"Battlefield: Hardline" won't be released for another six months, but the game already is embroiled in several sticky situations that could damage the public image and sales numbers of one of the oldest living first-person shooter franchises.
The Battlefield franchise is looking to break away from the negative stigma of last year's "Battlefield 4," which sold pretty well but was riddled with bugs and glitches for months. The problems were so bad that several class action lawsuits were filed, each claiming that publisher Electronic Arts (EA) defrauded investors and customers by promoting a finished title but releasing something far from completed.
In order to shake things up and finally conquer longtime adversary "Call of Duty," EA enlisted its subsidiary Visceral Games (Dead Space series) of Redwood City to alter the franchise's trajectory from traditional armed forces combat to a hyper-militarized police force fighting a war on crime.
That strategy seemed to be paying off in the area of public opinion leading up to the launch. I was one of millions excited for a new cops-and-robbers experience.
That was until the events after 18-year-old Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo. In the weeks since the tragedy, tensions between community members, the media and law enforcement have escalated on a nightly basis. Millions of people are now speaking out against the assault weapons and armored vehicles used by the Ferguson Police Department.
Many believed that "Battlefield: Hardline" should skip its on-stage presentation at the massive Gamescom convention in Cologne, Germany due to the content of its game. Clearly, a game that began development two years ago can't be blamed for its content matching up with a national tragedy. However, people believed it may be too soon to see a fully-loaded police force killing dozens of in-game criminals on a massive screen in front of a full convention center.
The "Hardline" team decided to go on as planned and unveiled a 12-minute gameplay video showcasing the campaign mode of the title.
And, for a reason I will never fully understand, the footage they chose showed a police officer protagonist hunting down an antagonist, who was some sort of corrupt member of the conservative tea party movement.
Conservative pundits, politicians and gamers immediately flooded the media landscape with reports of "Battlefield: Hardline" being "the game where players are asked to slaughter tea party members." My own father, a conservative talk show host, blew up my phone last Friday to get me on his show for what I would call a video game emergency.
Like I shared on the radio airwaves, I can't guarantee that the game is not about killing tea party members. It isn't out yet, and none of my colleagues in video game journalism have had a hands-on experience with a demo yet.
I can say, however, that the footage available does not in any way glorify murdering tea party members.
The antagonist appears to be a garden-variety corrupt politician. He is clearly a back-stabbing racist bent on hurting the hero, a Hispanic police officer, for no reason. In short, he is a bad guy who happens to wear tea party memorabilia and say nasty things about President Obama in his lair. He is not a lobbyist waiting for a congressional meeting who is gunned down for no reason, as some might have you believe.
Even if this game is about killing tea party members, so what? Is that worse than the hundreds of games about killing soldiers, terrorists or criminals? Regular people don't go out and kill hustlers and pimps just because they played a game about killing criminals. It is extremely unlikely that someone will plan a political assassination just because they saw it on a game.
Video games are an art form. They follow the conventions of movies, television, books and poetry. Games are about whatever creative groups of people want them to be about. Someone wrote the storyline for "Battlefield: Hardline." Someone wrote a script for the voice actors to read. Someone made something out of nothing in the form of this game.
However, because games require players to act out the artist's vision, they receive additional scrutiny. Maybe these concerns are justified, but I don't see it.
I think about playing games and reading books in the same way. If I want to see what happens next in a book, I turn the page and read. If I want to see what happens next in a game, I kill everything in a room full of bad guys and walk into the next room. It's the exact same thing.
I didn't want to murder a money lender when I read "Crime and Punishment," and I won't want to murder a tea party member after I play "Battlefield: Hardline," either.