Ubisoft’s latest open world Tom Clancy game has plenty of Ghost Recon’s usual co-op action, but also lots and lots of microtransactions…
To an even greater extent than other Ubisoft franchises, Ghost Recon has been through considerable change over the course of its nearly 20-year history. It’s always been a military simulation featuring soldiers from the near future, and you’ve always had a squad of four highly trained special forces operators at your disposal, but what started as a relatively dry tactical shooter has had increasing amounts of rough and ready personality injected into it.
That process culminated in the open world of Ghost Recon Wildlands, which was largely free of cities, focusing instead on jungle, snow, and the odd gnarly industrial facility. It was also a toe in the water for reinventing the series as a service rather than a single-player game. Current video game dictum is that to make more money – and prevent players from reselling old games, thereby undermining potential sales – developers need to tie people in for years, preferably several.
That line of thinking has been expanded in Breakpoint, which goes full season pass. Its pre-release hype was dominated not by the sort of game you could expect to find, but by the reams of purchasable content you’d be able to acquire: raids, new character classes, live events, episodic content, and more. So to find the game absolutely riddled with microtransactions for both cosmetic and gameplay-altering items is unfortunately no surprise at all. But that’s not to say Breakpoint doesn’t also get some things right as well.
Breakpoint’s first big decision is to locate itself on the fictional Pacific archipelago of Auroa, thereby avoiding any repeat of the – perfectly reasonable – complaints from Bolivia at how Wildlands portrayed the country. In Breakpoint’s world, Auroa is owned by Jace Skell, CEO of Skell Technology and maker of the world’s most advanced drones. To help him enhance their artificial intelligence he makes the mistake of hiring former Ghost operative Cole Walker, and private military contractor Sentinel, who promptly take over the operation, turning the islands into an almost impenetrable fortress. Your job, of course, is to get in there and fix everything by shooting it to pieces.
Once again you play as Wildlands’ hero, Nomad, although this time you can choose to be a female Nomad and customise their appearance using a limited selection of faces, hairstyles, and facial scars. When you’ve decided how Nomad’s going to look, you’ll then watch them go down in a fiery helicopter crash, regaining consciousness bloodied and alone, with nothing but a pistol, flaming wreckage, and a small selection of corpses for company.
Your first order of business is survival, and to help in this your character auto-loots ammunition, medical supplies, and useful plants, so no more having to line up next to them and press a button at just the right time. At this point you realise every other game has been doing it wrong all these years, and while you’ll still need to stop and press for equipment crates and intel, it’s a welcome new feature.
It’s also a nice touch that rather than walking neatly down steep hills, you slide down in a cloud of rocks and scree. Unfortunately, the process tends to annihilate your stamina bar, which requires a brief period of walking rather than running to recharge. But like a great many things in Breakpoint, you can fix that with the right perk, which you acquire by earning skill points as you level up.
When you gain your first skill point you’ll also need to choose a class, the initial tranche being field medic, assault, stealth-specialist panther, and sharpshooter, although as per Ubisoft’s pre-release puffery, more of those are on their way. While each has its own class-specific ability, they all choose perks from the same skill tree, so apart from a few minor differences at the start you’ll be able to shape your solider in pretty much the same way no matter which class you decide on.
The game automatically groups you with players that use complementary classes, so you’re never stuck in a squad of four sharpshooters. But perhaps the biggest departure from the series’ formula, is that outside of co-op mode you no longer have a team of three computer-controlled Ghosts backing you up. You really are on your own.
Something borrowed, something new
To help underline that sense of vulnerability, Breakpoint borrows Far Cry’s healing system, with either instant, limited-use magic syringes or infinite but slower-to-use bandages tidying up injuries too severe to auto-heal. It doesn’t make all that much difference in practice, but it does set the scene for a lot more borrowing from other Ubisoft stablemates, most notably The Division 2, which provides the underlying structure for the game and the impetus to keep playing.
Like The Division, Ghost Recon is now a looter shooter, your gear score having the most powerful effect on which enemies and missions you’re able to take on, each one graded with a minimum level. While in past games you’d settle on a loadout suited to your play style, or occasionally the mission in hand, now you’re caught up in a never-ending rush to ratchet up the gear score. No matter how good your rifle is, it will only ever be minutes before it’s sold or dismantled for spare parts.
The issue here is that unlike The Division, with its inexplicably bullet-spongey players who can take 30 machinegun bullets to the face and still be absolutely fine, in Ghost Recon a single headshot (or two for helmet-wearing heavies) is enough to kill absolutely anyone using any weapon, which makes the continual search for slightly better guns only relevant when taking out the big land-based drones.
Breakpoint’s other attempts to cannibalism Ubisoft’s back catalogue is more successful though. Taking a cue from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you can choose to play in exploration mode, which turns off the intrusive HUD, leaving you to find mission objectives using clues and a map. It’s a feature that’s just as compelling as it was in Ancient Greece, and although it makes everything take a lot longer, the sense of immersion and being at one with the rugged countryside is well worth the extra slog.
Breakpoint also features a The Division style hub area where you can shop, join teams of fellow players, and chat to non-player characters to progress mission objectives. The crowds of fellow Ghosts do rather undermine the idea that you’re stranded and alone, but then quite a lot of things conspire to smash the game’s tone and atmosphere to a pulp, the worst of which is the voice-acting.
For some reason every single voice, no matter where you hear it, from tropical rainstorm to swamp to vast cavern, sounds as though it was recorded in a small, echoey room. It’s hugely disconcerting, but it gets worse because apart from Walker – played by The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, who’s consistently and entertainingly evil throughout – most of the other Ghosts, civilians, and baddies deliver their lines in a kind of listless monotone.
The script is similarly baffling in its dreadfulness. ‘I’ve been analysing these test results for hours’, says a computer scientist. Nomad’s reply, ‘What are you trying to achieve, abstract art?’ It’s exchanges like these that perfectly encapsulate the game’s jarringly confused tone. On the one hand it’s meant to be an ultra-realistic military simulation, on the other, a change of hat can make you a more powerful soldier.
Pay to level-up
The focus on gear score also renders large parts of the game’s interface all but irrelevant. Why spend time and resources upgrading a weapon, buying attachments, and giving it a natty paint job when you’ll be using a completely different and incompatible gun five minutes later? It makes those systems feel redundant, a sense that’s particularly galling when you discover the huge range and variety of bugs – which at this point are also a Ubisoft staple.
Characters jump about in cut scenes; sunlight filters through gaps in the wall of a cave deep underground; rocks have scenery visible inside them; your soldier appears with his hands gripping an invisible weapon, his finger exercising proper trigger discipline in thin air; story completion rests at 0% when you’ve just finished Act 3; the screen frequently freezes; there’s stuttering audio in conversations; and sometimes all your operator’s customised gear disappears during cut scenes.
Those aren’t the only issues. For a game so relentlessly based on swapping out equipment, there’s no way to mark or group select kit you want to sell or dismantle, leaving you with minutes of repeatedly choosing an item, holding down a button, choosing another item, and holding down another button. It’s the sort of thing that absolutely must have come up during play-testing, and is a baked-in feature of The Division 2, but conspicuous by its absence here, amidst a menu system that might charitably be called a rat’s nest.
There’s also the comedy-grade catalogue of microtransactional content, of which the season passes are only the start. The game is so desperate for you to spend more money it tries to tempt you into buying sets of rifles, scopes, handguns, attachments, gun blueprints, melee weapons, and even skill points. Yes, you can buy skill points to save you from the bother of actually having to play the game. And while you can earn plenty of weapons and upgrades in-game, some are firmly locked behind paywalls, a sharp slap in the face when you’ve already paid circa £60 to be there in the first place.
There are welcome changes too, though. With no actual nations involved, there’s none of Wildlands’ jingoism. It’s also less focused on the masturbatory worship of military hardware; it’s still all about guns, body armour, and tactical trousers, but the looter shooter gear rush means you never have any piece of kit long enough to develop a fetishistic attachment to it. It will still be catnip to those who enjoy playing milsim Barbie dress-up, but it’s hard to imagine that faction being in the majority.
Behind all the glitches, contradictions, and hard sell, there are excellent moments of gaming to be had as you silently take out guards on a high-tech fortress, sneak into a heavily guarded base to hack a computer without being spotted, or simply trot through the woods picking off patrols for sport, whether solo or with friends. It’s engaging and does genuinely have its own distinct feel compared with past outings in the series.
There’s also a cornucopia of stuff to explore. 4v4 Ghost Wars, daily faction missions with their own mostly cosmetic reward structures, side missions, roadside incidents, and a very large – if slightly empty-feeling – landmass to see by foot, helicopter, boat, and road. You’ll find points of interest, huge abandoned buildings, and the infrastructure of a technology company big enough to construct a drone army.
As with any game as a service, a great many complaints will no doubt be addressed as Breakpoint matures. The Division at launch was a bit of a mess, and that eventually became a force to be reckoned with. Still, it’s depressing to see yet another AAA game released before it’s ready, and one where some of those flaws are inspired only by the greed of the publisher.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint review
In Short: Something of a greatest hits collection of ideas from Ubisoft’s other open world games but it also has some fun new ideas of its own… as well as a mountain of glitches and microtransactions.
Pros: A massive amount of content, addictive gear score upgrading, fun feats of marksmanship against horribly unbalanced odds, and a setting that won’t offend any Bolivians.
Cons: The focus on microtransactions in a £60 game is deeply offensive. Laundry list of bugs, largely redundant gun upgrade system, and the worst dialogue and voice-acting in a AAA game this gen.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Ubisoft Paris
Release Date: 4th October 2019
Age Rating: 18
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