During my first semester of college, I had a professor for Intro to Philosophy who took an almost hideous glee in screwing with the students' minds. One of his favorite tactics for doing so was, during the unit on Descartes, to talk about how, at any given time, the only thing we have to convince us that everything around us is real is our own belief that it is. Theoretically, everything you do or see or hear, over the course of your life, could be a deception.
Breakdown is a game about that possibility. It's an attempt to immerse you in an unreal world, from the viewpoint of someone who might be schizophrenic. From the beginning, you have no idea, within the context of the game, what might be real, what might not, and even whether reality itself is a possessed, dualistic trait.
Then you get to kick aliens in the head.
Don't go thinking this is all philosophy.
Breakdown starts when a man wakes up. He's told a few things right off the bat; his name is Derrick Cole, he's in a research facility in Japan, and somebody wants to run some tests on him. Before too long, he becomes aware of another fact: somebody wants him dead.
Derrick's saved at the last second by Alex Hendrickson, a woman who seems to know him, and who seems to be superhuman. Together, they make an attempt to escape the facility, but it's not going to be easy. The building has been overrun by black-ops commandos, a suspiciously recent earthquake has blocked off several of their escape routes, and the facility appears to have been involved in experiments upon the unstoppable alien warriors known as the T'lan, who are now free, and to judge by the fact that they're killing every human they see, they might be kind of mad.
Derrick's only advantage, besides having Alex for backup, is that he's got powers of his own, which are slowly reawakening. He's stronger and more durable than an ordinary human, can heal his wounds almost instantly by eating enough food, and with concentration, he can generate a bulletproof force field similar to the ones the T'lan use. More importantly, he can punch straight through the T'lan's fields, making him the only person in the building who can defeat them.
Unfortunately, Derrick might also be crazy. As he explores the building, he's subject to infrequent, but vivid hallucinations. Sometimes, a vision of a cat appears, as though telling him which way to go. Other times, he sees enemies as dead friends, himself as a fleshless skeleton, or a long stretch of an empty office's hallway as a set of ruins in the middle of an endless desert, where alien parasites feed on the plastic-wrapped bodies inside a mass grave.
These hallucinations are all blissfully temporary, but each of them leave questions as to whether they're actually real or not. Wounds inflicted on you during one of Derrick's episodes will still be there once he returns to "reality," but no one around him seems to notice anything happening. For that matter, there are occasional hints, albeit vague ones, that Alex herself might be a hallucination.
It doesn't hurt that the game starts when Derrick wakes up, after he's apparently slept for a very long time. Was he injured? Was it a head injury? No one tells him, and after you get about ten minutes in the game, there's no one left alive who could tell him.
That's the fun part, though. Breakdown is meant, from the beginning, to immerse you in Derrick's perspective as fully as possible. You'll eat, fight, get knocked over, jump, climb, inch hand-over-hand across ledges, do backflips, and fire guns, all of which you'll do through Derrick's eyes. It's an amazing experiment with the first-person viewpoint as a tool for storytelling, enabling you to identify with and be Derrick Cole as much as you possibly can... and he very well might be a schizophrenic, or dreaming, or precognitive, or in a terminal coma.
I can't even begin to tell you how cool I think that is.
Breakdown lasts ten to fifteen hours or so, not counting (frequent) restarts, and you'll spend every moment of it as Derrick. There are no storytelling shortcuts; you have to play through every moment, even ones in which nothing really happens. Breakdown is constructed not so much as a video game, with clearly labeled checkpoints and levels, but as a full day in someone's life, and you'll be there for all of it.
Think about a video game, and the various actions you perform within it, for a second. In most first-person games, if you pick something up, you generally just run over it and it shows up in your inventory. Derrick will actually bend down and grab items up off the floor, holding it up for brief inspection before shoving it in his pocket. He eats food, jamming it into the lower half of the screen while accompanied by chewing and swallowing sounds; he puts on clothes; and in one (unfortunately) memorable sequence, he throws up. As with the storytelling, there are no "dodges" here. Everything you do, you do as Derrick, from the smallest actions to the largest.
The overwhelming effect here is that it's very easy to suspend disbelief in Breakdown, especially if you've gone a while without dying. The only fly in the ointment is that while most of the character models are extraordinary, they tend to move unrealistically. Alex, in particular, moves a little too fast, like a video image run at double speed. Part of that might be the fact that she's, well, superhumanly fast and agile, but she still doesn't look real.
The environments in Breakdown have the same problem. They're at their best when you're in a truly alien situation, such as the aforementioned desert hallucination, but often, your surroundings tend to be slightly barren and unremarkable. Granted, this is true about almost every console FPS on the planet, with the exceptions of certain levels in Halo and maybe Deus Ex 2, but a touch of photorealism would've done Breakdown a world of good. There's nothing wrong here that a few more scattered items and a heavy dose of ragdoll physics (they make everything better, you know) couldn't cure. I'd love to see what this development team could do with, say, the Havok engine.
That aside, you'll often have a hard time noticing the environments, because Breakdown tends to kill you. I mentioned Derrick's superhuman durability earlier, but he's still made of meat parts, people are still firing machine guns at him, and the T'lan are really, really powerful. It's remarkably easy to get killed in this game, even with Alex at your back.
When you get into a gunfight, Breakdown is hard to distinguish from other first-person shooters, except maybe by its relative lack of complexity. You've got a limited arsenal of firearms, a pocketful of grenades (which, unlike most FPSes, you can't "cook" by holding down the fire button), and a limited auto-targeting system, which usually hinders more than it helps.
The problem is that targeting limits Derrick's ability to effectively dodge; he'll circle-strafe relative to his opponent until either you turn off the targeting system, you switch targets, or your target drops. It tends to be very effective against a single opponent, or when you're trying to keep track of an enemy from behind cover, but it'll get you killed against a group. Under Breakdown's default controls, auto-targeting kicks on the moment you pull a weapon, but fortunately, you can switch it off with a minimum of fuss.
That wouldn't be a problem, except that the gun-wielding opponents in Breakdown are some of the smarter enemies I've seen. They don't rush blindly after you, they try to flush you out of hiding with grenades, and they stay in groups. They aren't very tactically minded, in that they don't tend to move at all once they start firing, but they know better than to rush blindly around a corner. That puts them head and shoulders above about seventy-five percent of FPS opponents right there. If you go after them without any forethought or planning, you'll probably get ventilated in short order.
Another minor complaint about gunplay in Breakdown is that, once again under the default controls, the grenade button (white) is a bit too close to the jump button (black). This is slightly tiresome. You'll probably want to rearrange those buttons the first chance you get.
I suppose that's the first real problem with the game. First-person has traditionally been the domain of shooters, outside of exceptionally lame-ass adventure games. In Breakdown, shooting feels a bit like an afterthought. The further you get into the game, though, the more complications are added to the system--explosive enemies, bizarre environments, close quarters, fighting a tank while you're racing towards it in a nearly-uncontrollable rail car--and the more interesting it gets. It's just a shame that there isn't more to it.
Hand-to-hand combat, on the other hand, is where a lot of the depth is. You start off with an arsenal of punches and kicks, including a baseball slide and a truly vicious uppercut, but as Derrick's powers grow, you'll gain access to more impressive moves. Several of them require him to expend T'langen, the mysterious substance that's apparently the source of his abilities, but they let Derrick generate Street Fighter-esque fireballs and crowd-clearing shockwaves.
Most of your moves are used via a combination of the triggers and the position of the left thumbstick, with the exception of your (frankly, useless) backflip and evasion roll. It's not quite Tekken, but there are more moves in here than you might expect, and all of your attacks can actually prove to be useful.
Breakdown seems to reward you if you fight like they're supposed to teach you to in Special Forces training; knock a guy down and stay on him until he's no longer a threat. A single T'lan, even late in the game, is powerful enough to punch your ticket; they have quite a few instant knockdown moves, and if you get knocked down, they're probably going to come over and punch your teeth down your neck. Further, taking any sort of disorienting hit is genuinely disorienting, since your vision clouds up and Derrick's head snaps back.
Therefore, your best bet is to hit them with one of your knockdown moves, like the mule kick or uppercut, and keep on them until they die. This is about the only way to take down more than one T'lan at a time; keep them on the floor, and don't let up. The further you go, the harder this'll get, as later T'lan warriors have stealth fields, laser cannons, claws, or are just much, much faster than you. You'll have the advantage sometimes of just being able to fall back on Derrick's expensive T'langen powers, especially his shockwave, but most often, you'll need to get a little tactical.
For most of the game, Alex will be by your side. She's practically unkillable, and will take on just about anyone with either her knife or pistol. She's best used as a distraction, so you don't have to fight two T'lan at once or you can sneak around an enemy. She's a great character--I can't shake this feeling that most other development houses would've completely undercut her supposed competence by dressing her in a much more revealing outfit--but when the shooting starts, she's often dead weight.
In between fights for your life, Breakdown feels a bit like an adventure game. There aren't much in the way of puzzles to solve, but there's a little bit of platforming (which I utterly despise in first person, especially the damn laser corridor), item hunting, and problem solving. It's mostly common-sense stuff, like finding a keycard or trying to avoid being set on fire, but it breaks up the game nicely.
It's actually kind of surprising; the game doesn't rely exclusively on its selling points for its gameplay, but instead throws a lot of stuff at the wall and sees what sticks. Sometimes, the game can be really dull, as you pass through corridor after empty corridor, but other times, it's capable of shockingly intense action sequences. An early example is your first encounter with the T'lan, before Derrick's able to injure them; they can kill you in two hits, you can't fight back, and they're standing around your exit door. Evade them, get to that door... and you'll find it's closed via a heavy valve system, which'll take precious seconds to open, seconds during which there are two T'lan closing in on you from behind.
It's powerful stuff, made all the more so by the perspective, and Namco knows this. Between the hallucinations, the use of jarringly discordant music at carefully measured intervals, the alien nature of the T'lan, and some outright manipulation of the player's emotions, Breakdown is capable of both getting your adrenaline up, or scaring the holy hell out of you.
For a shooter/adventure title, Breakdown's pretty long; your first run should last about twelve hours, counting retries. After that, you'll definitely want to play through it again, since the final couple of hours contain revelations that paint the entire game in a new light. (The children in the Alpha Section, for example, play much more of a role in the game than you might think.)
Breakdown's storyline is actually a wonder to behold; it's complex and interesting without breaking down into a totally self-contradictory mass, or being so utterly impenetrable that every five fans will have six interpretations of its plot and both its endings.
That doesn't make it any the less straightforward, though. One run through the game, and you've seen most of what there is to see. A few plot branches or optional encounters would've given this a lot more variety and playtime than it already has.
It also occasionally suffers from its own ground rules. A few encounters are made more difficult than they have to be by the game's insistence upon immersion. Not only is platforming utterly insane, especially if you're dodging tripwires, but trying to pick something up while you're under fire is a recipe for frustration. During a pitched boss fight, if I make a break for the health items scattered around the battlefield, and get my ass blown off because Derrick paused to admire the polygon count on the stupid ration bar, which is just like the fifty-three ration bars he has picked up and consumed up to this point, I am about to--and do!--get apocalyptically pissed off. The ability to adjust Derrick's pace on certain actions, such as picking things up, would make Breakdown much less irritating at certain key junctures.
You'll also need some time to get used to the hand-to-hand combat. It took me a few hours before I could reliably throw a punch, because I kept misjudging the distance that they traveled. If there were to be a Breakdown 2, it'd do well to include a practice room, complete with a punching dummy. The mirrors just aren't cutting it.
I should say one other thing, before this review's over: if first-person shooters make you nauseous, or give you a headache, you have no business being in the same room as a copy of Breakdown, let alone playing it. There are moments in the game, usually involving Derrick getting his face caved in, that made even me woozy, and I generally don't have a problem with this kind of thing.
There are a few other small things I could mention, like the lack of a quick-save feature or Derrick's near-Sam-Fisher-esque levels of inaccuracy with a pistol, but really, they'd just be nit-picking. Breakdown, when you first play it, feels more like a storytelling experiment than an actual game. Once you get into it, you'll find a flawed, but quite playable shooter/brawler underneath it all. It's not going to be to everyone's taste--it's a little shallow for the FPS players, and its sheer linearity may put off the adventure gamers--but Breakdown represents a solid step forward for what a video game is capable of. If nothing else, it's definitely an attempt to do something new, and that alone is worthy of support.