Just plain broken.
Despite its standing as the foremost example of expressionist literature, Kafka's The Metamorphosis gave me the heebie jeebies so bad I could barely read past the famous first sentence in which Gregor Samsa awakens to discover that he's a giant cockroach. The rest of the book deals with Gregor's life issues and leaves the fact that he's a man-sized roach in the hands of the reader, but I had a hard time getting past the imagery and into the subtleties. I mean, he woke up as a cockroach. Yuck.
It could be worse though. Take Derrick Cole, star of Namco's Breakdown. Derrick wakes up one morning to find himself strapped to a table inside a gigantic laboratory, unable to remember his past and unclear as to why he's strapped to a table inside a gigantic laboratory. His head hurts, he's seeing things and he can't remember a thing. Sounds like Sunday morning to me, except poor Derrick doesn't even get a Bloody Mary.
At least Derrick has a fighting chance at discovering the secrets behind his mysterious circumstances and perhaps even thwarting some evil plot along the way – provided you help him do it in this odd first-person adventure/shooter hybrid. That might be asking too much, however, because despite Breakdown's desire to 'break down' the walls separating game genres, it winds up collapsing under the weight of its own poor design.
The story, at least, works well enough. Breakdown's plot is a classic sci-fi tale about the military's desire to create a super soldier and what inevitably goes wrong along the way. Obviously, Derrick isn't just a normal guy in a boring campus lab, and the game does a good job at slowly introducing you to your curious past and even more curious powers. Some inspired dream sequences are notably freaky.
The game is played entirely from first-person but isn't a typical shooter, attempting instead to create an immersive adventure game atmosphere. Everything is designed to really make you feel like you're Derrick Cole. There's no real graphic interface to clog up the screen and every action takes place in real-time. Want to open a door? Then watch Derrick's hand reach down, turn the handle and open it. Found something on the ground? Derrick will bend down, pick it up, and hold it in front of his face for you to see. If you get knocked to the ground, your field of vision tosses and turns all over the place as you try to reorient yourself. There are no floating health packs or power-ups in Breakdown, as the game sticks firmly to its guns by really forcing you to feel what Derrick feels. It's a risky but innovative design choice.
As is the hand-to-hand fighting system, which historically hasn't worked well in first-person. Derrick can punch and kick as well as throw together a few combos, and the control works surprisingly well considering the obvious pitfalls. Getting into a one on one fight can be pretty fun as you trade blows, though add an extra enemy or two and suddenly cheap hits abound as you get whacked in the back by one guy while trying to punch another.
It's better than the shooting, however. There are only a few guns and the fragging doesn't feel right, thanks in part to an aggravating auto-target feature. Whatever happened to letting me go for a head shot? The game simply cannot compare to what we see in other first-person shooters.
I never thought I'd say this, but after spending time with Breakdown, I miss floating health packs and ammo. The emphasis on realism leads to some incredibly tedious moments. Take the case of the soda can, the primary source of health. You bend down, pick up the can, hold it on front of your face, actually bring it to your lips, take a few gulps, and toss it away. The process takes a good 10 seconds – every single time. Just to use a health pack! See some ammo on the ground? Bend, pick up, hold in front of face, then place in pocket. It's insane and aggravating and feels like a huge waste of time.
It can also get you killed, since enemies might be shooting at you while you go through your retarded, slow movement just to grab a can and drink it. You cannot do this while moving and you cannot store soda cans or health rations in your inventory for later use. Bad, bad design flaw.
The A.I. is equally weak. The game features only a handful of enemy types, all of which just shoot or run at you if you're in sight and exhibit no advanced tactics beyond occasionally blocking melee attacks. While under laser fire from a group of bad guys, I ran around a corner for protection. They kept firing at the wall. I then ran away to grab a soda can from a few screens prior (remember, no soda carrying allowed!), came back and they were still firing at the wall. Super soldiers? Super stupid, maybe.
The worst part about Breakdown, though, is that it's flat-out boring. While the idea of a realistic game world is terrific, the game is in truth harshly linear. You spend the first five hours or so wandering around in a giant gray building in which every single door is shut except for one at a time. You look for the green light that indicates which door is open and make your way to it, since every single other door is locked. The pacing is excruciating, often slowing to a crawl as you enter and exit meaningless rooms and hallways with no enemies to fight. There is zero exploration in Breakdown, which pretty much kills off the whole adventure game feel.
Breakdown's delivery meets with mixed results. The good-looking character models, steady framerate and lack of load times are commendable, as is the cinematic style and occasional moments of inspiration. But the technical prowess is lost on dark, colorless hallways and rooms filled with gray boxes. The level design is just about as bland as it gets, making it hard to appreciate whatever the graphics might be doing right.
The sound is on par with the look. The effects are pretty canned, but decent voice-acting and a nice soundtrack help draw you further into the story.
And unfortunately, that's just about all Breakdown has going for it: a genuinely good sci-fi story. But even that gets overpowered by numerous gameplay flaws, from the unconvincing AI and crummy fragging to the boring environments and irritating pacing. Like Kafka's cockroach, Derrick Cole should have just stayed in bed.