Life in modern Ubisoft games ticks by regardless of how much – or how little – you interact with it.
Stand in a spot long enough in Far Cry 5, and a critter will cross your path, scouting for a snack. Stop to look out across a canyon in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and you might see an unsuspecting villager jumped by a cougar. Townsfolk take on both warring factions and fauna with wildly fluctuating success, and sometimes, you’ll only be privy to the aftermath of these encounters as you pick through the spoils of the corpses.
It doesn’t matter if you intervene or not; people will go about their daily lives, life – and death – persisting with or without your interference.
As the years have trickled past, however, the unique digital fingerprints of Ubisoft games have become smudged and less distinct. At first, it’s trivial things; you notice Far Cry’s ally icon pops up in Assassin’s Creed Origins, perhaps, or realise that Ghost Recon’s all-seeing drone is merely a different interpretation of Creed’s eagle-vision. But the harder you look, the tougher it is to refute: these once separate franchises are bleeding into each other.
In some ways, I suppose it’s inevitable. This developer is stuffed with wildly successful franchises and has had decades to fine-tune its exquisite, if now a tad predictable, template. It makes sense to pick apart the finest specimens and recycle the best bits of that magical formula.
I know, I know; I’m here to talk about Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, and I promise – it’s coming. Reluctantly. But to be honest, it’s increasingly challenging to assess the merit of one Ubisoft game now without drawing heavily on its contemporaries. As for all the magic sprinkled throughout ancient Egypt and Hope County, for all the astonishing secrets stuffed into those stunning worlds that beg your exploration, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint is utterly bereft of it.
And I’m at a bit of a loss to understand how Breakpoint can emulate so many of the features I recognise from some of my favourite games and still fail so miserably.
It doesn’t feel good to write that, by the way. When I wasn’t being kicked by the server or forced to do a hard reboot because I’d inexplicably and permanently impaled myself on an invisible piece of scenery, I did have fun with Breakpoint. Though there is some diversity in its environments, Auroa’s expansive world is a curiously nondescript place. There’s no animal hunting here – hurray! – but this means the natural world remains curiously detached from you.
You play as Nomad, the chief Ghost protag you’ll get to craft physically to your own specifications. While a touch better than a mute meat bag – I’m looking at you, Far Cry 5 – it’s difficult to warm or relate to them in any meaningful way, but I’ll give the developers the benefit of the doubt and suppose any elite soldier must keep a tight lid on those pesky emotions. That said, there’s little camaraderie between Nomad and their squad, and the only character of any interest is, perhaps predictably enough, Jon Bernthal’s antagonist, Cole Walker. It’s to Breakpoint’s credit that despite its many flaws, I was sufficiently engaged in the story to keep on playing even when the game seemed hellbent on preventing me from doing so.
So much of Breakpoint’s mechanics sound good in theory but fail in practice. The survival elements – camps called bivouacs at which you can craft gear and items, as well as fast-travel between – are interesting enough, until you realise there’s scant else they do other than replenish your exhaustion meter. The idea of being alone and vulnerable in a series that had hitherto placed so much emphasis on squad companionship could’ve been an intriguing departure, but you’re left feeling frustrated, not lonely. There are plenty of missions, and the detective-lite “investigations” in particular – solved by interrogating suspects and scavenging clues – are an attractive addition, but these quests sadly do not offer enough variety, either.
The RPG loot is great – again, in theory – and there’s plenty of it about, but it chiefly serves to smother and elongate your progress. There are plenty of guns around, and the constant need to level-up keeps you experimenting with new weaponry, but you’ll soon learn there’s little meaningful difference between them. It’s just as well, really, given there’s no way to lock or upgrade a favourite weapon or clothing, anyway.
The combat itself is perfunctory, if not revolutionary, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by foes, especially if you’re alone and reinforcements are called in. Indoors things get a little clumsier, though, as perpetually-looking-for-cover Nomad continually ricochets off walls like a gin-soaked pinball. You automatically pick up loot as you step over it – yay! – but grabbing collectables or documents require you to hold down a button. Nope, I don’t know why there’s that distinction, either.
Oh, and there’s a skill tree because of course there’s a skill tree, but half of your hard-earned perks are useless as they’re only active if you equip them in your very limited perk slots.
Even moving around the world is a frustrating affair, usually ending in Nomad tumbling to the ground, weakened to the point of nausea, because they’re exhausted. Again. Other times they’ll slam herself against a pebble and can only overcome it with a glug of seemingly magical water and the liberal hammering of the ‘X’ button (if you’re looking for fluid parkour here, you won’t find it in this particular Ubi game).
And it’s unpolished, too. Depressingly so. Vehicles jump about on their back wheels like they’ve been lifted from a 90s hip-hop video. Dead bodies zip about the place as if being pulled by an evil puppeteer’s strings. The lip-syncing – something I didn’t realise would bother me, to be honest – is atrocious, and perhaps wouldn’t stick out so grievously if Nomad’s plastic-botox-tastic face wasn’t so devoid of emotion.
Loading your inventory and/or map is unacceptably slow. That Ubisoft staple, tagging enemies, barely works half the time. Sometimes my drone would deploy, and others it couldn’t be arsed. There are glitchy assets and screen tears and entire sequences with choppy, jerky audio, but I learned to live with that as the other option – no sound at all – is marginally worse. For a couple of days, my waypoints refused to indicate how far away I was from my objective, sending me forever scurrying to Breakpoint’s achingly slow, grey map. And I once had to wait a full two minutes to progress a mission because the character I needed to talk to wouldn’t spawn in. Oh, and you can invite players to join you in your world to help out with missions, but there’s no way of booting or removing them without quitting the game yourself entirely. Rad.
There’s a force-fed social hub in the guise of Erewhon – because that’s what all games need now, apparently, as though veteran Recon players were screaming out for the chance to elbow each other for space in front of the shop – and, of course, there’s Ubisoft’s obligatory selection of microtransactions, ranging from inoffensive to thoroughly egregious. Dialogue choices seemingly have little bearing on your story. Even the mission sub-menu is curiously over-complicated, and while I do like the idea of pinning three missions simultaneously – main, side, and faction missions, usually – they take up way too much real-estate on your HUD. Yes, they can be concealed with a flick of your d-pad, but doing so also conceals your mini-map, too. I mean, I could go on, but I’ve had enough, to be honest, and I’ve a feeling you probably have by now too, right?
Thing is, when it’s not broken or forcing me to stop at bivouacs to recover because my elite soldier has the lung capacity of an asthmatic ant, I forget Breakpoint’s overwhelming limitations and find myself enjoying it. Buddying up with a pal and taking on the secret base of a villainous hi-tech scally is unquestionably fun, especially when you unlock night- and thermal-vision for your drone and you can mow down unsuspecting enemies with gleeful abandon. I’m an unashamed sucker for the gentle, mesmerising pull of collectables and side missions, and Ubisoft’s painstaking formula is one I usually fall for with shocking, even shameful, rapidity. Unfettered by bugs, get into the hypnotic Breakpoint groove and you too might even start to enjoy yourself.
Thing is, no amount of collectables or subtle, satisfying gameplay loops can counter this half-baked hotchpotch of magpie’d ideas that neither function properly nor mesh. It’s just a broken, swirling vortex of recycled Ubisoft mechanics stamped across a dismal, forgettable world.