Brink

Brink was a game that I had followed with some interest. Its’ setting and surrounding story could have been almost written with me in mind. Set in a dystopic future where a utopian floating city called The Arc has collapsed under the burden of the needy and desperate into out-and-out civil war. It’s reminiscent of the floating city state in Snow Crash.

Of course this is all set dressing. The grist of the game is the conflict between The Arc’s ‘Security’ and ‘Resistance’, the rag tag group who are forced to live in the shipping container and rusting-hull shanty towns that surround the city proper.

Then there’s the fact that what we’re looking at is an 8 vs 8, class-based conflict with staggered objectives through interesting and fascinating environments built with idTech. It’s not as special as the hype from Splash Damage and Bethesda may have had you believe, but it’s good solid gameplay of a kind I enjoy.

This all combined to make a game that seemed right up my alley. Then they revealed their parkour system. A button that when held down not only makes you character sprint but also enables them to freely traverse the environment, free-running style. I was a huge Mirror’s Edge booster and I’m a fan of the environment navigation in Assassin’s Creed. I was hooked.

Then I second guessed myself.

Living in the UK one of the things we have to deal with is our media release dates are often somewhat behind our transatlantic cousins. Indeed, they got hold of Brink several days earlier than I could have and just as I was about to pre-order the game I started to hear a host of bad reviews and negative comments. In the end I decided that I’d brave it and bought the game.

The reason I decided to brave it anyway was that the vast majority of complaints I saw were, by and large, from people criticising the single player experience, specifically for the AI of the bots (AI opponents provided in lieu of human competitors). This didn’t concern me and the reason it didn’t is simple. Not only is the issue one that Splash Damage can and have said they will address in a patch but it’s also irrelevant.

Splash Damage are a British developer who got their start developing multiplayer mods for id games. They ended up forming a relationship with id so close-knit that they developed multiplayer content for Return to Wolfenstein and Doom 3. As stand-alone games they made Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Both based on id properties and both multiplayer games. So, with an exclusively multiplayer release history and with Brink announced as an 8 vs 8 class-based objective scoring game… who expected it to have a single player mode?

That’s not to say the critics of the single player experience are wrong. My ISP had an episode whilst I was playing this game for review and I was forced to fall back on the single player experience and witnessed the bots’ antics first hand. Team mates running past objectives whilst enemy characters stood and stared at me, even as I shot them to ribbons, trying to work out what I was. Or perhaps what they were. Perhaps I was interrupting deep and complex existential crises about the nature of existence and whether their code and purpose should define their actions. Whatever the reason, they just refused to return fire a lot of the time. When they did, however, they were hellaciously accurate. Another complaint. Even on easy the few times they decided I was an enemy and needed to be dealt with, there was no hiding place. So it’s true; the AI is as dumb as soup. If you’re looking for a compelling single-player experience this is not it.

Brink is clearly a multiplayer title and that’s where it shines. Your first step into the world is to create a character. Don’t be tricked into thinking you’re choosing a side when the game asks you to. In multiplayer a round consists of each team taking the roll of first one then the other faction, so you’ll be playing both pretty regularly. More on that later. Before you jump in you should spend some time customising your character and familiarising yourself with the available weaponry. Customisation is another aspect of Brink that Splash Damage has vaunted as a selling point and it’s admittedly impressive. Perhaps not as impressive as the soon-to-return APB: Reloaded’s character customisation but leaps and bounds beyond the hat-based differentiation of characters in Team Fortress 2 or the limited number of models in Brink’s ancestors such as Quake 3. Unfortunately, for whatever reason (and Splash Damage employees have posited several) the vast and multitudinous options for making your character different from everyone else’s simply don’t include your gender. It’s an all-male party on The Arc. Which poses some serious questions about how it lasted this long. At least the men are highly multicultural. Voice actors and character customisation options span a pretty broad range of human beings. The Arc is of no nation, it attracted people from all over the world and it shows.

Having created your avatar you throw him into conflict. Well, to be fair, you could familiarise yourself with the levels by enduring the single player campaign. You could hone your skills using the challenges. The former, I can’t recommend, the latter however might prove genuinely useful. Not only does it sharpen skills needed to succeed but it will provide you with some much needed starting XP and some genuinely useful weapon upgrades. I, however, threw myself into the fray.

Unlike some class-based games, Brink lets you change your class on the fly at command posts. These are control points that the teams can capture during the flow of a mission that provide you with places to heal up, resupply and change to a more useful class. This is important because in Brink objectives are class specific. Only an engineer can blow up a barricade. Only a medic can keep a VIP on his feet and healthy. Only the operative can hack controls of enemy installations. That said, I’ve never felt (as I’ve seen some complain) that I was forced into playing any particular class against my will. A well-balanced team will have operatives and engineers aplenty to fulfil their objectives and as a medic I serve the team best by keeping those players on their feet rather than trying to ham-fistedly play the same class as them to reach their objective. Of course, the fact that medics (who actually want to heal other players) are always welcome on a server might have given me a biased impression of this particular issue.

An interesting quality of Brink is that it is simultaneously difficult to navigate the environments and easy. One of the things that makes it easy is the freedom of movement. This works as advertised and you and your team will be flinging themselves over fences, scrambling up cargo containers and generally running about like loons which looks and feels incredible. For too long I’ve felt like my multiplayer video game characters have been somewhat Dalek like in their movement. As hectic and natural as the surrounds might be, limited to flat movement over carefully prepared terrain, incapable of vaulting even ankle-high walls. Coupled with the objective wheel, which allows you to choose an objective to highlight on your display, this makes getting around easy. The objective wheel is an invaluable resource. Not only can you highlight mission objectives, such as crane controls your team needs to seize control of but you can also highlight class objectives. Engineers will find doors they can cut through to provide the team a route to flank the enemy. Medics can receive automatic indications of where the nearest fallen friends are to revive.

The level design, however, is unbalanced and complicated. Turning the wrong corridor will bring you face to face with the enemy team’s spawn area and see you cut down in a hail of turret fire. You can easily wander away from the fight and find yourself coming in from a flank that affords the enemy an excellent chance to cut you off from support. This might sound like a complaint but it is in many ways a compliment. Brink seems to harken back to the days of pure competitive multiplayer where knowing the environment was key. The more little tricks, short cuts and vantage points you knew, the greater your chance of out smarting your enemy. In one mission I was able to completely outflank the enemy’s bottle-neck and emerge safely behind their lines and reach our objective unhindered simply because the other team didn’t guard the little side corridor I had discovered in an earlier game. It’s also irrelevant that the levels are unbalanced. It makes sense that the team defending any given objective should have the upper hand. Attack is harder than defence. Whilst this is unfair, the unfairness is reversed immediately when the teams ‘change end at half time’ and swap round. Attackers become defenders and vice versa.

It’s a highly enjoyable multiplayer experience provided you’re the sort of person who can suffer through the frustration of trying to break a secure choke-point and watching your team get cut down repeatedly because you know that your turn is coming to do the same to them. It’s similar, in this regard, to Left 4 Dead. That’s not the only similarity either. When you are knocked down and incapacitated, waiting for a medic to come and heal you, the ambient music reminds me strongly of Left 4 Dead. Equally, the difference between playing on a server with random people from the internet or playing in a coordinated team of friends with microphones is just as great in both games.

Ultimately I don’t think Brink is a game with mass appeal. This is not a game for everyone by any means. It is a very narrowly focussed competitive game that is deeply unforgiving in many of its’ design choices. This works, in the most part, but if I had one true complaint, one observation of a design decision that was flat out wrong rather than falling short of its’ aim it would be this; the players are hard to tell apart. In the height of combat, determining who is on whose team becomes difficult. The heavy emphasis on customisation means there is no uniformity between the teams and the slight hint of colour isn’t sufficient to determine friend from foe. If the players’ names above their heads were simply colour coded or if enemies were more clearly visually highlighted, the game would be immensely improved.

Pros:

The kind of customisation that makes you feel your character is yours, not just an off the peg choice.
The free running that makes you feel you’re really exploring the world.
Intense combat and a return to the old-guard principles of multiplayer.
A rich world that, frankly, needs a game with a plot set in it.
Developers who vow to fix the issues and provide at least the first set of DLC free.

Cons:

Almost a waste of its’ backstory and setting, the levels don’t make the most of the potential.
Intense fights become cluttered and busy making friendly fire all too easy.
Bots as dumb as soup. There’s no I in these AIs.
Issues bad enough developers actually need to promise patches.

This review originally appeared on Simply Syndicated’s Simply Read.