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Genre: Action


Xbox Preview - 'Breakdown'

by Thomas Wilde on Feb. 16, 2004 @ 4:07 a.m. PST

Genre : Action
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Namco
Release Date: March 16, 2004

Pre-order 'BREAKDOWN': Xbox

We have crossed the puke barrier, ladies and gentlemen!

That's right, vomit enthusiasts may now rest easy, for Breakdown has made it possible to vicariously blow chunks via a fictional agency. You haven't been playing the game five minutes when Alex, your plot device/backup character, jams two fingers down your stand-in's throat and makes you hurl all over the place. I can honestly say it was the last thing I was expecting.

I may, perhaps, be focusing on something irrelevant. Breakdown is a bizarre creature, and the vomit-which is headed on a collision course with infamy even as I write this-is only part of it.

It is part first-person action game, and part storytelling experience. Many games use the first-person perspective, but very few use it as evocatively as Breakdown does; you eat, pick up items, jump, crawl, get into fistfights, put on clothes, open doors, talk to people, and fire guns, all without leaving first-person, and without using any kind of convenient unanimated shortcut.

Here's an example. When you pick up a health item in some games, you'll just see the screen flash and your stamina goes up. In Breakdown, you pick up food, or a can of juice, and jam it into the bottom of the screen. Your character chews and/or swallows, and ditches the wrapper or the empty can. At no time does the game deliberately attempt to break the illusion of presence; at all times, you are a direct participant in the actions at hand. You conduct your business as though you are there.

That business, of course, happens to be armageddon. You're Derrick Cole, an American soldier who wakes up in a Japanese research facility with no memory of how he got there. After an uneventful morning, except for the occasional powerful earthquakes, you find out two bad things in rapid succession: one, your lunch is drugged, and two, quite a few commandos just broke into the building, and they have orders to shoot you.

Fortunately, a woman named Alex busts in just in time to save you. She says she knows you, and the two of you seem to have a lot of history together, but there's no time to deal with it. Right now, the two of you are trapped in a large office building that's seriously damaged by the earthquake, full of armed men, being buzzed by an assault helicopter, and, just when you think you might have a handle on the situation, the site of possibly immoral experiments upon a race of alien warriors named the T'lan, who're nearly invincible, seriously mad, and have now been freed.

Define "bad day." Give an example.

Derrick's arsenal includes a submachine gun, pistol, fragmentation grenades, and a rocket launcher, stolen or salvaged from dead commandos. His most important weapon, though, is himself; as you find out very early in the game, Derrick is one of the subjects of a classified military experiment. He's ridiculously strong to begin with, and packs a right cross that can send a grown man flying across the room like he's on wires, but as you progress through the game, Derrick's powers will grow. The T'lan are supposedly invulnerable to conventional weaponry, but Derrick's bare hands are not conventional weapons, and you can lay them out with a good solid kick to the face.

It's too bad, then, that he's crazy.

Breakdown is a game about immersion, and in this case, you're being immersed in the viewpoint of a man who is hallucinating, or bouncing around in time, or having psychotic episodes, or all of these things, or none. Leave an office, and you might find yourself in a ruined city in the heart of a desert, where alien animals feed on the corpses of the ancient dead; one of the doors in the lobby of a museum leads to a broken place, where bloodstains tell you stories of something familiar. A mysterious cat keeps appearing, showing Derrick where to go, or where not to go, and Alex herself initially appears in the manner of a hallucination. The overwhelming impression Breakdown leaves is that its storyline may be way the hell out there, but that's okay, because the whole thing could be the fantasy of a paranoid schizophrenic.

To find the truth, you'll need to outfight a series of alien warriors, increasingly heavily-armed commandos, and quite a few alien parasites. Breakdown pairs an intricate combat engine, featuring new combos and special moves that you learn via storyline events, with a great deal of platforming and puzzle solving. You'll have to figure out how to evade the commandos' helicopter, ride a runaway train car along a tunnel strewn with snipers, dodge a cunning laser trap, and solve an occasional puzzle, all within first-person perspective.

One of the more impressive things about Breakdown is that the game's stated intention, immersion, never frays under the strain. The puzzles and obstacles are all fairly natural-avoiding fallen ceilings, dodging gunfire, starting up a vehicle, etc.-and don't seem wildly out of place. Anyone worried about having to pry the Green Gem out of the statue of the unicorn in order to open the supply closet where you'll find the Elaborate Stapler which in turn opens up the secret compartment in the desk that contains the Bishop Key can rest easy, because Breakdown makes a fair amount of sense. As long as you can accept its basic premise, suspension of disbelief is all too easy.

Breakdown does take a lot of getting used to, though. Jumps and fistfights that might be easy in third-person will require a lot of effort and practice here. Alex helps, to some extent, distracting enemies and offering hints, but she can't do everything. Breakdown is initially frustrating, and occasionally infuriating, but eventually evens out into an interesting exercise in storytelling and theme. I can't honestly say that it's something that everyone should be looking forward to-if first-person shooters make you ill, Breakdown will have you throwing up right alongside its protagonist within minutes-but it's a decidedly innovative game with some fresh ideas. It's worth checking out.

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