Version tested: Xbox 360
The English language has one four letter word which is more beautiful, more important and more heartening than any other. You know which word I'm talking about. It's a word that can bring weightlessness to a lonely spirit, that can chase away the dark, that can come to define you existence. I bet you want to hear it right now. There's no shame in that.
The word is BANG.
Atomic Studios, developers of download-only multiplayer FPS Breach, understand that BANG hasn't been living up to its full potential in recent games. As such, Breach is a game with the unique selling point of some quite nifty destructible environments.
A rocket, grenade or explosive charge will giddily blast a non-scripted hole in the wall of a house, reduce a shed to a shower of planks or topple a wall of sandbags. The game is literally offering you plenty of bang for your buck.
Outside of this tech, Breach is a fairly mundane construct. It offers five game modes, Infiltration, Convoy, Retreival, Team Deathmatch and Last Man Standing, which translate as "Battlefield-style point capturing", "Escorting an APC", "Capture the flag (except the flag is a jar of important chemicals or something)", "Team deathmatch" and "Last man standing".
You get five classes to choose from, - Rifleman, Gunner, Support, Sniper and Recon. These all share the same paltry selection of character models and the same selection of unlockable perks and gadgets, so the choice is simply one of what weapons you want.
With less armour and more agility than the other classes, the Recon is the most interesting of the five, but he's also only unlocked after you played an uninviting heap of matches as two of the others.
As for maps, you've got a choice of four perfectly functional yet underdressed arenas. Mineshafts, empty houses, destructible bridges and perilous cottages built over the edges of cliffs all prove themselves as favourites of the map designers.
There's technically a fifth map, though that's one of the original four but at night, which isn't quite as much of a cop-out as it sounds. They've really gone all-out with the whole night thing, providing plenty of unsettlingly inky pools of darkness for players to hide in.
Finally Breach boasts a broad selection of persistent unlocks, ranging from new guns and gun attachments to perks and gadgets. Once again, this is executed with competence without ever being impressive, like watching a friend park his car quite quickly.
You can get body armour or protection from headshots, or a grenade launcher or a medic kit or the ability to temporarily see through walls, but there's none of the glitzy, shopping-spree excitement triple-A shooters have been offering over the last few years.
In a sense it's unfair to compare Breach directly to competition like this, since Atomic Games are a much smaller studio working with a fraction of the budget. On the other hand, unless you're going to do something really different with your game, competing directly with the big boys is the worst idea in the world.
I'd argue that FPS is the world's most competitive genre today. For Atomic to enter into it with no prior experience of making a multiplayer FPS is a bit like you or me wading into the Congo and punching a hippo square in the eye. You have to try something a bit different.
So, Breach was always going to succeed or fail as entertainment based on its destructible terrain, and its slightly more realistic, military tone. This includes a cover system and a mechanic whereby being in cover and under fire tries to simulate being suppressed and drunk on adrenaline by narrowing your field of vision.
Let's start with the destructible environment tech. It's quite neat. The option of breaching a building with high explosive instead of entering via a door like a regular human is cool. Hunkering behind a stone wall and seeing a hail of bullets knock one of the stones loose is cool. Spotting a guy manning a machine gun emplacement in a cabin and using a rocket to send the entire cabin crumbling down a ravine is utterly awesome. The problems with this are twofold.
One, using destructible terrain to change the game is harder than you might expect. No class starts with a rocket launcher, and the locations on the map where you can pick one up only hold a limited supply.
The rifleman class's explosive charges can obviously only be used from close range and work on a timer rather than remote detonation, making them only useful in very specific situations. Also, any explosion kicks up a believable fog of dust, smoke and dirt, making sneakiness impossible.
Basically, this isn't Red Faction: Guerrilla, and explosions and demolitions are more often a flavourful thing than they are a vital part of your tactics. A decent FPS player would be able to waltz into Breach and dominate a match without even knowing the game has destructible environments.
Two - and this is the part where that hippo turns around and locks Breach's head between its stinking jaws - what can and can't be destroyed in Breach is arbitrary. Certain metal bridges can be damaged, but you'll always leave a single, inexplicable beam for players to go crawling across. There are buildings where you'll be able to take out the walls, but not the concrete ceiling.
That said, on one level you are able to blow a hole in concrete, as hinted by a large patch of concrete which is a lighter colour than the rest, like something out of Zelda. Trees are indestructible. Steps are indestructible. Terrain is indestructible. Wooden fences are bizarrely hard to rip up with up with machine gun fire.
As for the cover system, it's just a bit broken. The game's still far more conducive to traditional run'n'gun tactics than, say, Gears of War or Rainbow Six: Vegas, meaning that (just like the destructible environments) an old hand at online FPS games could kick ass in a match without knowing the game had a cover system. Though he'd probably wonder what all those players were doing, attaching and detaching themselves awkwardly from various walls and corners.
Oddly, you get an armour bonus when you're attached to cover, meaning you take more bullets to kill, but it's nothing that won't be overcome by another player shooting first.
Drop in a handful of bugs (including one proper braincooker, whereby the game refused to let my character pick up an explosive charge required to destroy an objective until I appeased it by flinging myself off a cliff), and you've got something I can't imagine someone choosing to play over any of this generation's excellent shooters. The bar's too high and it's still rising, way above Breach's reach.
5 / 10
Breach is available now on PC for £15 and Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points.