Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
There are two objective facts about myself I feel I should make clear right off the bat. First, I enjoy playing RPG’s. Second, I’m a big fan of Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon franchise. Having said as much, I don’t think I ever considered the possibility of turning Ghost Recon into a franchise with RPG trappings, and yet that’s exactly what Ubisoft has attempted to do with the recently launched Ghost Recon Breakpoint.
In some regards, Breakpoint could be considered a sequel to 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, at least insomuch that the two share much of the same DNA when it comes to exploration and combat. However, Breakpoint also has a surprising amount in common with another recently released Ubisoft shooter, the more RPG-bent The Division 2. With Breakpoint, Ubisoft has clearly tried to further blur the lines between tactical shooter and stat-based RPG. However, the sudden left turn into the RPG realm combined with a roughshod story and scattershot approach to gameplay makes for an experience that’s serviceable, but also woefully lacking in focus.
A Tropical Prison
Ubisoft’s decision to set Wildlands’ fictional story of Latin-American terrorists in the non-fictional province of Bolivia wasn’t a great one, and for Breakpoint the studio wisely decided to instead create an entirely original playspace: a massive island called Aurora. The island is made up of varying biomes including lush jungles, snowy mountains, tropical seasides, and dense forests, and it’s also home to a cutting-edge tech company called SkellTech which has been commandeered by a ruthless mercenary outfit called The Wolves.
Leading The Wolves is a former Ghost-turned-terrorist named Cole D. Walker (portrayed by The Walking Dead/The Punisher actor Jon Bernthal). Walker’s status as a former Ghost helps in lending him a more personal connection to Breakpoint’s customizable protagonist, Nomad (returning from Wildlands), though it’s hard to feel invested in that connection given how little the player learns about Walker and how much of a cipher Nomad still is even after all the events from Wildlands.
Ubisoft even seemed to anticipate how little Breakpoint players would care about the game’s story since, unlike Wildlands’ more drawn out opening sequence, the sequel wastes no time in thrusting players directly into action. The player barely has time to come up to speed on their mission (investigating why SkellTech attacked a ship off the coast of Aurora) before their helicopter is shot down and they find themselves stranded on Aurora with Walker’s men closing in.
Living Off the Land
Soon after their crash landing, players discover there’s a large group of indigenous islanders called the Homesteaders who are fighting back against The Wolves. The Homesteaders’ hidden base camp, a massive cave called Erewhon, serves as a social space of sorts where players can congregate, shop, and plan their next mission. This social space, where other players can always be seen freely roaming around (Breakpoint has an always online requirement, even when playing solo), is the first major sign of how Breakpoint shifts away from the established Wildlands template and more towards the MMO-esque trappings of The Division 2, but it’s far from the last.
Once players gear up and move beyond the safety of Erewhon, they’re free to pursue whatever tasks they like. Similar to Wildlands, there’s a wide gamut of different tasks and missions players can pursue at any one time. Along with the main story missions there are also side missions obtained from specific NPC’s, faction missions related to helping the residents of Erewhon, weapon and attachment blueprints to track down, enemy outposts to clear, landmarks to discover, and bivouac sites to secure.
Bivouacs are one of the new survival features Ubisoft added in to give Breakpoint more of a survivalist feel, and they essentially function as both fast-travel points and mini-camps where players can shop, rest, craft and upgrade weapons, or apply temporary buffs by consuming rations and water. When out in the field, players can also drink from a refillable canteen to restore stamina and use healing items like syringes and bandages to apply emergency triage if they take too much enemy fire.
Ghost Recon fans have long prized the series’ focus on realism and attention to detail, and the amount of detail found in Breakpoint puts even the hyper-tactical Wildlands to shame. Along with having to manage Nomad’s wounds and stamina, players can also cut through metal fences, gather natural ingredients for crafting advanced rations, and cover themselves in dirt while prone as a sort of makeshift camouflage. Sadly, that emphasis on realism breaks down quickly once players discover how much more heavily Breakpoint relies on RPG mechanics for progression, and how utterly brain-dead the game’s AI enemies are.
Eye on the Prize
Ghost Recon Wildlands wasn’t entirely without RPG-esque progression mechanics, but they were mostly relegated to the game’s post-launch PvP ‘Ghost War’ experience (an experience which returns virtually unchanged in Breakpoint). For its campaign, Wildlands instead had players work through more organic forms of progression where they unlocked weapons and skills by actually finding and securing resources out in the world. Breakpoint still has that world-based scavenging, but that’s just the tip of its massive progression iceberg.
In Breakpoint, killing enemies awards XP which is used to level up and purchase new skills from a series of expanding skill trees. These skill trees all funnel back down to four distinct core classes which each have a signature tactical item, passive perk set, and ‘class technique’ that essentially functions like The Division 2’s Ultimate abilities or Destiny 2’s Supers, allowing the player to manually trigger a powerful temporary effect. These class techniques aren’t nearly as flashy as Destiny 2’s Supers but it’s pretty obvious where their inspiration comes from.
Each of the four core classes, Field Medic, Assault, Panther, and Sharpshooter, also has its own 10-level progression track which a player can advance by completing class-specific challenges. Players can unlock as many of the classes as they wish as long as they have the requisite skill points, which means they can either dabble in different classes or commit to a single class to level it up more quickly. The diversity of the four classes and their intended combat roles truly shines in co-op play, but they’re all fun to at least try out during solo excursions as well.
Along with general XP leveling and class leveling, players also have a universal gear score which they can increase by either looting new gear and weapons off of defeated soldiers or purchasing them from Erewhon’s shop. For the most part, the gear score mechanic doesn’t affect how much damage a player can dish out or withstand, but certain high-level areas and activities (such as attempting to attack Walker and his men directly) have recommended gear score levels to ensure a player’s survival.
This gear score mechanic has already proved to be quite divisive within the Ghost Recon fan community. Fans aren’t happy about having to constantly re-equip new gear just to gain minor boosts to their score, though Breakpoint’s flexible cosmetic customization system at least allows players to retain their ideal looks even as they swap out old gear for new. The in-depth gear-looting system, complete with colored rarity levels and minor stat boosts, is also a clever way for Ubisoft to peddle Breakpoint’s comprehensive microtransactions rollout, though in fairness there’s more than enough cosmetic content to earn without spending anything extra.
Rounding out Breakpoint’s overwhelmingly expansive amount of progression options is a battle pass-esque ‘Battle Rewards’ system which is tied to the various faction missions players can undertake, and a dedicated Ghost War mission track that grants additional rewards for meeting certain PvP milestones. All of these different progression systems can be a bit much to take in all at once, but they also ensure that you’re always making meaningful progress, be it story-related or character-related, no matter which Breakpoint activity you pursue.
It’s a shame that the satisfaction of working through so many different progression tracks is wasted on foolhardy enemy AI that, even on the game’s hardest difficulty settings, doesn’t seem capable of formulating a strategy more complex than ‘blindly bum-rush the player and hope for the best.’ Even Walker’s supposedly elite Wolves don’t seem to know how to take cover or flank the player when they have the advantage of numbers (as they often do considering that, unlike in Wildlands, you have no AI teammates supporting you).
The easy-to-outmaneuver AI is nice when you just want to run-and-gun your way through Aurora without worrying about stealth, but for hardcore fans who want to really push the limits of what they and their squad can accomplish, I doubt even Breakpoint’s most extreme difficulties will give them too much of a challenge. Here’s hoping the game’s upcoming Raid experience (yet another feature co-opted from The Division 2) can provide the intense experience dedicated Ghost Recon vets crave.
Ghost of a Chance
Personally, I didn’t mind Breakpoint’s newfound RPG influences too much, but I also know that a more RPG-esque game is not what dedicated Ghost Recon fans asked for. It’s clear that Ubisoft saw how much players took to the RPG features (specifically the looting and leveling up) it had already layered onto games like The Division 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and figured it would work for Ghost Recon as well. The result is a game that still feels tactical and realistic in some regards, but also strangely at odds with its own core audience in others.
At the very least, Ghost Recon Breakpoint has plenty in the way of rewards for players to chase, whether they prefer PvE exploration, tactical co-op outings, or small-scale PvP skirmishing. It’s just a shame that Ubisoft opted to simply repurpose the somewhat generic-feeling systems it has already used in several of its other games rather than come up with something more original that would have better gelled with the Ghost Recon decorum.
Ghost Recon Breakpoint is certainly a rewarding and engaging tactical shooter experience for those who don’t mind the new RPG direction Ubisoft has gone in. Unfortunately, it’s also a worrying harbinger of the homogenized loot-and-microtransaction-driven future that may await all major Ubisoft properties.