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Breakdown (Xbox) artwork

Breakdown (Xbox) review

"The problem with modern gaming is that for most of the time, developers aren't given the opportunity to innovate. Once the life blood of the industry, innovation has since gone the way of dodo with many new releases now consisting of sequels, remakes, licenses or remade licensed sequels. The risks are always great, but when something new comes along that breaks from the mold and dares to be different, the rewards can be immense. Of course, the exact opposite can be said to be true as was evidenc..."

The problem with modern gaming is that for most of the time, developers aren't given the opportunity to innovate. Once the life blood of the industry, innovation has since gone the way of dodo with many new releases now consisting of sequels, remakes, licenses or remade licensed sequels. The risks are always great, but when something new comes along that breaks from the mold and dares to be different, the rewards can be immense. Of course, the exact opposite can be said to be true as was evidenced by the spate of FMV games seen during the mid 1990's. Where was your God then hrmm?!? Being the double edged sword that it is, innovation can either work for the developer or against them. In the right hands it can be a potent weapon, but when wielded incorrectly bad things have been known to happen. With their sword in hand, Namco have taken a swing at the FPS genre with the intent of carving something new and unique. And in that they have fashioned Breakdown, the world's first FPF, or first person fighter for the acronym impaired. As good as the FPF concept may sound on paper, I have to wonder if Breakdown is simply going to be yet another paved step on the road to Hell...

Borrowing heavily from cliched plot element #87243, Breakdown begins in a top secret laboratory deep underground where a man named Derek Cole has woken with amnesia. Not sure of who he is or why he is there, Derek finds himself the subject of a series of unusual experiments that conveniently serve as a means to introduce players to the excellent controls. It's usually upon the completion of such tests that things invariably go wrong and Breakdown is no different. Laying drugged and helpless, players find themselves vulnerable when a team of highly trained soldiers break into the facility and begin executing everyone in sight. It's at this moment that a mysterious young woman makes her appearance and with the help of some wondrous technology, pulls Derek's ass from the fire. With your newest benefactor in tow and a desire to get the hell out of Dodge, the player must now guide Derek to safety while trying to ascertain their role in the events yet to come. There's a great mystery at hand and even though it begins with an over used cliche, the story manages to keep players interested none the less.

Being the world's first FPF, Namco have wisely seen fit to play it safe and have kept things as familiar as possible. Though initially annoying, the controls are fully customizable allowing players to freely replicate their favored Halo configurations. With everything feeling trim, taught and terrific it's time to test the limits and see exactly how far this new fighting system can be pushed. Via a combination of quick taps to the shoulder buttons and basic directional pad movements, Derek can dish out some surprisingly satisfying combo attacks. It may not have the depth of other more traditional fighters, but as a stepping stone to the future this system works incredibly well. By taking full advantage of the first person perspective, Breakdown subjects the player to the full force of each blow. Whether it's being received or delivered, every punch, kick and back handed slap really manages to hit home. With meaty sound effects and the visual impact with which to back them up, this unusual FPF concept seems to have what is required to make an entertaining game.

Next to the excellent fighting system however, Breakdown's gunplay comes as a complete anti-climax. With only a handful of weapons to be exploited and a limited amount of ammunition with which to do so, players will soon find themselves abandoning their guns altogether and returning to the more satisfying hands on action. Admittedly, it would seem that Namco were attempting to shift the focus of combat back to Breakdown's more innovative features, but in doing so they have limited what could have perfectly complimented the excellent fighting system. It's kind of like cutting your nose of despite your face with only a limited number of kitchen utensils at your disposal. Long time FPS players are also likely to balk at the inclusion of the auto targeting system. Please bear in mind though that while it does make for some incredibly lazy aiming, Breakdown is not a multiplayer game and as such its inclusion shouldn't pose too much of a strain on the player's ethics. If it still offends however, some solace can be found in the fact that this travesty against all that is righteous can be disabled at anytime.

There's certainly something to be said about Namco's willingness to take a chance and try something different in order to make a game stand out. Metal Gear Solid showed us how much fun lurking in the shadows could be while Duke Nuke'em gave many of us our first look at the female form. Breakdown ups this ante of perversion by presenting players with their maiden first person vomit experience. Yes that's right! It's heads down, bums up and hello again lunch. I raise this point not in bad taste, but as an example of exactly how far Namco are prepared to push the whole first person experience. Breakdown is unique in that many of the actions that automatically occur in other, less immersive FPS titles, are shown here in excruciating detail. Whereby energy would traditionally be replenished by walking over a medkit, Breakdown has an animated sequence showing the player's hands opening a can of juice and raising it to the bottom of the screen as if they were really drinking from it. With all this highly realistic juice guzzling going on, I guess we can be thankful that Derek never feels the need to go to the toilet. For some reason though the none too appealing prospect of a first person rest stop seems that much closer today than it did before...

As novel as this ''hands-on'' concept may sound, it's not long before the shine begins to fade thanks its almost constant interference with the pacing of the game. When Derek stops to pick up a clip in the middle of a fire fight only to take hits while examining it, I have to ask what gives? The frustration felt in such situations is only compounded when Namco's desire to create a higher degree of realism in the environments is taken into account. This is most obviously evident by the fact that a good portion of the doors in each level can only be opened manually. The sheer number of times the player must stop to perform this menial task makes the whole process feel more like a chore than a game. The same can be said of the brainless level design that forces progress along a set pre-determined path. The way through to the next area is always, (repeated for emphasis) always advertised by a switch or green light next to a door. No light? No switch? Well you might as well have hung a sign above the door stating that this isn't the way for you kiddo! If some allowances had been made for individual choice then Breakdown's straight forward nature wouldn't have been so readily apparent.

It's never a good sign when adjectives such as linear, bland and dull spring to mind after a mere 2 hours behind the pad, but that's exactly what happens here. Namco's mantra that ''repetition is good'' comes across loud and clear as the same enemy models are encountered time after time on backgrounds that look eerily similar to ones traversed hours ago. To be fair there is some variety to be found in the environments, but looking for the differences is an experience similar to that of comparing cheeses. They all taste remarkably the same with only slight differences in texture and after taste with which to tell them apart. Laboratories, offices, warehouses, and underground facilities all begin to blur into one as a thousand different shades of gray are given a work out. If that wasn't enough to turn you off of Breakdown's visual presentation then wait until you cop an eyeful of the aliasing. Running rampant across the entire landscape, nothing seems capable of passing through this blight of ugliness untouched. Shadows crawl and edges move, and before too long you'll begin to wonder if anti-aliasing is even a term that Namco are familiar with.

Breakdown's single saving graphical grace comes when Derek's powers begin to grow and his hallucinations take over. Static fills the screen as reality begins to warp and Derek's perception shifts to a higher plane, revealing to the player secrets and clues that would have otherwise remained hidden. Phantom cats prowl the landscape and strange auras shroud everything, lending the environment a dreamlike quality that is oddly haunting yet visually stunning. The time-slip effect is seriously mind bending and upon discovering the paradox, players find themselves once more familiar with the recently forgotten terms, originality and innovation. Before too long these short lived visits to the land of goodness come to an end and it's back to a world of dreary grays and repetitive backgrounds. If you do find yourself falling asleep, be sure to turn up the volume in order to take in some of the many excellent BGM tracks. Capturing the right cinematic drama even when the graphics fail, these orchestral pieces are exactly what works best with games of this type. Alien-esque in quality, mood setting in style, each of these masterpieces can be unlocked via progress in the game and played back in full from the bonus menu.

As I made my way through the highs and lows of Breakdown, I had something of an epiphany as one inescapable truth suddenly became clear to me. That everything that had troubled me from the very beginning was exactly how Namco had intended it to be. Perhaps they were simply not prepared to invest the dollars required in an unknown quality such as this. In my mind it wouldn't be inconceivable to believe that with this release, Namco were only interested in testing the depth of the FPF waters. For you see Breakdown is nothing more than the proverbial big toe being tentatively dipped into the hot and steamy bath that is the games market. If the water is to their liking I wouldn't be at all surprised to see their next FPF release shatter more than a few genre staples. If this is to be the start of a new genre then Breakdown has accomplished what it has set out to do. It has laid the groundwork and proven that the concept is doable. All it would take now is a little more effort in framing the whole package in such a way that it pleases the eye as well as the mind. For now though Breakdown stands as an interesting footnote in the annals of gaming. It may not be perfect, but neither is it beyond hope...

* Surprisingly the first person fighting is excellent
* There's a good range of attacks to learn and memorize
* Players really feel the impact of each blow, be careful not to flinch!
* The effects seen during Derek's hallucinations are first class
* Though hardly original, Breakdown's story manages to hold the player's attention
* Controls are fully customizable
* There's a reasonable 8-10 hours of gameplay from beginning to end
* An excellent soundtrack captures what the graphics can not

* Aliasing out the ying yang
* Backgrounds become too similar all too quickly
* The gunplay is sadly limited by the miniscule range of weapons available
* An extremely linear level design ruins any chance of replayability
* The ''hands on'' gimmick begins to wear thin after a while
* There's a total lack of variety in enemy models
* I wasn't aware there was so much gray in our lives

midwinter's avatar
Community review by midwinter (August 25, 2004)

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