Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Breach Review

Breach, developed and published by Atomic Games.
The Good: Detailed realistic building damage allows for really unique tactics, slick active cover system, purposeful suppression, multiple game modes, variety of weaponry and gadgets, $15
The Not So Good: No single player content, special gadgets and perks must be unlocked, no terrain deformation, few maps
What say you? Incrementally destructible buildings adds a new tactical dimension to the multiplayer military first person shooter: 7/8

For the longest time in first person shooters, any time an explosive hit a wall, nothing happened. It’s been that way for so long that people feel safe behind seemingly impenetrable concrete, sheltered from the enemy in a cocoon of safety. Now that computers have gotten sufficiently powerful enough, games are now breaking down the walls that surround us, and not just in a metaphorical sense (that was almost philosophical). Shooters have begun to advertise destructible environments (notable entries include Red Faction and Bad Company 2), but you couldn’t help but feel like things were just a bit pre-scripted (Bad Company 2) or overly exaggerated (Red Faction). Breach hopes to end those limitations, offering combat in a modern military environment where individual bricks and planks react to bullets and explosions in a dynamic yet realistic nature. This game is the result of using the technology intended for Six Days in Fallujah (and software developed for military training) and applying it to a less specific setting. Does the developer of the Close Combat series do its military tradition proud?

Breach features acceptable graphics for a budget shooter. The four environments are fairly detailed: while certainly not quite up to the level of, say, Bad Company 2, there is plenty of cover to find and subsequently destroy in the outdoor arenas. The buildings exhibit gradual damage as they are shot up, and watching the dynamic explosions take out corners, walls, ceilings, and floors never gets old. The character models that you will see in third-person view when cover is entered look fine, though they have some animation issues when firing around corners. The weapon models are realistic, producing tracers that fly majestically across the battlefield. The sound effects are seemingly accurate as well, though the bullet ricochet effect gets tiresome and the constant insults automatically spewed by your avatar are childish. Overall, Breach delivers a decent package for $15.

Breach is a multiplayer military shooter that lies somewhere between the insane realism of ArmA II and the accessibility of Fish Simulator. The first emphasis is multiplayer, as Breach lacks any sort of single player content: no campaign, no bots to practice against (and no tutorial, either). Since the game can only be bought online, I suppose this isn’t much of a problem as long as people keep playing for the long term. Breach supports sixteen players on four maps (plus one nighttime variant); this isn’t obviously a lot of selections to choose from, but each map is fairly large and contains enough buildings and passageways to make things interesting (also, the ability to destroy bridges and walls makes each map change slightly during a match). There are five game modes to choose from, starting with typical team deathmatch, Battlefield-style conquest, and a “sole survivor” deathmatch mode with no respawns. More interesting are convoy, where one team must escort an automated jeep (with a mounted gun) through a map while destroying blockades along the way, and a capture-the-flag alternate where one radioactive canister randomly spawns on the map and each team tries to bring it back to one of two collection points for their team (carrying the canister means you can’t shoot…teamwork, people!). You can play any of these modes in hardcore mode, which removes the minimap and ammo count from the HUD and allows for two-shot kills (almost every server I've played on has used this option, which is fine by me, except that you have to remember whether your gun is set to full auto or semi). The game modes play as expected, though in infiltration (conquest) and retrieval (capture the canister) modes spawn points are seemingly random, sometimes placing you near the frontlines but sometimes way back in a corner of the map or deep in enemy territory; in either case, the first few seconds are really confusing as you attempt to get your bearings. Breach features an in-game browser, dedicated servers, and LAN play, good news for PC gamers. There have been issues when joining a dedicated server (getting permanently stuck at the loading screen), but these seem to have been solved and only appear on servers that haven't updated their files. You can adjust the number of rounds per map and lethality of friendly fire, but not the time or score limit (maybe you can on a dedicated server).

Pet peeve time: unlocks. I dislike putting new players at an immediate disadvantage (one of the reasons I grew to abhor Bad Company 2: I could not get any kills until I unlocked a proper scope), and Breach continues the sad trend by preventing new players from using any of the game’s twelve gadgets and fourteen perks. It took me around ten games to earn my first unlock; you earn experience points shooting people in the face or capturing things, around 5-10 XP each (you get more experience for killing players ranked higher than you). The lowest-level unlocks cost 500 XP, and it increases from there up to 2,500 XP each for the swankiest toys. Thing is, once you earn 500 XP, you spend it and it’s gone, so it takes another 10 or so games to get another 500 XP to earn one more entry-level unlock: getting access to everything will take quite a long time. Weapons are class-specific and automatically unlocked, though they do take a decent amount of time to get. Luckily, an unlocked perk or gadget is usable by any class, so you don’t have to unlock the rifleman’s sticky bomb and the gunner’s sticky bomb separately. And things are actually spaced out well: as long as you don't play too many of the game's classes and need every scope and grenade attachment, new items come at a quick enough clip (every couple of hours). In addition, a lot of the unlocks are frankly optional: while some gadgets are very cool and useful, I did just fine taking out snipers using iron sights on a rifle (the occasional RPG helped, too), so I didn’t feel like I had to scramble up the technology tree for the ACOG like in Bad Company 2. I also think cover has a lot to do with keeping you alive longer with substandard tech.

OK, enough soap box: let’s talk about the tools of destruction in Breach. Gadgets are really interesting, and each of them is appropriate for a different situation. Annoying sniper? Equip the IR detector. Annoying vehicle? Take the SLAM charge. Someone camping in a building? Use the sonic imager. Predictable enemy paths? Place a motion sensor. And so on. Perks are less exciting, giving the usual slight advantages like longer sprint, a larger explosive radius, reduced headshot damage, throwing grenades farther, less recoil, no suppression, higher movement speed, more accurate blind fire, and faster reloading. For balance’s sake, you are only allowed to equip one gadget and one perk at a time, and you must decide on each class’s choice before joining a match; I suppose this is intended to prevent crafting the perfect combination every time you spawn and limiting the extreme advantage already given to experienced veteran players, though it is very annoying and tedious to have to exit a server if you want to switch perks mid-game. Honestly, with the use of cover and anti-cover explosives, the advantages gained by having more perks aren’t terribly significant (and it’s almost fun deciding what to spend your XP on…almost). So, yeah, I like the gadgets and the perks, but I wish I didn’t have to spend time unlocking them.

Breach starts with four classes and culminates with five wielding a variety of weapons, each of which is adept at a different tactical setting. The rifleman gets (surprise!) an automatic rifle, like the M4A1 or HK 416, and a breaching charge to take care of those pesky walls. The gunner excels at suppression with his M60 or M240 light machine gun, and also gets grenades to lob haphazardly at the enemy (though they do not get thrown very far at all). The support class is your short-range specialist, equipped with a M1014 combat shotgun or MP5 submachine gun and smoke grenades for cover. The dreaded sniper comes with a M40A3 or M107 rifle and breaching charges, while the fifth class, recon (which is unlocked once completing both the rifleman and sniper classes) gets an AK-103 or MK-14. Each class also has a third cutting-edge special-ops weapon: see, told ya. All classes also get a pistol, access to ammo boxes equipped with additional rounds and RPGs (a limited number, so each game doesn’t quickly devolve into a plethora of destroyed buildings), and various attachments like sights, grenade launchers, and silencers that can be purchased with experience points. The usefulness of the gunner class seems to be dependent on how well your team works together: the weapon can take out some cover with a bit of work and suppress enemies, but the bullet spread is too large to engage enemies at long distances on your own. Because of this, the rifleman class seems the most diverse: it can engage enemies at any distance, and once you purchase the grenade launcher, those that cower behind cover can be quickly eliminated. The support class is only useful indoors, which is an infrequent setting on most maps but it is highly effective there. There are (thankfully) only a couple of map locations that make sniping worthwhile, so annoyances here are kept at a minimum (especially if you have the personal-favorite IR sniper scope detector equipped). Breach features a strong suite of weaponry, and the classes are well-balanced and cover a wide range of combat situations.

Breach features typical controls for a first person shooter. It’s nice that both crouch and run are toggled controls (you don’t need to hold them down), but looking down the sights or scope is not. The game also does not support prone (not missed, honestly) and health seems to be regenerated over time, but melee combat is available. A significant aspect o Breach is the use of suppression: when you are fired up, the screen turns red and you can’t return fire or move much, meant as a simulation of real-life conditions. Though this effect is not overly dramatic, this does make the gunner class much more important than in most first person shooters. The HUD is minimal, offering a small map in the upper left (in non-hardcore modes), weapon information in the bottom right, and on-screen indicators for gadgets and objective locations.

Up until now, Breach would be just another average first person shooter. Not so fast, my friend! It’s “killer app” time! The first is level destruction: you can incrementally destroy buildings and some other objects. This is different from Bad Company 2 in that it’s not pre-scripted: instead of an entire wall coming down at once, you can take out corners, individual bricks, or planks. It’s also more realistic than what’s seen in the Red Faction series, which always tended to be overly dramatic (where a hammer took down an entire structure…uh huh). Options in Breach include blowing up ceilings and floors, shooting supports to collapse buildings and roofs with people on them (handy for dealing with snipers), and collapsing buildings onto the enemies below; your first debris kill is always memorable. You can also create your own cover by shooting individual bricks, destroy the cover of your opponent, and create wider (or new) entries into buildings for safer movement. Not only is it impressive technology, but the destruction in Breach is also very useful from a tactical perspective. The destruction, however, does not extend to solid rock (you can't take out chunks of a cave or tunnel), trees, or the ground, so there are some limitations to encounter.

Breach also includes an intuitive cover system: simply face a wall, barricade, rock, or other obstacle and press “X”. You can then move laterally along the cover from a third-person perspective, and peek and shoot around either side or the top by holding the appropriate direction key. You can also blind fire by pressing the fire button with no direction button (I've never found a use for this). The cover system will automatically snap you back behind the cover if you need to reload while dealing with enemies, which is quite handy. It is quite impressive that it works with dynamic destruction, and it’s a smooth transition in and out of cover. This makes for fluid movement across the battlefield, as soldiers use cover and then run for the next bit of cover: it’s almost like what real soldiers do. I also much prefer this method to simple crouching behind something, which always leaves you more exposed and doesn’t really serve as true cover. The third-person view does let you see around corners even if your character can’t (because he is facing towards you); while this is not really realistic, it’s nothing beyond what you could see by simply looking forward, so I don’t have a huge problem with it. You are also given an armor bonus when behind cover, so people who play Breach without taking advantage of cover are dumb and soon to be dead. Anybody who thinks that run-and-gun tactics will work in Breach is simply wrong: running in the open is suicide. Now, you may be thinking: doesn’t cover make it completely impossible to kill anyone? Well, this is where the dynamic destruction comes in: simply blow it up with a well-placed RPG, grenade, or high-caliber round. Fantastic. The combination of active cover with viable ways of defeating active cover using distinctive world destruction makes Breach an intriguing shooter.

The allure of Breach is destructible environments, and they mostly deliver. Being able to blow out walls, floors, ceilings, and bridges adds a new host of tactics not seen in any other modern military shooter: shooting building supports, removing cover with a well-placed RPG, restricting enemy movement, eliminating that sniper’s post, and making custom mouse holes for surprise attacks and more covert movement. This amount of freedom makes Breach truly unique and each game plays out a little bit differently based on what’s been destroyed. Sadly, the destruction is not complete, as trees, rocks, and the ground are left unharmed. Coupled with the destruction is the intuitive active cover system: just face a wall or other form of cover (rocks, barricades, sandbags) and press “X” and you’ll stick to it, able to move laterally or peek over the top to make a quick shot. While in most games this might be totally annoying since units behind cover are obviously difficult to kill (that’s why it’s called “cover” and not “target practice”), in Breach any bit of cover can be destroyed with the right amount of high explosives: just aim that RPG or unlockable grenade launcher and let ‘er rip. Breach also features a wide range of classes, each with an appropriate role: the all-purpose rifleman with breaching charges, the suppression-inducing gunner, the long-range sniper, and the support class for close-quarters combat. Breach features unlocking (insert disappointed sigh) of additional weapons, gadgets, and perks with game experience, but it’s not totally slanted against the new player like in some games. Since you can only equip one gadget and one perk at a time before the match begins, each of them has a limited strategic use, and they are quite expensive (restricting their proliferation), newcomers are not at a significant disadvantage (just a slight one) when starting out against more veteran players. Finally, Breach comes with some compelling game modes, a hardcore mode for those into that sort of thing, but only four maps (with one nighttime variant) and no bots to play against. Still, the game’s low price, building destruction, useful cover system, and satisfying combat make Breach a fine choice for fans of online shooters.