Monday, October 21, 2019

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint - the Buggiest Mess of Fun I've Had in a While

I make no secret of the fact that I've enjoyed the heck out of Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands....the former king of "overly long attributive names" now replaced by Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, which is essentially a direct game engine sequel and an indirect "story sequel" for reasons I'll explain in a moment.

For sanity's sake I'll just call this Breakpoint for the remainder of the discussion. Breakpoint is a direct sequel to Wildlands insofar as it is the same game engine and technically the same universe as the prior Ghost Recon titles...if you're in to following what those themes are, anyway. Unlike it's predecessor Wildlands, it tries to have a more directly involved story about your Ghost Recon character, focusing on a web of betrayal while being trapped on a high tech island paradise gone horribly wrong. Very much like Wildlands, it's really about your Special Ops character beign dumped into a hostile environment with limited resources and a veritable army of enemies surrounding him (or her) and a series of escalating plot points you must complete to progress the game.

Both Wildlands and Breakpoint function under a broad open-world engine designed to allow the most flexibility you can get Ubisoft style, with vast open world environments, vehicles and regions to explore, and lots of side quests and collectible missions to pad your time out while playing. Unlike Wildlands Breakpoint dives heavily in to the microtransactions, but I have found them completely ignorable so far.

Also unlike Wildlands, Breakpoint has some interesting bugs. My guess is that they took a variant build of Wildlands, probably before that game was even fully completed and patched, and started designing for Breakpoint. Then...a few things happened, in no particular order as follows.

First, Ubisoft got flack from the Bolivian government for using Bolivia as the setting for Wildlands. They were chastised by some groups at the time for depicting a real world country, even if it was a fictionalized account of such, intermixed with a somewhat fictitious but nonetheless inspired depiction of Mexican and South American drug cartels. For better or worse it actually made the game feel more interesting a bit "authentic" in the way that so many other modern shooters tend to fail at, and I very much enjoyed the game's attempts at ambient action, adventure and exploration in a faux Bolivia against faux Mexican cartels.

Second, Ubisoft had lots of bugs early on but they worked through them, and in similar fashion to The Division around a year in Wildlands was a very polished experience. Unfortunately, for better or worse Ubisoft pushed hard on getting people to not only enjoy the game's single player (and co-op) campaign, but they really wanted people to participate in the Ghost War multiplayer. Fair disclosure: I never even tried Ghost War and only played co-op with family, so consider that my appreciation for Wildlands was 100% about the PvE element of the game.

The net result of these events resulted, perhaps, in the reason Breakpoint is a bit of an odd duck. What Breakpoint does strangely may be entirely a result of Ubisoft's efforts, visible in almost all recent games, to clean up any politically contentious content in favor of something less offensive to all....and in the process making a product which ends up feeling like it has no backbone and stands for nothing. Here's how:

Breakpoint, in contrast with Wildlands and other Ghost Recon titles of the past, takes place in a fictional series of islands in a difficult to identify region of the world where an Elon Musk-like tech genius had decided to forge a new utopian society. He brings a PMC group in, the Sentinels, to serve as a temporary (?) military force, but in short order the PMCs take over and turn the production of good technology to bad. The island goes black....and the Ghosts are sent in. Within the span of the first cutscene the entire ghost operation is wiped out and only your character and a handful of survivors are left to regroup.

The villain in this game is technology; corporatism; militia-themed mercenaries (?); and the island is populated by what come across as random Silicon Valley people out picnicking and unsure of what to do in the midst of all the chaos, while extremely well funded and armed mercs hunt you with exactly as much skill as the difficulty level you decide to play at. To add some gravitas, one of the mercs is an ex-ghost who you previously trusted, so we have the "payback" plot bit mixed in, too.

Contrast this with how Wildlands handled it: the ghosts were meddlers, sent with deniability by the US to support a black op run in Bolivia to take out a dangerous collective of cartels which had siezed control of Bolivia and were turning the drug empire into a true international threat. The story was about the local agents you assisted, the rebels fighting both corruption in their government and the new cartels, and you had at least three factions to deal with, one of which was friendly to you. You also had ally NPCs you could default to playing with, and that made for some hilarious fun if you don't have anyone else to play this kind of game with.

In the end, with Wildlands, you learn a great deal about the malevolent, misguided and sometimes tragic personalities behind the cartel, while the government that lets it all unfold remains an oddly faceless aggressor in the background. Your character's stake is personal in that he/she gets the job done, no matter the cost...and you see the local dramas unfold. It was interesting, and a brave approach to storytelling for this kind of game.

Breakpoint, in contrast, manages an interesting story of personal grudges that makes the event very personal to your character, but in the course of doing so it removed most of the visceral level of story immersion Wildlands provided by making far too much of the fictional islands you are trapped on feel like "Video Game Land Gone Wrong," rather than a real place. They could have set this in Disneyworld and come up with some bizarre explanation for why you can't leave until everyone who's wronged you is dead and it would have made as much sense, in other words.

Examples of what I mean: travel in Wildlands for a while and you encounters towns, villages, graveyards, travelers who you must avoid killing because you're here to help, occasional narco patrols and occasional government troops. In Breakpoint you get evenly spaced random gangs of mercenaries with poor far-sightedness, occasional rare weird ruins of a mystery civilization, and small groups of what look like techies who were out on a picnic when the mercs took over and aren't sure what to do.

Despite all this, I am enjoying Breakpoint a lot. The personal story is good, the side quests are interesting enough, and so far the "busy work" collectible stuff seems to exist but I haven't yet felt compelled to pursue it. There's some sort of season pass nonsense buried in the game but like the microtransaction store I am simply ignoring it; none of that stuff matters if you play this for single-player or casual co-op.

Now, that said, one thing this game has a ton of and your tolerance may vary on is bugs. Playing Breakpoint right now feels like reading a really fun but poorly edited book, filled with typos and sometimes egregious grammatical errors. You keep thinking, "This book is great, but the author really needs to get a real editor!" --Yeah, Breakpoint is exactly like that. "This game is great, but man they really need like 100 patches!"

Some of the errors are just comical. If I don't see a load screen where my character is tightly gripping empty air where a gun should be then I just don't feel like I'm playing Breakpoint, you know? If  I don't see trees swaying in the wind, down to the trunk bases embedded in the earth, then how would I know I'm in a buggy early Ubisoft release? What would this game be like if my character's context-sensitive commands didn't get confused with some items being too close to one another (such as motorcycles)? If my character's climbing, swimming and running animations don't occasionally get get the idea.

My theory is that they started work on Breakpoint before they were finished cleaning and perfecting Wildlands. My second theory is that they started work on Breakpoint after Wildlands released, and had to scramble to build the content, overlooking lots of these visual and action issues to pump out the product. So either they worked on a build that deviated from an early Wildlands code, or they worked on a post-Wildlands code under a tight deadline. Either way....Breakpoint is the result.

For some, the bugs are sheer insanity and induce levels of hatred best expressed by a guy like Angry Joe. I haven't experienced all the bugs he has (and his problems may stem from the multiplayer aspect in ways I can't see in single player as easily), but I have seen some of them and they really stand out when encountered. For others like myself, these are not game breakers, but I trust Ubisoft to patch as much as they can. Some though....I have a theory here about some of these bugs, and it goes like this:

Wildlands let you run up and down mountains with no visible windedness, and sometimes with terrain that defied the logic of your movement (try running up a steep stream on a mountainside in real life to contrast with how you can do that in Wildlands). My theory is that a programmer at Ubisoft really didn't like this, and had a brilliant idea for more nuanced terrain movement in Wildlands, but he was shot down because it caused implementation issues, and they needed to get a working product out over a more nuanced, realistic product.

Cut to Breakpoint; that developer has more say and points out with Breakpoint there is time to implement this system of movement with terrain. They green light it, and we end up getting a context-sensitive movement system where your character slogs through marshes, struggles up steep slopes, can slide and fall, has great swimming animations when the water is deep enough, and can demonstrate fatigue over time. Other things, such as resting at bivouacs to get perks toward movement and tweaking of the stealth/hunched movement are implemented. Someone, very specifically the person who likes these, is extremely pleased with the result. Then the game is exposed to everyone else.

Now we have a game system which simultaneously feels more realistic in its movements while also leading to a constant series of fringe cases in which your character's movements can be mildly to severely annoying, especially if they start gyrating when you least want them to, the best example being when too many items you can interact with are too close to one another. Terrain that is "right on the edge" can cause strange actions such as swimming for a second down a shallow stream, or unexpectedly plunging down cliffs that you had seconds before seemed okay with hurdling.

To me....the fringe cases have been amusing and mildly annoying, but easily overlooked; I kind of like this context-sensitive movement...when it works well. But for others, especially the "angry video game reviewer" crowd? Yeah, they hate this stuff. And by hate, I to make videos showing their hate. They are not wrong, though. I think a cleaner movement system like Wildlands is less cumbersome in the long run; but Breakpoint may be the "test bed" for Ubisoft's next game which gets this nuanced movement right. happened with Assassin's Creed, it can happen here!

Another random gripe: why can't I recreate or port over my Wildland's character to Breakpoint? Why are the character models in Breakpoint less interesting and universally uglier than the ones from Wildlands? Why does blood on my character like look strawberry jam? Did they not see the flak Moderrn Warfare 2 got for the "strawberry jam = blood" effect?

Finally: here's my weird pet peeve. What ancient culture resided on the island, leaving behind all these strange monuments that look like the love child a Viking and a Hawaiian? Seriously; mor than anything, their ambiguous unidentifiable imaginary indigenous culture drive me nuts. It better be reptilians is all I can say.

Anyway.....I just wanted to ramble for a while about this game. I feel Ubisoft waffled in making "big tech company + PMCs" the villain, and they experimented with an open world that led to new bugs, but still made a fun game. Right now I'm going to rate this game a B- or maybe C+, but we'll see where it's at in a few months with patches, and whether or not their future content releases are worth investigating. Time will tell....

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