Breakdown makes an admirable attempt at immersing the gamer into the experience with its first-person view and smart story. But the gameplay is unfortunately hit-or-miss; a factor, which does more to pull one, out of its virtual world rather than lose you in it.
Gameplay - The best thing Breakdown has going for it is the way in which Namco has handled the first-person experience. The game can be described as a first-person brawler of sorts, in which hand-to-hand and melee combat is the norm. Sure, you’ll pick up a weapon or two along the way, but as your character, Derrick, slowly begins to realize his powers, your fisticuffs will become more and more prominent in the way you play the game.
You begin the game by waking up in a laboratory of sorts recovering from amnesia. As you go through the initial training phase, it quickly becomes apparent that you have been the subject of experiments, the results of which appear gradually throughout the game. When you return to your room, you are drugged and put to sleep, at which time a group of soldiers bust in the room and attempt to murder you. Luckily, you’re rescued in the knick of time and the game begins.
As mentioned, the way Namco has handled the first-person experience is to be commended. Unlike other first-person games, the perspective is actually quite lifelike. For example, when Derrick takes a punch to the face, his head reels back or to the side or he actually falls over and the view goes a bit out of focus. In addition, Derrick can do back and side-flips, during which the view actually spins upside down. While this is surely a neat feature and adds to the immersion, it also becomes a hassle when you’re surrounded by a group of enemies intent on beating you to a pulp. It’s extremely difficult – and frustrating – to try to dispatch a group of enemies while your view is dizzy and out of focus. It also doesn’t help that the enemy AI is designed without a hint of intelligence, only the relentless ability to come straight for you. Oftentimes, your best bet is just to turn tail and run like a coward.
This lack of artificial intelligence coupled with the inability to properly defend oneself against a group of foes makes Breakdown far more frustrating than enjoyable. Even Derrick’s eventual development of superhuman abilities only slightly offset the annoyances. The ability to block by crossing his arms in front of him is a welcome relief, but not enough to rid the game of its problems.
Unfortunately, the level design only adds to the game’s disappointments. You’ll wander through corridor after endless corridor searching for unlocked doors. And once you’re beyond these stages, all that awaits you are relatively bland outdoor levels that offer no real “wow” moments.
Graphics - There just isn’t a lot to keep your eyes busy in Breakdown. The level environments seem extremely repetitive and unimaginative, with only a few fancy effects thrown in from time to time. You’ll see nothing but gray for a good deal of the game, which makes sense as you’re wandering through a laboratory and corporate office environment but gets extremely boring after a while.
The character designs also seem a tad out of date as they lack a great amount of detail. Instead, many look clumsy and as though they belong in a three year-old PC game. It doesn’t help that character movement is very rigid.
Sound - Luckily for the game, the voice acting is done very well and never takes away from the experience. At times, players have the option of choosing what Derrick will say, and in some of these moments the conversation seems a bit halted, but it’s difficult to fault the voice acting for that. Furthermore, the enemies are also given lines of dialogue that is very nicely done. While sneaking up on an enemy, you can hear them chat back and forth, and during battle they’ll shout commands to one another and scream in pain when shot. The soundtrack also suits the game quite nicely with that action epic feel and the overall effect adds greatly to the gaming experience.
Bottom Line - It’s a shame this game wasn’t pulled off as well as it could have been. I completely understand the concept Namco was going for and was desperately hoping they would pull it off. Unfortunately, too many factors makes this game a disappointment. While getting into a one-on-one fistfight was often quite cool, getting trapped by a horde of mindless drones was quite the opposite, making the game extremely frustrating and even cheap at times.
The storyline contained some clever twists and turns, and the groundwork for a very cool game was definitely there. But in the end, clumsy combat, mindless AI, and boring, unimaginative graphics and level designs outweighed the positive aspects of the first-person experience. Maybe next time.