Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 7 = Good
Splash Damage’s 2007 squad-based first-person shooter Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was a fantastic effort that struggled to find an audience. The studio’s latest entry into the increasingly crowded class-based first-person shooter subgenre, Brink, is looking as if it might share a similar fate. While Brink manages to pull off a handful of progressive design decisions and provide for some addictive sessions, performance issues and a handful of bugs are decreasing its shelf life at a perilous rate.
If there’s one thing that Splash Damage does more so than any other studio, and is an approach that I have always appreciated, it’s that they enforce the fact that their games are both class- and team-based titles. What I mean is that the classes aren’t there for players simply to have cool abilities, but that they offer abilities that encourage teamwork and serve the greater good. It’s this elevation of the support role to that of the primary function that makes the studio’s games so compelling and teamwork so satisfying, Brink included. However, it’s this same focus that will turn off many fans of more traditional first-person shooters like Black Ops and Bad Company 2.
In many ways, Brink‘s combat feels like that of an MMO. It’s through this marrying of styles, of a first-person shooter and a role-playing game, that allows the game to maintain a high level of team play without seriously diluting the shooter experience. The game achieves this through the heavy use of buffs, abilities which aid squadmates by either enhancing their stats or adding to their supplies. Good teams will always spend the first few seconds after a spawn making sure everyone is as prepared as possible, with Soldiers doling out ammo, Engineers increasing damage, and Medics tossing out health upgrades. The game also has mechanisms in place to handicap those who don’t take the time to help out the squad, such as a limited amount of ammo. There are additional unlockable buffs as well, and like most abilities, assisting a teammate offers a greater reward than helping oneself. For example, a Medic can heal themselves, but the game rewards buffing others with experience and a shorter cooldown time; similarly, players who wait to be healed instead of respawn at the end of the countdown timer will also receive experience, encouraging both parties to allow their roles to be fully realized. There are also several abilities which can only be used on others, with only a handful that are only for the player’s direct benefit.
There is significant interplay between the classes as well, which tends to offer numerous opportunities to gain experience and the upper hand during an engagement. Operatives can make Command Posts (where players can change class and refill health or ammo) harder for enemies to capture by installing firewalls, while Engineers have the ability to upgrade Command Posts for stronger perks. A more direct example would be a Medic who administers an Adrenaline Boost to a hard-pressed Engineer so that they can remain alive long enough to finish repairing their turret in order to secure the flank—situations like this make or break matches all the time.
The fact that the game focuses on the character is also important. Up to 10 characters can be created, but once one is, its stats and weapons are shared across all classes. This allows for a player to focus on just one class or make a type of hybrid character so that they are useful in multiple situations. By having one character split their Level Credits (experience points) between general and class-specific upgrades, players can create multi-purpose troops. For instance, one level might require an Engineer to escort a bot and then a Soldier to break through the last wall of enemy resistance, and the player has enough abilities in both classes to assist in either role. There are also three different body types, with the smaller types able to access areas that the largest type cannot, though the larger characters are also able to wield guns too large for the others. This further breakdown allows for even greater specialization, such as a well-armed Engineer or a small, agile Soldier that packs a punch. With so many character slots, the game offers plenty of chances to experiment with builds.
That is, except for female characters. For some reason, the game only allows players to choose male models. This is somewhat odd considering that there are dozens of unlockables for the various parts of the body, which speaks to a really open design that would seemingly allow players to really stand out. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case, as the exaggerated art style—characters are unusually elongated, despite what the box cover might indicate—ends up having most players, save for those with the more unusual outfits (full riot gear), blend together. Or it might have been that I wasn’t a fan of the style in general and found that the majority of players looked silly, regardless of the effort put in to look just so. Still, for a game with such an emphasis on customization, unlike in a Call of Duty or Battlefield where the emphasis is on the loadout and not the character, having the classes restricted to male is odd. I tend to play male characters anyway, but that doesn’t make the lack of the most basic of customization options any more palatable.
I think another missed opportunity was the game’s handling of the story. Set in the near future, a self-sustaining habitat known as the Ark has had its population balloon up well beyond what its initial ecosystem was designed to support. As more people fled the Earth’s rising waters for the safety of the Ark, classes began to develop between the haves (Founders) and have nots (Guests). As the Guests began to pour in, their living conditions worsened while their rations lessened. Feeling as if the Founders were hoarding the supplies, as well as keeping them trapped on the Ark for manual labor, they formed a resistance movement. And that is where the game begins, with players deciding to save the Ark as a member of the Security forces or leave it as a member of the Resistance.
Now, that’s actually a pretty cool premise. To think of what all could be done with the situation—Are others left on the planet? If this is it, then how will they sustain themselves? If there are others, will they be friendly?—and there are hints as to what’s happened in the outside world in the intervening years since the Ark’s launch, but that’s about it. There are audio logs that are unlocked for each side, which, along with some cutscenes, show that each side is beginning to feel the stress of the conflict and wonder if the violence is worth it. As the struggle deepens, though, resolves are hardened and the stakes are raised higher. But that’s it. Aside from a few cursory ‘maybe this isn’t right’ moments, followed by some ‘they want to kill our family’ responses, the story just kind of meanders about until it’s done. To top it off, there’s no resolution, as Brink has succumbed to the storytelling bane of this generation: the cliffhanger. I know DLC and sequels are important in this age of skyrocketing development costs, but can I just get some resolution? And don’t worry about me spoiling anything, because I’m not—nothing really happens.
So with a deep yet narrow customization system and a story with heaps of potential left on the cutting room floor, what about Brink kept me going back? That support-centric design is what. This is the game for all of those who picked the medic or engineering classes, realizing that those were actually more exciting than being a soldier or commando because they required being both skilled in combat and always on the lookout for ways to assist. The way Splash Damage heaps experience and accolades (each round has an Award section on the post-match screen that lists the best of each class, most kills, and best overall) on those who help the team in deference to themselves encourages a type of play found in few other games. Those who like to go in for the kill are also awarded, though less so, as each successful hit earns experience points as well as an Assist bonus for those who do enough damage to another player’s kill; aside from giving action junkies a nod, this is also an excellent means of ensuring everyone involved in the action is rewarded. Additional experience can also be gained through class-specific missions in addition to the main objective, such as Engineers repairing a machine in anticipation of an assault or a Medic guarding the target during an escort mission. There are also minor side objectives that offer a chance to score a few points, including Soldiers tasked with creating shortcuts with their explosives and Engineers being able to finish half-built turrets.
Class-based missions are discovered using the objective wheel. The wheel is actually fairly interesting because of how it diverts the player’s attention away from the action—think of it as a useful distraction. The most pressing objective can be targeted by pressing up on the directional pad, which will cause an arrow and icon to appear on-screen to indicate the area to protect, object to grab, console to hack, etc. But by holding down up, the wheel will appear and show what other side missions are available for additional experience. Operatives will be tasked with planting hackboxes or turrets while Soldiers with resupplying their squadmates. Because some of the objectives require assisting the team at large, all objectives are not displayed at the same time. This is in contrast to most games, where everything is at least indicated on the mini-map, which can be jarring at first.
Actually, Brink itself is jarring at first. The emphasis on teamwork and de-emphasis on self, the objective wheel only displaying some objectives, and unwieldy weapons only make the initial outings all the more bewildering when combined with some of the game’s other, more frustrating aspects, such as its odd tendency (possibly a bug) to play both sides’ objectives over the intercom and display awkwardly worded objective directions. One of the more interesting features is also one of the hardest to get a handle on: the SMART system. Short for Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain, SMART is used as a way for players to slide over tables, skid under gunfire, and ram into enemies. It’s like someone took Namco Bandai’s Breakdown and jammed in parkour, with the expected results. It’s easy to think of the feature as a gimmick, and while there are all kinds of ways in which it isn’t fully utilized, with a handful of alternate routes and limited moves and maneuverability, it can also make for some great moments. It adds just the right amount of spice into the combat system to give players a strong incentive to keep practicing as the feeling of improvement is tangible, and very satisfying. I’ve had some pretty great runs, sliding into a group of five enemies, knocking them all down, and then gunning or smacking them before they could recover. Small-body teammates are also worth their weight in gold during missions that require an object to be delivered, as they zip over railings faster and scamper into areas too small for the other body types. While there is room for it to evolve into a truly genre-defining feature, it adds plenty of excitement as is.
The biggest thing holding Brink back isn’t its awkward or unforgiving design decisions, it is its performance. Games can be played in a Campaign, in Freeplay, or a series of Challenges alone (with bots), co-op with friends online, or versus online. Having such options readily available is great, as are the experience bonuses for playing online and seeing a match through to completion, but what’s not great is when the round turns into a slideshow because lag has hit, or the game freezes, or late-match lag spikes ruin a half hour of progress. It would be nice just to switch to single player with AI friendlies, but, for the most part, they are little more than cannon fodder. While the computer’s team can do a competent job of holding positions and giving the player’s squad a bloody nose, the opposite is true for the allied AI. Seeing a match slip away during the last objective because a squadmate refused to take an object the three feet forward to finish the mission is crushing, and equally disappointing is seeing them completely neglect their support roles and lack any sort of cohesion—and not uncommon.
Considering the solo Campaign is nothing but the co-op or versus Campaign, complete with cutscenes and narration, it’s infuriating to be in a team that frequently doesn’t play as a team. The fact that the game only includes eight stages, six missions for the storyline and two ‘What If’ missions for each faction, which are largely the same save for slight objective variations, calls the game’s longevity into question fairly quickly. However, given that there are three body types, four classes, the time it takes to become proficient with the guns (and the mods), and 20 levels of points to allocate to skills across all classes, the base game does deliver a decent amount of content, but a few more maps would’ve gone a long way.
Brink is one of the few games where I started out unimpressed but found myself coming around and eventually having a great time. It’s rare to go from a negative impression all the way up to playing hours on end a night, but Brink has a certain charm to it that really hooked my inner Medic. Despite the fact that I ended up enjoying it the more I played it, there remains a definable peak in terms of longevity due to the online performance making consistent multiplayer an uneven experience and helpless friendly AI making the single-player portion only good for some initial practice. There are a lot of great ideas here, many of which are handled deftly, much to Splash Damage’s credit, but there needs another layer or two of polish before I could give it anything more than a cautious recommendation to all but the biggest team-based first-person shooter fans—as much as I wish otherwise.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)