Life is short, and amid all its complexities and demands, our time to pursue diversions such as video games is, if not precious, at least very limited. When playing a game like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, it can take hours to cobble together enough materials to upgrade weapons and face off against the game’s rolling death machine drones with any success. But Ubisoft and the game’s store have a solution: microtransactions! Like a Fast Pass at Disneyland, you can just ka-ching! your way to the head of the line. The shadow of pay-to-win is just one of several clouds hanging over Breakpoint.
The gaming landscape is littered with military tactical shooters, and the Ghost Recon series has usually tried to carve out a niche by erring on the side of realism and a certain faithful reliance on Tom Clancy’s world of hi-tech but believable warfare. Wildlands introduced the open world mechanic to the franchise, and Breakpoint continues it with the sprawling island of Aurora, which contains a continent’s worth of diverse biomes, from jungles to ice fields. As an environment, Aurora is probably the game’s biggest success, with lots of interesting areas to explore. But like many open worlds, it’s simply too sprawling to fill with meaningful content, and story missions, side quests and faction-based tasks all have a infiltrate-kill-escape/rinse-and-repeat quality that can morph the experience from addictive to tiresome.
Although it hinges on a scenery-chewing character, an ex-Ghost named Cole Walker, effectively acted by Punisher star Jon Bernthal — one of Ghost Recon’s better antagonists — the story itself is convoluted claptrap that has plot holes aplenty and moment-to-moment dialogue that is well voiced but pulled directly from the Tough Soldier Book of Military Cliches. You play as one of a squad of military operatives — Team Ghost —sent to investigate some nefarious goings on in a Utopian high-tech community on Aurora. Far from being the only survivor (as you were lead to believe) of your squad’s downed chopper, you are mysteriously bread-crumbed to a hidden mountain game hub/enclave called Erewhon, populated by not just outcasts and refugees from Aurora but a vast population of other players, waiting to be told what to do and where to go. Whatever story immersion the prologue had generated is suddenly lost, replaced by the village of video game tropes: merchants, quest givers, crafting stations and other players with silly handles. You’re also confronted with the game’s overwrought UI that is a sluggish nightmare to negotiate. From this point on, you’re free to follow the story or explore at will.
By the time you stealth and/or kill your way through the tutorial to the hub area, you’ll have reached several conclusions about Breakpoint and noticed that the game has started to feel very much like other online military shooters like The Division 2, Far Cry or Destiny. In some ways the first few hours are the most familiar to fans of the series: slow, methodical and driven by the head-shot kill mechanic that works so well in dispatching the already brain-dead AI. But you may have also noticed that Breakpoint has started to take on some characteristics of RPG-driven loot shooters, with a steady stream of incrementally better weapons and gear. From camping and crafting to upgrading, whatever identity the Ghost Recon franchise one had is beginning to give way to a generic blend of elements from other games.
Breakpoint is the series’ most RPG-like game but instead of character progression, weapons and gear level up and are in theory the key to defeating tougher, more highly rated enemies. That’s certainly true when squaring off against enemy drones, especially the larger and more deadly tank-like vehicles and multifaceted airborne craft that can deploy multiple, smaller drones. But when dealing with human soldiers, the one-shot to the head equation is still valid, even when the enemies are supposedly much tougher. As in most Ghost Recon entries, the shooting and weapons are good, but vehicles are squirrelly to drive and control. The drone technology is both varied and fun to use as a weapon but can be incredibly frustrating to fight, with so many capable of one-shot kills.
There is a survival-lite mechanic in Breakpoint that doesn’t add much to the experience except minor annoyance, but there is a crafting system that turns raw materials into weapon upgrades and, of course, the ever-present store that begs you to short cut your way to victory using the power of in-game currency or real-world cash. You can buy better weapons, parts, skills, add-ons, gear, consumables and, of course, purely cosmetic items like skins. Certainly, most of these items and upgrades are available through grinding and gameplay but it’s either pure cynicism or bad design that forces players to consider buying into the pay-to-win (or progress) mindset. Breakpoint can be played without spending cash, but it’s loathe to ever let you forget that the option is there.
Visually, Breakpoint is the definition of a mixed bag, with effective lighting and weather effects moving across the scenery quite nicely, brushing up against some unfinished-looking textures and ugly character models. There are bugs aplenty, too, some of them serious enough to thwart a mission’s success, while others just play havoc with movement or textures.
While there is no lack of stuff to do — story missions, side quests, and faction missions, not to mention the multiplayer PvP Ghost Wars suite which is the marquee feature for many players — not all of it is engaging and most all of it has been done before and better, not only by other shooters but by other games in the Ghost Recon franchise. Absent server crashes and disconnects, playing through the campaign in co-op mode is still fun and certainly more efficient than slogging through it solo, though it doesn’t improve the quality of writing or convoluted narrative. Ghost Recon: Breakpoint blurs the line between a singular, well-defined approach to the tactical shooter and a whole mess of other games, and the result is a loss of identity with little gained in the process.