Video games can be an art form, whether or not people have realized it yet. While the industry hasn’t been quick to embrace that idea, one genre will always be lagging behind the rest: first-person shooters. The modern FPS has as much in common with Frankenstein’s monster as it does a Michael Bay movie. Once a developer has the requisite explosions and the shotgun that feels like a shotgun, all that’s left to do is to simply tack on pieces of the previous successful iteration while merely tweaking the formula with a change of setting, an established gimmick or graphical updates. While it may sound condescending, you can describe most popular FPS games entirely in terms of from where they derive their gameplay and design. Soon, we’ll be playing the mix of Painkiller and Gears of War that had a baby with The Club. After that, it’ll be the Battlefield clone that tries to be more like Call of Duty. Or there’s that cross between Call of Duty and Halo. That one looks like a real winner. Developers that make first-person shooters are about as committed to innovation as a Mad-Libs addict. That is, unless we’re talking about Breach.
For better or worse, Breach plays like no one at Atomic Games has ever seen a first-person shooter before. The game is a strange mix of outdated gameplay, originality and a shocking lack of attention paid to usability. Features like the ability to use suppressive fire to disorient enemies and destructible environments are interesting at first, but before long, they dissolve into nothing more than gimmicks that will only be of use in rare instances. Breach’s different modes are lifted right from other games and established shooter standards, including Convoy (Team Fortress 2’s Payload), Infiltration (Battlefield’s Conquest), Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch. All of the modes are in some way related to an objective or an overarching goal shared by the team. That gives way to the real attraction, which is the game’s staunch adhesion to gameplay that is rooted in cooperation, tactical movement and caution. It’s hard to call it realistic, but compared to other shooters, Breach might be close enough, as it seems to draw more from how actual soldiers prepare for combat than what you might be used to playing on your Xbox.
In that regard, Breach is a beautiful mess, a potential hit bogged down by design errors that can be pointed out by anyone with any experience with modern shooters. For example, some sound effects, like your avatar’s footsteps and slamming in a weapon’s magazine, play in the rear audio channel and will transform anyone with a stereo setup into an anxious mess, as you constantly spin around to see if some knife-wielding maniac is behind you every time you reload. Buildings are destructible to the point of where every bullet makes a difference, yet trees can withstand anything you can throw at them. The pistol, any shooter fanatic’s plan B, is mapped to the down button on the D-pad, eliminating any chance it could actually be useful to anyone in the game’s quick-paced battles. Lastly, allies can be marked with the color red, depending on what team you are on, despite most sane game designers understanding the negative connotation of red and reserving it for enemies only. Does Breach explain any of these flaws and try to compensate for them in any fashion? Largely, no. Then again, that’s not an entirely bad thing.
As much as it seems like Breach’s developer, Atomic Games, exists in a parallel universe wherein clunky controls and gameplay mixed with outdated graphics make for a major hit, they may be on to something with this game. Yeah, it rewards spawn-camping and doesn’t provide any incentive for accomplishing objectives. Sure, it completely ignores the heuristic principle behind giving different classes a distinct silhouette. Also, don’t forget the fact that it introduces a rocket launcher into an infantry combat game focused around hiding behind things easily destroyed by a rocket. But those are all gripes that could be made by someone less concerned with this genre and its approach to becoming art.
Breach transcends what you or I would want in a multiplayer game to instead provide us with an experience that is oddly refreshing. This game isn’t like anything else you’ll play in the next year. It’s a first-person shooter that is more dedicated to being its own game, forcing its quirky ideas down your throat as it rewards those with a high situational awareness, instead of trying to be accessible or enjoyable. Breach serves as an example for other developers, not only with its new approach to distributing a multiplayer shooter, but with its attitude of ignoring how people typically play those types of games in order to provide something different. While the final product isn’t anything great, Atomic’s original approach makes it a lot easier to forgive a failed effort that gets a lot closer to innovation than a fun time.
Breach was released on January 26th, 2011 for Xbox 360 and PC. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.