Reviewed: April 1, 2004
Released: March 16, 2004
Breakdown is one of those games that really confirms my belief that all games should be finished before being reviewed. If you had asked me to rate this game at any given point during my 18 hours of gameplay you would have gotten a different score ranging from a high 9 in the beginning to a frustrating 4 during the endless ledge jumping. Now that I have finished my adventure I can reflect on the experience as a whole and score accordingly.
There was a tremendous WOW factor that started with the opening movie, cleverly shown as a theatrical preview. Having no previous knowledge of the game, the story, or anything about it, I was immediately sucked into the story that combines elements from movies like; The Matrix, Altered States, Terminator and several games like Half-Life and sci-fi shows like Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone.
And there lies Breakdown’s greatest asset. By borrowing all of the best elements from sci-fi pop culture Namco has created a stunning tour de force that will keep you glued to your controller no matter how boring the levels get or how repetitive the action.
It would be a huge disservice to reveal anything about the plot of this game. If you plan on playing this game then you should go into it totally clueless, primarily because when the game begins you find yourself in the body of one Derrick Cole, suffering from amnesia with no knowledge of who you are, where you are, or what the hell is going on.
Other than a gripping story, Breakdown’s other claim to fame is its true first-person interface. Sure, other games call themselves first-person but none have come close to this level of immersion. This is as close to virtual reality as you can get without putting on the goggles and power-glove.
Once you get past the funky perspective Breakdown settles into a conventional action-adventure experience. But long before that happens you will need to go through the tutorial that is cleverly woven into the story as rehabilitation. This short three-room therapy session will teach you how to move, interact with objects, and fight.
Controls are delightfully simple using the dual sticks to move and look around and the triggers for combat. There are several cool weapons that you will get to play with. The Y button readies the weapon, the left trigger reloads, and the right trigger fires; pretty standard stuff, but the real brilliance shows in the physical combat. Using the left and right triggers combined with directions on the left stick you can execute a massive selection of combos and attacks that rival your favorite fighting game.
The enemies are designed around both styles of fighting so you’ll want to save your ammo for the targets that can actually be harmed by bullets and break out your fists for the “other” encounters. You will often face multiple targets and you can use the A button to select then switch your target lock. This allows you to strafe the enemy and keep them locked, even when they pass behind objects or a wall.
Interacting with the environment is simple enough, but often painstakingly slow. As you pass near or over an object you can use the word ACCESS appears in the corner and you can press X to interact with that object. This is almost always a two-step process where you press X once to make your hand appear and lock onto the intended item, then a second press will actually perform the action.
While speed isn’t an issue in casual exploration you will often be required to collect ammo and reload in mid-combat and this is where things get dangerously slow, but ultimately adhere to the rules of realism. Example: You are in the middle of a firefight and you pass by a fallen soldier. The ACCESS light comes on and you press X to lock onto the body. Press X again and you pick up the soldier’s weapon and remove the ammo cartridge. Now you are holding the cartridge and must press X a third time to stow the item in your unseen pack. The same goes for grenades and any inventory objects you collect like keycards or batteries. Fans of faster-paced FPS games will curse this process, and while I did at first I learned to appreciate the level of realism it added.
There is a lot of combat in Breakdown. Early on this is mostly gunplay but about halfway through you will start using your fists and feet a lot more. Enemy AI is pretty linear, both in their line-of-sight attacks and their total lack of disregard for any damage you are doing to them. Once you are spotted most enemies will make a beeline for you, so most combat is basically “kill them before they kill you”. This doesn’t leave much room for tactics and when you are outnumbered you will need to frequently divide and conquer. Going up against three or more of any enemy is generally suicide.
Derrick has a health bar and a T’langen bar (similar to mana). Scattered about the levels are countless candy bars and sodas that replenish your health and T’langen. These are “use as you get them” items and cannot be stashed for future use. Later in the game some “other” enemies will leave behind blue and red energy spheres you can absorb to replenish health and T’langen separately.
Once the novelty of the interface wears off you will quickly find yourself in a repetitive exploration of passage after passage, door after door, and room after room. There are often lengthy periods where you will have no one to fight and nothing to do, which is admittedly realistic but doesn’t make for entertaining gameplay. When something exciting does happen it’s usually over sooner than you’d like.
Level design is fairly basic and about three hours into the game you will be wondering if you will ever get out of the first building. All those halls and labs start to look the same. Eventually you will get to explore some really cool environments, and even re-explore some previous levels under “new circumstances”.
I would be in breech of my game reviewer’s oath if I didn’t warn you right now that there are some heinous jumping puzzles in Breakdown. While these are all grouped together near the end of the game they are totally insane and not only force you to jump but also jump, grab, and pull-up; a task made no simpler by the first-person view.
Puzzles are relatively simple and disappointingly few. Basically, if you are thorough in your exploration you will already have any required items when it comes time to use them. A lot of the back-story is told through clipboards and tape recorders. Picking up a clipboard and flipping through eight pages is only cool the first time, especially when each fully typed page only nets you three or four captioned lines of text.
What the game lacks in actual gameplay it more than makes up for with an amazing story and the best presentation of any game you can currently buy on the Xbox. When I say “presentation” I am talking about style and atmosphere, not just pretty graphics, because quite frankly, the graphics aren’t terribly sophisticated.
Breakdown quickly sucks you into its universe with an original first-person view, which is totally immersive and a bit restrictive compared to the peripheral view most of us are used to in other games. Even traditional moves like climbing, jumping, or doing a cartwheel or flip can be disorienting when seen through the eyes of your character. And there is nothing more convincing that getting knocked on your ass and sliding backwards with your feet flailing in front of you and your vision going red from the concussion.
The human characters all look very “Namco”; your partner, Alex looks just like the Rena from R:Racing Evolution, and Solus looks like he stepped out of Soul Calibur. The non-human creatures are outstanding, both in their design and their wonderful animated and glowing textures.
Environmentally speaking, the graphics are about as boring as the levels. Granted, the textures are impressive when you first enter a new area, but after an hour of seeing that same wall texture, sliding door, or ceiling light, you will be fighting off the déjŕ vu. I was starving for new locations, and when I finally did emerge into a sunny cliff-side level overlooking a vast ocean I was impressed for about 30 seconds until I remembered that Halo did this and did it better two years ago.
There are some excellent special effects like heat waves coming off the desert dunes, tons of particle effects that create a blizzard of floating pollen, or whatever that stuff is. Water is handled nicely with subtle reflections and excellent splashes for each footstep for both you and the enemy.
But the best special effects are the unexplainable “reality shifts”, rips in the space-time continuum where a mysterious white cat may appear and lead you down the proper path, or you find yourself suddenly wearing a white tux in some alternate timeline or parallel universe – you figure it out. And that is the best thing about Breakdown; the actual “experience” of playing it is often more fun than actually “playing” it – yes, those are two different things.
The soundtrack borders on the epic scale and next to Halo is probably one of my favorite orchestral soundtracks to date. Every note has a purpose and it blends with the vocals and sound effects to create a cinematic experience.
Sound effects are pretty standard stuff but there are some really cool synthesized elements that might actually be considered part of the score. Most of these surreal effects accompany the funky visuals that create your shifting reality. Weapons all sound accurate and the physical combat is especially powerful with thudding kicks and punches. You will grow to love (or hate) the gurgle of slamming down a 12oz soda or the tear of a candy wrapper followed by the definitive crunch and chew.
The voice acting is very high quality. While Derrick doesn’t say much, you are given a few opportunities to pick conversation topics or spoken replies, even though these decisions don’t affect the flow of the game. Alex is a great partner and doesn’t whine like those other female co-stars from other games. All of the supporting cast down to the incidental soldiers and scientists all have great lines and deliver them with conviction.
There is great support for Dolby Digital that is essential in a game like this where your vision is limited by the virtual eyesight of your character. There are also excellent audio effects like reverb and distortion to support the surreal visuals.
Breakdown is a linear adventure with very little exploring. Locked doors will keep you on the trail the designers intended and the entire journey will take 15-20 hours. There are two levels of difficulty but the harder mode only increases the power of the enemy, which in my opinion was plenty hard on the normal level.
Whether you choose to replay for the sake of a bigger challenge or just replay to check out all the subtle stuff you probably missed on your first pass you will play this game at least twice. As aggravating as it is at times with repetitive levels and combat, there is something strangely compelling about Breakdown that will keep you coming back for more.
Despite some obvious flaws, Breakdown has probably had the single biggest impact on my perception of gaming since the original Half-Life. It’s not the prettiest game on the Xbox and there is nothing really new or innovative in the core gameplay design, but the unique virtual perspective, rewarding combat system, and a gripping storyline worthy of an Outer Limits episode makes this a game that every Xbox owner should at least play if not own.