrupt institutions.

That’s an important distinction. Well-meaning people still do bad things, but heroes never have to acknowledge their mistakes. Every action becomes righteous when your self-image is a paragon.

That’s also the real danger of the subtexOt in Hardline. Despite evidence that disproves it, there are working police officers that have internalized the kill-or-be-killed mentality. They take that with them when entering the field.

The trouble is that the people they serve don’t always share that perspective. Concerned citizens call the police to deescalate dangerous situations, to summon a stable authority to step in to prevent the loss of life. Yet when kill-or-be-killed is the first line of thinking, it’s virtually guaranteed that somebody is going to die. The burden of risk falls most heavily on those who don’t realize that those are the only options when dealing with law enforcement and therefore don’t take the necessary precautions.

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The Burden of Fiction

That brings us back to the real world. Hardline is not about race (it could even be viewed as slightly progressive on that subject), nor is it not the catastrophe that has been advertised. But its core philosophy permits aggression as the preferred interaction with criminals. Combine that with the pervasive stereotype of black men as dangerous criminals and it results in differential treatment that makes black men the most frequent victims of “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

Hardline is ultimately a ‘what if.’ Is martial law effective? In the abstract, it’s a relatively harmless rhetorical question. But in our society, only certain people are expected to provide an answer, and that burden – the uneven application of basic security – is a form of discrimination that is a life-or-death concern for far too many people.

Hardline would do well to remember that abstract ideas can have tangible results. There’s no such thing as mindless entertainment.

Our review copy of Battlefield: Hardline was provided by A&C Games (452 Spadina Avenue) in Toronto. If you’re looking for a rare or classic video game, they probably have it in stock.

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