After a slew of anti-war patriots went on the defensive over Atomic Games' plan to depict the real life Operation Iraqi Freedom, Six Days in Fallujah got shelved. Konami dropped out as publisher, and the little shooter-that-could became the shooter-that-couldn't-be. Ah well. You win some, you lose some. Six Days has slipped back into the ether of unpublished games, but crawling out of that shadow is Breach.
Breach is an 8-vs-8 multiplayer shooter developed for PC and XBLA, putting you at the centre of what is essentially, or at least superficially, a by-the-numbers shooter scenario; a dusty terrain filled with small but strategically placed buildings that you can run into for cover when need be. But more specifically this is a multiplayer shooter that's been devised by a relatively small studio, which is a feat in and of itself. Regardless of generic settings or even the question of whether in an age of CoD it's even economically sound to develop what is ostensibly an indie FPS title, it's impressive that a studio with a small budget can create a title that looks and plays well enough to even be considered a reiteration of big-budget FPS.
The game takes its inspiration, at least in terms of destructibility, from Bad Company and to a lesser extent Red Faction. And in part you can thank Atomic's career history. Beyond game development they've had a hand in creating simulation titles for training exercises, and have essentially taken the realism of simulation and built gameplay around that. How is it different from other highly destructible environments? Well it's very highly destructible. The restrictions of Bad Company, particularly the inability to shoot through walls within a building, don't exist.
So while you have a decent cover system, everything is perishable. Loiter inside a building long enough and you will get shot at through the walls until eventually there is no wall. Similarly, if a grenade explodes next to a wall, the wall doesn't simply evaporate; sections of the wall are taken out, from individual bricks to wood planks that are independent of each other. You can use this tactically as well, by shooting out individual bricks of a wall to create a hole to shoot from. It's based on a military tactic called Mouseholing.
The game modes offered, however, are pretty standard fare. There are four to choose from: Infiltration, Convoy, Retrieval and Team Deathmatch. Infiltration is essentially a Conquest-style mode that has you and your team capturing different areas of the map. Convoy is an Assault and Defend game type in which the target of the assault is a moving convoy. Retrieval pits both teams against the other to retrieve a bioweapon and drop it off at a specific location. Team Deathmatch is what you'd imagine. Before you drop into a new mode you can choose from one of the five class types: Rifleman, Gunner, Sniper, Support, and Recon. They aren't exactly fixed, however, considering any time you die you are able to try out a new class. Along the way you'll earn and spend XP on new weapons, perks, and upgrades, along with rank upgrades that will take you from Grunt to Commander.
It feels incredibly familiar but it's impossible to be glib about traditional game modes when it manages to carve its own niche inside that familiar model, and as president of Atomic Games, Peter Tamte tells me later:
"If an independent studio is not innovating then it's not going to go well because we can't compete with the capital investments of the big studios....We've seen almost a stagnation in the growth of video game sales - traditional video game sales. And at the same time that's happening there's all these digitally available forms of other content: movies, TV. It's moving into a digital role much, much faster than video games. That to me is a threat to the video game industry because it's going to suck people's time away because of the ease of access to all these other kinds of content. That is a threat to the video game industry."
In fact, the studio's fixation on downloadable content is as important to the game as is any aspect of their physics engine. Why needlessly compete with the million-dollar-budget crew, why try and follow a traditional business model that will only hinder your game?
"Historically, digitally downloadable games have either been releases of a game a year later or they've been very niche focused games," Tamte tells me.
"The kinds of games that generally couldn't find retail shelf space. Then EA tries this experiment with Battlefield 1943 instantly becoming the best selling digitally downloadable console game. That, I think, should send a signal to everybody in the video game industry that consumers want this. They want to be able to buy games, slices of games or small chunks of games, for much lower price and they want to be able to get that at the click of a button. So that's why we made Breach. We said, number one we want to make an experience that players can't already get with CoD, and then number 2 we have to make it available for download at a low price, otherwise we can't compete with Activision or EA who are willing to spend millions of dollars on a franchise."
The game has its own particular pace, allowing you to hide behind cover and then forcing you to move before that cover degrades under bullet fire. Think there's an enemy on the floor above you? Shoot out the ceiling so he falls down a level. Think there's an enemy on the other side of that wall? Shoot out its bricks to take him out. So while superficially you have a fairly traditional shooter, the feeling of being under threat even behind the thickest wall of a building is immensely refreshing. At 1200 points on XBLA it does a spectacular job of developing its own appeal within a genre that is already fairly full-up on big name, big-budget titles.