Ghost Recon Breakpoint review-in-progress: Jon Bernthal's carrying the whole game on his back

I didn’t enjoy Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Let that serve to calibrate your taste against mine as we dive into a discussion of follow-up Ghost Recon Breakpoint. I thought Wildlands was a technical marvel, and it certainly had a lot of stuff in it. But I found it bland and lifeless and twice as long as it needed to be.

And uh, Bolivia found it offensive. An entire country found the game offensive. So there’s that.

Breakpoint seemed slightly more impressive when we saw it at E3, but I’ll admit my expectations going in were still fairly low. Jon Bernthal notwithstanding, it seemed like another overlarge and lifeless shooter. And that assessment’s not exactly wrong, but…well, I’m at least enjoying Breakpoint more than I expected.

Hungry like the wolf

Bernthal is a big part of it. He’s doing Apocalypse Now, and pulling it off. That’s hard to do with such well-worn material, but Bernthal’s renegade Colonel Walker is a relentless scenery chewer. It’s entertaining as hell to watch him deliver a monologue, his digitized self still projecting the same quiet menace that made The Punisher one of Netflix’s more watchable Marvel adaptations.

Here, he makes the most of a pulpy Tom Clancy tale. Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s broader points are nonsense, bordering on Metal Gear Solid 4’s “nanomachines” handwaving. Bernthal’s taken over the Auroa archipelago, once a private island run by Silicon Valley types. Alas, the billionaire philanthropist who owned this tech haven didn’t realize someone might want to use his drone army to do drone army things.

That’s where you come in, as this swarm of murderous machines first blows up an approaching cargo ship and then crashes your helicopter when you’re sent to investigate. Stranded and alone, it’s up to you to figure out who’s behind this threat. Oh and wouldn’t you know it, you and Bernthal have a history as well.

I can’t stress enough how refreshing it is to have characters in Breakpoint though. Eight hours in, I wouldn’t call Breakpoint’s story “good,” but it’s at least more memorable than Wildlands’s unending procession of blank slate baddies. Less realistic, maybe, but way more engaging.

That’s the crux of Breakpoint, I think. If you were into Wildlands for the military fetishism? Ghost Recon Breakpoint has less of that. It’s still very jingoistic and rah-rah-America, the sort of game where bad guys with guns are stopped by good guys with guns, and where a character is described as “bleeding red, white, and blue.” The near-future setting feels more Michael Crichton than Clancy though.

And it’s more than just the story. Ghost Recond Breakpoint takes everything less seriously than Wildlands.

That’s surprising, as before release Ubisoft talked up features that sounded more like a simulation, almost actively unfun in the grand tradition of a Far Cry 2. Early demos intimated that injuries could be catastrophic, forcing your character to limp around until you could rest up. Food could be prepared and eaten at camp, water taken from streams and lakes, and so forth. After the relatively frictionless escapades of Wildlands, Breakpoint sounded like a Serious Military Game where survival would be a constant struggle.

Who knows, maybe that’s what Ubisoft originally set out to build. Unfortunately, it’s not the Breakpoint we’ve received. There is an excellent “Exploration” mode that removes waypoints from the map, a trick Breakpoint picked up from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.

But injuries and food, while they do exist in Breakpoint to an extent, are barely a factor. Food items give you minor buffs, and I haven’t even found them worth crafting. And while injuries do occur, the most minor form can be healed in an instant with your magical syringe healing item. Even more serious injuries can be patched in the field, so long as you packed your infinite (no, really) bandages. If there’s a level of damage that can’t be healed in the field, I haven’t seen it yet.

Then again, I haven’t felt threatened much either. Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s default difficulty is comically easy, at least on mouse-and-keyboard. Keeping the quick time-to-kill of Wildlands, a single headshot is enough to kill any enemy—unless they’re wearing a helmet, in which case it takes two shots. Yes, any enemy, even with a suppressor equipped. It’s almost comical when a big ol’ Heavy comes trudging towards you wielding a chain gun and you take him out with a quick bang-bang. Enemies also have a habit of running one after another through a door as you mow them down. Pure cartoon slapstick.

That latter might be remedied on higher difficulties, but for now I haven’t found Breakpoint too different from Wildlands moment-to-moment. You can play it serious, checking corners and trying to line up shots with friends. Or you can parachute onto a rooftop and snipe everyone because they can’t reach you. It feels like cheating, but it gets the job done.

Still, I feel my attention waning whenever Bernthal disappears for long stretches. As I write this, I’m in the middle of an interminable series of fetch quests involving some of the scientists on Auroa. Objectives involve going to one enormous future-building after another, killing everyone, and then pressing a button on a MacGuffin. Bernthal hasn’t appeared in a while, the tech nonsense keeps ramping up, the structure feels increasingly staid, and it’s in these moments where I start to doubt whether I’m having a good time with Breakpoint—or at least whether it’s sustainable.

Maybe it would feel fresher if I hadn’t already played The Division 2 this year. I’ve hit my Clancy quota though. “Ubisoft Formula” has become a less common pejorative in recent years, but The Division 2 and Ghost Recon Breakpoint are so similar it’s uncanny. One’s urban, the other set on a remote island. One has spongier enemies, the other a snappy time-to-kill. Those are minute differences though, and with Breakpoint now featuring gear score (with collectible knee pads!) and a nonsensical hub area…well, it feels like I already played this game mere months ago.

Reductive? Absolutely. But this sense of “Haven’t I played this before?” is what threw Ubisoft into upheaval only a few years back. I’d hate to see it happen again.

One last note before we wrap up: Obviously Ghost Recon Breakpoint doesn’t release until Friday, so everything is subject to change. At the moment, load times need major work though. I put Breakpoint on an SSD and even so it takes upwards of a minute (maybe two) for me to load in every time I boot the game. When my colleague Adam Patrick Murray joined me for co-op, that involved another minute-long load on his part. Once you’re in it’s fine, with only minor loads for fast travel, but even so that’s a loooong wait up front.

I heard more performance complaints after last week’s open beta, but haven’t experienced any other problems myself. The game maintains a pretty constant 60-plus frames per second, maxed out at 1080p on an RTX 2080 Ti. Those numbers indicate a performance hog, as I’d expect way more than “It hits 60 frames per second” at that resolution on that card, but the draw distance is admittedly phenomenal.

Bottom line

For now, as I said, I’m (mostly) enjoying Ghost Recon Breakpoint. It’s mindless, and I’ve definitely listened to a handful of podcasts already while tooling around Auroa. But I’m at least pausing them whenever major story beats occur, because Bernthal really is that damn good. He’s carrying this entire game on his back, as far as I’m concerned.

Whether I finish it? And whether we ever write a proper review? That remains to be seen. Destiny 2’s new Shadowkeep expansion released today, so it’s a big week for thousand-hour shooters—and quite frankly, I’d rather play Destiny.

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