The best Battlefield story in years doesn't feel like Battlefield at all. In Hardline, a series long known for heavy-handed military bluster and world-conquering bravado gets a much-needed cops'n'crims makeover. It's an altogether grittier affair, a prowling alley cat to the last game's roaring tiger, and - as I discover after playing two missions of the single-player campaign - this keener focus only sharpens its claws.
You play Nick Mendoza, a rookie cop working hard to clean up the mean streets of Miami. It's a refreshing alternative; desert camo and khakis swapped for a clean-shaven boy in blue. As law enforcement, his is a markedly different experience to that of a military grunt. This is a world of hood rats, petty thugs, and drug-pushers - the domestic threat hitting closer to home than nuke-fetishising Russians or Spacey-faced megalomaniacs.
Mendoza's beat begins and I'm in a patrol car with my partner, detective Khai Minh Dao. While she drives I gawp out of the window at the fascinating street madness like a wide-eyed baby blue blood. The woman carrying groceries to her door and casually complaining about her man's restraining order; the cop shoving a hoodie against his car with a little too much relish. Nick's no silent protagonist. Spying a lady clearly struggling to plant the lid on her dustbin, he asks what's the matter. "The lid don't fit," she grunts. "Well, good luck with that, ma'am," Nick replies, tone dripping with mock concern. Nick's a dick when he needs to be. Fake smiles of porch drunks, window-washing homeless, and backyard weightlifters darkly asking for a spot conceal murderous intent - the minute your back is turned that happy hobo slings a big "F*** you!" in your direction. This is a hostile world in which your presence reverberates like a migraine.
That's why it's best to keep quiet. After learning of a new drug called Hot Shot, the handy work of the notorious Tyson Latchford, Mendoza and Dao take to the streets on foot, ducking through shaded alleys and weaving past dirty washing to find the culprit behind it all. Distinct enemy vision cones offer welcome assistance to usually ambiguous first-person stealth, and to help further, Nick can lob empty bullet casings as distractions. After pressing a small-time criminal named Tap for info, I wire him up and send him into the heart of the organisation: a rundown school.
It's worth noting at this point that it's all been fairly scripted stuff. A good script, but a script nonetheless. Now it gets a little less linear. When the Mexican cartel suddenly roar up in 4x4s and unleash their particular brand of spicy street justice on Tyson's men, a brutal SMG spray and pay, Nick rushes in to rescue his rat and apprehend Tyson. There are multiple routes so I take the path of least resistance, using my police scanner to tag targets and slip by unnoticed. Nick's a cop after all, and cops aren't supposed to be in the business of head shots. With unnecessary massacres generally bad form, you have several non-lethal options, from knock-outs to tasers to flashes of the badge.
Though Hardline functions as a remarkably robust stealth game - if a little rote with its enemy-tagging and trinket-based diversions - it's also a damn good shooter. This is Battlefield after all. You're not penalised for acting all Vic Mackey from The Shield rather than Dixon of Dock Green (Google it) - just awarded fewer points. See, points buy firearms and equipment such as golf clubs, breaching charges, ballistic shields, tear gas, and gas masks. Just don't expect any stinger missile launchers.
For the next mission Mendoza finds himself operating on the wrong side of the law. I've got to infiltrate a villain's luxurious penthouse and find information connecting him to Korean mobster Henry Kang. Two soon-to-be jailbirds with one stone. Now in street clothes and operating out of an unmarked van, Mendoza's methods are looser. He's even got his very own wisecracking tech expert, who hands him a not very subtle bomb in a brown paper bag. "Nice of you to bring some sandwiches," quips Nick. "Should I have written 'BOMB' on the front?" his guy shoots back. Point taken.
After another multi-path room clear, this time made tougher thanks to metal detectors, security cameras, and armoured guards that don't piss about, Dao and I take the lift. Then it gets weird. We strap on scuba masks and trigger the paper bag bomb to flood the shaft and literally swim to the rooftop apartment. It's good to see Battlefield hasn't lost its penchant for the ludicrous, if the scene rather spectacularly jars with the grounded tone of the previous mission.
The level's last portion is essentially first-person tower defence made juicier thanks to stunning visuals and some killer kit. As green and gold fireworks light up the room from across the bay, I pick my poison: proximity mines, flash grenades, and a shotgun with infrared scope. Thank God for bad guy weapon caches. That scope proves invaluable when the goons cut the power and charge through the darkness, silhouettes revealed at intervals by white-hot gunshot and multicoloured explosions in the sky. It's tremendous fun and, despite several deaths, rarely frustrating due to the game remembering my weapon loadout.
Hardline is leaner and meaner than its forebears, trimming the fat from levels while giving you more options within them. The scope's smaller but the odds no less high. There's nothing blazingly original here, mind - not the long-range stealth which recalls the likes of Crysis and Far Cry, not the CoD-like linearity, and not the wave-based survival sections - but that hardly matters. From the sharp script to the detailed setting to the robust, accomplished shooter underneath it all, Hardline represents a brave new breed of military shooter... One that drops the military angle altogether.