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Breakdown

My opinion on Namcoís Breakdown can be summed up in one simple sentence: it could have been so much more. Upon initial inspection, its incorporation of both traditional weapons-based combat and innovative hand-to-hand fighting into the often-stale first person shooter genre appears to be a stroke of genius. And the gameís tightly woven science fiction storyline is one of the best I have seen in years. In fact, on paper this game looks to have the makings of a surefire blockbuster, possibly even the Xbox sleeper hit of the year. But, alas, this was not meant to be. The final implementation of many of Breakdownís innovative and seemingly grand ideas turned out heavily flawed, and the epic story just canít hold the game up on its own.

The game starts off with your character, Derrick Cole, waking up in a research facility with amnesia and forced to go through a series of tests that double as a gameplay tutorial. Here you will find that the game plays pretty much like any other first person shooter, with the exception of being able to use kicks and punches as well as weapons. Things quickly go sour for Derrick, however, and during the hectic early portions of the game you get to experience some cool FPS moments, like the eating of a hamburger and the subsequent retching of said burger into a nearby toilet. Everything you will ever experience while playing Breakdown will be seen from Derrickís point of view, and this often does wonders in pulling you in and making the gameís story that much more compelling.

Unfortunately, as you and your mysterious female partner, Alex, are forced to fight out of the research complex, basic gameplay problems become alarmingly evident. First off, you are not given a curser when using any of the weapons. This makes aiming a crapshoot, especially when you are forced to take on multiple machinegun totting bad guys at once. The game does allow you to lock-on target the nearest enemy, but this just feels incredibly restrictive because you are unable to take on more than one enemy at a time; locking-on and shooting at one guy while four others unload clips into you is incredibly ineffective. Another big problem is there is no location-based damage for the enemies. No matter if you are shooting someone in the head or the big toe, it always takes four to five shots before they die. These are things that have become expected of modern first person shooters, and it is aggravating that Namco chose to drop the ball so badly here.

Fortunately, the hand-to-hand fighting is much better implemented. You have a good number of combinations at your disposal, all of which can be intuitively executed by moving the analog stick in various directions in conjunction with the L and R triggers. In the early going you find the Derrick has the unique ability to defeat the powerful TíLan warriors that are terrorizing the facility, and your first few fights with them offer a great adrenaline rush. The lock-on targeting works quite well for one-on-one fighting, as you can easily dodge, strike and maneuver around your adversary.

And then it happens. The game pits you against two TíLan warriors and the biggest flaw of the game rocks you like a sucker punch to the back of the head. The lock-on targeting system is completely worthless when taking on more than one TíLan. While you are unleashing a combo towards one adversary, inevitably the other baddie is about to work you over from the side or behind. This wouldnít be so bad if you didnít flop to the ground after nearly ever punch, but you will constantly find your viewpoint spastically lurching all over the place from an unseen blow, only to end up pointed straight up at the ceiling. Whatís even more ridiculous is that you are forced to stand up in the same spot you were knocked down, and the bad guys can simply wait for you to finish the getting up animation and, before you can do anything, rock your world again (I guess Namco hasnít heard about the ì2 seconds of invincibility after getting up ruleî that so many other devs smartly implement). Because it is absolutely impossible to take on two or more TíLan at once, you have to run around trying to get them singled out, adopt a cheesy hit and run strategy (which still fails a majority of the time) or simply run like hell out of the area. Is that your idea of fun? I doubt it.

These problems are alleviated somewhat when you have Alex fighting with you, as she can distract some of the TíLan while you concentrate on one. The trouble with that is there are quite a few situations where Alex is not there to help you out. And as you get further and further into the game, new powers will be acquired that can help slightly with fighting multiple TíLan, but the game simply counteracts this advantage by throwing five baddies at you instead of two or three. What all this boils down to is an inevitable feeling of dread on your part for all the unfair fighting segments littered throughout the entire game. Much of Breakdownís fighting woes would have been greatly eased if Namco would have just threw in some moves that aimed specifically at fighting multiple baddies (like an auto block, spinning attack, etc).

Despite all these problems, Breakdown does have one nearly redeeming factor: the amazing story. Itís easy to dismiss the plot as a boring me-too sci-fi romp early on, but spend more than three or four hours with the game and you start to see that a lot of thought was put into the gameís storyline. Play even longer and youíll be rewarded with a jarring plot twist that is nothing short of brilliant (it ranks right up there with the twists in Knights of the Old Republic and Halo). Add this to the fact that the game plays out as one huge seamless level (albeit broken up with insignificant loading pauses) and features some incredibly innovative use of the first person viewpoint and you have one of the most cinematic games to grace the Xbox system. Itís just that much more aggravating when you have to endure the gameplay faults over and over again in order to experience the gameís fabulous cinematic events. Despite everything, I did find myself compelled to spend the ten or so hours required to finish the game, but I was disappointed with the lack of interesting unlockables.

The gameplay may be seriously flawed, but there arenít very many bad things you can say about Breakdownís visuals. The Carter Research Center looks just like you would expect it too, with computer terminals, file cabinets, and other office elements scattered realistically about. As you descend deeper and deeper into the restricted areas of the facility, the visual atmosphere changes accordingly. Youíll see many mundane cement, linoleum and metallic textures repeated, but the incredible variation in light sources and a plethora of smaller touches keep this from being an issue. Realistic shimmering heat waves for fire, billowing smoke and dramatic particle and warping effects during TíLan fights are just a few of the wonderful graphical touches included by Namco. The game seems to look better and better as you progress further and further into the game; the environments towards the end are downright gorgeous.

The characters themselves, whether it is Alex, a marine grunt or a massive TíLan warrior, are incredibly well modeled and sport highly detailed textures that look great even up close. Animations are fluid and believable during fighting, but tend to look choppy during more mundane activities like running and jumping. Also, during the scripted cut-scenes many of the characters are far too dramatic in their hand gestures and head movements and this does take away from the potency of these scenes.

Breakdownís score can be both emotionally stirring and forgettable. For the most part, though, the music keeps you interested, especially during the poignant moments with Alex and boss fights. The voice acting is good overall, but it seems that Namco tried too hard in making the game mature by throwing in excessive cusswords (everything but the f-bomb is said repeatedly in the game). Though, this did provide me with one hilarious moment. I threw a grenade into a group of five soldiers and they all exclaimed, ìOh shit… GRENADE!!î in near unison before getting annihilated. The gunshots, explosions and general sound effects get the job done, but are a little lacking when it comes to variation.

So now we come to the million dollar question: do I recommend Breakdown? This is a very though one to answer. On one hand, the game is seriously flawed at a fundamental level and it is hard for me to urge others into shelling out money for such a faulty game. But, on the other hand, the story is simply brilliant and should be experienced by anyone who owns an Xbox. I suppose Iíll just leave it up to you. If you think you can look past the fighting issues and other problems that I have mentioned above, then go ahead and check it out. But, if you are easily frustrated when a game employs cheap methods at boosting the difficulty, then steer very far away from Breakdown.

6 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

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