Breakdown: The Obscure Gem Everyone Should Play
Breakdown. You probably haven’t heard of it and I’m not surprised.
Breakdown was a first-person action adventure game released back in 2004 for Microsoft’s original Xbox. Developed and published by Namco in Japan and North America and published by Electronic Arts in Europe, it’s an extremely obscure title that, according to sales estimates provided by VGCharts, was an abysmal commercial failure -- only selling around 12,000 units globally. Ouch!
Despite poor sales, Breakdown is probably one of the most innovative first-person shooters ever devised. (It even inspired the critically acclaimed gameplay of Mirror’s Edge.) It’s more than a decade old, but surpasses current video games in some aspects that, surprisingly, haven’t been replicated since.
The game’s story is excellent and engaging, if not a little cliché. We play as Derrick Cole, a guy who wakes up in a science facility with no memory of who he is or why he’s there. We go through the most immersive tutorial section I’ve ever played in a game ever—we learn how to look around, move, shoot and how to throw punches and kicks, all with a perfectly good reason to do so, being that we were just in a coma
After being given a sedative, a bunch of soldiers storm into the room and try to kill us. We’re narrowly saved by a woman named Alex. We’ve never met before, but she sure knows us.
I won’t spoil the story, but know that it involves taking down a lot of military soldiers and getting into more than a few fist fights with alien warriors called the T’lan, who are equipped with impenetrable energy shields that only Derrick can break through. This is where the hand-to-hand portion of the game’s combat system comes into play.
As the story progresses, you’ll meet a few more characters and it will get more complex and a lot less cliché than you might expect.
While this game is something I believe everyone should play—hence the title of this piece—it’s far from perfect. Shooting is much like you’d expect in any other first-person shooter, except that you can’t free aim at all. You use the A button to lock onto your target and pull the trigger. It works, but it’s a flawed mechanic that results in little marksmanship needed from the player, a lot of frustration—especially on the hardest difficulty setting and in later portions of the campaign—and taking lots of lead to the face. The latter aspect is made worse by the inability to regenerate health.
The hand-to-hand combat fares much better, and it’s immediately obvious why locking onto a target was chosen as opposed to free aiming. However, while the first-person fist fights are one of the game’s highlights. And in my books, it’s part of the reason Breakdown is such a unique and innovative game, things start to break down—no pun intended—when you’re faced with more than one T’lan warrior at a time.
Due to only being able to attack one target at a time and the narrow field of view offered by the immersive first-person perspective, it’s an absolute pain to take down two T’lan at a time. While your partner Alex will aggro one of them in the times when you’re not separated from her, there are still plenty of occasions where you’re expected to take on more than one threat at a time on your own.
These situations highlight the glaring flaw in the game’s lock-on mechanic, making you feel less like a badass supersoldier and more like an amateur boxer -- taking hits from behind and at the side as you desperately try to knock one guy on his ass and give yourself enough time to turn around and swing a few punches at the second guy before his buddy gets back up on his feet.
The combat system is unique, immersive and engaging, yet results in too many frustrating moments that shine a light on the messy, ugly face of its terribly flawed design.
Eating, Drinking and World Interaction
Another aspect of the game that stands out—and one that isn’t flawed by any means—is how health recovery and world interaction is handled. That is the pinnacle of what this title has to offer in regards to pure immersion; it’s also the most prominent element of the overall experience that I remembered from originally playing the game when I was younger.
When picking up weapons and collecting ammunition, most games simply have you aim at the object, press a button and POOF!, -- it disappears from where it was and is magically in your hand. And you only have to walk over ammunition to pick it up.
This isn’t the case in Breakdown, however. When you pick up weapons and ammo, you actually pick them up. Derrick will reach down, pick up the weapon, inspect it for a second or two, and then it’s added to your arsenal. Ammunition is handled in a similar fashion, with Derrick picking up sole magazines, looking at them for a moment and then tucking them away in his combat vest.
Here’s the kicker, though, and one of the little touches that makes this game so damned immersive, when you kill a soldier and he drops a gun you already own, Derrick will pick it up, eject the magazine, then drop the gun and just take the ammo -- exactly as you’d expect someone to do in real-life.
One of the downsides about the weapons is that there’s very few of them. If you include the frag grenade, there are only five weapons you’ll use in total, almost half of which you’ll pick up within the first hour of play time. The most peculiar thing about Breakdown’s arsenal— thought I’m not even sure it can be called that—is that its pistol acts very much as the equivalent to other games’ sniper weapons; it does more damage per bullet and is more accurate than the submachine gun.
This game has many things it can be faulted for, but world interaction is not one of them. It doesn’t stop with weapons and ammo, though. Every other action is performed the same realistic way, and with excellent animations for each. You heal by picking up burgers or ration bars and eating them. You can use vending machines to dispense cans of carbonated goodness to drink, too. All this is animated meticulously -- down to inserting a coin, pressing the button, and picking up the can from the dispensing tray.
You’ll open doors, swipe key cards, press lift buttons, absorb alien energy orbs, climb ladders, and do some light parkouring in this game. All are fully animated from an engaging first-person perspective, accompanied with superb and realistic sound bites. Looking down, you’ll see you’re an actual human being with feet, rather than a camera holding a gun.
It’s the closest thing to real world interaction any video game has ever come, prior to virtual reality gear hitting the market. In fact, a remaster or remake of this game would be a perfect way to show off what VR gaming has to offer.
The environments you’ll adventure through largely consist of grey hallways. In Breakdown's defense, this does make sense given the context and the location. However, this samey feeling will be alleviated with some outdoor sections and a spattering of interior designs that mix things up a bit.
Again, I’m keeping this vague, so as to not to spoil the experience for those who haven’t played it yet.
The music in Breakdown is another strong point. Fast, thumping beats will attack your ears while you’re in the midst of action -- whether you’re shooting soldiers or kicking some T’lan ass. During the quiet parts, you’ll sometimes be treated to some slow, creepy music that keeps you on edge and wondering whether there’ll be something or someone out to kill you around the corner.
The voice acting is also good, considering the game’s age, which adds to a solid audio experience all-round.
Go Hard or Go Home
If you don’t like it hard, then this game isn’t for you. I played it on the highest difficulty possible and it was a challenging experience -- though this may partially be due to the flaws in its design. I’ve no doubt fans of games such as Dark Souls and XCOM will be right at home here.
My Final Thoughts
Breakdown is probably the most memorable gaming experience I’ve ever had. Despite all the things this game does wrong, the idea behind it and the vision the development team clearly had for this project is well intact. It’s a great game that, in spite of its flaws, is one of the most unique, immersive, engrossing and engaging experiences gaming has to offer.
The real shame here is that the game hasn’t seen a reboot, remake, remaster, or any new installments in the series. That’s not so surprising considering the low sales figures, but I think this gem of a game should see some new treatment. This is not an experience that should be left to rot, forever living in the nether of obscure games no one has heard of.
Breakdown deserves to be played by anyone who has a serious appreciation for video games. It shouldn’t be left relegated to the dusty shelves of used game shops and cheap eBay listings. Play it, tell people about it, criticize it, do whatever you want with it. Just get the word out, whether it’s good or bad, and tear away the veil of obscurity shrouding an innovative title that deserves some serious attention.