Games

'Ghost Recon: Breakpoint' Soars While Players Navigate Chaos and Vulnerability

A gripping game of underdog tension, 'Breakpoint' transcends its familiar design even as it equivocates with its story.

by Rob Zacny
Oct 4 2019, 7:45pm

'Breakpoint' screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft

One of the most powerful fantasies is that of hyper-competence. Imagine losing all doubt and hesitation to become a smoothly functioning machine, grinding the coarse variables of means, circumstance, and timing into irresistible triumph.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint sometimes gives you the military special forces version of that fantasy: Your team creeps up on a group of unsuspecting targets, everyone knows the plan, everyone picks their targets, and then there’s a brief explosion of controlled, precise violence. It’s over in seconds, and your team vanishes undetected. This goes down just like it used to when the Ghost Recon series began back in 2001.

That same moment, however, can go spinning out of control into the Michael Bay version of a Looney Tunes short. Maybe there was a nearby patrol that heard the surprisingly loud “silenced” rifle shots (who knew a .50 caliber sniper rifle made so much damn noise). Too late, you realize that the bad guys have sent a surveillance UAV to investigate, and it isn’t fooled by the fact you’re hiding in a bush. It immediately sends elite commandos your way, while disabling your own sensors and minimap. Suddenly, your squad isn’t so elite. Someone fled onto a highway and straight into the path of an enemy minigun. You try to bail out your team with a hail of machine gun fire, but, to put it mildly, you’re not used to your targets moving around so much. It was easier when they were following patrol loops. You whiff horribly, and in the brief silence that follows as you slowly reload, you register the quiet rustle of booted feet approaching through the grass behind you.

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Most of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint occurs somewhere on the spectrum between those extremes, as you employ tools and character abilities to exert control over a hostile open world that is full of systems that sow chaos and confusion. Negotiating that tension across twenty-plus hours split between PC and Xbox has been a nerve-wracking delight. It’s also been a source of confusion, as so much of Breakpoint’s drama is derived from a depiction of high-tech, semi-autonomous warfare that the story struggles to interrogate.

It’s hard to put a finger on why Breakpoint feels so fresh. In its individual components, there is little that we have not seen before: It’s an Ubisoft open world action game. Here is your gear level, there is your skill tree. Mark your targets from the air, plan your approach. Craft useful items for character buffs or tools like lures or explosives. Breakpoint can feel like little more than a different set of combat mechanics layered atop the campaign of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which itself feels like a lot like any recent Far Cry game. The fetishized gun customization and equipment management is straight out of The Division series.

I look at Breakpoint and I see a lot of pieces from some games I love, and others from games and series that I increasingly can’t stand. What sets Breakpoint apart, though, is that it remains more interested in stealth than those other games, and therefore more interested in vulnerability.

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Recent Assassin’s Creed games may still allow for great sequences of sneaking around inside enemy bases, but ultimately Kassandra or Bayek didn’t need to care if they were caught. Detection turned Origins and Odyssey from stealth games into brawlers. The Division series is entirely about a team of well-trained, well-dressed soldiers mowing down hordes of weak enemies who don’t stand a chance. Far Cry, meanwhile, wants you to run-and-gun your way into that enemy base, set that wolf loose, and start a fire while you’re there.

Breakpoint presents you with a balance: You have awesome tools of destruction at your disposal, but wielding them makes you easy to spot, and your character is weak enough that concealment is their only true security.

Vulnerability and power are also themes in Breakpoint's campaign, which pits the Ghosts against one of their former commanders leading an army of former comrades. Lieutenant Colonel Cole D. Walker (played by Jon Berthal in a now familiar role for him as a morally compromised modern warrior) has taken over the South Pacific island of Auroa, which was previously taken over by techno-libertarian billionaire Jace Skell to create the kind of utopia that you build if your two reference points are an Apple Store and a WeWork. After buying the deed to an island the US Navy forcibly depopulated during the Cold War, Skell got to work building a survivalist Silicon Valley on an island filled with his own employees and so-called “Homesteaders”—former military families who remained on the island as freehold farmers after the Navy shuttered its base. Now, all the technology that powered Auroa—weaponized drones, renewable energy, and so on—has been militarized and placed under Cole’s control.

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Cole and the high-tech army he commands highlight an implicit ambivalence about modern warfare that Breakpoint cannot quite seem to confront directly. Mind you, I haven’t finished the (surprisingly involved) campaign storyline, but there is little that the people on Auroa are subjected to that people like the Ghosts wouldn’t help to perpetrate elsewhere. Persistent aerial surveillance and capricious airstrikes have become a defining feature of US power and a uniquely traumatizing one for people in its path.

All around the island, you hear the refugee tech workers and “Homesteaders” complaining about the roadblocks and patrols that have taken over their little community. The menacing “Azrael” drones that fly overhead hunting for targets are little more than rebranded Global Hawk surveillance UAVs. The Ghosts are awed and terrified by the unholy power of the drone army that Cole commands, but what is this horror, really, except the realization that the shoe is now on the other foot?

Breakpoint has us encountering a lot of naive scientists and engineers who never dreamed something like this could happen, and your character “Nomad” makes a lot of observations about how dangerous this technology was to create without thinking about its use in the wrong hands. But the game often stops short of asking if there are powers for which there are no “right hands."

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Nomad is often as naive as the scientists they question: Stunned when they realize that they might have been sold-out by a superior, and stunned when they realize Cole has “gone bad.” The funny thing (and this is the balance that Ubisoft’s brand of topical apoliticism often tries to strike less successfully than it does here), is that you can see the obliviousness and rationalizations that typify the major characters in Breakpoint, but critique and interpretation is left to the player.

Despite the reality of postmodern imperialism creating dystopian hells in its margins, Auroa never looks or feels like anything less than heaven. From the lush jungles and grasslands of the coast to the snow capped highlands in the center of the islands, it’s an achingly beautiful place to spend time. It provides a dramatic, almost Olympian background to the action as you storm hilltop mansions or descend on a luxurious R&D campus set in the center of a volcanic lake.

Those changes in setting also make for starkly different engagements. Breakpoint handles long and medium-range field battles on mountains unsurprisingly well, but what’s unexpected is how intense and, well, Rainbow Six-like the room-to-room fighting feels when it comes time to storm a facility.

The intensity is a bit of an opt-in proposition right now. At every turn, Breakpoint will remind you it is optimized for co-op. I’m not entirely sure that is true. Playing it with friends, Breakpoint frequently becomes a bit too easy. Dramatic set-piece encounters can fizzle quickly under the combined firepower of a full fireteam. It’s fun, especially when things go well and truly off the rails, but the co-op experience is sometimes a bit too forgiving (though Breakpoint also has raids, which I’ve yet to do) and it’s not clear to me how difficulty is handled in co-op sessions. You can always adjust your own difficulty settings in solo play, but I couldn’t see what settings session hosts imposed, or even whether my own settings had an impact on matchmaking.

On the other hand, I largely played solo on my Xbox version and discovered that Breakpoint was ruthlessly difficult, maybe even excessively so. But in solo play, it felt less like a sandbox and more like a stealth-suspense game. It reminded me of the best parts of the original Crysis, when you had incredible stealth powers and an entire open world where you could stalk and hunt your targets. Storming a research compound in solo play took over an hour of painstaking stealth combat… and it was pretty amazing. Every missed shot or ill-timed movement took me to the brink of disaster, and by the time I escaped on a hijacked helicopter, I had run through just about my entire supply of rockets, grenades, noisemakers, flashbangs, and landmines. The frustration level might be a bit high in solo play, but I found it a bit closer to the right difficult and atmosphere than co-op.

Breakpoint also has PvP multiplayer, though I didn't spend too much time with it. A bit like Breakpoint itself, the competitive multiplayer is a pastiche of other conventions. There’s a Counter-Strike-esque “Sabotage” mode where teams of four duel over bomb sites, and there’s Ghost War: Elimination, which is a team deathmatch that borrows some elements from the battle royale genre as well. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but there’s no concealing the fact that Breakpoint is not built to be a PvP multiplayer game first and foremost.

It’s worth noting, however, that my experience with Breakpoint on PC has been a shambles compared to Xbox. When it's working, it’s terrific, but there is a lot more frustration and instability as well. I’ve had the game repeatedly hard-lock when I attempt to enter the matchmaking menu. Other times, I will sit through the game’s long initial load time only to have it immediately dump me back out to the main menu due to a “connection to server lost” error. Breakpoint doesn’t sync up story missions very well, either. Playing with Austin, he watched an entire mission cutscene play out while it was still loading for me, then entered a scripted combat encounter as I finally started watching that same cutscene. When he died in the ensuing firefight, I was dumped out of the cutscene and sent to his spawn location.

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Not helping matters is that the PC version is old-school in the sense that Breakpoint doesn’t have a good sense of what settings are appropriate for your PC, and seems to activate a lot of default features that incur major performance hits for little gain in visual fidelity. Loading times were ridiculous and riding in a chopper with Austin was more hazardous than usual as my game lagged and I watched his character model hover hundreds of meters outside the helicopter while I was treated to a slide-show of low-resolution textures smeared across the landscape. On the other hand, I honestly kind of loved the hour I spent benchmarking. It’s just not something I expect to do anymore.

But then, there’s a lot about Breakpoint that I didn’t expect. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what Ubisoft open world games could and could not do. Breakpoint seems like it should be more generic, not much more than a modern military-wrapper on a game we’ve played a half-dozen times before. But Breakpoint fully commits to its theme and finds dreadful and awesome things on the island Auroa. It just doesn’t seem sure which is which.