Technically, this isn't the first time Namco's released a first-person fighting game, since a code allowed you to do exactly that in Tekken 2. However, it was intended to be played like that this time around - and now it actually works, which is one of the major factors that helps make Breakdown exactly what it set out to be: truly immersive. Screw non-interactive cut scenes, breaks from control, and illogical item placement; someone else finally decided to mimic the underlying design of Half-Life and beat the developers at their own ideas.
Breakdown stars Derrick Cole, the role that was given to me to wear like a blanket when I started. Encased inside its warm fuzzy rolls, I experienced everything Namco tossed at me to make me believe that Derrick and I were one and the same, and damn it, they made a believer out of me. It begins with amnesia, which may be a poor plot device but assures anyone controlling Derrick knows as much as he does: absolutely nothing. The immersion (a word to be tossed around a lot here) begins immediately, segueing together hallucinations, a training sequence, friends, drugs, and subsequent vomiting without ever breaking the flow in any sort of traditional video game fashion. Well, short of a couple on-screen indicators so as to not have people stupidly telling you "Press the left trigger," as though it's perfectly natural to say such things in real life. (coughMetalGearSolidcough)
The camera is Derrick's view and as such responds to whatever actions he's performing or would respond to. If something major happens, like a nearby explosion, he'll snap his view towards it. When he gets hit, red will seep in from the sides, his vision blurs, and his sight will whip around from the blow. Flipping back means all that can be seen is the floor, while rolling to the side makes the room spin. Soda and candy bars are brought up and summarily ingested, while ammo must be found on guards or in rare stockpiles near soldiers. Almost nothing is out of place, giving the whole world a far more convincing feel then any other game that's tried to give a feeling of being there.
The game's main selling point and that which brings the more tangible feeling to it all is the melee fighting. Even in other first-person games there's rarely a sense of actually interacting with anything, but here Derrick actually has limbs that reach out to grab things, climb ladders, and launch themselves through enemies. Guns have an almost impersonal feel to them, whereas running up to a toughened soldier and cramming a fist into his face and then kicking his jaw open gives off an indescribably great "oomph" that no rocket launcher replicates. Combos and techniques eventually give way to Street Fighter-esque special attacks, abilities grown in the heat of the battle as Derrick's body deals with its surroundings.
Traveling through those many buildings, the great outdoors, and a fantastical location may lead to repetitive hallways, but there's always something to drive forward for. The story is cliché in many plot points but it's pulled off beautifully and in a perfect fashion to fit with the game. It's never overbearing or forced into a setting, and the apt characters accentuate this. Their dialogue may not be original or surprising, but it's acted well and flows great, and they'll even complain if Derrick wanders off while they're speaking or he'll miss choices to add to the dialogue if he's not nearby. It does everything to pull the player in, and once the glove fits it starts testing how well you can use it. Visual representations slide away, preconceived notions are cast off, and that's when those who would hunt Derrick lash out with a vengeance.
All of this greatness does come at a price, as this game - while incredible - is not perfect. The gun mechanics work well but aren't all they could be and ammo management can be tight early on, making some areas a little too hard for some if they aren't careful. Late in the game, Breakdown steals a page from the "bad" section of Half-Life and injects a needless and idiotic platforming section that could've been handled far better with a much greater impact by using a simple elevator instead. Lastly, and this isn't really a fault of the game as much as it is the controller, a lack of available buttons forces guard to be mapped to the left analog stick's button. It works and I eventually got used to it, but it's not all that it could be.
In light of the full project, though, those complaints are like whining about an extra in a fantastic movie. Who cares if a couple of things aren't perfect when it manages to accomplish something so beautifully that no other game that has tried has really pulled off? Good characters, a great story, an epic fight like none other, and some of the best hallucinations in visual media anywhere make one hell of an experience. It can be hard, it takes time to get used to, and it's not quite like anything else, so it's really not for everyone. But when all is said and done, Breakdown is the only game ever in which I truly felt like I was there, and because of that I consider it one of the greatest games I've ever played.
· · · Christopher Rubin