Breakdown Review

  • First Released Mar 16, 2004
  • XBOX

Breakdown is unable to bear the weight of its own innovation, so it's really just a pretty good action game that you can't help but feel could have been so much more.

When you hear the words "first-person action game," you can most likely quickly amass a pretty clear picture of what to expect from said game. This is because for years upon years now, the category of first-person action titles has managed to survive using the same core ideas and gameplay mechanics over and over and over again. Sure, innovations pop up here and there, but it's a real rarity when you see or hear of anyone really setting out to do something truly original with the concept. Namco's latest first-person action title, Breakdown, is of this rare breed. Breakdown seeks to take you to a level of immersion rarely attempted in a first-person title, both through its method of storytelling and its style of gameplay. For this fact alone, Breakdown is absolutely a laudable effort, as it does truly bring some new and exciting ideas to the table. Ideas aside, however, Breakdown's underlying game design is unable to bear the weight of its own innovation, so it's really just a pretty good action game that you can't help but feel could have been so much more.

Looking through the eyes of supersoldier Derrick Cole, you will see and experience many familiar science fiction-based clichés, but at least you'll do so in a unique and immersive way.
Looking through the eyes of supersoldier Derrick Cole, you will see and experience many familiar science fiction-based clichés, but at least you'll do so in a unique and immersive way.

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Breakdown's storyline, plot, and characters are perhaps its least remarkable aspect, though this is not to say they're particularly bad in any way. In the game, you play as Derrick Cole, an unfortunate soul who wakes up in a sterile-looking laboratory, completely devoid of memory. Just as he begins to grasp onto some marginal bearings of his identity and what is going on, the lab is suddenly attacked by a group of elite soldiers. Just as Derrick is about to be killed, he is miraculously rescued by a mysterious woman named Alex. Without diving too far into the realm of spoilers, it can be said that Breakdown's story from here on out primarily revolves around Derrick rediscovering his true identity, learning about his role as the unwitting participant of an experiment that gave him extraordinary powers, and unearthing the mystery surrounding a race of superhuman warriors known as the T'Lan, who are threatening the world.

Breakdown wears its story inspirations without even so much as a hint of concealment. The game is essentially equal parts Half-Life and generic anime, both in its basic plot and its story arc. On paper, these aren't necessarily bad places to draw inspiration from, but Breakdown really doesn't do an especially good job telling its story. The primary problem in this regard is the main character of Derrick himself. Derrick is supposedly an amnesiac, and yet somehow, he comes across as the least inquisitive man ever to walk the Earth. Aside from a few instances where characters will ask Derrick direct questions--in which he is given the choice of two possible answers--Derrick never really attempts to figure out what's going on around him, no matter how bizarre things get. Instead, the game simply goes out of its way to explain everything to you through in-engine cutscenes and scripted sequences that appear frequently. While you are appropriately educated through this method, it gives the story an exceptionally hackneyed feel. Additionally, the plot itself never really goes anywhere particularly interesting, and in fact, it becomes downright silly toward the later portions of the game.

However dumb Breakdown's plot may be, it becomes far more forgivable thanks to some rather innovative situations and sequences that give the game a much more interesting feel than it would have otherwise. Though many of these sequences are scripted, the game's first-person perspective gives these sequences a much more unique feel. In one sequence, you are sent flying off of a rooftop (as the result of a blast from a helicopter-fired missile) and crash through a grove of trees all the way to the ground. Though the sequence itself isn't terribly original, the sense of disorientation and panic you experience as you fall toward the ground is unique. Another example involves a series of apparent hallucinations/daydreams that Derrick experiences throughout the game. Walking through certain doors or even just approaching certain areas of a level will cause a TV static-like effect to appear, and suddenly Derrick will be in a peculiar dream state, seeing objects or people that are not there or experiencing a completely new environment that was not there a mere moment ago. These sequences and experiences are a nice break from the action, and really, the only criticism that can be mounted against them is that they simply don't come into play often enough.

Breakdown contains a number of extremely cool sequences. Unfortuately, there just aren't enough of them.
Breakdown contains a number of extremely cool sequences. Unfortuately, there just aren't enough of them.

These types of sequences are only one of several ways in which Breakdown attempts to completely immerse you in its experience. Like most standard first-person games, you control your character using the left thumbstick, and you can look around by moving the right thumbstick. When you happen upon an object or item that can be interacted with, by pressing the X button Derrick will use his right arm to interact with that element. For instance, when attempting to pick up an ammunition clip off the ground, pressing X once makes Derrick pick the clip up, and pressing it a second time allows him to store the clip. By pressing B, Derrick can simply toss the clip. When climbing a ladder or opening a door, you press X to interact with it, and the animation sequence that follows gives you a much more lifelike feeling to the action than you often get in this type of game. Breakdown features a fairly wide array of these little types of actions too, which range from climbing onto a ledge, to eating a hamburger, and even to, of all things, vomiting. While the latter activity mentioned could be done with or without, depending on your personal tastes (pardon the pun), you can't argue that the game doesn't try its best to really make you feel like you're viewing the world through Derrick Cole's eyes.

While Breakdown's developers were apparently working to make the game as immersive as possible, somewhere along the way they forgot to make the remaining portions of the game nearly as captivating. The trouble begins with Breakdown's combat system, which is bland, repetitive, and occasionally ineffective. Derrick is capable of both engaging in hand-to-hand and weapons-based combat, depending on who he's fighting against. Either method works against human soldiers, but aside from one effective weapon, he's pretty much relegated to hand-to-hand combat against the T'Lan warriors. The hand-to-hand combat is definitely the better and more interesting of the two methods, since Derrick has a decent array of punches, kicks, and similar strikes with which to pummel his opponent. Derrick can also use a few different types of projectile attacks, based upon his experimental powers, when engaged in hand-to-hand combat, which come in especially handy when facing multiple opponents. The only real qualm about the hand-to-hand combat is that despite the available listing of moves, for the most part, all you really need to do is block then punch, block then punch, and so on and so forth until the enemy in front of you is defeated. The only time a strategy is employed is when Derrick is facing a numbers disadvantage, in which case you'll be playing a rather dull game of hit-and-run until you can clear the area.

Though you can engage in both hand-to-hand and weapons-based combat in Breakdown, both types suffer from issues that make them more problematic than anything else.
Though you can engage in both hand-to-hand and weapons-based combat in Breakdown, both types suffer from issues that make them more problematic than anything else.

As for the weapon-based combat, it is extremely limited in both scope and design. Derrick will only encounter a fairly short roster of weapons, including a basic pistol, a machine gun, a rocket launcher, grenades, and a specialized laser weapon that can damage the T'Lan warriors. The main problem with these weapons is that their effectiveness is rather oddly scaled. The machine gun is all but useless unless you're within 10 feet of your target, and by getting that up close and personal, you're basically leaving yourself open to a heavy barrage of gunfire. Oddly enough, the handgun is much better about taking out soldiers from a distance anyhow, though it still experiences some rather random misses. It isn't even just a matter of aiming properly either, because the game features an autotargeting system that is supposed to focus all your fire on one select foe, yet it doesn't do an especially good job--except when you're up close. You can turn the targeting off, but that makes it even harder to hit much of anything. Fortunately, the "big explosion" weapons, like the rocket launcher and the grenades, perform their tasks fairly well, but predictably, the available ammunition for these weapons is somewhat limited.

Breakdown's combat is made just that much more problematic by some rather spotty enemy AI. For the most part, enemies are specifically assigned to a certain spot in a level, and rarely will they ever move beyond that spot, even if they know you're nearby. They're smart enough to kind of wander slowly back and forth, depending on how close you are, and, of course, they know how to pull the triggers of their assigned weapons until you're dead, but that's really about it. Some of the T'Lan warriors have a bit more initiative and will chase after you, but most of them aren't nearly as fast as you, so it's fairly easy to get away from them when need be. Really, the only challenge from soldiers or the T'Lan comes from numbers and not much else. On the game's highest difficulty setting, this does improve slightly but not anywhere near enough to meet the curve for AI in modern action gaming. On the plus side, your cohort Alex's AI is actually quite adept at keeping up with you, and she rarely ever gets stuck anywhere inconvenient. However, she's nearly useless during combat and works far more usefully as a bullet shield than anything else.

Breakdown's combat wouldn't require such heavy criticism if there were more to the game's design. Unfortunately, there really isn't. Breakdown bills itself as an action adventure game, but the adventure portions of the game are pretty underdeveloped. Occasionally, you'll need to pick up key cards, gas masks, and other random items to traverse certain sections of the game's levels, but for the most part, the whole game simply revolves around finding the nearest unlocked door, going through it, fighting some bad guys, and moving on. Sometimes, this isn't even the case, as you can go for stretches of a few minutes or more of simply walking through door after door after door without encountering anything. There also just isn't really any challenge to speak of when it comes to navigating your way around levels either. There's really no exploratory element to the game whatsoever, and essentially, the first unlocked door you come upon almost every time is precisely the right way to go; the bevy of locked doors you'll come across never, ever become a factor. At times, it almost seems as though the developers had grander intentions as to what to do with some of these empty level sections and locked doors, but unfortunately, they're little more than window dressing here.

When it comes to graphics, Breakdown's visuals are as much give as they are take. From a purely technical standpoint, the game doesn't really do anything particularly special. Though the game runs at a very steady frame rate, it's sort of hard for it not to, considering the fact that there's rarely ever more than a few enemies onscreen at once. Additionally, the game's background environments don't really push much in the way of polygons, since they contain a lot of bland, repetitive textures and set pieces that just don't look very good at all. In terms of animation, though some of the enemies and Alex move pretty well, that's about it. During cutscenes, the animations of the characters talking to you are downright hysterical, with flailing arms and overly gesticulated motions being thrown about. Derrick himself ultimately suffers from the worst animation, and though you rarely ever get a look at him during the game, when you do catch a reflection of him in a mirror or via your horribly blocky shadow, it's not pretty.

What the game lacks in technical prowess, however, it does manage to make up for in aesthetic value. The game's visual style really shows the mix between its more traditional sci-fi roots and its anime-based inspiration. Though most of the human characters are fairly generic looking, the designs for the T'Lan are intriguingly grotesque and look like something H.R. Geiger might come up with if he were to collaborate with an anime studio. Though the game's environments are decisively bland all around, in most cases, this does set the mood fairly well because you are supposed to be trekking around this massive, sterile military research lab. If nothing else, it captures this atmosphere pretty well. Derrick's hallucinations are perhaps the most visually captivating aspects of the game, and they are exceptionally well done. Again, the only shame about them is that they simply don't come into play often enough.

Breakdown's graphics don't break any new ground, but they certainly have an aesthetically pleasing quality to them.
Breakdown's graphics don't break any new ground, but they certainly have an aesthetically pleasing quality to them.

Breakdown's sound design is similarly double-edged. The game's dialogue isn't especially good, mostly because the writing here is almost painfully forced, trying its hardest to explain everything it can without actually having to have Derrick ask any questions. Fortunately, the voice actors who are reading the dialogue manage to surpass the writing by quite a wide margin, so while the dialogue is campy, it isn't awful. During the game, you'll experience a decent array of gun sounds, combat effects, and such, and for the most part, it's all pretty well done. The soundtrack is probably the game's best audio feature, and though none of it really sticks out, it sets the mood where needed and serves as solid background ambience.

Breakdown is about as tragically good a game as you will ever encounter in this generation of console gaming. This is a game that wants to be so much more than it is, and yet the final product simply doesn't manage to achieve these lofty aspirations. However, this does not mean that Breakdown isn't worth playing, because it absolutely is. Breakdown is an average action game that happens to feature some exceedingly cool, though unfortunately fleeting, moments of brilliance, and for anyone looking for something new and interesting in the genre of first-person action titles, these moments of exceptionality make the game worth a look. Though Breakdown won't blow you away from start to finish, at times you'll certainly be impressed with what it attempts to do.

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