Breakdown (Xbox) review
"I love Guilty Gear as much as the next guy, but there's just something more viscerally thrilling about actually flying across the room and knocking some poor sap in the gut rather than just watching your fighter of choice do it from the side."
Breakdown is a bad game by any reviewing metric out there, and I wish I could just leave it at that. It'd be a grand old time. I'd make sarcastic comments about how Namco must've thought that monotonous grey levels were all the rage these days, and how they knew it'd be fair to pit you against half a dozen other brawlers in a fistfight despite the first-person perspective that makes it so easy to get blindsided. Real-world soldiers would surely scream "GRENADE!" but then not budge an inch when you tossed some explosives their way, I'd whine, and I'd probably throw in an awful pun about how you'd have a nervous breakdown just from playing it. The review would just write itself.
Unfortunately for lazy old me, Breakdown is just too interesting to do that. Immersion is key: most first-person shooters are content to drop you in the non-existent shoes of a legless freak who can open doors and use health packs with the power of his mind alone, but not Breakdown! Forget just walking up to a cheeseburger and magically regaining lost stamina. You'll actually have to reach down, grab it, and shove it to the bottom of the screen a few times while an unmistakable chomping sound plays. It's even better when you're forced to lose your lunch when you realize that the food was poisoned... hands on the toilet seat, fingers down the throat, meal in the water!
Naturally, projectile vomiting isn't the only trick up your sleeve. The 'arsenal' of weapons is a bit pathetic, but you won't care one bit thanks to the sick, endlessly fresh fighting system. Most of these games just give you a generic punch—or, in Goldeneye's case, a generic bitch-slap—but here you'll get to use everything from sliding kicks to skull-crunching uppercuts. In first-person. Nobody bats an eye at long-distance jump-kicks when they're in animated fighting games, but in a game as immersive as this one! I like Guilty Gear as much as the next guy, but there's just something more viscerally thrilling about actually flying across the room and knocking some poor sap in the gut rather than just getting a side view of your brawler of choice doing it.
And since you'll be so captivated by Breakdown's ability to make you feel as if you are protagonist Derrick Cole (the illusion is only shattered in front of mirrors), most of its more action-packed moments are unforgettable. One scene has an invincible villain chasing you through a series of run-down sewers with laser trip-mines plastered all over them, and every little detail of the pursuit becomes that much more apparent thanks to how wrapped up in the game you'll be. Sliding under a tripwire only to hear your adversary skip through it unharmed, spinning a pressure-sealed door's handle as fast as you can while you count the explosions until he's upon you--it's enthralling.
If it's any consolation to whoever made the first level, bungee-jumping off a twenty story building to escape a squadron of soldiers while a military helicopter sprays machinegun bullets at you is a close second. Or third, I'll never forget the whole puking thing either. There's even a gripping story stringing everything together; amnesiac openings are admittedly a cliche, but by the end the plot twists so far that you're literally blown forwards and then further backwards again in time. Putting later-earned powers like a two story super-jump to the test by changing the course of history is, at least for my money, better than anything the RPG world's ever come up with...
Quite a shame that Breakdown is as incompetent as it is masterful, then, especially since the genre could go so much further if Valve or iD or anyone at all would pay it some attention. The Japanese have just never done first-person shooter games well (though things might be looking up now that they have widescreen displays). Just take one look at the rubbish level design: the realistic office building on exhibit for the first few hours isn't bad, but a research lab that follows is little more than a series of drab grey corridors repeated ad nauseum, with a few generic cargo bays thrown in for good measure. Plus, while I didn't at all mind the platform-jumping climax of Half-Life, even I got bored when Breakdown asks you to ledge-hop down a series of four cavernous cylinders... and then climb an identical set a few minutes later. ARGH!
That lazy bash review would not have been short. The AI is limited at best, as Breakdown takes place in a world where elite mercenary units have clauses in their contracts keeping them from flanking or even moving during battle. The move list is incomplete, as Namco should have realized that you need something to compensate for the fact that you have no peripheral vision in these games... especially when brawling with a few baddies at once means actually getting knocked to the floor by the guy behind you and staggering to your feet before it happens all over again.
None of that was ever enough to make me stop playing or stop enjoying, though, because Breakdown the experience is outstanding even if Breakdown the game gets most of the basics laughably wrong. Picking up ammo clips and eating candy bars will draw you in like even the best level design couldn't, the first-person fighting system is a blast to screw around with even if brawling with packs is awkward, its story is endearing yet never overbearing thanks to the lack of annoying cutscenes... and most importantly, it goes for a budget-friendly five bucks these days. Breakdown may be a bad game, but it's the best bad game I've ever had the pleasure of playing.
Staff review by John L (October 14, 2005)
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