We've been waiting for Brink for some time. It first caught our eyes at GamesCom 2009, and in various events since, including last year's showcase in Cologne, and again and again we've come away impressed. So when I finally got to sit down with the game at my own computer I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. Despite all the delays bringing promises of extra polish it still felt slightly undercooked, with various technical issues getting in the way, and gameplay which felt a bit underwhelming. Had Splash Damage messed up Brink after all this time?
No, is the answer. While it's not a complete success, it is a slow burner, and the longer you play the more you realise that this a game for the long haul. At it's heart Brink is a team-based objective-orientated first-person shooter, pitting eight players against eight in a variety of scenarios. It's set in a future where there isn't much of the world left, but what remains is a place called The Arc, a safe-haven that was built in the good times, and is now being overrun by what remains of humanity. The battle for the Arc, between the Resistance and the Security forces, provides an interesting and original backdrop, with no Nazis, space marines, or jihadists. Although. it's essentially a team of people dressed in red-coloured clothes versus those dressed in blue.
Anybody for some blood-soaked shopping?
One of Brink's main selling points was the way it merged single player, co-operative play, and multiplayer action to deliver three different slices of gameplay without the need for independent modes and styles of play. To some extent it achieves this goal, but the cost is a singleplayer mode that feels underwhelming. There is an interesting story attached, but it's told through cut-scenes which play while a match is continuing in the background, encouraging you to skip. In fact, you can play the campaign levels in any order right from the start, demonstrating that they play a secondary role in the game; you have to make an active choice to see the story through.
The merge of the modes comes from the fact that no matter whether you want to play alone, alongside other players, or in an all-human competitive match, it's almost always eight versus eight. Gaps on either side are filled in by computer-controlled players and this is another issue with the single player mode; the AI simply doesn't come close to replacing humans. While it's competent enough to avoid walls and get to objectives, it won't fully engage in teamwork, and is too cautious when moving towards a primary objective. If you want to succeed when playing offline you'll need to be whichever class is vital for progress at that particular moment.
Sometimes you can find yourself just staring at the scale of the objects in front of you
With fully human matches things are far more enjoyable. What starts as a ragged attempt to get through the missions and 'complete' the campaign, settles down to a more strategic approach for long term multiplayer mayhem. As you progress through the game you gain a greater appreciation for tactical options, but you also get to take advantage of the unlocks earned by experience points. These points are awarded for a variety of actions, and do a great job of promoting teamwork. The curious part is that some of the unlocks are items that play a crucial role in each of the classes, so you'll need to invest some time before you're as useful as you could be.
Understanding the classes and their roles is actually less difficult than in most team-based shooters, thanks to the objective system. To help you know what to do, you press down the middle mouse button and up pops a wheel where you can decide on what your next objective will be. This allows you to quickly get into your role within the team and make a difference. The classes themselves don't initially differ that much; all classes get the same weapons and aside from the class-specific objects there isn't much to chose from, which can leave teams balanced in favour of medics at lower levels. Character design is a curious mix of Team Fortress 2 and the Easter Island statues, and allows for a very large range of customisations. Character creation is easy and flexible, with a vast array of options for the physique and clothing options that increase the more you play.
This wheel allows you to select objectives which provide waypoints and inform others
There's one important part of character creation that seems somewhat overlooked by players, and that's the ability to adjust whether your character is slim, bulky, or somewhere in the middle. Bulkier players move slower but can absorb more fire, whereas slimmer players are more nimble but also more vulnerable. Getting the right mix of these types on your team, and knowing who should get what help and when, is vital to building a successful squad.
All of the characters, however, can run around the map at a good pace, partly thanks to the innovative SMART system. It's one of those shoe-horned acronyms, but its goal is to actually get you moving at some considerable speed in a first-person shooter. It does this really well by giving you an Assassin's Creed-style "press this button to do cool Parkour stuff". On the PC this is a natural fit activated using the Shift key which is often used as a run button, and here it will do the same until you encounter an obstacle. At this point the SMART system takes over and flings you over a gap or a barrier or a table, or helps you climb a wall that is within reach. It means never being stuck behind a knee-high wall again. Aside from being tactically useful, and helping to keep the flow of the game, I have to say that it's simply a lot of fun to pull off. If you enjoyed all the jumping around in the excellent Mirror's Edge then you'll feel right at home here. Once you've got used to it, it makes other first person shooters feel rather restrictive, and that's a sign that Brink is getting things right in this area.
The SMART system let's you climb up and find new ground to fight on
If there's one downside to SMART it is that it doesn't seem to be utilised enough with regards the actual objectives on the map. You can always reach these without having to deploy the system; no high, out of the way areas to plant those vital explosives. The objectives themselves usually consist of defending or attacking a particular point, or escorting a VIP across the map. These can feel too slow, and will naturally descend into particular choke-points where most of the combat will take place. SMART's main role seems to be in getting you back to the action quicker as you can take a more direct route than the regular staircases would allow, although there are occasions when being able to climb around a choke-point and take the enemy by surprise can be vital for success. At the very least there's plenty of opportunities on all the maps to use SMART, and every time you do it's a satisfying experience.
It was difficult to fall in love with Brink on launch due to its rather rocky start. Despite the many delays in the release date, it was released with quite a lot of issues, particularly in the PC version. It's only with recent patches from Splash Damage and driver updates from the video card manufacturers that have allowed the game to be played as it should have been. Having said that, there's still quite a few bugs around; sound can drop out, performance is still a little too variable, and crashes to the desktop are not unusual. The developer seems to be making every effort to iron things out, with regular patches already making a significant impact, but it does feel like you're paying to be part of a beta testing phase with no knowledge of when Brink will be finally ready for everyone.
Capturing command posts provides you with more health and lets you switch class without respawning
On the other hand, I don't expect Brink to disappear any time soon. We fully expect Splash Damage to continue supporting the game for some time and the game should continue to remain active for a long while, at least on the PC, thanks to the fans of the British developer's previous Enemy Territory games. Many of them have already made the transfer over to Brink, and it's not surprising when it feels like a game made in the same mould. For all the stylistic changes, and new gameplay additions, at its heart this is the third Enemy Territory game, and those fans certainly won't be disappointed. Those who have been playing other multiplayer shooters will find the gunplay a bit old-fashioned; weapons don't seem to recoil, and aren't as satisfying as we've now come to expect them. In fact, there seems to be little difference between most of the weapons, a good chunk of which are essentially just slightly altered sub-machine guns.
Despite utilising the id Tech 4 engine that powered 2003's (admittedly rather spectacular) Doom 3, Brink is a rather pretty game. The engine has come a long way in that time, and even though we don't see it in use all that often, it seems to have kept up with the developments in the Unreal Engine 3. But it's not just raw graphical might that makes Brink look beautiful, it has an art style that successfully conveys the disparate sections of the Arc, from the immaculate shopping areas, to the shipping container wasteland. The glass and concrete design of the Arc, feels like something worth saving, but equally peering into the homeland of the Resistance aboard the shipping container makes you understand why they want to get away. They are plenty of vistas to admire, and intricate details all over the place. Level design, as mentioned earlier, does seem to have created quite a few points where movement will be more stagnant and most of the fighting will take place. On the other hand, it feels refined, and fairly easy to navigate around, with or without the objective markers, and there's plenty of opportunities to use the SMART system for efficiency, and of course, fun.
Brink makes use of a wide range of colours but there's still a good bit of 'next gen brown' around!
Brink is an enjoyable and well-polished team-based shooter, but it's not for everyone. The range of maps feels limited for a full-priced game, despite the amount of time you can spend on them. This, the neutered feel to the guns, and the heavy reliance on chokepoints will put off the casual players that Splash Damage were trying to reach out to. But for those who revel in objectives over firing weapons, who like to work as a team and plan tactically, in other words their core audience, this is their game. It needs refining and further bug fixes, but Brink is an enjoyable online game with promise for the future. It's just a pity it's not there on release.