London-based developer Splash Damage might not be a household name, but in its ten-year history it's created a number of much-loved multiplayer titles, and established itself as the cream of the crop when it comes to objective-based online games.
Its last release, Enemy Territories: Quake Wars, was the unfortunate victim of an FPS purple patch that left it adrift in the midst of some real titans of the genre. Despite a generally positive critical reception, it was ultimately a momentary blip on a radar dominated that year by ambitious narrative-driven shooters such as The Orange Box, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3 and BioShock.
Now it's back with Brink - a game which promises to match Splash Damage's multiplayer pedigree with a gripping campaign. Can the UK studio really challenge the genre's best in single-player; offering a neat narrative thread (and thus more commercially viable package) than SD's previous efforts?
In short, not quite, but if you're an online gamer, there's a lot to love about Brink - provided you give it time and dig deep enough. The co-op modes in particular are excellent and stylish. But when it comes to campaign, you'll struggle to shake the feeling that even for a new IP, this one's a little unsure of itself.
Brink documents a civil war in a futuristic city known as the Ark. Originally built as an experimental self-sustaining city, the Ark became a bastion of human life after the planet's seas rose to destroy civilization. The floating utopia was plunged into chaos when flooded by refugees from the outside world; and the city that was built to house 5,000 was forced to accommodate 50,000.
To maintain order the Ark was split into two: while a small percentage of the populace live comfortably, the majority live in disease-ridden slums and are plagued by inadequate shelter, food and water. Since no ships or planes from the outside world have been seen in 20 years there's little to provide hope for the down-trodden denizens of the Ark's underbelly. It ain't much fun down there.
The unchanging harsh conditions lead to the creation of a Resistance movement, and a clever twist on the usual good vs. evil campaign dynamic. Do you join the Resistance, and aim to seize power and search for life outside the Ark - or do you join up with the Founders and its Security Force, whose very survival hinges on establishing and maintaining order within the walls of the city?
Depending on your choice the game will ask you to create a character fighting for either the Security or the Resistance and play the relevant campaign. Yet despite the seemingly well thought-out premise and the potential to explore interesting themes, telling a memorable story never seems to be Brink's priority.
Beyond the initial opening, narrative is delivered through short cut-scenes before and after each of the game's 20 missions. While the voice acting and dialogue might convey a sombre tone and touch upon complex issues - such as fighting against family and the cost of freedom - their brevity gives the impression that they're just providing an excuse for whatever objectives the game mode is comprised of.
Each individual mission is tied to the next by a logical narrative thread of progression, but the structure of the game means its delivery feels awkward and disjointed. When you kick off the campaign, you're dropped into a screen with each and level for both the Resistance and Security laid out and selectable. Unbelievably, you can pick the last mission of the story and play it from the outset.
Though this isn't intrinsically a bad thing, Brink flippantly drops names and nuggets of information that seem like they should be important to the story and doesn't dwell on them. Within the couple of minutes of the first mission, we're told 'Chen' has kidnapped someone important, but it isn't made clear Chen is the leader of the Resistance until much later on, and he isn't even seen until the start of the rebel campaign.
Another odd quirk is that failing a mission doesn't halt progression. In fact, the game conveniently ties up the loose ends for you by saying something like "we'll get the information some other way", before dishing out some experience points and rewards via a distinctly multiplayer-esque post-game menu - and then kicking you back into the mission select screen to pick your next assignment.
It quickly becomes clear that Brink is a game comprised of a number of objective-based multiplayer skirmishes; its campaign takes those maps, throws them all together and ties them up with a flimsy narrative. Don't be fooled by buzzwords being thrown about, it's not a dynamic new way to tell a story that seamlessly blends single-player and multiplayer; it's the same bot matches shooters have had for years with a story tacked on.
LOOKS LIKE FUN
While not actively offensive or even bad, this damages the story by failing to command any attention - but at least some of this disappointment is soothed by Splash Damage's clear effort to set Brink apart from its genre competitors with a visual identity that makes Brink immediately distinguishable.
Although much of Brink's smooth level geometry and its dominantly pearlescent whites and gleaming blues might initially draw comparisons to DICE's Mirror's Edge - particularly in the shopping mall or Airport maps - Splash Damage's insistence on using a wider breadth of the colour spectrum than most shooters gives it an impressively vivacious variety.
The seven-odd hours it takes to finish all the Solo campaign missions take you through a roulette of drastically different areas; from the Borderlands-like warm yellows and fiery reds of a decrepit but effervescent shanty town, to the mucky greys and sandy browns of an Infirmary that looks like it was constructed with Epic's Unreal Engine.
The stylised characters are the freakish love-children of Gears of War and Team Fortress 2, with hilariously exaggerated features like broad chins, elongated noses and drooping, overly-long limbs - all of which are rendered realistically. The visual fidelity and intricate detail of these figures makes personalising a character immensely satisfying.
Don't be surprised if you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time in Brink's customisation suite - the numerous cosmetic unlockables available make creating a unique character strangely compelling. Unlocks such as clothes, hair styles and masks range from the usual variety of military garb to oddities such as clown masks, afros and bug suites. Even if you don't use them, chances are you'll want to see how they look anyway.
When it comes to meat'n'potatoes gameplay, Splash Damage sticks to what it knows best. The majority of Brink's core conceits will be second-nature to those that have spent time with any of the previous Enemy Territories games and at least familiar enough to be approachable for anyone with a little experience with an objective-based or class based shooter. The action is largely reliant on players working together to complete specific objectives that are usually pre-determined according to the map.
Brink's overall gameplay experience is built on four pillars: primary objectives, secondary objectives, buffs and S.M.A.R.T. The latter (smooth movement over random terrain) is a method of movement that provides a freedom that we're almost trained not to expect in first-person shooters.
S.M.A.R.T is essentially parkour; however the beauty of the system lies in its simplicity. Tap the run button and the character will break into a sprint. From there all that's required from the player is guidance - S.M.A.R.T takes care of the rest by vaulting, climbing and jumping anything that gets in between you and your stopping point. It's an intuitive system that will require players to re-think how they approach combat, and Splash Damage deserves applause for having both the talent and the bottle to innovate in a genre fast exhausting every possible gameplay quirk.
Brink gives player's access to manoeuvres like a baseball slide and wall jump that exhibit the kind of agility more ordinarily characteristic of platform games. Once the growing pains have subsided, S.M.A.R.T becomes an indispensably vital tool in survival and when used properly can be used to add both flair and creativity to a firefight.
The game features light, medium and heavy body types, each of which have different movement capabilities - so maps are smartly designed to offer shortcut, vantage points and entry point opportunities for each build. Map furnishings that are habitually ignored in shooters can be used to gain a tactical advantage in Brink. A stack of crates may only serve to block or funnel players in another game, but in Brink, all you need is a a tap of the button, to scale it - leaving you free to shower bullets down from above on an enemy caught with its pants down.
MODE OF MADNESS
Brink offers such a wide smorgasboard of gameplay modes, it's easy to get in a bit of tizz with it all. But don't be confused, as there's only one way to really play it - and that's with other humans. Playing through the campaign solo can be a miserable, demoralising, soul crushing gaming experience; particularly when Splash Damage ratchets up the difficulty to a level that makes Halo Legendary look like hopscotch. However, play this online with friends or randoms, and you'll become hopelessly addicted to its brand of co-operative, class-based multiplayer action.
Describing Brink's solo campaign as 'difficult' would be a gross understatement. We consider ourselves pretty capable when it comes to first-person shooters; our lengthy career includes years worth of Quake, Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, Veteran runs of Call of Duty and plenty more besides. But we can comfortably say that that Brink was easily the most frustratingly difficult campaigns we've played through, and that it's unrelenting even on easy.
Play the game on your own and Brink stacks the odds heavily against you. Enemies are incredibly accurate with their bullets and grenades, and they don't seem to suffer the same respawn 'cool down' as you do. Although opposing teams are comprised of eight 'players' each, it often feels like wave after wave of enemy AI bots are being placed at your blind spots. While it might be incredibly smart, ruthless AI we're more inclined to believe its a vindictive version of Left 4 Dead's AI director - and, therefore, not always exactly a hoot.
In almost every mission there was a point in the third phase of proceedings where we'd have held a key objective point for seven out of the eight allotted minutes, or hacked 90% of a target computer with relatively little trouble. But just as the mission was coming to a close, there would be a sudden turning of the tides; the enemy AI would break through, plant a charge and make it close to impossible to snatch back victory. At other points, we'd carry a package to its delivery point and find an entire enemy team camped out, leaving us a moving target - and unable to gain an inch on our foe.
It doesn't help that friendly AI seems powerless to stop these brutes - and often doesn't even seem to try. While medics attempt to throw you a revival syringe when you're downed, chances are they'll be killed, even if only a single enemy is around. Every death therefore becomes a choice between preserving your progress towards achieving your goal and leaving your fate in the hands of an AI medic at the cost of mission time.
Since each mission has a fatal time limit, these scenarios often end up in a stalemate in which you're unable to complete the objective. There are few things as heart-breaking as achieving a 98% complete 'hack', being gunned down and watching four of the enemy AI gather round to reverse your progress while your team fumbles around.
The only way to overcome this pain is to spend a few hours grinding levels, completing the not-exactly-simple-either challenges and unlocking new weapons and abilities for each class to augment your abilities before you go for the main objective. Not exactly fun.
However, since servers will be populated with human players come release day the only people that experience these issues will be those who choose to play the solo campaign. Despite the decorative single-player campaign option, Brink is unmistakably a multiplayer game - and, at times, is an excellent one. Although it doesn't have a match-making lobby, Brink allows you to select whether a game is open to everyone to join, friends only or invite only. You can also choose whether they join as co-op buddies or opposing forces.
If that isn't your thing, you can also set up freeplay games and tweak some of the variables, such as maximum team size, player counts, choose maps and toggle friendly fire. On the downside, the overall game populating system is a little odd. It's a perfectly capable but quite clunky model justified as a "seamless integration of multiplayer and single-player". We'd have preferred a lobby of some sort to be honest, but maybe we're traditionalists.
Eliminate the AI out of the equation; get a few friends into a game and Brink all clicks into place. Working with others to complete objectives, assessing battle conditions and estimating your chance of success when risking an attempt at a secondary objective is endlessly satisfying. There's little in gaming to rival the feeling you get from ending a lengthy stalemate - or completely flipping the outcome of a match-up by conquering a sub-task to restore power to a lift so your team can take a shortcut.
Even spending time in menus with team mates micro-managing character creation to make classes suited for the required objectives is immensely gratifying; even more so when you get on the battlefield and realise you've created an unstoppable team of buffers and damage dealers.
Brink's multiplayer becomes an extremely exciting, constantly evolving battlefield that allows skilled players to use the strengths of each class to lay traps and control combat flow; but also challenges them to stay on their toes and think fast in assessing the needs and individual benefits of team mates.
Hidden behind Brink's fancy new visuals and slick new style is a quintessentially old school team-based multiplayer title delivered with some noteworthy polish, real replayability and clever quirks. Perhaps most importantly, it's perfectly executed on consoles.
It will often remind you of other top-drawer multiplayer experiences you've probably played in some form over the past few years, albeit with a few interesting gameplay refinements, an eye-catching, unique visual style and tonnes of personality.
If Brink's campaign had perhaps stolen a few more genre staples from today's modern blockbuster shooters (for which Splash Damage patently has little time), this could have been a must buy. Sadly, its single-player has to be considered something of a frustrating letdown and an unspectacular option in a genre stuffed with sexier options.
That being so, with its genuinely rewarding multiplayer experience and day-squandering replayability, Brink still manages to teeter on the edge of greatness.
Verdict: A familiar class-based, objective-based multiplayer shooter that is immensely rewarding when played online with others.
Which game are you most looking forward to playing in 2013?
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- Aliens: Colonial Marines
- BioShock Infinite
- Dead Space 3
- Gears of War: Judgment
- God of War: Ascension
- Grand Theft Auto V
- Metal Gear: Revengeance
- The Last of Us
- Tomb Raider
- Watch Dogs