Coming in the wake of Ferguson and in the midst of a political discussion about militarized police, how could a game like Battlefield: Hardline, in which you play as a cop, represent anything but tacit support for a powerful police force? The answer: by not supporting the police
The first episode of Battlefield: Hardline ends with an action scene -- and a cheesy joke. Nicholas Mendoza and his partner Khai are investigating a suspect's house when they get attacked by gunmen. Khai gets shot in the shoulder, and I hold the wound closed while fending off bad guys. They blow open the front doors, then crash through the front wall with an armored truck, but I still manage to kill them all. As S.W.A.T. teams storm the house (where were you literally five seconds ago?), they find our suspect and ask me, "Who's this?" Mendoza gives them a smile, "Him? He does spreadsheets." Fade to black.
It's a callback to a line from five minutes earlier, from just before the gunmen attacked. It's a joke that’s entirely unearned: Mendoza is pretty serious up to this point, and these two men literally just met. They haven't had a chance to grow into any natural cop/criminal buddy banter. It's a cheesy joke that falls flat, and it's the exact moment when I started to like Hardline.
Hardline is a swing in the right direction for Battlefield, a return to the knowing, winking attitude of Bad Company and away from the self-serious-yet-still-ridiculously-bombastic tone of the latter two games.
This might seem like an odd compliment considering the controversy around the game. This is a big action shooter in which you play as a cop, coming in the wake of Ferguson and in the midst of a political discussion about militarized police. In this context, how could a war game with a cop represent anything but tacit support for a powerful police force? The answer: by not supporting the police. Not for political reasons, mind you, but for gameplay reasons.
The police are (meant to be) a symbol of order, the Rule of Law given physical form, but the grandiose action that defines a game like Battlefield is anything but orderly. It's chaotic, and our participation in it makes us an agent of chaos. Our role as cop runs counter to the action and spectacle we expect of the game, which is why we stop being a cop at the halfway point.
Hardline is a rare shooter that understands that context matters: You can't tell a serious story with ridiculous action, so it consciously decides to tell a ridiculous story. This is a game that just wants to be fun and is aware enough to acknowledge that criminals are a better source of fun (explosive fun, at least) than cops, even better if the criminal is willing to crack a dumb joke every once in a while.
The effectiveness of the joke is less important than the existence of the joke. The joke suggests that these characters exist in a relatively low-stakes world, which then changes its action scenes from a source of tension into a source of fun.
There are car chases that leave dozens of vehicles wrecked and burning in my wake, I blow up a warehouse, and eventually my ex-cop gets a tank and starts shooting helicopters out of the sky. In a more serious story, this kind of escalation would break the fiction. In a story that tried to seriously consider police corruption or the drug war, this kind of action would be antithetical to its themes. But Hardline is not a serious story. It's a comedy.
The story of Hardline takes itself just seriously enough to establish stakes and dramatic conflict, but it’s also a joke, a joke the game is in on. Through its presentation it invites us to laugh along with it rather than at it: When you arrest someone they lie on the ground -- face first -- with cartoon "zzzs" above their head, and Mendoza wears his bullet proof vest everywhere, even in the police station when meeting with his boss.
Despite its awkward opening, by Episode 9 Hardline has developed its cast of rogues into a motley crew with a history, genuine chemistry, and earned buddy-banter (especially between Nick and Boomer). The game morphs from a bland cop procedural into a prison break/heist/revenge fantasy that exists in a heightened reality where the bad guys always put their hands in the air, I have unlimited handcuffs, and it makes perfect sense to zipline off a skyscraper. By changing tone and style, Hardline earns its right to ridiculous action. It's now free to ignore the large scale consequences of a hurricane ripping apart a mall or the logistics of flooding an elevator shaft with water.
(Additionally, since its comedy is rooted in character, the game can also focus on small scale character drama to a degree that wasn't possible in previous games, where every line of dialogue had to work to explain the politics of the situation. I was pleasantly surprised by my genuine concern for a character that gets seriously wounded.).
This is all only possible because the game ditches the dour military setting and political narrative for a fluid setting that can change with every level and a narrative of revenge based on character, not plot. A drama with this same scale of action has to acknowledge the ramifications of that action or it risks losing its dramatic stakes, but comedies are allowed to be outrageous without consequence.
Hardline achieves a balance of tone and action that most shooters rarely see, and it does this by taking the exact opposite approach to its predecessors. It understands that criminals have more fun than cops and that nothing sells bombast better than a joke.