Soldier of mis-fortune…
Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon franchise has undergone a huge amount of change since its humble beginnings on the PC, original Xbox and PlayStation 2 back in 2001. Ghost Recon started as a tactical, and relatively difficult, first-person shooter before transforming through the years into a third-person near-futuristic cover shooter, retaining the core tactical elements, but becoming more accessible for the general gaming public.
Enter Ghost Recon Wildland’s in 2017, which threw out the rule book, going full Ubisoft open world. As a concept, it definitely could have worked; the open world was huge and sprawling presenting unique and varied ways to tackle each mission. Unfortunately, Wildlands ditched the majority of the series’ tactical elements in favour of a more arcade shooter style. Squad commands were limited to “go here”, “wait” and “follow” and both your team and your enemies had poor AI. This was coupled with a bad story and one-liners from your Ghosts that made you feel like you were the bad guys.
Now Ubisoft are back with the latest entry in this long-running franchise, Ghost Recon Breakpoint, which held its closed beta a little over three weeks ago. I gave it a go, and it’s taken me some time to reflect on my experience in the closed beta, and write it all down.
TLDR; it’s a swing and a miss by Ubisoft.
Let’s start with a quick overview: you play as Nomad, your customisable Ghost. Nomad is on a mission, alongside 31 other Ghosts, to find out how a US navy ship sunk off of the coast of the fictional Auroa Archipelago, home of advanced tech company Skell Tech. Skell Tech has gone from aspiring to revolutionise technology for the good of mankind to manufacturing and selling black market military tech to terrorists, and so your Ghosts are deployed to see what’s what. On arrival at Auroa, the Ghost’s helicopters are attacked by drone swarms (a concept that feels like it belongs more in Metal Gear Solid than Ghost Recon) leaving you and a handful of other Ghosts the sole survivors; sort of – more on that later. As you progress you discover a former Ghost colleague – Walker – is now in charge on Aurora aided by his own team of ex-Ghosts known as The Wolves alongside additional private security forces. Your job is to make contact with the archipelago’s own citizen’s militia and then look to start to put things right.
So far, so Tom Clancy.
Despite the standard plot – which could have been penned by Tom Clancy, Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, or any other military fiction writer that just re-hashes the same plot over and over – it still feels like an improvement over Wildlands’ story, and on top of this previews suggested that Breakpoint would also promise a raft of new features for Ghost Recon and a return to the more tactical nature of the series’ formative years. In
Let’s talk about those new mechanics first. One of the big changes for Breakpoint is the introduction of new survival mechanics. These are limited in nature, so as not to turn Breakpoint into a full-blow survival simulator, but regardless they do add some additional depth to the gameplay. You have limited stamina, need to heal injuries, and can craft useful items to buff your health and stamina by collecting resources within the world. It all helps Nomad feel a little more human and a bit less like an unstoppable killing machine. It also makes you pay a little more attention before and during firefights, as you need to plan your attack and escape routes bearing in mind you may need to heal up, or may not be able to run for very long. The only downside? The limited stamina makes traversing Aurora’s massive size on foot a bit of a pain. Fortunately vehicles such as bikes, boats, cars and helicopters return, and these are easy to use.
Another change is the introduction of a class system, that let’s you pick additional skills and specialisations for Nomad, alongside a Division-style loot system that allows you to increase Nomad’s level for taking on tougher enemies. The class system is designed to allow you to play more tactically with friends online, buffing and complementing each other, but the class doesn’t make a huge difference in solo play, acting more as an additional skill alongside the standard skill tree, which returns from Wildlands – albeit in more detail – and allows you to unlock new equipment such as C4 and thermal vision as well as additional buffs such as improved stamina regeneration.
Less fun are the loot and levelling systems. Breakpoint borrows heavily from The Division and Assassin’s Creed here, requiring you to unlock marginally more powerful weapon and clothing options (who knew jeans provided better bullet proofing than chinos?) in order to take on tougher enemies. The standard loot colour scheme exists, and this mechanic both limits your ability to freely explore, whilst also giving you direction in terms of your progression across the map – exactly as it does in Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey. It works, but it feels a little cheap in a Ghost Recon game. The challenge comes from grinding to take on tougher, bullet-sponge enemies, and not from increasingly varied and complex combat situations that require you to employ clever tactics to win.
That’s part of the problem with Ghost Recon going open world. Without structured levels, or mini-sandboxes, containing set pieces, the tactical element of Ghost Recon falls away and is replaced by a repetitive rinse and repeat of outposts. This wouldn’t be problem but Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and The Division already do this – and they’re just the games in Ubisoft’s wheelhouse. There are plenty of other games, from lots of other developers, doing exactly the same thing. It makes Ghost Recon feel like Assassin’s Creed with guns and honestly, that’s just not that much fun. Far Cry 3 didn’t have levelling or loot, but Outposts still felt varied. Operation Flashpoint didn’t have these mechanics either, but by employing more realistic mechanics the gameplay felt challenging and rewarding. Breakpoint appears to be a re-skin of ideas that Ubisoft have used elsewhere, and that makes it feel tired almost instantly.
One welcome change for Breakpoint, however, comes from the inclusion of both ‘guided mode’ and ‘exploration mode’. The latter encourages you to explore the map based on mission information, without relying on easy to follow waypoints. For example, you might be told that the location you’re looking for is on the northern beach of a certain province, east of the lighthouse, but west of the pier. It adds to the survival feel of the game, emphasising that you’re somewhere Nomad has never been before. Guided mode allows you to switch waypoints back on, so Breakpoint plays more like Wildlands, but even better is that toggling this option is easy. That means that, if you prefer to play in exploration mode, but get completely stuck looking for the exact place you’re meant to be, you can quickly toggle on guided mode for some extra help and then switch back.
In most other ways, Breakpoint is largely similar to Wildlands. It’s clear that Ubisoft are trying to build and expand on Wildlands with the new mechanics, rather than re-writing the rule book again. The new survival, levelling and loot systems are designed to make this game more tactical than Wildlands, whilst the map is even more diverse with more intrigue and a bigger emphasis on exploration, which goes hand-in-hand with the plot; it’s not going to win any awards, but from the closed beta alone it’s easy to see that the story in Breakpoint is infinitely better than Wildlands’.
Unfortunately, despite these tweaks, changes and additions all being for the better, Breakpoint still feels like a missed opportunity. It’s still a massive diversion from Ghost Recon’s roots and it feels more like the game Wildlands should have been. I was hoping for revolution, not evolution. The inclusion of so many elements from Ubisoft’s other franchises only serves to make Breakpoint feel overly familiar and tired too quickly; it feels like there’s nothing really new here that you haven’t played elsewhere, and the full game is going to have a lot more going on than was shown in the closed beta if it’s going to shake that feeling.
It’s clear too that Breakpoint has been built as a multiplayer, co-op, ‘games as a service’ offering, which in itself isn’t a problem. Unfortunately the single-player in the closed beta seems half-baked, and there’s an overwhelming feeling that you need to be playing with friends so that you can actually discuss, decide on and implement tactics using the different classes and skills to complement each other. Without that element, Breakpoint feels hollow. Wildlands wasn’t a great game, but it felt like it functioned as a single-player offering as well as mulitplayer one. Breakpoint, however, feels much more like The Division – Ubisoft really, really want you to play this with others, to the point where I almost think the game is designed to be less fun in solo play.
It’s also disappointing that the enemy AI doesn’t appear to have improved greatly from Wildlands, as the majority of enemies are still easy to take on; it’s only the levelling that serves to make them harder, not because they’re any smarter, but because they absorb more damage. The exception to this is when you’re spotted by a Skrell Tech drone. These drones frequently fly over the map and if you don’t avoid their gaze you’ll find yourself needing to run to avoid enemies. Except those enemies magically appear all around you, and you can only run for a short while because you have limited stamina now. It’s an extremely unfair mechanic that isn’t fun; if you had time to make your escape it might work, but enemies seem to magically teleport in and no matter what you’ve done they’ll have you in their sights immediately.
Then there’s Breakpoint’s social hub. I said there was a point I’d come back to, and this it, so here we go: the central premise of the plot is that most of your Ghost team are killed and it’s up to you and a handful or survivors to team up with the locals to bring down Walker and The Wolves.
The social hub, however, puts you and about 20 other Nomad’s in one place breaking the immersion of the plot. It’s an awful mechanic and it appears that you’re made to go here for the shop, certain upgrades and to collect story missions. This means that you will be stood collecting a mission, all about how you need to go out on your own and find answers to help progress your story, whilst another Nomad is ghosting through you collecting the same mission. Meanwhile a third Nomad is tea-bagging in your peripheral vision. And 10 other Nomad’s are wondering around in the background.
I can’t stress how much I hate this social hub. It’s clear that this idea has been lifted straight out of The Division, but it has no place in Breakpoint and it feels shoe-horned in for Breakpoint’s inevitable ‘games as service’ objective and to enable the sale of micro-transactions through the shop. The biggest problem? The social hum completely under-cuts the entire premise of the game’s plot.
I was also surprised by how Breakpoint ran and looked. I played on my PC using an RTX 2060 Super and an i5-8400 with 16GB RAM, initially using the Ultra settings at 1080p. I could achieve over 60 frames per second everywhere except for the social hub; this area saw my CPU hit hard dropping well below 60 frames per second. I’m not using the greatest CPU, but given the game was fine everywhere except the social hub, it just adds further to my disdain for its inclusion. In terms of settings, I was playing on Ultra and I felt that Breakpoint looked blurry and rough, with distant objects and enemies hard to make out. Perhaps a higher resolution would help here, but I’ve played plenty of games at 1080p on my PC and they all look so much clearer and cleaner than this. I also tried dropping down from Ultra to see if that improved my frame rate in the social hub area, but I still struggled to hit a consistent 60 frames per second in this area, even as I moved down through the graphical presets and had to suffer even more blurriness. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes for the final release, but based on this closed beta I’m a little disappointed. I actually feel that Breakpoint is a step backwards – in terms of its visual presentation – from Wildlands and I felt the same about The Division 2 when compared to its predecessor as well. Both sequels seem to offer a much rougher presentation, even on the highest settings, albeit with better worlds that have more going on within them.
There were of course plenty of bugs too. The majority of them were minor, but I experienced a few progress losing crashes back to desktop too. Bugs and crashes are par for the course in a closed beta and hopefully these will be ironed out before release, but one issue in particular was extremely annoying. On booting the game from UPlay, I would get a pure white screen. I could hear the game loading underneath, but the white screen never disappeared. One time it took me 10 attempts to get the game to actually launch properly, which does make me worry about the state of the full release on 4th October.
Overall the Breakpoint closed beta left me feeling cold and disappointed. I was hoping for a game that combined the open world potential of Wildlands with the tactical play of Ghost Recon’s earlier entries, but Instead Ubisoft have doubled-down on the path Wildlands started, throwing in lots new mechanics; some of which work, and some of which really don’t. It’s odd to see so many ideas from Assassin’s Creed and The Division being thrown into Ghost Recon, when it’s actually the more realistic and tactical Rainbow Six franchise reboot that would have been a better template to base a new Ghost Recon entry on in my opinion; the level of realism and tactical play on offer in Rainbow Six Siege would be amazing if it could be applied to an open world.
Will I play Breakpoint on 4th October? It seems very unlikely. Will I play it at some point in the future? Probably. If I can give Breakpoint a go through a UPlay+ free trial in the future, or pick it up at a discounted price, then I still think there’s enough here to justify playing it. However, for the £49.99 asking price, the closed beta didn’t do nearly enough to convince me and the forced multiplayer and social hub are extremely off-putting. Breakpoint comes across as an uninspired third-person shooter that ignores the franchise’s roots, and whilst improving on Wildlands in many ways, it also relies to heavily on mechanics borrowed from other Ubisoft franchises and feels like it only really works if you play it cooperatively online.
It’ll be interesting to see what people think when the full game releases, and how it inevitably changes with Ubisoft’s support over the next 12 months. Given Ubisoft’s track-record for tweaking, changing and improving their games based on player feedback, Ghost Recon Breakpoint may well be worth a punt in about a year’s time.
All images from http://www.store.ubi.com
Video embedded from Ubisoft’s YouTube channel
Ghost Recon Breakpoint will be released on 4th October on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
The closed beta was played on PC.