Don’t get me started on self-serious war games. Even the title is oxymoronic. I still get hot under the collar when I think of Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg wondering aloud why Call of Duty isn’t received by critics the same way movies like The Hurt Locker are.

Activision isn’t alone. EA’s Battlefield series is no exception. Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4 both delivered desperately hammy singleplayer campaigns: men and women with thousand yard stares and family portraits tucked into flak jackets, juxtaposed against the kind of dumb, flag-waving mass slaughter that would make Pol Pot shuffle his weight awkwardly.

Unless games can excise overblown bodycount accumulation from the main gameplay loop they’ll never truly be able to tell a meaningful war drama that resonates with a wider public. So leave it to Hollywood.

First-person shooters are almost always best when they recognise this fundamental limitation in themselves and instead insist on delivering fizzier, action-driven entertainment. Add a splash of comedy to drive the irreverent point home, and your singleplayer campaign is starting to shape up as a much more approachable piece of entertainment that we can all enjoy without feeling the need to evaluate it for its likely dubious cultural merit.

First-person shooters are almost always best when they insist on delivering fizzier, action-driven entertainment
Battlefield Hardline: singleplayer hands-on
Cops and robbers

This is a recipe that Visceral looks to be following closely for Battlefield Hardline, an agreeably schlocky cop story about a detective from the streets who gets framed, and who must take on corruption and the criminal underworld to clear his name.

The game opens in Florida. Cuban-American Nick Mendoza and his partner Khai are investigating a “hot shot” epidemic, a new liquefied form of cocaine that’s flooding Miami’s poorer neighbourhoods. This tutorial opens with an on-rails drive ‘n’ talk that demonstrates the capability of Frostbite 3, sells the world of Hardline, and establishes a rapport between the characters that has always been so missed in other Battlefield casts. That all-important comedy is there as well, in this instance it takes the form of a two-bit coke peddler evangelising Scientology among his customers.

The level indicates important new ways to play as well. For the first time, players will be able to take a stealthier approach in a Battlefield game. One arm of the hot shot drug operation is being run out of an abandoned school. From a vantage point across a car park, Nick and Khai are able to use a scanner to tag criminals and learn if any have warrants out on them.

Battlefield Hardline: singleplayer hands-on
With the Dead Space series Visceral demonstrated its storytelling competency, and it looks as if those skills will be ably applied here

To arrest targets, Nick can pull his badge and sidearm and call for them to freeze. When there’s more than one criminal, Nick will need to alternate his aim between them as he approaches to keep them from pulling their own weapons. It’s a clever non-lethal takedown system that plays perfectly to the game’s cop fantasy.

There’s still plenty of work to be done on the game’s stealth mechanics. For now, the AI is set to “heat seeking”, meaning that as soon as a player’s cover is blown, all enemies in the immediate area know exactly where the player is and the only option is to go loud. Visceral’s Steve Papoutsis says that the goal is to implement “last known position” AI, meaning that if players are spotted, they’ll be able to escape and make another stealthy attempt, albeit against more alert or wary adversaries.

Try a bigger gun

A later level is set in a penthouse apartment, at a time when Nick and Khai have been forced to work outside the law. The latter half of the level is the embodiment of more traditional Battlefield gameplay with big set pieces, linear level design, and waves of well-armed and armoured enemies. Before then, players are given a full arsenal of gadgets and weapons to choose from that create a number of avenues of approach, although it must be noted that for now the most expedient route is kick down the front door and open up with a big fuckin’ gun. Finding ways to better reward patient players ought to be a high priority.

It was a brief introduction to Hardline’s singleplayer, but it was a promising one. Given their uneven quality it seems like shallow praise to say that Hardline is almost certain to be the best campaign Battlefield has released in some years, but there you have it. With the Dead Space series Visceral demonstrated its storytelling competency, and it looks as if those skills will be ably applied here.

Battlefield Hardline is coming to PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in early 2015.