Deus Ex: Breach — a short-session immersive sim done (almost) right

While I enjoyed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I had issues with it. The game’s story didn’t exactly excite me, repeated strolls through Prague bored me towards the end of the campaign, and some missions felt uninspired. Being disappointed to a degree with this sequel to a wonderful Human Revolution, I started to assume that in addition to the design and story, I didn’t like too much the mechanics and systems behind this game as well — so I didn’t expect much when I decided to try Breach, a free-to-play alternative take on Deus Ex.

Turns out, my assumption was way off. In fact, stripped out of certain design decisions and repetitive sequences of the main campaign, and instead amplified by an interesting abstract meta-game and wonderful aesthetics, barebones gameplay mechanics of Mankind Divided can be very entertaining and fun to play with.

Breach is a free to play mode (or a game, if you want — you can download and play it now without even owning Mankind Divided) that allows you to join the secretive network of hackers who break in servers of Deus Ex’s biggest corporations such as Tarvos Security or VersaLife. Mechanically, Breach is split into several campaigns, each consisting of a number of very small levels (“servers”). The more you progress through Breach, the more campaigns and side “quests” become available, and the less linear progression becomes — you will be able to choose your own paths through each campaign, tackle levels in the order you choose, and even take on optional side objectives and challenges.

Each level is usually a very small map that requires you to reach an objective while respecting certain challenges or limitations. Objectives vary from pushing a few buttons around the level (“downloading data”) to eliminating a certain enemy, while challenges could be anything from a time limit to the requirement of being completely stealthy (detection would result in immediate failure). Being very small, levels are deliberately designed to be replayed — whether because you want to try a different approach, or because you keep failing and want to try again. To make things more interesting, you can apply certain modifiers that would increase or decrease difficulty (more challenge means more rewards), change AI state or approach, and more. Some levels, geometrically, are almost or exactly identical, but because each time you face a new challenge or need to use a different style and approach, it’s always interesting to progress through the campaign. Later the game would start reacting to your play style and would adapt the subsequent levels and AI behavior based on your previous tactics, which would incentivize you even more to experiment and change tools.

There is also an asynchronous multiplayer aspect to Breach — before you start each level, you can see how many score points different players (especially your friends) got, or how quickly they completed this map (to give you an idea, the best players usually complete each level in a matter of seconds, which seems ridiculous to me). Because I couldn’t care less about multiplayer in my immersive sims, I never paid attention to this aspect of Breach, and thankfully, it’s completely optional, and the competitive part of it can be totally ignored.

The twist comes with the resource model (or if you wish, a business model) of Breach, which is hated by certain people on the internet, but is actually pretty smart. Unlike the base game, in Breach, you never find any tools on the actual levels. The only way to get weapons, ammo, grenades, praxis points and such is to open loot boxes between the levels. Loot boxes can, of course, be purchased with real money, or you can get them by earning points for completing optional objectives or hitting “reward nodes”. Each loot box contains several “cards”, each of those could be a rifle, a pack of ammo, a modifier for a server, a health pack — pretty much any gameplay tool Deus Ex has to offer.

You can imagine that certain people hate this loot box aspect of Breach (and by extension, the entire game) with a passion. Because you can use each item found in a loot box only once (e.g. toss a grenade, and you would no longer have it, even if you would decide to replay the same level again), it’s very possible to quickly run out of stuff you use, and I’ve seen people on the internet complaining that they hit exactly that wall — the game was too difficult for them, there were no tools left, and there was no way for them to progress without buying loot boxes.

Well, my experience so far is not that bad. Granted, I’m a very stealthy player and thus use little to no tools and ammo, instead preferring to sneak past enemies undetected — but currently I actually have loads of weapons and tools in my storage that I do not use, and even don’t plan to use. Also, the game does not leave you completely empty handed — your last standard ammo pack for most weapons do replenish after a level reset, so you still have at least something to fight off enemies with, if you need to. And while the thought of eventually running out of resources and screwing one’s progress through Breach is unnerving to a degree, it actually pushes the player to be extremely cautious, thoughtful and strategic. Does it worth it to assault this enemy and spend a precious grenade, or maybe you instead sneak by or take another path? Does it worth it to replay the level again to get 100% completion rating, knowing that you would spend some resources while trying to do it? The game does not push you to a certain answer. Like in any good immersive sim, the choice is yours — however in Breach, choices go to a meta-layer of resource management. So instead of complaining about the business model of Breach, I actually find it smart and creative, and fun.

Another thing which I really like about Breach is its design. Breach could’ve been a half-assed mode, made for quick money grab — instead, you see how people who made it actually cared a lot about how it plays and feels. There is even a story to follow, with nice little touches and characters to interact with briefly — but nothing that would distract you from the core gameplay too much. Levels, enemies and objects, designed to be virtual reality representations of computer servers, are wonderfully beautiful in their abstraction, minimalism, forms and color palette choices. I would even go as far as to say that Breach’s art and design direction at times feels more inspired and creative than the core game — it’s weird, interesting, unusual, completely different in tone and feel to the core Deus Ex games, and yet feels 100% Deus Ex. And audio design is just remarkable — music and ambient sound both in levels, and in the meta-game mode are great and extremely mood-setting, and weird computer voices on the servers are scary and build a lot of tension. For such a “simple”, bare-bones mechanics side mode, lots and lots of effort, care and talent were put into it. The team should be proud of what they achieved.

Ultimately, Breach works so well because it’s a successful attempt at creating something that has been historically considered extremely difficult — an immersive sim, designed for short sessions gameplay, that works. More often than not, I’m too tired after a long work day to sit down and concentrate for hours on end to play through extremely emotionally demanding Dishonored, Prey or a core Deus Ex game. Breach is a wonderful fix — it can be enjoyed if I just have half an hour to spare, or if I’m too tired to be immersed in a layered story campaign, while still being open to quick immersive sim action. I log in, play a quick level or two, and then before I know it, I’m sucked into resource management, side quests, and attempts to beat the same map just a tad better than the last attempt.

So why is it done almost right, as the title to this article suggests? Well, my disappointment comes from my affection to this game and my desire to keep it around forever — but unfortunately, it is, apparently, not designed this way. Breach is a multiplayer service (even though, as mentioned above, multiplayer can be entirely ignored), and all logic runs on Square Enix servers. Which means that it is only available when you are online, and all save games are stored in the cloud — so at some point, when Square Enix or Eidos Montreal decide to shut down servers, this wonderful design will be wiped off the face of the Earth forever. What’s even worse, your progression is tied to your account — which means that you can’t reset your campaign progress, try a different strategic approach, or try luck another time with different random loot drops — unless you start a different Steam or console account. Some people might not (or even should not) care, but for me, this is a demotivating factor that keeps me from investing into Breach emotionally.

Thus, in its current form, Deus Ex: Breach is a very entertaining, charming, and smart service which I can properly play through only once, and which will be totally gone when Eidos Montreal decides so. As a collector and a fan of beautiful boxes of my single player games, I don’t like this, and probably should move on. I can’t, however — because while it lasts, Breach is a lot of fun. Eidos Montreal, please — when you decide to shut the service down one day, patch Breach and release it as an offline, fully replayable, fully resettable game. It’s too good to be forever lost and forgotten.