Brink, the upcoming first-person shooter from Enemy Territory developer Splash Damage, is bringing a novel approach to a crowded market. It incorporates elements from a variety of popular genres, but does so in a way that makes it seem like a unique, multifaceted experience.
I had the opportunity to play Brink at a recent press event in New York. Based on the hour that I spent with the game, I think it’s going to be one of the standout shooters of the year.
Brink (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
To be released: May 17, 2011 (NA) / May 20, 2011 (EU, AUS)
Brink takes place on The Ark, a floating utopia constructed from genetically engineered white coral that humans built as a refuge from a flooded Earth for 5,000 inhabitants. But ten times as many people now call The Ark home, and amid dwindling resources and overcrowding, two factions have risen up to compete for control of the decaying city: “Security,” which is attempting to maintain order, and “Resistance,” which is fighting to escape. Each force has its own playable campaign, but lead writer Edward Stern promised that the story isn’t as cut and dry as “hero cops versus evil terrorists.”
“Both sides think they’re right; that’s just way more involving and engaging than if it’s, like, ‘Well, I’m just evil; I’m born to do evil; that’s all I do. Woke up this morning, going to do some evil,’” he said with a grin. Mentioning the moral ambiguity of Deus Ex as an inspiration, Stern discussed the mission I played, “Dirty Bomb.” If you play it in the Security campaign, your commander tells you that you’re fighting to keep a bio-weapon out of the hands of the Resistance. But as a Resistance fighter, you’re told that the Security side is attempting to steal your medical supplies. “Who are you going to believe? We’re not going to definitively tell you one way or the other,” said Stern, asserting that the story underpinnings of the missions in Brink have a motivational significance aside from the nature of the MacGuffin.
Stern told me that one of his “wilder goals” for Brink is that its fiction will sit in players’ minds even when they’re not playing the game. Much of the story is relayed through the environment, which he called “the best narrator we’ve got.” The mission I tried was set in Container City, a slum on The Ark composed of steel girders, sheet metal, and shipping containers. The ragtag shanty town was clearly constructed haphazardly, and sat rusting into the ocean. “You don’t build out of steel, at sea, if you think [what you’re building is] going to last for a long time,” Stern pointed out, saying that the awful conditions in Container City effectively communicate to the player why the Resistance is so damn desperate to leave The Ark. Unlockable audio diaries provide more story details.
Of course, some people just want to jump in and start shooting dudes in the face, so all of the story is optional. Brink is an overwhelming game at first; even aside from its frantic 8-on-8 pace, its interface is extremely busy -- it beams so much data at your eyeballs with text, icons, bars, and gauges that you’ll feel like you’re staring straight into The Matrix. But it’s a testament to Splash Damage’s elegant HUD design that I was able to pick up on everything pretty quickly, whether it was the small circles indicating remaining rounds in a clip and remaining time in a reloading animation, or my teammates’ health bars.
Splash Damage has done a wonderful job of communicating tasks to players through the game’s objective wheel. At any time, you can hold up on the D-pad to bring up a round menu with the current objectives taking up “slices” of the pie depending on how pressing the tasks are (the wheel changes constantly). Even easier, you can just tap up, and the game will automatically direct you toward the most important objective with an on-screen indicator (and distance measurement). Thanks to this setup, I never found myself unclear on what to do next.
I stuck with the Medic class for most of my playtime, although I did spend some time as an Engineer. The Medic can buff other players’ health (as well as his own), and he also has the ability to revive incapacitated teammates. I really liked the revive mechanic in Brink. In games such as Battlefield: Bad Company 2, one of my favorite online shooters, stupid medics will often revive a player in the middle of a firefight, whereas the guy just wanted to respawn. As a Medic in Brink, you’ll toss a revive syringe to a downed comrade, and he can decide whether to revive himself or respawn. (Medics can eventually unlock an upgrade that allows them to revive themselves.)
Soldiers carry high-explosive charges for demolition objectives, and they can supply their teammates with ammunition. Engineers can plant mines (and later, set up turrets), and they can also disarm mines as well as HE charges. In addition, they can boost other players’ weapon damage. By far the most intriguing and intimidating class is the Operative, who -- like the Spy in Team Fortress 2 -- can disguise himself as a fallen enemy and complete hacking objectives.
That’s just the start of the customization that Brink offers. You can unlock abilities -- some class-specific, some universal -- that give you extra skills. They include extra mines, scavenging ammo off of dead bodies, an EMP grenade that slows down the timer on charges, and an Operative-only sticky bomb. You can only bring three abilities into battle with you. In addition, you can choose from three body types (light, normal, heavy). Light bodies have the least health, but with the “S.M.A.R.T.” parkour movement system, they can clamber up levels in ways that normal and heavy players simply don’t have access to. Finally, the game includes a wealth of cosmetic options, such as tattoos and headgear. If you find a combination that you like, you can save it in one of eight character slots.
The customization means that you can literally play Brink however you want. Stern suggested that I play as a Medic, and then gave me a challenge: play for five minutes without firing a single shot; just go around healing and reviving your teammates. The game doles out XP like it’s the end of the world -- and I guess on The Ark, it kinda is -- so you receive experience for pretty much everything you do, whether it’s healing your teammates, supplying comrades with ammo, or even just being near an objective. “I mean, it’s called a shooter; how much of your time do you actually spend shooting? We wanted to make it so that there’s lots you can do, even when you’re not pulling the trigger,” said Stern.
In fact, Brink emphasizes XP over the standard statistics that are measured in shooters. The scoreboard at the end of a round lists XP, but doesn’t even mention kill/death ratio (Stern assured me that the game tracks that data, but explained that the focus here is on teamwork, not individual performance). “It’s cool to be James Bond,” acknowledged Stern, but “it’s also really cool to be the guy who revived James Bond with a second to go.”
Many of the players in the matches I played were AI-controlled bots, but I was hard-pressed to tell the difference. My teammates acquitted themselves admirably in combat, completing objectives and controlling choke points. (This is vital, for reasons I will explore in a separate post.) I did see a few instances of bots getting caught on level geometry and running in pace, but Stern explained that I was playing a beta version, and that the team is still ironing out the kinks. Bots or not, I found that I was able to earn gobs of experience points -- and have a lot of fun -- just by supporting my team as a Medic, just as Stern had proposed; I died only a few times, since I was able to heal and revive myself. (You have “ammo” for your health buff; it recharges over time.)
If Medic doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can switch classes in the middle of a round at stations placed throughout maps. I dabbled as an Engineer for some time, still mostly supporting my team by building staircases and dealing out damage buffs, and enjoyed that role as well. Brink truly looks to have something for everyone; which class will you play?