Tom Clancy has, for some reason, been one of the most enduring licenses in video games. From Splinter Cell to The Division, Ubisoft has been milking this brand for all it’s worth. Gotta keep the spirit of mediocre military fiction paperbacks alive. Ghost Recon has been one of the stranger series, known by most fans as the “tactical” one. What that means changes from game to game; it’s hard to pinpoint a consistent theme or identity. Maybe that’s the point. Regardless, Ghost Recon Breakpoint switches things up yet again. Breakpoint seemingly wants to capture a “survival” vibe, without cribbing that genre’s obtuse play tropes. While some of Breakpoint’s ideas are interesting, it ends up tripping over itself.
It’s survival, but easy. Kinda like Burning Man!
The fad has died down some, but certainly during Breakpoint’s development, survival games were at their peak. Games like ARK and Don’t Starve are still popular, but more of a niche now. Managing hunger meters and crafting tools has its innate appeal, but doesn’t really appeal to a more “mainstream” audience. We saw that in We Happy Few, a game that captured intrigue with its BioShock-like marketing affectations before hands-on time revealed a fairly straightforward survival joint. Just, you know, with the drugs gimmick and Australia drama.
Breakpoint seems to figure the core appeal of survival games isn’t managing meters or resources, but the tension stemming from vulnerability. And I can agree with that – just look at stuff like Resident Evil, which prides itself on making players sweat from their dwindling ammo reserves. Despite that tension, Resident Evil offers opportunities to take a breather – you can take your time in-between the zombie fights. You can’t do that in a survival game – your progress is constantly halted by ongoing needs – leading to some pretty fast and intense frustration for anyone who doesn’t “get it”. So, Breakpoint seeks out that tension but wants to avoid or minimize the busywork.
Fighting The Punisher on a fake island is hard, folks
Like most hoo-rah military shooters, Breakpoint starts with a helicopter crash. But unlike most military shooters, your hero avatar (Nomad) doesn’t just get up and start waving a gun around in the wreckage. Instead, Nomad is part of the wreckage, severely injured. The player’s first brush with gameplay is holding down a button to treat multiple, debilitating injuries. It takes time and suggests this fake (probably better-written, only slightly) Tom Clancy novel won’t be a cakewalk. Then all you get is a pistol, a few rounds, and a stealth tutorial. You soon learn it’s ideal to crawl through bushes and sneak into buildings to maybe find some ammo. Headshots are vital and supersede gear numbers.
Most of those details are fairly boilerplate and present in most other Ubisoft shooters, albeit to varying degrees. But Breakpoint knows this and makes sure to batten down its conceptual hatches with something new: a focus on Nomad’s physical presence. Nomad can’t just sprint through the environment. If Nomad is careless, a slippery hill can become a leg injury. They also can’t move as fast as the average shooter hero, with a relatively normal run speed. Also, there’s a dodge roll that feels sluggish, loud, and looks like it ain’t too generous with the I-frames.
Finally, the stamina system. Stamina governs what Nomad is capable of, from running to effectively dealing with unstable footing. This is the closest mechanic to hardcore survival games, but not nearly as immediate or deadly. Maximum stamina gradually decreases, and as it drops so does your capacity to deal with challenges. Eating rations, and especially drinking water brings stamina back up to speed… so does dying. Stamina in Breakpoint is more forgiving and easygoing than it sounds on paper. It’s the style without the substance. That’s the point, though; it’s window-dressing.
Most of this stuff is surface-level, and that’s fine; it’s an intriguing approach, and I think this set of gimmicks does a good job mimicking the tone and vibe of survival games. If something like Metal Gear Survive is one extreme, Breakpoint is arguably at the other end. That isn’t even a criticism; there’s definitely a place for taking that vibe and mashing it into a more casual, AAA skeleton. The criticism falls on, well, everything else.
Oh right, this is a AAA video game
Beyond the survival stuff, Ghost Recon Breakpoint has a severe identity crisis. People make jokes about Ubisoft-produced, open-world shooters all being the same, and Breakpoint feels like the punchline. It’s self-serious and vapid from a storytelling angle, full of boring, repetitive tasks, and its mission structure and looting rewards feel like Great Value The Division. Breakpoint wants to be a cool twist on survival, but also wants to be a service-like “shlooter” with gear grinding and premium purchases.
The problem here is the corporate conveyor belt structure of running, gunning, leveling, and looting totally contradicts that ostensibly crucial survival vibe. You spend more time running/driving/flying pointlessly long distances to waypoints and dealing with random enemy spawns along the way than worrying about strategy or tactics. If I was less of a nerd I could see myself forgetting I was in a Ghost Recon game, instead believing I was playing a weird Far Cry spinoff. Breakpoint has neat ideas up-front but betrays itself with homogeneity in the long run.
Ubisoft has been on a real tear lately. After eating some humble pie via unsustainable, annual franchise drops and surviving a desperate corporate takeover attempt, we’ve seen a major uptick in good will. Aside from some controversy over weird statements on politics, and a couple of other trip-ups that have since ironed out, Ubisoft has almost had it too easy lately. Rainbow Six Siege’s slow burn of success and Assassin’s Creed being cool again are prime examples, and even Far Cry 5 was super popular despite being so cartoonishly stupid. But despite its appealing attempt to reverse-subvert survival gameplay for a larger, more casual audience, Ghost Recon Breakpoint feels more like the vast, confused banality Ubisoft had been accused of in the past.