Breach & Clear, a mobile turn-based tactical game from developer Mighty Rabbit out today for iOS devices, promised to bring the depth and production values of a triple-A console release to phones and tablets. Unfortunately for executive producer Robert Bowling, former creative strategist and community manager of Infinity Ward (one of the studios that makes those Call of Duty games the kids like so much), it doesn’t live up to these lofty goals.
While Breach & Clear’s goal, according to Bowling, is to “change the conversation about what denotes a mobile game,” its repetitive gameplay, microtransactions, and lack of a plot keep it from breaking out of the mobile-game mold.
But is it fun?
What You’ll Like
The core concept
Breach & Clear plays very similarly to developer Mode 7’s simultaneous turn-based strategy game Frozen Synapse (but with way less neon), and it asks you to make important decisions almost constantly.
It launches with one mode (more on that later): Terrorist Hunt. You build your four-man squad and decide which unit they belong to. You can choose from Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, and Canada’s Joint Task Force 2. Each type has slightly different starting stats; for example, SEALs are faster and more accurate than JTF2 units but begin with slightly less health.
Once you’ve made and equipped your team, it’s time for the eponymous breaching and clearing. You decide where and how your squad will enter the map and then plan their moves.
Each level consists of a series of rounds called “phases.” In each phase, you tell your squad members where to go and which direction to look. You do this by touching one of the round tiles within your guy’s range of movement, and a line appears showing their route. You can change the path (to keep your soldiers in cover, for example) by dragging the line. You can also decide which way your troops will face while going along that path by setting waypoints to tell them which direction to look — for example, if he’s passing by a door, you can have him look there in case any baddies are lurking inside.
Once you’ve decided what everyone’s going to do, you hit the “Breach” button, and everything plays out in real time. But your A.I. enemies also activate along with your team, so part of your strategy includes anticipating what they’ll do.
Unlike other turn-based tactical games, like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the shooting in Breach and Clear is automatic. Your squadmates will fire at any enemy who lands in their vision cones, and their stats determine whether their bullets hit and how much damage they inflict. You have a little more control when using items like flashbangs and grenades. The game highlights the squares your soldier can reach, and you decide where his thrown item will land for maximum effect.
Perspective as a mechanic
The buzz phrase for Breach & Clear is “own every angle.” Perspective and facing inform everything you do; if your troops end up with their backs to a group of enemies, they will be in trouble. You have to always make sure that they’re covering every door or blind corner as they move.
It’s easy enough to look around the map on the iPad. You can use two fingers to spin the battlefield, drag to pan, and pinch to zoom — all of which help you know exactly what you’re getting into and plan your moves. You can even tap an icon in the lower corner of the screen to switch to an overhead perspective (the default is a three-quarter view) that works a little quicker for looking into all the little corners.
Your ability to look at the map from any angle and the power to make your units face in any direction combine to create a good amount of flexibility in how you approach each map. It’s easy to use and extremely useful, which elevates it beyond gimmickry.
What You Won’t Like
Breach & Clear lauds the customization and upgrade options for its weapons, and all the extra scopes, triggers, and grips do improve weapon performance and are there if you want them, but I never felt any particular need to spend much time in that menu. The default guns were more than enough for difficulties up to “Standard” (the third of five skill levels), and it felt like my soldiers’ stats always had more influence on events than their hardware.
On higher difficulties, the right weapon for the right job might factor in, but I could consistently clear maps with no losses without buying or customizing anything. Gun enthusiasts will probably enjoy the options available to them as they try to create the bullet-spitting equivalent of Excalibur, but more casual players can succeed with nothing but simple planning and strategy.
Currently unavailable maps and modes
As I said above, Breach & Clear launches with a single mode, Terrorist Hunt, which covers the titular breaching and clearing. The mission-selection screen, however, also includes two more gameplay options, Hostage Rescue and Bomb Defusal, both of which are “coming soon.” A representative from Gun confirmed via e-mail that these modes will arrive later as downloadable content.
Maybe more annoying is the fact that two of the game’s five locations (Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and Freiberg, Germany) are also slated for future DLC. Like the extra modes, those areas just sit there on the menu mocking you. It’s a little nitpicky, and the 15 maps already available offer plenty of variety, but the grayed-out options make the game look incomplete.
Which it basically is.
It’s boring and shallow
Terrorist Hunt was fun when I first start playing it, but even on higher difficulties, the game devolved into “point your guys at the other guys until they die.” This is inherent in the simultaneous turn-based genre, but the lack of direct control over firing made me feel like I was really just there to manage a bunch of arrows. My shorthand term for this gameplay style is “inverse rail-shooter”; whereas in traditional on-rail games, you have full control over shooting but limited movement, Breach and Clear lets you go wherever you want but doesn’t trust you with the combat. This may just come down to personal preference, but the limitations became problems and then all-out tedium.
The sound design doesn’t do much better. The in-game music is generic, alternating between the obligatory repetition of the phrase “dun dun dun” and shrill, ear-punching vocals. The voice acting never rises above rote two- or three-word phrases military types utter in a Michael Bay movie (e.g., “On it,” “You got it,” or “Moving out”). I know they’re just little virtual men on a mission and have little opportunity to express any great insights or observations about the world and their place in it, but the voices were excessively repetitive, simple, and superficial.
This leads to an aspect of Breach & Clear that actually disturbed me a little: The fact that Terrorist Hunt is completely devoid of context. This is literally a game about kicking in a door and killing everyone on the other side. It provides no sense of why this is happening other than that your guys are soldiers and the other guys are terrorists. The whole thing exists in a black-and-white, us-vs.-them vacuum chamber in which nothing exists before the moment your squad prepares to bust into the room.
Do I need 20 pages of backstory, motivation, and elaborate plotting? No. But if Breach & Clear had taken just a moment to say, “Terrorists have taken over this building” or “We’ve uncovered a plot to taint the local water supply with herpes simplex 10” (would that even work?), what happened next would feel a lot less creepy and nationalist. Even the name “Terrorist Hunt” evokes cruelty, dehumanization, and an overall sense of “let’s go get ’em” that made the game a bit uncomfortable to play. This won’t be an issue for the “theirs not to reason why” crowd, but overthinkers like me might contract a heebie-jeebie or two.
It’s hard to recommend Breach & Clear in its current state for anyone but the most devoted of tactical players or military fanboys. Maybe the upcoming modes and maps will add some variety, but as it stands now, it’s a pretty empty and shallow experience.
Breach & Clear comes out July 18 for iOS devices, with an Android version due out next month. The publisher provided GamesBeat an iPad App Store code for the purpose of this review.