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We take a long (re)view of Splash Damage's team-based multiplayer shooter...
If we were playing a word association game (a la Mallet's Mallet) and we landed on the word "Brink", the response of almost anyone working in the games industry - including, I imagine, developer Splash Damage - would be "difficult." Because, in the world of videogames, "difficult" is the word we use when things don't go exactly to plan. While recently, it may have felt like Sony has had the monopoly on the word, Bethesda and Splash Damage are no strangers to it either. Because, when you launch a predominantly multiplayer shooter, and the multiplayer mode turns out to be swamped in lag, the gaming community tends to be unhappy. And, as we all know, gamers don't do unhappy quietly.
And so, a few weeks (and the odd patch) later, we find ourselves at a State of the Union moment for Brink. How does Splash Damage's shooter fare in the increasingly-crowded FPS arena? Is it the game we Enemy Territory alumni hoped it would be? The answer is no. And yet it comes so frustratingly close.
For those unfamiliar with the history of online shooters, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory was a big deal. A free to download, team-based shooter built around the Quake III: Team Arena engine, ET was a beautifully-crafted multiplayer game that encouraged player co-operation and soon developed a devoted following. With Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, SD evolved its class-based, objective-focused multiplayer action further and so there was much rejoicing, and high expectations, when Brink was announced.
Set in a dystopian future, Brink concerns the story of The Ark, the last refuge for humans on a flooded Earth. Once a floating utopia, The Ark has let itself go a bit and has become divided along financial lines between the haves and the have nots. Humans, eh? When will we learn? Both sides, Security and The Resistance, believe the other to be a threat to their continued existence and so find themselves engaging in a series of skirmishes throughout their decaying city. The background is set out nicely in the game's short intro movie but unfortunately that's pretty much all the story you're going to get. Both the single and multiplayer modes in Brink sport short cut-scenes preceding each level but, unfortunately, it all feels a little sparse and lacking in character. Which is a shame because the central premise is decent and the idea of watching a narrative unfold from two separate perspectives (both claiming moral authority) is appealing. However, the developer clearly decided not to let story get in the way of the core gameplay, which is team-based skirmishes.
Like in Quake Wars, players can choose from four classes - Soldier, Medic, Engineer and Operative - each with their own unique abilities and equipment load-out. In order to achieve the various primary and secondary objectives in each level, teams must pool their talents and work together. And, as you'd expect from the developer, it's the teamplay aspect of Brink that shines brightest and after only a few minutes of play, it feels unmistakeably Splash Damage. Soldiers supply ammo and can destroy objectives with explosives, Engineers build, repair and buff weapons while Operatives, sneaky blighters that they are, hack into terminals and can disguise themselves as enemies. Medics, obviously, heal, revive and provide group counselling sessions for PTSD.
The genius in Brink - and there is definitely genius hidden somewhere at the heart of Brink - is in the way these classes are balanced and how a team that works together effectively will inevitably triumph over a pack of lone wolves. The best teams in Brink will take advantage of all of what each class has to offer, regularly buffing each other's weapon damage and health, and dividing themselves sensibly between primary and secondary objectives. Maps, while a little visually underwhelming (dystopia chic is getting a little old, no?), have been well-designed to create some fierce chokepoints and you will find yourself in some brutal wars of attrition around objective areas. Or at least, in multiplayer mode you will. In single-player, Brink sadly fails to shine.
Without much of a story to keep you interested, your focus is inevitably drawn to the game's AI, which is more than a little inconsistent. The quality of your team-mate's thinking seems to vary from impressive to utterly witless and it's not unusual to see one of your comrades running round in circles next to an objective, seemingly unwilling to interact with it. This writer was also occasionally pushed to controller-biting levels of anger as, in the crucial last minute of a game, team-mates would announce they were off to chase secondary objectives (like capturing command posts) leaving me alone to pursue the primary. However, to be fair to Splash Damage, the bot AI is not the worst we've seen in a shooter. In fact, enemy bot behaviour is mystifyingly much better as they seem to form packs and work together to defend objectives, even finishing off downed enemies with melee attacks so they can't be revived by medics. Which, frankly, is impressive. I just wish those guys were on my team.
As you'd expect from a Splash Damage game, single-player is not where it's at. However, it is a great place to earn some XP and unlock customisation options via the standard SP and Challenge mode. The latter acts as a kind of tutorial, offering various challenges which introduce you to the objective-based gameplay you find in the main skirmishes. Once you unlock customisation options you can go nuts with your guns by adding scopes, grips, silencers, muzzles, extended clips and more to make your instruments of death feel, you know, a little more you. The customisation is not limited to weapons and you'll also have Abilities at your disposal which you'll probably start referring to as 'perks'. These vary wildly from sprinting reloads to sticky grenades to quicker interaction with command posts and objectives, and you'll find they offer some crucial gameplay advantages.
You can also customise the appearance of your character which has both cosmetic and gameplay implications. Sure you can tinker with all kinds of clothing and headwear options, while marvelling at the gorgeous character art, but you can also choose the build of your guy which affects how he will move in the game world. Heavy characters get to carry the big-ass weapons (miniguns etc), while choosing a light character allows you to move quicker and take advantage of perhaps the game's most impressive feature, the SMART movement system. As I'm lazy and can't be bothered to expand the acronym, I'll tell you that SMART is pretty much Parkour or free-running if you're scared of French words. Hold down the sprint button in-game and, when you reach an obstacle you will automatically vault over, slide under, climb or wall-run your way around it and, it has to be said, it's a great feature. While it's not exactly perfect, and is prone to the occasional glitch, movement in Brink feels fast and fluid thanks to this contextual system and seems light-years ahead of the bunny-hopping crap we're regularly exposed to in other online shooters. And there's something very satisfying about knocking an enemy down with a Scholes-esque two-footed sliding tackle and then finishing them off with a rifle butt to the face.
However, for all the impressive aspects of Brink, it is still being badly let down by one crucial thing: its multiplayer mode. Actually, let me qualify that. Brink's multiplayer mode is amazing. It is utterly compelling to find yourself with a decent team, working together, chasing objectives and you will take part in some epic (and I genuinely mean epic) battles. But, all too often, the game's netcode detracts from the enjoyment. While you'll sometimes find lag-free games, if your experience of the game's online mode is anything like mine (I played the 360 version), you'll find yourself regularly contending with brutal, mind-bending lag. And it's not only a huge shame, but also an unforgiveable problem for a multiplayer-focused shooter. Although Splash Damage has made efforts to address this by dropping standard matches to eight human players, you don't really want your team to be padded out with bots and, most frustratingly, the lag issues have not been fully resolved. Until they are, and Splash Damage claims to be working hard, Brink will fall frustratingly short of its true potential.