Underappreciated games: Breakdown

In the first of an occasional series, we look at Breakdown, an overlooked FPS gem in a sea of carbon copies...

There are some games that get released and raise the roof, garnering praise from gamers and critics alike. They reap all the rewards, and are lodged firmly into top game lists for all time. On the flip side, there are those games that come out that don’t manage to achieve such greatness. These games often fall foul of harsh criticism, poor sales and ultimately end up as bargain bin fodder.

More often than not, these poor excuses for games deserve their fate, but sometimes there’s a title that’s been hard done by. Underneath some poor presentation, glitches or misguided direction is a promising release that deserves some love. Often the centre of a cult following, these games seldom get a second chance in the mainstream, and it’s here where I’m going to focus in this occasional series, beginning with a truly innovative and impressive game that certainly deserves another chance, Namco’s Breakdown.

Can I get a breakdown?

Namco is a name synonymous with the fighting genre, and it has a high pedigree in the field, matched only by the likes of Capcom. Occasionally, though, it tries something new, and with Breakdown it attempted to fuse two hugely popular genres, the beat ’em up and FPS, into a single release.

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Part Tekken, part Half Life and part crazy anime, Breakdown was a typically Japanese outing that put players in the shoes of amnesia-afflicted Derrick Cole, a man who soon discovers that he has some powerful, superhuman combat abilities.

This is fortunate, as he also finds himself in the midst of a world-ending scenario as the T’lan, an aggressive force of entities emerging from an underground complex, is set to invade the world. The T’lan and their leader, the clearly Sephiroth-styled Solus, quickly become a major threat, along with human soldiers who consider Derrick another priority target. Only Alex Hendrickson, a female soldier who appears to know Derrick, is an ally, and his only source of information on what’s going on.

It’s a fairly standard setup for anyone with an interest in Japanese animation and Manga, but it’s handled well, with a few great plot twists and stand out reveals. Yes, the acting is hammy and the characters are a little bland, but Derrick’s rise from awakening coma patient to almost god-like martial artist is always engaging, and the story’s conclusion is fittingly climactic. More importantly, the journey you take is filled with unique combat and some great, tension-filled moments.

FPS fisticuffs

Breakdown mixes FPS gunplay, exploration, and CQC together with the kind of realism not attempted all that often, right down to first-person soda drinking and ration bar eating. Everything you do in the game is depicted in a realistic manner as Derrick acts out each and every action. He even bends down to pick up each ammo clip individually. Admittedly, this can get a little tedious, and you do sometimes wish for the staple FPS approach of simply walking over items to pick them up, but the effect it gives just emphasises the realistic viewpoint. The same applies to guns and reloading, and, of course, to hand-to-hand combat.

Although The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay approached FPS hand-to-hand combat at the around same time (both games came out in 2004), Breakdown arguably did it better, which isn’t surprising as it came from Namco. Although not as easy to pick up as Riddick, with practice, Breakdown‘s CQC was far more satisfying, especially when Derrick acquired his powers. Not only was the combat more enjoyable, but it was far more essential to the gameplay, as T’lan warriors had shields that prevented normal gunfire from hurting them. Only by shattering their shields with melee could any damage be done. Kicks and punches that impacted also felt a lot more satisfying in Breakdown, and coupled with Derrick’s range of special moves, it made for a genuinely unique FPS title. You really did feel like a superhero as you strode in and took down an enemy that an entire squad of soldiers could barely scratch.

This kind of feat required a lot of time and effort to master, though, possibly one of the reasons many were put off by it. Thanks to a control system that needed more work, it was nowhere near as intuitive as Riddick, but the rewards were worth the effort it took to master Derrick’s abilities.

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Aside from clunky controls, and some dull environments, the realistic viewpoint is one of the main criticisms levelled at the game. Whilst it offered a uniquely immersive experience, getting hit by foes and thrown to the ground could make for dizzying encounters as the view spun around wildly reflecting Derrick’s actual reaction, and could even lead to motion sickness. However, rather than a problem, I saw this as a realistic effect of enemy attack, which resulted in further immersion. That said, the gunplay definitely could have been handled better, with less of a focus on lock on, and more on free aim, as in every other FPS. Still, as Breakdown was more about CQC, it wasn’t a major issue.

From zero to hero

The storyline of invading aliens and paramilitary forces also mirrored Valveā€™s Half Life. The game took place in a secret research facility, where those kerr-azy scientists were hard at work splicing alien DNA with humans, with predictable results. It even ended with a trip to another world of sorts, where the T’lan originated, although it was far more enjoyable than any romp through Xen. Oh, and there’s even some cool time travel and temporal meddling in there for good measure.

Some sections were great not for combat, or impressive action, but for tense moments of hide and seek. Solus would make appearances throughout the game, and not being powerful enough to stand a chance you either had to hide, or run away. This was a great change from the standard combat, and also emphasised how powerful your eventual target was. But the time you get to fight him, you’re already more than a little nervous.

The temporal, story-telling sections (and little effects, such as the cat you occasionally see appear and disappear) were also great, if a little mind-bending at times. But the big twist in the story really kicks you into gear, and whilst the beginning of the game risks becoming a little too plodding, it eventually steps up and grabs you by the throat.

It’s one of those stories in games that really makes you glad you played it, and the conclusion is excellent, even giving you a choice of how things end. The last battle is also very tricky (although it can be cheesed with the right powers) and so you feel all the more satisfied as the credits roll.

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And that’s just the problem, the credits rolled and that was the last we saw of Derrick and the T’lan. Breakdown was never seen again. This is probably down to poor sales, and average reviews. Some praised the game for its attention to detail, combat and unique features, but it wasn’t enough. Breakdown simply didn’t do well, and Namco pulled the plug, and that’s a shame. With refinement and some modernisation, Breakdown could have shined.

Games have taken the formula further over time. Skyrim‘s melee combat for instance, not to mention Zeno Clash have kept first-person fisticuffs going, and Mirror’s Edge pushed the realistic viewpoint even further, but it was Breakdown that demonstrated some of the earliest attempts at such immersion, and if you get the chance to give it a go on the original Xbox, you should.

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