Breakdown Review

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Publisher: Namco Hometek
Developer: Namco

Platform: Xbox
Reviewed on Xbox

Derrick Cole only knows his name because that's what a medical technician called him. A few conversations and mysterious flashbacks suggest that he was a U.S. Marine participating in top-secret experiments. Now he awakens in a joint US-Japanese facility in Yokahama, Japan, but without memories, in a world that doesn't quite make sense.

Kyle Ackerman

Breakdown is about immersion. Full stop. Many games try to get you so deeply lost in the action that you feel like you are there – personally part of the action, but for Breakdown, immersion is the core concept around which the game has been built. And it works. Most of the time.

"I feel what you feel... I know what you know"

Everything you see in Breakdown, you see through the eyes of the lead character, albeit with the reduced peripheral vision that comes from playing on a TV and not a series of wraparound screens. When shooting at soldiers determined to terminate your avatar, it feels like a First Person Shooter (FPS). Not only do you have arms and feet (left out of some FPS games), but you can (and must) throw punches, kicks and block attacks from that same perspective. If you take a fist to the chin, or perform a backflip, you'll see the ceiling roll past your view until you can right yourself once more and stabilize your view. In the opening moments of the game, you'll even experience a new genre: the first-person vomiting simulation. To save you from being drugged into unconsciousness, a companion shoves her finger down your throat and you spew colorfully into a toilet bowl. Later, you'll get a first-person hug. What Derrick Cole sees, you see.

This really makes you feel part of the Breakdown world. If you want to read a clipboard, you pick it up and flip through the pages. You can eat a ration bar or pop open a can of Coke-like soda and chug it down. There are no floating pick-ups or bonuses here. If you find a gun on the corpse of a fallen soldier you can take the ammunition – you just have to pick up the gun, release the magazine, and pocket the remaining bullets. When you encounter a scripted scene, the game will occasionally direct your head to look at something, but usually you are free to look or move around. Even the game's tutorial is justified as a medical exam for a recovering amnesiac. Arguably, most of the game is a tutorial for the very end.

The experience of being plunged deep into the game world is enhanced by the story. I hesitate to give away much concerning the story, and I'd encourage you to avoid anything that might spoil the story for you. It's not that the plot is a masterwork. In many ways, it's a typically contrived science-fiction plot with an amnesiac hero. What's so unusual is that the game constantly leaves you with a sense of mystery. Breakdown always leaves you asking, "What the Hell just happened?" Then it feeds you scraps of information, just enough to keep you on edge to find out what happens next instead of ignoring the plot. The game constantly taunts you with what you don't know and don't yet understand, but in a way that makes you feel part of the mystery, not a victim of a bad joke. If you desperately want more, know that Breakdown's tag line is "The subconscious is a state in which reality is just a visitor."

You Take The One On The Left.
I Can't Handle More Than The One On The Right.

The game's biggest flaw is its punishing difficulty. The combined immersive viewpoint and compelling story drag you along with that feeling of "I just want to make it a little further before I stop." At least until you can't get any further. Any time the difficulty level or a contrived moment leave you repeating the same sequence over and over, it rips you out of the action so hard that it feels like more of a violation than in other games. The worst instances are specific challenges, like escaping enemies you aren't equipped to fight by climbing into an elevator shaft, or jumping a shattered bridge in a jeep. These should be tension-filled sequences that give you a rush. If it takes you six tries, you'll find yourself ripped jarringly out of the story and simply relieved to have plowed through.

Likewise, combat difficulty is designed for hardcore action gamers. While it's easy to appreciate the satisfaction of executing a challenging sequence of precise moves with finesse, that type of play isn't as conducive to story or immersion. This could have been fixed with difficulty levels. Hard could be a dire challenge, while easy could be a breezy walkthrough to experience the story. Instead, even the Easy level can force you to revisit the same checkpoint repeatedly when you fall to the same, brutal group of enemies. Too much repetition of the same sequence makes you lose sight of the feeling and story, instead focusing on the game and the hardware.

If you enjoy the challenge, combat is nicely executed. You get to do plenty of shooting, and can take out squads of soldiers with a well placed grenade or rocket. But this lacks the elegance of fists and feet. The first-person fighting interface is particularly good. Fighting isn't a speedy flurry, but rather a deliberate dance that requires careful timing. It feels like a real fistfight (in unreal circumstances) while wearing blinders. The lack of peripheral vision can make it hard to cope with multiple foes, but the fisticuffs are a great deal of fun—unless you have to repeat the same sequence. Unfortunately, towards the end of the game you are faced with waves of multiple enemies and a lot of repetition. When you just want to resolve the plotline, you are faced with strings of five or more simultaneous foes and first-person jumping puzzles with hazards so fast-moving it would require a Bullet-Time-like slowdown to pass them.

Quicksave Could Be A Cure-All

The remainder of the game balances satisfying touches with minor flaws. My favorite touch is that finally, the characters in a game applaud you when you agree to save the world, rather than accepting it matter-of-factly. Of course, characters in scripted sequences gesture and talk to the point where you should be standing – not necessarily where you are. Still, walk too far away, and the character talking will demand your attention. Food and drink restore life, but you can't move while drinking, so this can lead to strange situations, such as standing in the open, basking in a comfortable rain of bullets from the chain gun of a helicopter as you gulp a cool, refreshing beverage. The music is appropriate and sometimes suitably creepy (as when you are stalked by unseen enemies). At the same time, shadows can be pixilated, and much of the early game takes place in drab, gray, repeated hallways (portions of the late game involve drab, repeated hallways and towers of a different architecture).

Enemies aren't particularly smart, but they don't need to be when faced one at a time. When five of them bump against each other trying to perform the same series of punches and feints, it gets irritating. Not only is it monotonous to look at, but a group that size is difficult to overcome. Many of Breakdown's problems could have been fixed with a quicksave function rather than a checkpoint system, as you could focus on repeating only the difficult challenge, not multiple groups of foes, long corridors and many short loading screens, just to get to that last fistfight or jump that eludes you. That and a re-evaluation of the difficulty settings could have made Breakdown a deeply engaging experience. Instead, it's a good game with tremendous ambition that often drags you out of an immersive experience and throws your focus on a few, flawed mechanisms of gameplay.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 21, 2004 7:51 PM.

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