I like games that are bold, and not afraid to take risks. I especially like ones using new ideas to shake up stale genre formulas. However, there's a certain threshold that must not be crossed. In essence, new concepts alone cannot supplant the existence of solid gameplay, regardless of how unique or fresh they may be. It's tough to get right, and there have been many times when my heart felt like breaking after seeing something almost reach greatness. But keeping play the primary concern is a necessity that must be considered before innovation can be valid or worthwhile. After all, what's the point of having a genius idea if the end result is worse than a no-soul focus-group product?
Breakdown is a perfect example of the sort of great-thinking, rotten-playing game that has a great brain, but neglects the basics backing it up. It has a great hook, especially when you consider that most respected developers today say the elusive feelings of emotional involvement and immersion are what they're after. Breakdown certainly scores major points on that front, but taken as a whole, the project achieves disappointingly uneven results.
A first-person game including shooting but emphasizing hand-to-hand combat, its biggest claim to fame is going the extra mile for immersion with attention to detail and attitude towards presentation. In addition to showing a disembodied hand holding a gun at the bottom edge of the screen as most first-person shooters (FPS) do, it adds a wealth of touches to enhance the experience of being the game's star, Derrick Cole.
It's actually quite surprising how much these seemingly minor elements add. Rather than pushing through a door, I saw Derrick's (and by extension, my own) hand grasping the handle and turning. When drinking some of the game's life-replenishing tiger juice, I saw myself grab the can, pop the top, and tilt it towards where my mouth would be. Best of all, during the game's conversation scenes, it felt as though I was actually in the presence of characters talking to me. You can move while they're speaking, look at them from all angles, and follow them if they walk away. You can even punch them out mid-sentence if you feel like it, though that's not generally recommended. It may not sound like much, but these bits of polish go a long way towards giving Breakdown the edge when it comes to storytelling.
The plot itself is mildly interesting, though I'd say the "insanity" effects are really what drive it. Without spoiling too much, Derrick wakes up in a lab, the sole survivor of a super-soldier project. His purpose is to defeat enigmatic alien enemies, and at the same time unravel the convoluted threads surrounding his circumstances. Throughout play, the developers have set up numerous little psychological head-trips and freakouts, easily the best mindgames since the original Metal Gear Solid. There's nothing quite like being on the fourteenth floor of an office building and opening a door onto a vast desert wasteland. Unfortunately, the style of storytelling is the only area where Breakdown has the edge. As much as I liked the idea of "being there" combined with the plot's twisty appeal, the experience is sorely lacking in every other respect.
The biggest, most unforgivable offense is that the level design is astoundingly archaic. It's almost as if the game's developers haven't played a FPS since Doom, and have no concept of how much the genre has changed. Actually, Doom's level design is better than Breakdown's in some areas.
If not for the plot, I would have turned the game off after my first session and been done with it. The first five hours of the adventure (out of roughly ten) is spent killing bland enemies with lackluster artificial intelligence in gray hallways full of dead-ends and repetitive rooms. It's odd that the architecture is so illogical and unconvincing, coming off like the complete opposite of the realism in the character's presentation. The nature of Breakdown's environments does change past the halfway mark, but it's of little consequence. By the time you reach that phase of the game (if you reach that phase) it's far too little, too late. To quote one pithy Internet user, "it's like playing the Library level from Halo, except it goes on forever." There's simply no excuse for level design this wretched.
The game's controls aren't especially well-done, either. The option to re-map the buttons is not given, and none of the preset configurations are optimal. For an action title with a focus on hand-to-hand, things never feel as tight and natural as they need to be. The sloppy handling of the fisticuffs only magnifies this.
Specifically, using the physical attacks is not very intuitive, requiring a combination of sticks and triggers for strikes and combos. It just lacks logic. For example, it's difficult to block and move simultaneously, since this requires you to push in and also tilt the left stick at the same time. Derrick gains the ability to throw fireballs later in the game, but preparing to shoot one uses the same button as one of the normal attacks. During fights, sometimes I would unintentionally start to charge a fireball when I meant to strike. Fighting more than one enemy is also quite difficult at times. Derrick doesn't move quickly, and it's easy to get trapped in the middle of a bad-guy sandwich. When two opponents take turns knocking you to the ground, there's little chance to escape.
With flat, repetitive environments and uninspiring combat, Breakdown doesn't have much to recommend it. Giving credit where credit is due, I do appreciate the attempt to raise the bar for character presentation and storytelling. I'd even go so far as to say that it's the spiritual successor to Valve's seminal Half-Life—its handling of pre-scripted elements and serious approach to immersion is that good. However, it's simply impossible to look past everything the game gets wrong. If you took away the narrative, you'd be left with an overly-simplistic, linear, and rudimentary construct that feels hopelessly out of touch, especially compared to its contemporaries. Breakdown clearly has some fine ideas, but without gameplay, it's a total washout.