There's something about the first-person shooter genre that Japanese developers just don't get. After 12 solid years of running and gunning, you would struggle to count the number of FPSs originating from this celebrated centre of gaming creativity on the fingers of one hand. Let's think: Outtrigger... no, Maken X doesn't count, and...um, Breakdown. It's a fascinating situation, and it's almost as if they've been shielded from it - instead content to make any number of freakishly bizarre niche titles to satisfy their wanton lust for dating games or Let's Make A Horse Riding Go-Go Trial Simulator Yay 11.
But at last Namco has elected to hop on board this traditionally overblown westernised genre, evidently keen to bring a greater sense of immersion to the table with as much emphasis on first-person punch-ups as shooting, but in doing so has managed to create a whole layer of problems that are rarely overcome in a game whose ambition rarely equates to genuine entertainment.
Oh no, I've lost my memory
The setting is typically hackneyed sci-fi fodder, but nevertheless one of the game's strong points with lead character Derrick Cole waking up in a "strange research facility" with no memory of his past and about to be executed. But just as theyre about to open fire, a typically athletic (typical in a videogame, at least) woman by the name of Alex Hendrickson turns up to save his arse, and so begins the gradually unravelling tale of how he ended up there, and why he appears to have special powers that enable him to fend off a legion of super-human warriors (from oop North, apparently) known as the T'Lan.
After a promising beginning where our 'hero' barfs up his freshly eaten burger in first-person, the game quickly slips into a pattern of armed and unarmed combat. Electing to only give the player minimal ammo, two different types of gun (pistol/machine gun for the most part) and making your projectile weaponry useless against the T'Lans (until much later when you get a special Laser Rifle) you're forced into up close and personal duke outs with many of the enemies you meet.
As a straightforward shooter, Breakdown tends to offer up soldiers in clusters of twos and threes, and overcomes its enormously floppy control sensitivity (which you can't manually adjust, irritatingly) by providing what appears to be a useful autolock facility - except that your shots are pointlessly ineffective from anything approaching long range. Shootouts tend to fall into a repetitive pattern of ducking behind whatever cover the game offers up and popping out whenever the enemy's clip runs out. Still, given the close-nature of the firefights, you're always likely to take a fair bit of damage and much restarting occurs thanks to the trial and error nature of the gameplay.
In its favour, Breakdown provides an intelligent checkpoint system that never forces you to replay significantly large sections again, although the chances are that certain parts of the game will drive you to distraction - unless you find out, for example, that you can simply use cover to slip past every last man jack of them. Still, at the very least it's an often demanding game that greets you with a Game Over screen far more than is strictly necessary.
The more innovative side of Breakdown is the first-person punching, which Chronicles Of Riddick implemented so successfully recently (or rather, will do, as it's not out in Europe until August). There are broad similarities, but the overall feel and implementation is totally different, with no means of being remotely stealthy. Breakdown always faces you with predictable AI that requires the player to basically just go for it. In the case of the T'Lans, they do actually deign to follow you around a bit (as opposed to the utterly dumb soldiers that insist on staying broadly where they spawn), but most encounters tend to involve little more than charging in aggressively and raining blows on them until they fall five or six bashes later, or, if you're feeling a little more tactical, blocking and then raining blows.
While the feeling of immersion is undoubtedly heightened with this ostensibly zoomed-in approach, having to perform menial search tasks with every downed corpse is plainly something you could do without having to do every single time in order that you actually might have a clip or two spare in your arsenal. Also, the initially appealing health system of using cola machines and searching bodies for snacks becomes a tiresomely unnecessary distraction, especially once you realise that the game give you full health at the start of every checkpoint regardless.
After five hours or so of wandering bland corridors and bouts of repetitive shooting and punching, the incentive to continue diminishes. For what is one of the few Xbox-only Japanese titles, you'd expect much more than almost featureless corridors, and only the occasional glimpses of artistic talent from Namco's team. It's hard to believe this really started life as an Xbox title and isn't simply a cross-platform port, such is the proliferation of blurry textured walls and grid like level design. Once in a while you come across an interestingly designed room, but they really are once in a blue moon. The escape from the flaming building and the brief excursion outside provides a brief respite from the disengagement, but before too long it's apparent that Namco has little idea how to make a decent FPS.
From whichever angle you look at it Breakdown simply hasn't got enough going for it to warrant buying it at full price. Maybe when it eventually goes to budget price you could justify giving it a look, because it's by no means a terrible game. It's just not in any way cutting edge. Nor is it entertaining enough that you'd be inclined to recommend it to anyone besides ardent FPS-philes, who see it as their divine duty to play everything connected with the genre.
For a first attempt, Breakdown isn't a total disaster for Namco. There are some interesting game elements in place and a decent enough storyline to salvage some of the more unsavoury portions of what's on show, but too many things are unacceptable by today's standards, and if Namco has any intention of devising a sequel it needs to have a total rethink. By all means give Breakdown a try over the weekend with a rental, but it's simply not good enough to splash out for at its current price point.