Ghost Recon Breakpoint review: Finding my own fun in an open world

I’m not sure when I’ll finish the story for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint. I’m not sure if I’ll finish the story. The whole thing feels like it’s a little besides the point.

There’s no activity the campaign provides that can’t be found, on demand, in Auroa, the vast, fictitious South Pacific island that Ubisoft Paris has spun from whole cloth to avoid the kind of political unpleasantries that came with its predecessor’s setting. So why shackle yourself to a single narrative when you can do whatever you want, focusing on what’s fun based on how you’d like to play?

The matchmaking for co-operative play also helps justify my slow-cooker, do what feels good approach to tackling the game. Ghost Recon Breakpoint wisely lets players declare a purpose for seeking partners, from exploration to completing story missions. One focus is even “role-playing.” The tactical stealth community can get so enmeshed in these sorts of games that a big assault on a compound does resemble an RPG more than a standard shooter, complete with players sharing intel and instructions with each other in-character, through sometimes dense military jargon.

And the customization layer, with a skill tree, weapons building, and cosmetics galore, focuses my attention on a player character more interesting to me than Breakpoint’s cautionary tale about techno-utopia, or its heart-of-darkness hunt for a mutinous elite warrior. My enemy is the drawling Cole Walker (played by The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal), a comrade from my character’s time in “the suck,” who is now the warlord in charge of Auroa, cut off from contact with the chain of command. Though Auroa’s self-sustaining infrastructure is an experiment/enterprise set up by some outfit called Skell (and I can’t get over the fact this was NYPD Blue’s go-to word meaning “lowlife,”) Walker is the muscle, and apparently has priorities that supersede Skell’s.

And playing Breakpoint just for its story is a recipe for frustration, especially if you’re playing alone. While the missions advancing the campaign can be played, and beaten, by yourself, the game’s menus often remind you that it’s “optimized for co-op” — multiplayer co-op, as there are no AI squadmates to order around at launch. Ubisoft promises this is coming post-release, however.

So if you are squadding up, it’s best if you know your team outside of the game, or have at least organized outside of the standard matchmaking.

I kept being paired with players who didn’t want to talk, or respond, when I tried to discuss strategy. In one hilarious example, I selected “exploration” for matchmaking and one of the two partners I was given followed me when I said I wanted to go find some weapon attachments. There was a two-seat attack helicopter parked in the vehicle area as we left the hub world. My guy ran up to it, jumped in the passenger’s seat, and flew off with someone else. I heard the chopper’s minigun burp excitedly before it disappeared over the hills.

Thanks, friend!

Jon Bernthal is the big bad in Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s less-than-compelling story
Ubisoft Paris/Ubisoft

These challenges have somewhat improved now the game has been released to the general public for a few days, and I found some good parties through the “role-playing” matchmaking focus, but connecting with randos will rarely offer the kind of adventure the game’s trailers suggested.

If you can bring your own friends or group of players, it’s going to be great. If not, expect some rough experiences, or get used to playing by yourself, even if that seems to contradict the design of the game itself — which brings us to the next topic.

The power of fighting alone

My breakthrough with Breakpoint — where the game passed from “OK, I can manage this,” to “Hell yeah, I wanna play this” — came when I accepted that I could have plenty of fun on my own, even if that seemed to thwart the intentions of the game’s suite of multiplayer opportunities.

It also seems to bend reality when I clear out a compound all by myself and never have to use a healing syringe or bandage. At times I can cut through opposition so easily it feels like I am cheating. That then raises the question of whether I am cheating this mission, or cheating myself out of an even better time spent with others.

Unlike Tom Clancy’s The Division or its sequel, there are no bullet-sponges among the enemies. You can, however, shrug off a lot of damage at the standard difficulty. And this means that just about everyone you fight can be taken down with a single shot to the head or a few rounds to the body.

I even have a drone that lets me scout out the entrance, exit, and opportunities for cover in most situations before I move in to take the shot. I don’t have to coordinate with anyone, and I’m on my own out there, but that also comes with several advantages when I have to think on my toes if a plan goes wrong. My enemies can’t catch someone out of position and prematurely break my strategy, because it’s just me. Wherever I am, it’s where I’ve decided to be.

Ubisoft Paris/Ubisoft

It’s just that, like you, I saw all the cool gameplay demonstrations when Breakpoint was announced, showing the Ubisoft Paris designers working in tandem, taking out swaths of oblivious henchfolks with silenced weapons and similarly badass hand signals. The setup for the mission is rather typical for an open world: have a conversation with a mission-giver, learn about an area that needs my help or attention, go there and kill everyone, and pick up the clues that lead to the next job. I’ve seen all this before, in broad strokes.

Along the way, though, is some of the best fun I’ve had with a third-person shooter. Infiltrating a fish processing plant and dispatching 15 hostiles all by myself, just because I learned blueprints were there (and learned that from a similarly happenstance encounter) was exhilarating. It’s just that being an army of one, however satisfying, feels like going against the intentions of the game itself.

Working solo, there’s no pace-of-play question to sort out with my teammates. And I like taking my time. The few times I have gone on someone else’s story mission, we’ve usually gone busting in, fighting through enemies while standing out of cover. The basic AI will flank you in the open, but at any choke point they will happily funnel themselves into a small area, where they can be easily taken out.

No location is gated by time or experience in Breakpoint. The entire in-game map, and every vehicle type, is accessible from the beginning. There are some fights that are very inadvisable until you reach a certain Gear Score which is an average of all the equipment you have on you. (Raids, for example are reserved for gear score 150, which can run a couple dozen hours of play to amass). But mostly it on you if decide to break out of the game’s timeline for how you should tackle any mission on your board.

Death from the skies

The most powerful weapon the game has for keeping you in line, and making open world travel intriguing, however, are the aerial patrols.

Aerial surveillance can come from humans in helicopters or the much worse “Azrael drones” that fly over the map. The helos will just shoot at you, and can be brought down by small arms fire. The drones are much worse. Your minimap scrambles and the Wolves — basically a bunch of Kylo Ren cosplay enthusiasts with guns — are on your ass pronto once the drone gets a lock on your position. Surveillance can be avoided by getting into cover, and getting into cover is as simple and quick as going prone and pressing X to slather myself in mud. But that’s much harder to do in the middle of a firefight, or with other enemies already in the area. Once I was interrogating an enemy for intel as I got the warning about an incoming Azrael drone, so I stashed my prisoner in the backseat of a parked car and jumped in a bush.

Was this is a smart way to deal with things? I never found out. The remainder of the encounter was glitched and I had to reload. But it seemed like a good idea, at least.

The design team certainly wants you to play a certain way, and the game is being promoted as a team-based tactical shooter, but the game’s rules themselves rarely seem to support playing in the dramatic manner seen on trailers and E3 presentations. You can fast-travel to an area once it’s discovered, and setting up a bivouac gets you a break from the constant harassing aerial surveillance. (It’s also a great time to craft supplies, customize weapons, and buff up for the next operation).

But this also means that traveling on foot is better than jumping into a vehicle, because most of the random opposition shows up on a road. That means it takes much longer to get anywhere on the map. Flying around in a chopper is the easier approach, especially when you “discover” new campsites just by flying over them. But flying made me feel detached from the firefights I kept encountering on the ground. The way that Ubisoft seems to want people to play rarely seems like the most effective, even if it does look cooler in trailers.

Thing is, I like that just getting to the location of a story mission can be an adventure unto itself, even if it is continually distracted by the discovery of some piece of intel leading to a new weapon attachment or other shiny thing nearby. If Ghost Recon Breakpoint is a cautionary tale about anything, it’s probably the dangers of mission creep; I’m continually adding objectives instead of focusing on the mission I’m traveling to.

Ubisoft Paris/Ubisoft

And the open world Ubisoft Paris has constructed brims with potential. Every biome imaginable is here, and all of its space seems designed to offer some sort of tactical advantage or challenge should a firefight break out. You miss a lot of this if you just fly over the scene for the sake of expediency.

Here’s a sample situation: Setting off for an ordinary check-on-the-locals trip to begin a playthrough, I spied a red blob on my minimap indicating suspicious activity nearby. Perched high on a dirt road from at least 500 meters away, I spotted a patrol at rest through my binoculars. I took them out with my sniper rifle and continued on my way. See? Army of one, and an awesome payoff for the work I put in.

The open world’s instant availability can work against me, though. While the enemy compounds and encampments in story missions can be soloed, and seem scaled to the player’s strength, free exploration can get you in over your head before you know it.

Simple collection assignments — grabbing this weapon blueprint or that mod — are often said to be found on some kind of farm or homestead. Showing up, I find a super industrial operation or an HQ teeming with heavily armed, robust individuals, and get into a swarm of trouble after shooting one guy — up to and including a mortar lobbing explosions onto my position. Even so, I was delighted by the sophistication in the response, and may have even have wished for a little bit of company.

Oh hey, I see why I’m supposed to play with friends now. Of course, there’s always a way to tackle things solo, so maybe I need to just plan a little better.

The best of open worlds

Breakpoint can be explained by comparisons to other games. The setting, the mission setup (and the marking of enemies) is very Far Cry. The stealth puzzle that every fortified location presents, particularly when it involves silenced weapons and building interiors, is very evocative of Hitman. And the omniscience granted by my aerial drone is 100 percent the eagle from the past two Assassin’s Creeds.

That isn’t to say Breakpoint is bland or indistinct. However familiar its qualities, the game is still distinguished by its emphasis on tactics over the heroics of a game like The Division 2, although the tactical ability it expects isn’t as sophisticated as multiplayer-only Rainbow Six Siege.

The story is advanced by a layer of investigations that is a lot more involved than anything I collected in The Division, that’s for sure. These investigations are supposed to unwind various mysteries, but some of the early questions have answers so obvious as to make checking off these to-do items more than a little repetitive. It also populates the game’s already-sprawling objectives menu with dozens of exclamation points, as overwhelming as an email inbox after a vacation. But the larger point is the story they serve is garnish, albeit served like a main course. It’s not enough to break me out of making up my own fun for now.

The player character customization is also a lot more detailed than its Division cousin, which of course sets up an opportunity to throw even more microtransactions at the player. The good news is that player progression isn’t tied to anything that can be bought for real money. Though the in-world currency is sold for real cash, there is no need to buy it if you’d rather avoid the premium economy.

A couple hours of gameplay gave me enough “Skell Credits” to pick up some cosmetics without feeling like I should have spent it on better gear. But everything in the in-world store is effectively for sale for real money, and many players will feel troubled about how this makes them feel about the game.

There are also some cosmetics that can only be had for real cash (the premium currency, called Ghost Coins) and I’ll admit the temptations to perfect my look are numerous, and strong. In particular is a set of funny “morale patches” for about $2.50. I feel like the “improved hammer” patch (a claw hammer with a sniper scope on it) is the perfect expression of my character’s blend of brute precision.

But slapping that patch on her backpack is only meaningful if other human players are seeing it and commenting on it, and I’m usually playing on my own. Independent of how they’re acquired, the customizations and cosmetics are an order of magnitude more diverse than other Tom Clancy titles I’ve played.

They all serve a character that steals the show away from Cole Walker, Jace Skell, or any of the NPCs driving the events on Auroa. But at least there’s some progression worth sinking dozens of hours into, even if it’s not the story. The play itself, and the freedom it offers, is more than enough to keep me coming back, whether I’m playing along or with friends.

I surely do not feel compelled by whatever mystery is out here to hurry into a bad shot or risk screwing up an operation that is still incomplete after an hour of stealth. And I do not mind the time it takes at all. Now that I’ve accepted how I fit into this world, and how dangerous the skies can be, I want to stay here for a while.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint is now available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PS4 download code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here

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