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Game Over Online ~ Breakdown (c) Namco

Breakdown (c) Namco

Published: Friday, March 5th, 2004 at 06:40 PM
Written By: Thomas Wilde

It's strange that it's taken so long for a game like Breakdown to get made. You'd think that, given the ongoing preoccupation with first-person shooters, someone would've thought before now to experiment with the format.

Then again, maybe Breakdown could have only happened now, as the gap between movies and games starts to get increasingly narrow. You could call Breakdown a first-person brawler, as its gameplay is largely oriented around finding a large mean thing and punching it until it falls over, but that's a capsule summary. It doesn't get anywhere near the big picture.

Breakdown is focused around a first-person perspective as a method of immersion. At all times, the game is meant to make you feel as though you're there. Look down, and you'll see your legs. Get punched, and you'll go reeling backward before you fall on your ass. Health pickups take the form of cans of juice and ration bars, both of which your character picks up, opens, and jams into the lower half of the screen, accompanied by appropriate sound effects. If you pick up a weapon you already have, you'll yank out the clip, study it for a second, then pocket it and discard the empty gun, which'll clatter on the floor.

More importantly, when your character hallucinates, you really do see it. Breakdown is interesting that way; in a game that's meant to communicate an interactive experience in a more immersive manner than anything that's come before it, the game itself is largely about the ways in which your senses can be deceived.

In Japan, in the future, a soldier named Derrick Cole wakes up, with no memory and what might be schizophrenia. People keep appearing and disappearing all around him, jumping in and out of reality. They'd be easy to dismiss as hallucinations, if one of them hadn't knocked over a machine.

Cole is put through some tests, before his day suddenly gets a lot worse. Soldiers raid the facility with orders to shoot anything that moves, and a recent earthquake has seriously damaged the building. Fortunately, Alex, a woman who claims to be an old army buddy of Cole's, shows up at the last possible second to save his life, and provides both exposition and backup as you attempt to escape the building.

It sounds simple: using Cole's bare fists and a couple of acquired guns, sneak past or beat the hell out of a small paramilitary strike team, and maybe find out who sent them while you're at it. That's before the aliens show up.

The T'lan are a race of warriors, seemingly either bred or biologically modified for specific combat tasks, and each come equipped with a personal force field. They're stronger than humans, they can't be stopped, and they don't seem interested in talking.

Whatever's happened to Cole somehow involves the T'lan. The further you get into Breakdown, the more Cole learns, and the more power he gains, until Cole, with his bare hands, is capable of beating the hell out of these theoretically invincible monsters. Even better, he can now block bullets, using a force field that's strikingly similar to that of the T'lan themselves.

While Breakdown does have a few firearms in it, ranging from a simple high-caliber pistol to a heavy laser rifle, the focus of the game is squarely on hand-to-hand combat, which is in turn more realistic than cinematic.

Cole is stronger and faster than an ordinary human, but just being able to hurt a T'lan doesn't mean you'll be taking them on two and three at a time without any trouble. One punch from one of the warrior grunts, and you'll be sucking floor. To win, you need to hit first, hit hard, and don't let up until they drop. Part of that is because getting hit is genuinely and somewhat realistically disorienting; you'll go reeling backward, your field of vision rapidly changes, and you'll usually lose track of the guy who hit you. Worse luck, if he knocks you down, he's probably going to come over and stomp on your face before you can get back up.

Sometimes, that's mitigated by Alex being around. As CPU sidekicks go, she's a pretty good one; while she can't hurt the T'lan like Cole can, she can certainly distract them, thus letting you take on a crowd of aliens one at a time. Sometimes, she even gives good advice, and, most importantly, she's not kidnap bait. You don't have to rescue her every five seconds the way you would in a lot of games. (It's kind of annoying that she has a broader, more acrobatic skillset than Cole does, but you can't have everything. Breakdown is already dizzying enough without throwing handsprings and cartwheels into the control scheme. Besides, Alex can't punch an alien warrior across a room.)

When you're fighting other people, you'll probably need guns, as running up to someone and punching them usually gives them the chance to empty a clip into your stomach. Breakdown features a decent weapons-lock system, where you shuffle between targets by pressing the A button, but this is, again, a relatively realistic game. It's not Rainbow Six 3 or anything, but firing off a full clip from a submachinegun, all at once, will just waste ammunition. Short, controlled bursts from a reasonable distance are the best way to actually hit what you're shooting at. You can also pick up fragmentation grenades from dead enemies.

The game isn't all combat, though. There are long stretches where, with no enemies in sight, you'll be creeping through wreckage or avoiding traps. One hallway features a sliding laser array straight out of the Resident Evil movie, and another gives you thirty seconds to drop down through a long ventilation shaft before a series of limb-chopping fans start back up.

My favorite sequences in the game, as of right now, are the ones where Cole is helpless, facing down opponents he can't yet defeat. Breakdown is good at that; just when you think you've got everything under control, it throws you a curveball, and suddenly you're nearly defenseless again.

At one point early on, you'll be surrounded by T'lan that you can't injure, and who can kill you with two or three good hits; the only way to survive is to find a way around and through them. At another point, cornered by an alien-human-robot hybrid, you have to outrun it while simultaneously finding the valves to open the entrance to the sewers, dealing with a couple of stray commando hit squads, and carefully avoiding the tripwires some mad bastard has strewn everywhere in the base. For a game that's going to live or die by the strength of its combat, Breakdown is perhaps at its most intense when you aren't fighting.

Breakdown is, thusly, a study in contrasts: a fighter that's at its best outside combat, and a video game based around an immersive experience while simultaneously dealing in themes of surreality. It's an experimental title, and if it succeeds, could do a lot to shake up the somewhat-stagnant world of first-person shooters.

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