Ghost Recon Breakpoint Review
A Tactical Blunder
With a strong foundation for an open-world tactical sandbox game in 2017's competent Wildlands, and a seemingly promising new direction focusing on a grittier tone with survival elements, Ghost Recon Breakpoint seemed like a follow-up poised to deliver on the series potential and offer up something a bit more exciting. Unfortunately, it is instead largely a step backwards, a game that feels in many ways rushed, lazy and unfocused with many new features getting in the way rather than providing necessary variety and improvements to the formula. Apart from some glimmers of hope, what exactly went wrong with Breakpoint will require further description.
Before getting into that, there are some positive aspects to the game that are worth mentioning. One of Wildlands' biggest problems came in the form of tonal inconsistency, mostly a byproduct of an awful story, characters and dialogue. This has been addressed in Breakpoint as none of the goofiness found in Wildlands is present here, and the story is overall improved. The premise is that an island once existing as a sort of Utopia, run by a wealthy tech corporation specializing in drone technology and AI, has been taken over by a private military group called The Wolves that have forced the company to weaponize its technology. When a US cargo ship is sunk off the coast of the island, you and a team of recon soldiers are sent in to investigate. You fly in at the start of the game, but the helicopters carrying your team are shot down, and you are left as one of the only survivors, trapped on the island. This is a good premise for a series that has always flirted with near-future weaponry and side-steps the real-world political landscape that was so awkwardly handled in Wildlands.
Leading the Wolves is a man named Cole Walker, who happens to be someone the player character, Nomad, has a history with. We learn about their backstory through a series of flashback cutscenes, with Jon Bernthal giving a solid performance as Walker, who turns out to be a pretty good villain. Ubisoft clearly put more effort into the story in Breakpoint, with improved voice acting and writing compared to Wildlands, though you will need to sit through a lot more cutscenes, and even choose the odd dialogue option. Many side characters and minor cutscenes are generic and forgettable, but the story isn't bad and only crosses the line into the edginess that made Wildlands' cutscenes so painful to watch (for the wrong reasons) on occasion.
Breakpoint's best moments are its opening scenes, as you recover from your chopper being shot down and begin sneaking through the jungle in an effort to find other survivors from the crash with very limited gear at your disposal. Improvements to stealth gameplay are on display here as well, as you can flatten yourself on the ground and cover yourself in mud to hide, and move bodies to prevent patrols from spotting them and raising an alert. You can also now press a button to hide most of the UI, which goes a long way to helping immersion.
Everything changes after an hour or so, when you reach the game's main hub area. You make your way into a secret base, supposedly cut off from reinforcements and way behind enemy lines, only to discover dozens of other blokes just like you wandering around, some of them wearing elaborate camo outfits. Yes, Breakpoint's main hub is a Destiny-style social space, filled with other players buying/selling gear and talking to NPCs to collect missions. And so the tense atmosphere of being trapped alone behind enemy lines and needing to scrape together weapons and supplies vanishes in an instant, never to return.
Before you decide what to do next, you will probably head over to the initially bewildering objectives screen to pick another mission. You might notice that some missions have a number signifying you should have a certain gear score to take them on. Yes, Breakpoint has a full-on loot system with color-coded rarity tiers, randomized attributes and a gear score, similar but somewhat more simplified than what is used in Ubisoft's The Division games, and you will be at a distinct disadvantage if you try and take on certain missions and areas before grinding sufficiently.
It cannot be understated how deeply out of place the loot grind feels in Breakpoint. In an effort to remain a tactical experience, weapons can still take out most enemies with a single shot to the head (twice if they have a helmet). However, if you attempt to taken on enemies with higher gear scores relative to your own, they will be able to absorb significantly more shots to the body and down you almost instantly. You might think that the developers at least tried to justify this by associating higher gear scores with more powerful, high caliber weaponry, but no, any weapon model can have any gear score associated with it; some AK-47s will be far less effective than others. The way armor works is just as ridiculous, as a simple baseball hat will be more effective at stopping bullets than a Kevlar helmet if that baseball hat has a higher gear score. The main implication of this system is you will need to spend a lot of time running around bases, opening crates and fiddling around in your menu.
The other aspects of Breakpoint's progression are a bit more successful and are closer to what Wildlands had to offer. You will gain experience levels that will give you access to skill points, which can also be found around the map in crates. These can be spent on passive upgrades such as increased ammo capacity, unlocking gadgets like EMP grenades or sync-shot drones (more on those later), or perks. Perks offer bigger advantages, such as increased stealth or significantly higher damage with certain weapons, but you can only equip up to 3 perks at a time.
You will also need to choose between one of four classes; sharpshooter, assault, panther and medic, who specialize in certain playstyles and have their own special gadgets and abilities. The sniper-focused sharpshooter, for instance, can use armor-piercing rounds that are effective against drones and vehicles, while the stealth-focused panther class can use a smoke screen to help escape when detected. You can level these classes up by completing specific challenges like getting headshots with a sniper, which will give you improvements to things related to your class like more damage with sniper rifles.
If you play completely stealthily, infiltrating bases by patiently taking out enemies with silenced headshots or takedowns, hiding bodies and not raising any alarms, things work well enough, and the game can even be enjoyable. Scouting out bases with your drone works much the same as it did in Wildlands, marking enemies and figuring out the best way to get into a base unseen. If you miss a shot, or are trying to take out multiple enemies, you have a moment before an alerted enemy will notify the rest of the base, leading to some exciting and satisfying last-minute saves where you take out multiple baddies in a few seconds with well-placed headshots.
Rather than use the static alarm system from Wildlands, there will now be a single enemy who will call in for reinforcements. Taking out this special enemy will prevent reinforcements from being called in, and if he does get alerted, you will have short time to take them out before they get a chance to call for backup. If you are playing solo, you can no longer rely on AI squadmates to have your back, as these have been removed from the game, which makes it much tougher as a solo experience. You can unlock a gadget called sync-shot drones which you can use to silently take out multiple enemies at once, but you can only carry enough of these for occasional use. Though it is easy to matchmake into other people's games or open up your own to let others join, including options to indicate preferred play style, playing with friends in co-op is definitely the best option.
Once enemies become alerted to your presence, problems with the AI won't take long to emerge. It seems enemy soldiers will behave in one of two ways; either they will slowly start to converge on your location (or last known location), or run and hide behind cover. Both behaviors prove ineffective, as the advancing enemies will be uncoordinated and will generally shuffle to your location one or two at a time, making it very easy to find a place to hide and take out the approaching hostiles. The behavior of remaining enemies can seem almost broken. They will just sit in place behind cover until you basically walk right up to them. Some will pop out of cover to take shots as you approach; others won't even do this, and will simply hide in place until you walk up behind them and easily take them out. It almost seems like they are getting stuck in their positions; a few times I encountered AI soldiers definitely stuck in place spinning in a circle. Once you learn how easy it is to exploit the AI, any sense of tension or need for interesting tactics all but vanishes.
The only thing at this point that can add a bit of variety to the combat are drones. These come in a couple of types; small flying drones that patrol enemy strongholds can spot you from the air and deal light damage, while ground-based drones have less mobility but are tougher and can deal out more serious damage. Taking these out requires shooting off pieces of armor to knock them off and the hit the same weak spots. Many enemy bases will also contain automated turrets, mortars and spotlights that will activate when the base goes on alert, and can dish out some serious firepower. To eliminate these, you can shoot them, find a power transfer station and blow it up, or sabotage silently if you manage to get close enough.
The drones add a bit of spice to missions in Breakpoint, but you will see almost all variations of them within the first few hours of starting the game and tactics for dealing with them don't really evolve beyond gaining access to EMP grenades to stun them. Repetition was a problem in Wildlands and is an even greater issue here. Other than drones, you will encounter snipers, enemies with rocket launchers, assault specialists with shotguns and armored heavies with mini-guns, all of whom you deal with by shooting in the head. Many missions require you to gather intel, which sometimes requires interrogating soldiers. To do this, you can either sneak up behind them and grab them, or shoot them in the legs to disable them without killing them. Later in the story, you will have to deal with the Wolves who are supposed to be tougher, but somehow end up being even less interesting to fight than the normal mercenaries since they are all pretty much the same, absorbing a few extra bullets to the body but still going down with a single shot to the head and behaving just as stupidly.
After the opening moments of the game that see you fighting in the jungle, the remaining missions pretty much involves infiltrating bases to either gather intel, kill someone or rescue a prisoner. Much of the island is crowded with random groups of enemies who are placed at almost comically frequent intervals. Ground vehicles handle just as poorly as they did in Wildlands, and between the ridiculous number of random enemies, terrible vehicle handling, lack of a GPS for determining a route, your best bet is to simply grab a helicopter and fly between mission locations; the helicopters are at least quite easy to control and can land in tight spots. There are a handful of neat locations you will visit, such as bases built into the sides of mountains or only accessible by going through a cave accessed from the water, but generally the missions will start to blur together fairly quickly. Some have larger and more elaborate interior areas compared to anything in Wildlands, but these tend to be sparsely decorated and can even have confusing layouts, making them not terribly interesting to sneak or fight through.
Ubisoft made a big deal about survival elements making their way into the series, but their implementation is mostly inconsequential to the experience. Scattered around the huge map are wisps of smoke that represent Bivouac locations that serve as fast travel points, and also let you prepare for upcoming missions by crafting useful items, eating some food or doing stretches, which give you bonuses to stamina or injury resistance among other things for a time. You now have a stamina bar that depletes when running or sliding down hills, which will happen a lot in the mountainous terrain of Auroa. After a while, your maximum stamina will start to go down, which can be fixed by drinking a bit of water. You also have a chance of sustaining injuries during combat that might slow you down or only let you use a pistol, but using a healing syringe or doing a slightly longer bandaging animation will sort this out. The survival elements simply don't end up factoring into the gameplay in a significant way.
Once you finish with the story campaign in Breakpoint, you can continue playing with frequently updated faction missions which grant unique cosmetic rewards, continue completing the bountiful side missions, or take on the challenging raid that requires you to have a high gear score. There is also a new PvP mode called Ghost War, which is 4v4 with the maps being small zones on the island. There are two modes for Ghost War, a straight up single-life team deathmatch, and an objective mode called sabotage that is effectively the same as the bomb planting mode in Counter-Strike. The PvP works well enough, though it is fairly bland, and I experienced issues with matchmaking not filling up games which made for some lop-sided matches, and also encountered an obvious hacker on my team in the time I spent with it.
While Wildlands had its fair share of bugs, Breakpoint is in a significantly worse state at the time of this review. Though the dumb, buggy AI is the biggest issue with Breakpoint, it suffers from a lack of polish in other areas as well. Most annoying were menu and UI bugs that prevented me from picking dialogue options, or one seemingly permanent bug that always opened my loadout menu into the wrong page, forcing me to click back and forth a few times to change weapons and gear. Another time in co-op I was suddenly unable to mark enemies until I restarted the game. Animation bugs with NPCs, vehicle bugs that might see a blown-up helicopter remaining in the air, or scripting bugs in missions that might cause new objectives not to trigger are also not unusual; it is clear that Breakpoint would have benefited greatly from more development time.
Visually, the game also manages to somehow look slightly worse than its predecessor, mainly due to issues with terrain textures not loading in properly even with the settings turned all the way up, interiors that lack detail, and a slight blurring effect I couldn't find a way to disable. The game can still look very good at times, especially in the jungle when the sun is rising or setting, or when a rainstorm moves in at night, but overall Auroa lacks the variety in terrain of Bolivia. The game runs well for the most part, though I did experience some odd frame rate drops in building interiors. The audio is mostly on par with Wildlands, with decent weapon sounds and good ambient audio when in the jungle, though vehicles sound incredibly feeble. The electronic music that comes on during combat encounters is at least quite good.
The Ghost Recon series has been running for almost twenty years at this point, with a dozen major entries spanning that time period. Breakpoint is easily a new low for the series, with the realistic, tactical aspects of the gameplay being buried under buggy AI and a pointless, out of place loot grind. For the first time ever in the series, you will not have AI squadmates to help out if you choose to play solo, going against the squad-based tactics that have been key to the Ghost Recon formula. Though Breakpoint can be enjoyable playing with friends at times, sneakily infiltrating bases and planning out missions, and the story has been improved over Wildlands, the gameplay is overall inferior to that game, and this feels like a major step backwards for the franchise.