Splash Damage's Brink was steeped in PR secrecy early on, leaving tantalizing hints of how it would revolutionize the modern FPS. Perhaps "revolutionize" is too strong of a word, but the hype engine certainly made the most of it.
A lot of noise was made about how the game would closely integrate a driving narrative into its multiplayer, objectives-based system. Playing the game online would present a world filled with ruthless antagonists and desperation in the same way that a pure single-player experience would. To some extent, this is true. In both modes, cut scenes and spoken briefings build up the story of the Ark, a floating, hidden and isolated, Eden-like refuge in a world where rising sea levels have wrecked the rest of civilization.
Of course, things aren't all that rosy with two factions fighting it out. Security wants to protect the Ark from all threats, even from those that simply want to leave. The Rebels want to escape and make contact with the outside world, regardless of what might be waiting and will do anything to make that happen. Both have story lines that take players across eight maps to reveal the backdrop for Brink's arguably fascinating set. The sharply presented introductory video on the Ark is impressive, but when you're busy fighting with the AI on your own side, a lot of that gets lost in the cursing.
Brink has an old-school vibe to it, right down to an unnecessarily long tutorial video tempting you to watch it for an experience point bonus. The catch is that you have to watch the whole thing, which can run almost half an hour. This was before I ran the game online to get the patch that claims to fix how long it actually runs. Regardless of whatever mercy that might be, just don't bother. If it threw me into an interactive tutorial level explaining the basics, like most FPS games do nowadays, it would have been far more educational. Brink's learning curve isn't that steep.
You can look through the wardrobe to build a unique look with different jackets, pants, shirts and more. Some of that time will be spent just for the tool to load whenever you change your mind. Both factions also have distinctive colors and styles, so Rebels can't dress in the "armor look" that's been reserved for Security. Body type adds an interesting twist that can determine how much damage is soaked, which weapons you can carry, and how quickly you move; players can build a beefy medic or a lithe soldier, if they so choose.
I'm not sure what the initial patch was supposed to fix because after a few hours, it seemed that more needs to be done. Jumping into the solo campaigns first, I watched as the graphics flickered from a low-res blur to something slightly better when I spawned in. My eyes could tell that the levels were built around creative explosions of rust and high tech within a hurricane of bullets and cartoony characters. The muddy artifacting, though, gave the visuals a raw and unfinished feel that HD only made worse.
Brink controls like a typical FPS, so if you've played one, its control scheme will be almost second nature. The difference is the SMART system, which allows players to parkour over obstacles by holding down one button. You'll glide over obstacles like crates, automatically mantle up over fences and ledges, and still be able to jump on your own or crouch behind cover. It sounds neat on paper, but in practice, it's not as awe inspiring when most players will either be crouching behind cover and taking shots or holding defensive positions instead of running around like Chow Yun-Fat in Stranglehold.
Weapons also sound and feel somewhat weak across the board, even though there are plenty to choose from. Only the heaviest machine guns tear into the air with a satisfying rip, but everything else sounds like toys. Grenades go off like party favors. Melee is mostly useful for knocking down enemies. Most every target appears scripted to fall down in exactly the same way every time, like cardboard stand-ups rather than hardened foes.
Control points that can be hacked give the controlling faction benefits, such as boosted health or starting ammo, for a tactical edge. This is also what the AI will try and yell to remind you where it's going during the single-player portion. These aren't spawn points, however, so expect to do a lot of running from your starting point to where you need to be if a medic isn't on hand to resurrect you — this happens often with the dodgy AI.
Brink is very much a class-based game. Players can pick a favorite role, such as an engineer who can build turrets or lay down mines, or an operative who can disguise himself as the enemy and hack objectives. A leveling system based on XP earned in battle unlocks new toys and points, which can be spent to purchase skills and class enhancements. Instead of getting goodies every level, Brink's Rank system opens up certain skills at specific milestones to ensure a degree of fair play. Even with these ideas, the overall experience felt underwhelming.
First off, you're buying only half a game because playing solo is miserably frustrating. The bot AI in the single-player portion costs you victory after victory due to a comedy of errors. Need some healing? You're better off respawning. How about a little cover when you're picking that safe lock? Think again. The AI seems hell-bent on pursuing the straightest line toward any of the objectives without regard for what you might need as the only thinking member of the team.
The only thing that it seems to be versed in is attacking en masse whenever it spawns everyone at once. Just because it appears predictable doesn't make some of the maps any easier to get through; there are some nefariously wicked choke points that can make it impossible for the one person doing the real work. This is compounded by being unable to suggest or order the other AI members of the team to think outside of the box. Need a flanking maneuver? You'd better do it yourself.
The good news is that it's a lot more fun with real humans in Freeplay mode. The bad news is that there was also a lot of lag to go around. My first game was a stuttering experience of teleporting around and staring at the low-resolution walls. The second game was an improvement with a full house of players before the host migrated everyone to another game, where the quality went downhill again. There's just no consistency, so getting into a lag-free game is something of a crapshoot.
When everything does run as smoothly as silk, it's refreshingly awesome after the solo experience to be on a team that knows what it's doing and cooperates to pursue its goals — if you happen to be on one that realizes the importance of working together. Brink feels designed from the ground up to tolerate very little when you try to do things on your own. Teamwork is absolutely essential to get through some of the brutal choke points that are peppered everywhere. In this fashion, it's markedly more linear in the pursuit of what it wants as opposed to a more open venue, such as in EA's Bad Company 2.
The class-specific nature of the key objectives on certain maps forces players to take up certain roles if they want to push ahead. If you don't have an operative who can hack that mainframe, all of the fighting you did to get there was a waste. At the same time, it can be immensely rewarding when you make the clutch save by arriving as the operative, the team then taking position around you as a defensive blanket of lead. For players who just want to jump in and play as they do in Call of Duty or Bad Company 2, Brink's strict emphasis on classes and teamwork can come across as quite a shock. It's not so much of a negative as it is a warning to would-be Rambos: Brink doesn't play that way.
If you love objective-based stuff, it's fun as long as you can get along with everyone else. There's an undeniably decent amount of enjoyment beneath the relatively pointless parkour and "no I in team" discipline. The battles can also be long, with grueling matches lasting almost a half-hour as you fight through various objectives. It's that difference that makes Brink a take-it-or-leave-it proposition to the typical FPSer, who's only looking to pad his kill count or have a quick drop in-and-out game. Beyond that distinction, however, I'm not sure how much staying power it actually has.
Though it comes with eight maps with varying objectives that range from protecting a VIP to seizing and delivering objectives to specific points, it's not a lot to go on if you've had your fill of them in the single-player campaigns. A lack of custom options also cuts short their versatility, forcing the maps to stick to the underlying narrative. Providing a little control to players over certain variables, such as being able to offer a team-based deathmatch mode worked under an "extermination" story line, would still have made sense inside Brink's objectives-based universe.
The short leveling spree is also a double-edged sword. On one hand, it was something of a relief that Brink doesn't emphasize grinding up to get to all of the good stuff. At the same time, players who are used to level-up treats may not find the short run to the top as exciting as Activision's Modern Warfare. The bare-bones approach to the gameplay might also turn off players who are used to things like kill streak bonuses. Those who are looking for a more "back-to-basics" approach will probably like what Brink brings to the plate.
Brink's PR did everything to make people wonder just how the eight-versus-eight multiplayer-focused, story-based shooter would change the genre. The short answer lies in the clever tweaks it brings to the formula, whether it's your character's body type or the vast weapon customization options, all the way down to the teamwork needed to succeed. The SMART system feels more like a gimmick, and when it gets down to the actual shooting, it's nothing that we haven't seen before. Top that off with the issues it tries to parkour over, both off- and online, and Brink isn't so much of a revolution as it is a suggestion of where it wants to be.
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