Or: How to experience intense hallucinations and vomiting in the first person perspective.
"Jacob, are you playing that Breakout game again? Oh, no, wait. It's Beatdown! No, no, BREAKDOWN! It's called Breakdown!!! Right?"
Date Published: 3/16/2004
This writeup contains spoilers!
Every so often, a game comes along that challenges the boundries of a given genre.
First person shooters are a class of games in which the boundries need to be challenged. It is a genre which has flourished in the past years with little innovation in gameplay, although the graphical aspect has improved by leaps and bounds. Breakdown is a game which seeks to push past the established formulas already present in the FPS field.
It is a goal which can only be said to have been a partial success.
Your name is Derrick Cole. You wake up on a table in a research lab with complete amnesia. Suddenly, the lab is raided by mysterious soldiers, and even more mysterious superhuman soldiers. You are lying on the table in a tranquilized stupor when three armed men rush into your room, about to kill you. Suddenly a mysterious woman named Alex rushes in, kills all three soldiers, and rescues you. And thus, your adventure begins to discover your identity, what had happened to you, and at the same time thwart a world takeover by a race of superhuman beings.
The human experimentation in this game is based around a drug called "T'langen", which could best be described as a performance-enhancing hallucinogenic mutagen. Derrick is dosed on about 37.5 mg of the stuff, and receives a booster dose during the game - this figures heavily into both the gameplay and storyline experience.
That's the goal behind Breakdown. The entire game is experienced from the first-person perspective. Everything. Yes, one of the first things that happens is that you vomit in a toilet. This is just the beginning.
Everything from eating hamburgers, to getting the snot kicked out of you, to climbing ladders, to driving a Jeep, to getting injected with drugs. It's all done with a viewpoint from the eyes of Derrick Cole. There is no deviation, whatsoever, from this perspective, no matter what is happening in the game. The idea is for the player to feel as if they are in the game, as if they are Derrick Cole.
Does it work? We'll be getting to that momentarily.
There is another gimmick here as well. The game is actually, in part, a first person brawler.
Yes, you just heard me correctly. And crazily enough, Namco pulled it off.
Ah, yes, the meat of any game. This is something of special interest to a game that is as experimental as Breakdown. Really, the gameplay can be broken down into two parts.
First Person Shooter
A decent portion of the game is played in FPS mode. This portion of the gameplay can really only be described as mediocre. It's not terrible, but it's definitely not very good. Derrick Cole is fairly proficient in small arms, and can find the following weapons throughout the game.
- Pistol - Basic firearm. Nothing special here.
- Submachine Gun - Bigger clip, automatic fire. Again, nothing special.
- Rocket Launcher - It launches rockets, you fool.
- Laser - The only weapon that can affect T'lan. More on this later.
- Grenades - These actually are terrible. The blast radius is just too small to be effective in most combat situations.
There are a number of problems with the shooting aspect of the game.
First, the AI really isn't up to par with the standards of modern gaming. The soldiers you meet in the game just don't show intelligent behavior or tactics. If you don't mind my telling you, you can drop an enemy soldier everytime by following the "Two-burst, attack" rule. Basically, you can stay behind cover until they fire two bursts, then jump out and waste them while they reload. Every. Single. Time.
The worst part, though, is the autoaiming and targeting system. If you play this game, you'll try turning it off. When you realize that aiming is all but impossible without it, you'll quickly turn it back on. But then you'll notice that if you're locked onto an enemy, you can't turn away unless you drop the lock. Then you'll realize how annoying that is when you're surrounded by enemies in hand-to-hand combat. Even worse, with the autoaiming on, the misses are rather random, making aiming an unneeded skill for the most part. But with the autoaiming off, you can't really shoot an opponent unless you're within about ten feet of them. In short, the entire shooting aspect of the game is based around using cover, and strategic reloading. How very disappointing.
First Person Brawler
This is where the game shows a bit of promise. There are a race of warriors you have to deal with called T'lan. Unfortunately, they are unaffected by guns. Since Derrick is a bit superhuman himself, for most of the game there is only one other recourse: quickly and brutally beat them to death.
As far as first person brawling goes, there is no match. I don't think anyone's even tried.
Combat is executed with a combination of the right thumbstick, and the left and right triggers. For example, if you press the left trigger, you jab. If you hold up on the right thumbstick and press the left trigger, you front kick your opponent in the jaw. Certain combinations will combo, such as L,L,R. Blocking is done by pressing the left thumbstick.
Combat with the T'lan is actually pretty fun, as the damn things are really strong. The disorientation and blurring of vision that result from getting slammed in the head is rather pleasing, if a bit headache inducing, and is completely realistic, considering the time it takes to recover from just a human-strength swing in real life.
Once you pick up the ability to block bullets, you can actually brawl with the soldiers if you like, but it's generally better to just shoot them.
The first person brawling is actually really innovative, and Breakdown does a fair job considering its lack of predecessors in the field. One problem with the T'lan, though, is that they too have really crappy AI. You can actually run away from them, and watch as they stop dead at some invisible barrier, refusing to chase you any further. In a game that concentrates so much on immersion, unrealistic mistakes such as this cost dearly.
This is an important aspect of any first person shooter, even more so than other games.
In Breakdown, this is, unfortunately, where the game really falls flat.
The levels are all really linear. There is one way to progress, and that's usually through the nearest unlocked door. There are locked doors everywhere, and you get the impression that there was supposed to be some exploration involved, but what you end up with is a progression that reminds one unpleasantly of many of the shooting games in the arcades. If there were multiple ways to approach each "level" (there aren't really "levels" in Breakdown, just generalized areas), then the replay value would suddenly go through the roof. But as it stands, you are going to be led by the nose through each level. Too bad.
Bland, for the most part. The animations of characters aren't particularly compelling in most cases, although there are a few moments of brilliance. (Solus, the big baddie, is a good example.) The texturing, to be frank, sucks. It gets the point across, though, and the T'lan themselves are actually intruiging in appearance. Don't expect to be impressed by the graphics, it's the concept that is the key here.
These are actually pretty decent. The voice acting is passable, but some of the little touches (like being able to hear Derrick switch between breathing normally and panting in exhaustion) are actually pretty nice. There is a decent array of sound effects, and nothing in particular sticks out as being bad.
This game is certainly different, and the execution of certain things are a big part of the appeal of the game.
Of particular interest is that Derrick is quite clearly tripping like mad during many portions of the game. This aspect is actually pulled off stunningly well. You'll walk through a door and all of a sudden everything just fuzzes out. Then things go crazy. During one portion of the game, you walk through a door in the research building only to find yourself in the middle of a desert. Behind you, you see the door you just came through, and it actually leads back into the building. Once you battle your way through the desert, you come through a door, and when you turn back around you see... building. No desert anywhere. At one point, there are faces made of blood which will speak to you, then melt off of the wall. At another point, you are attacked by a demonic looking Alex, but if you come back after a few moments, you see that the attackers were just T'lan that you thought were Alex. At another point, you get to watch the skin melt off of your arm, and then you manipulate objects with your now-skeletal hand. Some of the hallucinations are genuinely creepy, and very well done. I only wish there was more of it.
On the gripping hand, though, is the story execution. Simply put: it's terrible. For having amnesia, Derrick is really not looking very hard for who he is. Since Alex is right there, and knew him before he lost his memory, you'd figure he'd want to ask a few questions, but for the most part he seems content walking around and killing people. Again, in a game the concentrates so much on immersion, such blatantly unrealistic aspects really hurt.
I have one other complaint, and this is a really petty gripe. Much of the background is discovered by reading random clipboards. When you read one, you pick it up, and the actual text on the clipboard is a blur. You see the message on the clipboard in subtitles on the bottom of the screen, at a rate of three subtitles per page, then you have to flip the page. At an average of about eight words per subtitle, it means you have to spend an inordinate amount of time reading just a few simple sentences. It's a small matter, but really, really annoying and again, unrealistic.
Breakdown is good, but in a way that hurts. In a manner very similiar to Vexx, the player is left disappointed by how much further the game could have been taken. Being able to explore what's behind all those locked doors would be great, and would add a whole new dimension of discovery to the game. A lot more backstory and filling in of the plot would be nice too, which would make the game feel like less of a cheesy, ripped off sci-fi plot, and more like a well-crafted story. The game could use immense improvements in AI and game mechanics, and Derrick's unique abilities could have meant some more original moments in the game. As it stands though, the game is only moderately good, and that's only because it has some really original aspects and brief moments of greatness.
Breakdown is now available for $20 or less in most places. It is a likely candidate for a five-day rental, or for a really cheap digital fix.
Owning the game