Hands-On Preview: Brink

Splash Damage is no stranger to making online based FPS titles. They’ve handled creating multiplayer maps for Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Doom 3, and they’re also the minds responsible for Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, both of which have picked up some pretty heavy recommendations over the years (on the PC at least). At E3 last year, they were given a chance to show off their first major original IP, Brink, at Bethesda’s booth. At the time it looked to be somewhat of a tech demo rather than a full-fledged game, but it had the potential to be a top tier FPS for online play. Now, over half a year later, I was given the opportunity to take a look at an updated version of the game, complete with some serious tweaks and polish to the game, and I jumped at the chance. After spending some time clearing my head from the Hunted preview, and pillaging the free coffee provided by Bethesda for the gathering, I sat down with lead writer Edward “BongoBoy” Stern, an entertaining and engaging man with a somewhat… interesting gamer handle. Stern walked me through Brink and allowed me to put the game through its paces, both solo and with other people. To say that that the game has evolved significantly in the past few months would be an understatement.

We started off by reviewing the two factions that exist in the world of Brink, and that world itself. The gist seems to be that the characters live on a man-made island called “The Ark,” which started off as an experimental green habitat in the ocean before global climate change rendered it the only place humanity could survive at all, thanks to rising ocean levels and a lack of land and such. With every remaining human crammed onto one artificial quasi-industrial construct and trying to survive, tensions run high and the end result is a sort of civil war between the Security force, who want to try and rebuild the Ark and prosper, and the Resistance, who want to try and get off the Ark and find somewhere, anywhere, else to live. You’re given the choice of which faction you wish to play as, which you can change at any time. The factions are largely interchangeable, although they showcase different appearance options and gun visual styles, their skills and weapons are identical and neither side has any inherent advantages or disadvantages. This allows for better balancing between the factions, as well as the ability to switch sides without their being a significant learning curve, so that you can play on whichever side your friends are on at any time without having to deal with the hassles of making new characters or learning new combat tactics. The goal of Brink, as I was informed several times, was to make an experience that’s as unobtrusive and easy to play as possible, and right from the beginning this thing was readily apparent.

Another thing that was shown off right away was the evolution of the menus and customization options. The menu interface for character and weapon customization is very clean and easy to work with, as opposed to the original system displayed at E3, which looked to be more of a work in progress. Everything is very well organized, which is good, because you’ll be spending a lot of time here playing around with your character. The character’s appearance can be radically customized, from simple things like changing the clothing and exterior appearance to more involved options like being able to change the actual sizing of the character model. The customization options are unlocked as you earn experience points through play, and are unlocked as you earn the needed levels, so you won’t have to buy anything or spend hours grinding away as each faction, as everything is unlocked once you reach the appropriate level. Guns are also unlocked in this fashion, though add-ons for the guns are not. Instead, you’ll have to take on various missions to unlock, say, specific barrel rifling or drum mags or whatever. The missions offer three tiers of difficulty, with the first two tiers offering unlockable items and the third being exclusively for bragging rights. The gun enhancements don’t inherently make the guns better as much as they make them different, increasing stats while decreasing others, so you won’t be inherently better for having the gear… though it’s noted that if you have these items, you completed the missions to get them, and as such, are probably not someone to be messed with. The different guns also work in the same way, meaning that no one gun is better than any other, allowing you to pick the gun that best matches your play style.

With that showcased, it was time to jump into a mission and see how things work. The standard missions are all team versus team assaults with each team having to complete various objectives to be considered the winners of the match. The main team initiating the mission is often asked to repair various things, capture various items, destroy various structures and so on, and completing missions extends the time of play to allow the mission to move forward. The defending team, on the other hand, has to prevent the initiating team from accomplishing these goals, thus forcing them to fail the mission. At any given time there can be a number of missions available in the game world, and the game allows you to hold down a button to select the mission or objective you’re most interested in at the moment, allowing you to change objectives on the fly. The controls otherwise are fairly standard, and in a nice touch, Brink offers several default presets mapped after other games (complete with silly names that call to mind said games), so if you don’t happen to like the default style, you can grab the Call of Duty or Killzone control scheme and get to work. The default controls work perfectly fine, however, and you can do pretty much everything you’d expect, from running and shooting to melee killing enemies and jumping over things, with little problem. The game also offers a button that allows you to free-run up obstacles, meaning that you can take less obvious paths to objectives, allowing you to flank enemies or access side routes to key objectives with ease so long as the path exists. It’s not as involved as something like Mirror’s Edge, thankfully, and works very well.

The game also allows you to change classes on the fly by accessing a terminal on the battlefield, in case you want to change up your job focus while playing. There are four classes available in the game: soldiers, who can set explosives and hand off ammo to other players; engineers, who can dispense weapon damage buffs, repair damaged objects and set up turrets; medics, who can heal and revive downed players as well as buff out health; and operatives, who can act as saboteurs and spies as needed. Each class has its own unique skills that can be earned through standard play, and there are also general skills you can earn that cross over all four classes, all of which can be bought with experience levels. Various skills are locked down until you reach specific levels, of course, and while these skills themselves aren’t grossly overpowering, they’re a bit more involved than the standard perks earned in the beginning of the game. One thing that becomes immediately apparent while playing is that killing enemies isn’t the only, or even the most profitable, way to earn experience; while wiping out enemies is good and profitable, you can earn as much or more experience by buffing allies or completing mission objectives most of the time, and as such, the game not only encourages but also rewards cooperative play over being the hero, so you’re more likely to instinctively watch an ally’s back or work toward achieving an objective. You’ll note that you earn experience, for example, just for doing something as simple as guarding an engineer while they’re repairing a machine or for tossing an ally an ammo pack, making helping out your team as rewarding as anything else. This also means that players who aren’t specifically great at shooting enemies can still be useful for support work, meaning that players of all different mentalities and skill levels will find something to do that will earn them experience.

As noted, the actual gameplay is pretty standard, and if you’ve played an FPS you’ll find most of the concepts are as you’d expect them to be. The game does have a few interesting perks, such as the fact that you can choose to remain on the field when you’re gunned down and wait for a medic to revive you or respawn as the situation merits. Once you unlock different body sizes you’ll also learn that your specific body size dictates your performance in battle, meaning that skinny characters are faster and can make the best use of free-running sections but can get wiped out fastest, heavy characters are slow and poorly maneuverable when free-running but can take heavy punishment, and mid sized characters are a balance between the two. Brink seems to strike a solid balance between offering new and familiar concepts, however, looking to allow players new elements to learn and enjoy while also keeping in familiar elements they’ll understand, and in that regard, it does a good job of things. I was able to successfully complete the first mission I took on without too much trouble, after some minor learning hiccups in the beginning, and I jumped a whopping three levels by the time everything was over. I was informed at this point that there are also player ranks which are earned during play that dictate your general skill as a player, and that the game uses these as a balancing mechanic for players. In essence, lower ranked players may play with anyone above them of their own free will, but players of a higher rank may not go after lower ranked players on their own, meaning that there should be a significantly lower amount of griefing in the game than one would expect, which should be beneficial to casual players if nothing else.

With the single player experience having been tested out, it was time to simulate an online game, so I jumped into an existing game with a bunch of other players and went to work trying to play online. The most obvious element of online play that stands out is that it’s functionally identical to solo play, meaning that everything you learn while playing offline can be applied to playing online with no effort. You can basically jump into any game at any time, turning a solo game into a multiplayer game in no time, and the game is dynamic, meaning that you can jump in and out as the situation permits without a problem. Other players can do this with your games, of course, so you can disable this if you wish. I wasn’t specifically shown how the game will handle straight online play, IE if you can create sessions exclusively for online play or anything of that nature, but as the system stands now, it’s rather intuitive and I was in a game in seconds with no hassle or problems. Playing with other people showed that the game really is a more social experience than other FPS titles, as my first attempt at trying to “go it alone” promptly ended up with me face down in a hallway. Once I got together with the other players, however, things became interesting; watching players group up and watch each other’s backs as we attempted to accomplish the assigned goals instead of simply trying to take on the enemy gave the game a very different feel from something like Modern Warfare 2, one that was rather exciting, to be honest. In Brink, assisting your teammates is pretty much the only way to survive and win, and it’s interesting to see a game force that sort of dynamic on the players, especially when it works. I don’t know if someone who prefers to be a one-person army is going to get into this the same way they might get into Deathmatch play in something like the aforementioned Modern Warfare 2 or Black Ops, but someone who has already adjusted to team-based play will likely love this, if only because it encourages and shapes that style of play out of the gate, and does a good job of it.

At this point, Brink is looking pretty healthy and robust, and looks like it’ll mostly make its projected 5/17/11 release date without a problem. With sixteen player, eight-versus-eight online play, a solid single player campaign, a wide variety of unlockables that can be earned on and offline, and some solid gameplay elements and mechanics, this is definitely a game online FPS fans should be keeping an eye on. Barring any unforeseen complications, keep an eye out for it in May, and keep an eye out here for any future updates.



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