The first thing you might notice about Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, the newly-announced follow-up to 2017’s co-op special ops shooter Ghost Recon: Wildlands, is its setting. The fictional Auroa islands are a marked shift from the previous game’s take on the real-world South American nation of Bolivia.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find more change: Instead of a cartel fronted by a charismatic kingpin, you’re facing an angry former Ghost played by actor John Bernthal. He’s backed by special forces operatives like the player character, but they’re supplemented by autonomous drones of varying shapes and sizes.
In Breakpoint, a mission gone awry strands you on the private archipelago owned by Jace Skell, whose SkellTech drones have been commandeered by rogue Ghost Cole D. Walker (Bernthal) and his team, known as Wolves. They’ve got plans for Skell’s drones, and you’re one of the few people left who can stop them.
It’s a techno-thriller premise consistent with the game’s Tom Clancy branding, but it’s also quite different from what came before, perhaps in an effort to court those who found Wildlands fun but were repelled by its messy politics.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands took the tactical spec ops gameplay of the Ghost Recon franchise to a sprawling open world, mostly to great success. It looked good and played well. One of its biggest problems was its choice of locale and antagonist—here was a meticulously researched and elaborate game that worked hard to make players feel like a team of trained special operatives, and yet that same care and attention seemed absent in its portrayal of Bolivia, recasting it into a tropey narco-state to fit its needs.
Wildlands’ cartel-run Bolivia was a caricature to drape Ghost Recon’s jingoist realism against, a playground for carnage where the player character would shoot their way through South American villages, showing off their command of Spanish slurs while threatening to “ventilate” cartel associates, with a few oo-rahs thrown in for good measure.
When I brought the reception of Wildlands’ setting up to Nouredine Abboud, Breakpoint’s executive producer (and a producer on Wildlands), asking him if this shift was intentional, here’s what he told me: “When we thought about Wildlands, we wanted to have this big open world. Bringing the Ghosts into a military situation that was different from the classic ones that we’re used to, and the Cartel as an enemy helped us tell a different kind of story—while at the same [keeping with] the Clancy heritage. We believed it was the perfect idea, and we did the best with the story, the situation that we could.”
Abboud then told me about the dueling concerns of gameplay and story, and how, as a designer, the former takes precedence, since it’s the aspect unique to games, and what brings people to them.
“We always start, at the core, with the technology and the gameplay,” Abboud said. He called my attention to the hostile drones players will face in Breakpoint, noting how they solve the uniquely video game problem of making foes harder to kill without compromising the Ghost Recon brand of realism.
“When you’re playing with high-level characters, you still want to keep the ‘one bullet one kill’ if you shoot someone in the head. Because the drones can be customised, they can increase the resistance, they come in all shapes—for us, it was a very good way to improve the interactions and gameplay elements of the previous game, while staying true to the brand.”
It’s a response that recalls Ubisoft’s attitude towards The Division 2, where developers leaned hard on the fiction of the Clancyverse and the technological achievement of its heavily-researched environments as a way to assert that the game was a somehow neutral work, free of ideas that ascribed to any sort of ideology. The game itself would quickly dispense with that notion, immediately dividing a post-collapse America into takers and builders, with lethal force the only law of the land once laws broke down.
Despite its developers’ reticence to talk about it at this stage, Breakpoint does seem like a work that’s trying to remove itself from a political minefield, and depending on your personal preferences, maybe it’s enough. It is, however, quite far from apolitical. It’s still a work of hardcore military fiction, a jingoist fantasy that fetishises guns and spec ops training that filters the world into threats and the threatened.
In its gameplay systems, Breakpoint doubles down on this with new features that emphasise the feeling of survival behind enemy lines, and the tactical preparation necessary to achieve success in the field. Its new setting on a wealthy capitalists’ private islands and emphasis on drone warfare also gestures at a new set of politically loaded subjects like the surveillance state and tech companies’ relationship with the military, subjects Breakpoint may overtly comment on.
In this first look, Breakpoint appears more palatable, more safely ensconced in the clandestine organisations of the Tom Clancy universe, but that universe remains one that’s as ugly to contemplate as it is fun to play through.
Breakpoint’s biggest job might be succeeding where Wildlands struggled: Enticing you to dive into the pleasures of its meatier tactical gameplay, while hoping its new techno-thriller bend is enough to keep the full range of its players from being too troubled by what that fantasy means.