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We go toe-to-toe with Splash Damage's innovative SMART system...
It's sometimes surprising how much leeway we give this beloved medium of ours. How often have you accepted a ludicrous fetch-quest just to get past an npc that refuses to budge? "I'm a level 20 dark mage!" you think to yourself, "Why can't I just smite you to death!?" you mutter under your breath, before skulking off to hoard chicken feathers for a few hours. Once engrossed in the internal logic of a game's universe it's easy to paper over the cracks, accepting that knee-high walls are un-negotiable obstacles, and respecting the immutable impasse that is the locked door.
"I can summon the very fires of Hades itself!" you muse, treading over the charred corpse of another dead chicken, "Oh, look, a locked door. Better go find a key."
Just as other notable Bethesda games helped popularise solutions to these archaic RPG design problems - by allowing players to smack feather-loving NPC's over the head - Brink has its own intelligent system that promises to take those precocious knee-high walls down a peg or two. It's SMART - Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain - and it allows you to perform a variety of complex motions by simply holding down a button and pushing towards your intended destination. The system streamlines action by anticipating what you're trying to do, so that you can, for example, simply jump towards a wall to automatically kick up and clamber over it. The result is fluid and intuitive and allows you to effortlessly vault over fences and slide under arches without having to fumble furiously with your control pad; consequently, you can focus your efforts on what's really important: shooting people in the face.
On the surface, Brink looks like just another class-based FPS, albeit with a distinctive stylized aesthetic. Play as a Soldier, Engineer, Medic or Operative in objective-led team-based warfare across a variety of maps - so far, so Team Fortress 2. But dig a little deeper and you discover an ambitious and original game that efficiently streamlines much of the accumulated design clutter of the genre.
Developed by Enemy Territory creator Splash Damage, and published by Bethesda, Brink's master-stroke is to completely dissolve the barrier between offline and online play, combining single, multiplayer and co-op modes into one unique central campaign. Each level takes place on the Ark, a futuristic floating city that has been driven to the... brink.... of civil war. It's 2045, the ice caps have melted, and the sea-stead utopia has been overrun by refugees; with resources scarce, and tensions running high, a resistance movement has formed to redistribute the wealth of the original settlers amongst the people of the Ark.
Save the Ark, or destroy it? That's the stark choice you're presented with at the beginning of the campaign; you'll either fight for the poverty-stricken resistance movement, or join the beleaguered security forces - who are desperately trying to stitch together order on an island that is tearing apart at the seams. Both sides have their own motivations and positive intentions and thankfully neither is lazily presented as the bad guy; they're both just trying to do what they think is right. In the words of Brink's Lead Writer, Edward Stern,
"It's not how the world works; no-one thinks they're wrong. No-one says 'Yep, I'm evil, I oppress.'"
Choosing to 'save the Ark' launches you into the security forces side of the campaign. You can fight in single player with a bunch of AI helpers, or have up to 7 friends join you against the opposing AI team. You can also choose to open up the A.I and face off against human opponents in full-on 8v8 missions. There are no lobbies in the game - you simply select from your friends list and hot join a game at will - and the opening cinematic plays even if you join a game that's half way through, so that you can jump into the action, and the story, at any point.
Playing the 'Container City' level as the security forces, your first major objective is to breach a metal fence so that an engineering bot can get through and clear a path through the docks. Soldiers can plant explosives, so it's up to medics to keep them alive by the fence as they set their charges, taking fire from resistance troops on the other side. Next you'll need engineers to repair the bot as it progresses through the level, soldiers to guard the engineers, and medics to keep everyone alive. You can switch classes and weapon load-outs at any time by accessing a command post, and securing additional command posts around the level gives each unit on your team an extension to their rechargeable item bar, allowing them to use their special abilities more frequently.
Pressing up on the D-Pad brings up the objectives wheel; in addition to the main level objectives, a selection of secondary objectives are generated based on your class and position in the map. A Medic might have a mission to revive a fallen comrade, whereas an Operative could go spotting for landmines, in turn generating another mission for an Engineer to defuse them. The game encourages selfless team-play by appealing to your self-interest, rewarding every completed objective with a nugget of XP; in this way it also validates the actions of those who aren't right on the front lines of the main objectives, and builds good will amongst the team, creating a virtuous circle which perpetuates reciprocal teamwork. Splash Damage has managed to turn the Prisoner's Dilemma of team FPS games on its head, by constructing a system that actively encourages supportive play.
Brink features an array of clever touches and efficient refinements: characters automatically announce which objective they've chosen to help cut down on headset chatter; medics hand fallen comrades a syringe so that they can revive themselves at a convenient moment, rather than dragging them to their feet in the middle of an intense fire-fight. There's even a comprehensive customization and levelling system, which allows you to tweak character voice, body type, and clothing, gain perks and new abilities, and tinker with your weapons to your heart's content.
Playing through the 'Security Tower' level with a 'heavy' body type, you notice a tangible reduction in your movement speed and agility, in exchange for higher health and a greater selection of more devastating weaponry (including a chaingun). Light types have lower health and drastically reduced load-out options, but they can jump over the high barriers of the complex, and even wall kick their way out of danger. Initially you'll need operatives to hack a safe and retrieve a passcode, so that you can rescue an incarcerated comrade. Mission critical objectives are timed, and if your operatives' 'hackboxes' get disrupted, the enemy will slowly repair the safe, resulting in a tense back-and-forth tussle for control of strategic areas as the timer ticks down. After the prisoner limps out of his cell, you'll need to escort him as he slowly hobbles to freedom; some of the best 'action movie' moments occur here, as you frantically rush to revive fallen soldiers on the front lines, or cobble together turrets to guard your escape.
Although there is a clear story, and cut-scenes link objectives within the levels, Brink isn't the sort of linear scripted experience consumers of the modern blockbuster FPS have come to expect: it's much smarter than that. The genius of Brink is that it facilitates the creation of your own stories through play - reviving a fallen comrade just in the nick of time, or embarking on a solo mission to capture a critical command post which turns the tide of battle. The game is designed so that dramatic action just effortlessly emerges during play, and the option to play through the campaign in full 8 player co-op or against human opponents just adds to the emergent narrative potential of the game. Splash Damage has implemented a host of clever refinements in Brink, and their focus on rewarding truly co-operative play looks set to result in an intelligent, interconnected team experience.
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