Ghost Recon Breakpoint Preview: Welcome to the Drone Zone

Breakpoint makes the effort to improve on its predecessor.

I entered my second hands-on session with Ghost Recon Breakpoint confident I knew what to expect. At the reveal event in May, I pegged the game as a more feature-rich version of Ghost Recon Wildlands that carries its political baggage slightly less blatantly. After spending a day on the fictional Polynesian island of Auroa, it looks like I was mostly right.

That’s not to prematurely dismiss the game as a predictable sequel. Sure, in many ways, Breakpoint is obligated to be just that. Wildlands continues to sell well two-and-a-half years after launch, so a timely, familiar follow-up should expect financial success. But even my brief look through such a polished, PR-filtered lens makes it obvious that Breakpoint offers at least a marginally more compelling and complex experience than its predecessor.

Wildlands’ pitch was pretty simple. It’s a shooter loosely set in Ubisoft’s open-world mold — playable solo but meant to be enjoyed with friends. Protagonist Nomad and squadmates were given freedom regarding which objectives to tackle first and how to tackle them. Many critics feel this open structure results in a repetitive loop across games like Ghost Recon and The Division and Far Cry. It’s only somewhat saved by tight, tactical gunplay and the potential for silly co-op shenanigans. But unfortunately for Ubisoft, sameness was not Wildlands’ biggest controversy.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint

The 2017 shooter has a reputation for being what some might call “silly fun.” That description could apply to every piece of fiction affixed with the Tom Clancy name, but Wildlands is special. The Bolivia-set game was also seen as silly, uh… diplomatically. After being depicted as a lawless narco-state controlled by an invading Mexican cartel, even the real Bolivian government filed a complaint with the local French embassy and threatened to sue Ubisoft.

Now Breakpoint is the first game in the long-running military thriller series to not take place in a real country (in which English is not the predominantly spoken language). It’s hard not to read the subtitle, “breakpoint,” as another way of saying “Ghost Recon: Welcome to the No Politics Zone.”

I go out of my way to give context because A) Breakpoint does stumble into overtly political statements, obviously, and B) our co-op squad had such a fun time blowing ourselves up across the open-world and PVP modes that the game’s politics were usually the last thing on my mind. Oh and C) this new entry adds a layer of survival mechanics in the form of treating semi-permanent injuries, as well as eating, drinking, and other means of pre-mission preparation Those wrinkles genuinely, if maybe mostly superficially, enrich the experience.

The four of us started in a helicopter in separate instances of the game, which is to say in the character creator. My helo was shot down as soon as I confirmed my version of Nomad’s appearance. A freeform tutorial focused on looting and combat followed. This is when I also became aware that Ghost Recon Breakpoint is a loot game. I was suddenly swimming in gear.

I quietly killed, then scrounged for supplies and surviving squadmates before witnessing former Ghost team member, Cole Walker (played by Jon Bernthal), assassinate someone who lived through the crash. Curious to know why Nomad’s former brother-in-arms turned heel, I followed a coded radio communication to a hidden cave sanctuary. This is where the island’s inhabitants (exclusively employees of the fictional Skell corporation, their families, and military personnel) take refuge from Walker. He leads an army called the Wolves (evil Ghosts, basically) and killer robot drones taken from Skell. I met many characters in the cave, but couldn’t tell you any of their names. The cave is also where our squad gathered and began our distractedly fun time.

Breakpoint’s introduction imparted the plot’s broad strokes. Auroa was an uninhabited island-turned-R&D hub for tech billionaire Jace Skell. Skell hired Walker and other private military outfits to be the island’s security force. Then that force went rogue. This dashed Jace’s dreams of creating a “libertarian utopia” (that’s literally what they call it) with drones providing free labor. Besides seeing a few cutscenes that fleshed out Walker’s fall from grace, and playing an escort mission that offered quality time with Skell, my allies and I were too busy crashing helicopters and yelling into our headsets to take in much more story.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint

We took a detour to sample (i.e. get brutally defeated in) the returning Ghost War PVP mode. First we lost in Elimination, Wildlands’ much-played deathmatch mode. Though Breakpoint adds a new battle royale-like “shrinking combat zone” toward the end of Elimination matches. Our rounds never lasted long enough for it to show….

Our squad did bond quickly in a few rounds of Sabotage: another fan-favorite mode centered around arming and defending bomb sites, so we didn’t lose in every sense. The maps in both modes were said to be updated versions of favorites from Wildlands, too, so returning players should know what to expect.

Unlike in Wildlands, character progression and loadouts are now shared across both single-player and multiplayer. I managed to down most of the enemy squad in our first full Elimination match. I mostly attribute that to being immediately familiar with my Nomad’s loadout. The rest of our PVP losses followed, and after having our fill of defeat, we hopped back into PVE.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint

Early in our first mission to rescue one of Skell’s associates, we did a decent job calling out enemies and coordinating attacks. But by the time we got back to our cave HQ, we’d crashed and destroyed three vehicles… And before our second mission, we had laready established a mandatory all-plaid dress code for our squad. It was a literal and figurative blast. We looked great and didn’t hear a goddamn word our quest-giver said while we changed.

I paid closer attention on our next trek to rescue Skell from the Wolves. Skell, someone with a net worth equal to thousands of millionaires, out from under a desk, Skell was sad. He felt guilty. “All he wanted was the drones,” he said about Walker. “I thought he was a friend.” I initially read Skell’s humanity-dooming naivete as surprisingly cutting commentary, but then I sat down with executive producer Nourine Abboud, as well as writer, military adviser, and real-life Green Beret Emil Daubon.

“[Skell] is brilliant, Daubon said. “He has the best of intentions. He’s able to achieve tremendous advances in science and technology, but at the same time he’s naive enough to allow it to fall into hands other than his own.”

Abboud followed by characterizing Skell — who is, again, a multi-multi-billionaire — as an everyman and audience proxy. They want Breakpoint’s otherwise potent criticism of Zuckerberg-ian negligence to sound like an accident, or relatable human failing to be neatly redeemed later.

The pair of developers did hint at the story’s social self-awareness after my next question. While Auroa was “uninhabited” prior to Skell Tech’s arrival, there were clearly bits of ancient architecture scattered around the island in tiny, lootable ruins. I had to ask exactly when and whom these objects came from.

“There was an indigenous population at one point, yes,“ Daubon said. Abboud explained this as “one of the mysteries of the world,” and “it would look fake” if the island had truly been empty forever. I asked if this civilization lived in a time remotely close to the modern day. Before the word “colonialism” could leave my lips, Abboud continued. “We’re talking in the past. In the past.”

Fair enough. My interview time was limited and I wasn’t there to mine for spoilers.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint

To be honest, I was impressed that any attempt was made to sidestep social issues at all. Ubisoft has previously profited on the trappings of political divisiveness without committing to a clear message. I saw it firsthand in Far Cry 5, heard about it in The Division 2, etc. So this sounded like the sometimes tone-deaf publisher learning to better read the room… if only a little bit. Baby steps, I guess.

Next, the two developers made an excellent pitch for Breakpoint’s new layer of survival mechanics.

“Military survival, not survival,” Abboud corrected me. “If I use the term ‘survival’ in the gaming world, people have very specific expectations.” Daubon followed up. “It wasn’t about creating a survival simulator. It was about adding elements that force you to take additional tactical considerations into your planning.”

That means eating and drinking for stat boosts, letting players stumble down steep inclines if they move too fast, and inflicting Nomad with mobility and health bar-limiting injuries (healed by consumable bandages distinct from HP-restoring syringes). And I’ll say this aspect of the Ghost Recon sequel only makes Wildlands’ formula richer. The additions were disappointingly subtler — gentler — than I expected, but they’re still a positive on the whole.

In fact, despite my narrative reservations, I hope Breakpoint is an across-the-board improvement on Wildlands. I hope it retains its capacity for wacky co-op antics. Depending on how hard Ubisoft falls back into a habit of co-opting trappings of subject matter it doesn’t materially explore, there’s a chance Breakpoint could feel… at least comparatively inoffensive.

More than anything, this demo hyped me to belly laugh with friends while crashing helicopters all over Auroa. I only have to wait barely over two months before the game launches on Oct. 4 of 2019 for PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 4. I better start brainstorming new color schemes for my squad’s outfits. Because plaid is taken.