My rifle’s chunky, deep report chops through the red bar over a stray defender’s head as he rushes to disarm my explosive charge. The lanky engineer should have brought friends, because on Brink’s floating city, one-man-armies may as well slurp up a bowl of bullet soup and call it a day.
The chinny, dreadlocked man crumples to the ground, flailing and praying for a friendly medic. His team isn’t far behind, and the confusion of battle might afford him a Revive Syringe and another attempt at disarming my charge, so I stand over his body and chug rounds into his head until he goes limp and colorless.
As I reload and look up, I realize that the bold, dead engineer unwittingly gave his team the upper-hand on me. It’s too late to reorient myself as his backup rushes through a corridor, and a Molotov cocktail sails into my face, chucking my feet into the air. Too overwhelmed to stand up, I fire maniacally at the invading team as it struggles against my own.
Lucky for us, they’re also too late – my charge goes BOOM and knocks 'em to their asses.
Brink is ambitious. The mechanics boldly corral players into team bonding without devolving into pointless "let’s see who can get the highest score without actually helping the team" pissing matches. There’s not much you can do in Brink, excluding standing around and shooting at your own feet, that doesn’t push your team toward its goal.
Additionally, Brink’s Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain (S.M.A.R.T.) system adds free running to the first-person shooter experience, and its detailed character and weapon customization feels more important than it should (Mohawk or gasmask? Oh, the choices!).
It’s only disappointing that Brink feels so confined by its own premise. Its innovative mechanics far outdo its lifeless, confining story, and, while respectable, its pure focus on multiplayer, team-based objective matches confines it further. Aside from a few “Challenge” maps which test your skills and unlock new weapons, the bulk of Brink consists of only eight objective-based maps, which can be played as either the Resistance or Ark Security.
The Ark is a floating city which was transported into open waters after the sea level rose and civilization collapsed. Ark Security seeks to maintain order, while the proletariat Resistance clamors to escape the city’s slums in search of what’s left of the world. Over the course of six missions (and two "what if?" scenarios), the two sides battle to rescue hostages, acquire intel, and blow stuff up to achieve overall victory. Each mission begins with a brief voice-over and cut scene to set up the scenario, but skipping them to get to the game faster won’t put much of a nick in the experience.
The story isn’t totally uninteresting, but the characters and missions are hardly memorable enough to warrant the number of unlockable audio logs in the game (can we be done with audio logs now?), and Brink’s mechanics feel bigger than the alternating rusty and sterile environments of the Ark. The game’s superbly-designed missions could have happened anywhere, so why limit them to an isolated floating city where the only maps can be isolated floating city maps? It’s like Team Fortress 2 with a story – not really necessary, and it prevents the mechanics from being explored.
As disappointed as I am with its unmet potential, I still think Brink is a great game. It's like a Cadbury Creme Egg - small, but full of rich, creamy filling. I can't describe every individual flavor packed into that filling in this review, because 1000 words on effective use of the Engineer class wouldn't help you understand the overall feeling of playing the game. If you want to know what the game is like, the closest you can get without playing it is to watch it, so I've recorded one entire match (against bots) in two parts. Watch the first part below:
Objectives and Classes
The eight scenarios - some of which can last up to half-an-hour depending on how the defense fares - can be played with bots, other players, or a combination of both. Running through each side’s campaign in solo mode is alright once, as the bots are impressively human-like at times, but the scenarios would wear out too quickly were it not for the unpredictability and challenge presented by non-AI opponents. Even Brink's good AI couldn't pass the Turing Test quite yet.
Each mission is sectioned into two or more timed objectives which are completed in order, and are supported by secondary objectives. To accomplish the objectives, the teams must utilize Brink’s four classes in tandem, though each individual task will fall to one class' specific skill - soldiers plant explosive charges, engineers repair structures and defuse explosives, medics revive hostages to keep them moving, and operatives hack devices.
Secondary objectives include, among others, building barricades and machinegun nests, escorting other players, and capturing neutral, team-stat-boosting Command Posts, one or more of which are scattered throughout the map.
From the team’s main Command Post (which cannot be captured) in its impenetrable spawn area, players can switch classes and weapons, and see how many members of each class are currently in play. That last part is Super Important, because if the team is heavy on medics, engineers, and soldiers when the objective requires hacking, you know that it’s up to you to become on operative and get the dirty work done. If, however, you’ve got four operatives on your team and no medics, you might be most useful in a supporting role.
Were Brink not so well-balanced, the whole team might instantly choose the primary objective class and rush it en masse. An army of soldiers versus one door that needs explodin’ ought to work, right? Not so much. It only takes a few players to complete an objective (some allow for combined efforts – engineers, for example, can repair structures faster with help), and the rest of the team is on protection duty. With no medics to revive downed soldiers, your team’s effectiveness will be crippled, and with no engineers building automated turrets and planting mines, your line will be easily breached – everyone has a role in the success of the team.
Above: Building a turret to defend an area - also notice the mine planted at the door
To better their contribution, players can bolster their character’s skills by earning experience and purchasing skills. Initially, only universal skills, such as the ability to shoot grenades midair or reload while sprinting, are available, but as players gain levels, they can begin to customize their favorite classes. Engineers, for example, can initially only lay landmines, but can upgrade earns them turrets, which can then be upgraded further.
Above: Buffing your teammate's stats as a medic or engineer, or resupplying their ammo as a soldier, is much appreciated. It feels good to give!
Brink is complex, and I've only lightly dusted over the intricacies if its classes and objectives, so do yourself a favor and watch the game's painfully long introductory video before starting. I got the hang of everything pretty quickly, but a bit of pre-battle studying definitely helped, however dull it may have been. Once you know what you're supposed to be doing, and your motivation is secured, you can focus on the visceral activities of free running through the maps and pumping bullets into your goat-faced enemies.
Customizable running and gunning
Brink's S.M.A.R.T. free running system opens up the environment to a few tricks and expedites the trek between points of interest with smoothly cool leaps, but it isn't Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge, so don't expect to scale twenty-story structures or make insane leaps between skyscrapers. S.M.A.R.T. didn't explode my preconceptions about first-person shooters, but it does make the others seem boxy and restrictive. Flying up and over obstacles quickly feels like the most natural, sensible way to traverse the environment.
"Move more than you shoot," is the game's strategic motto, and it's good advice, as strategic positioning is majorly important in Brink. Running straight at the other team isn't the best way to push them back, so flanking and dividing their forces, or catching them in choke points, is the best way to disrupt their attack or break their defense.
When you do set your sights on the enemy, the BRAT BRAT BRAT of your chosen weapon won't disappoint. Brink's guns feel as hefty as they look, and they rip up enemies without any frustrating ambiguity (I'm looking at you, Halo).
Brink plainly displays each opponent's health over his head, which some might expect to undermine the hardcoreness of it, but I found that it actually ups the strategic play. If I'm too far away from an enemy for my current weapon to be effective, I know immediately after sounding off a couple impotent rounds that I need to switch weapons or move to a better position. And when I engage the opposing team, the visible health statuses inform my maneuvers - screw the UN, a wounded medic in a crowd is my top priority, because if I take down any of his companions first, he'll just revive them while I reload.
Above: The medic running through the door is my prime target
The game's selection of guns are customizable with parts earned by completing Challenge missions, and while finicky weapon stat adjusting doesn't have to consume much of your time in Brink, customizing stuff is fun, and your choice of primary and secondary weapons will influence how you'll play.
Above: My primary weapon... I can't resist the scope
Speaking of customization, you can customize the hell out of your dude, which is also fun, even where it doesn't affect gameplay.
The only aesthetic character setting which affects your abilities is his build - Light, Medium, and Heavy. Naturally, the light body type offers increased speed and maneuverability at the cost of heavy weapons usage and health, while the heavy type is the chaingun-toting tank. I mostly enjoyed keeping it balanced with the default medium body type, but the option to try alternate play styles and explore multiple strategies adds yet another welcome bit of customization to Brink.
Above: My dude
Above: My dude's face
Aside from body type, the rest of the customization consists of unlockable aesthetic changes, from shirts, jackets, and pants to gas masks, dreadlocks, scars, and tattoos (the latter two being permanent). I love customizing characters, and I know I'm not the only one who'll enjoy the hell out of Brink's detailed game of dress up. The one thing I don't love is that both the Security and Resistance forces are devoid of female soldiers, and I must assume that the exclusion is the result of the amount of work that would have had to gone into designing options for both sexes. It's still a shame.
Brink and you'll miss it
Brink is built on a modified version of id's Doom 3 engine, and it's pretty, but not quite as spectacular as the promotional material had made me hope. The character designs are the highlight by far, and bits of the Ark stand out as well - especially the slummy outdoor areas. Some maps, however, struck me as dull after a day or two of playing.
Nevertheless, Brink looks different enough from every other shooter that I'll say with confidence that I like looking at it far more than I do Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo: Reach. If you crave something unique, Brink is that. There are a few technical issues to note, however.
Above: Real pretty... the first ten times you see it
Update (May 10, 2011): The visual glitches described in this section were fixed by the launch patch, as promised. Also, though we are still experiencing lag in some matches, as can be expected in any online game requiring a connection to a host, the ping indicator correctly turns red when our connection is being interrupted, suggesting that some network glitches were also fixed.
"Sporadic visual glitches at distance, texture pop-up and some minor networking issues" will be addressed in an automatic day-one patch, according to publisher Bethesda. I trust that they will be, but I still have to point them out just in case. When I played the game, the textures took their sweet time loading and sharpening. Blurry, low-res textures, which I assume were only meant to be seen from a distance, remained on objects well after I was standing directly in front of them, and sometimes never sharpened up. Installing the game on the 360's hard drive, which the publisher suggested would offer a "more accurate experience of the game at launch" did not clear up the issue.
Additionally, one in about every five online matches I played was so crippled by lag that I had to quit out. The rest were as smooth as butter, and it's hard for me to tell if the host's connection, my connection, or the "minor networking issues" to be addressed by the patch were to blame.
I can't guarantee anything about the patch, so unless you're a pre-order-happy early adopter, keep an eye on the community's comments to see if this stuff is or isn't a problem. After the patch is released, and we have a chance to see for ourselves how significant its fixes are, we will update this review, but until then, we're factoring in the visual and network glitches.
Halo: Reach? No. I like it more than any Halo game, but y'know, that's me. Brink's campaign is a series of skirmishes, and just isn't as filling as Reach's. If you want something different, then Brink will satisfy, but if you don't plan to ditch typical competitive multiplayer, then keep playing Halo. I won't judge you. (Maybe a little.)
Call of Duty: Black Ops? No. Again, I prefer Brink, because dammit, it's different. Still, it just isn't big enough to compete with CoD. Brink is confined to eight maps on one floating city. Maybe if it had zombies I'd feel differently, but nope - just objective-based matches against funny-faced humans. Black Ops offers more.
Team Fortress 2? No, but it could have been. I don't personally like Team Fortress 2 (sorry), but fans of TF2 have built a strong community that won't easily be chipped into. I think that Brink's mechanics are more interesting and versatile than TF2's, but its arenas are just too limited. If Bethesda and Splash Damage can garner a strong following and release mod tools which result in a wide variety of player-created maps (which I doubt, given their complexity), then Brink could bloom into something just as great as TF2.
The mechanics of Brink's shooting, free running, and objective-oriented classes and skills are fantastic. If it weren't so confined by its premise, it might have been a masterpiece. Instead, it feels smaller than it should, and left me begging for its potential to be fully realized. It's a shame that it doesn't quite feel complete, but Brink is still a very good game, and it deserves notation - just below Team Fortress 2 - as an exemplary team-based shooter.
May 9, 2011