Review: Brink (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 05/10/11

As a general rule, I don’t get too excited about online first person shooters. The reason for this is simple enough: as a player, I tend to enjoy the single player component over the multiplayer component, and by and large, I prefer games with a cooperative element over a competitive one. I like Gears of War 2 for its Horde Mode but rarely bother with anything else, I play Left 4 Dead 2 online with friends but rarely go into Versus modes, and I spent most of my time with Black Ops playing the Zombies mode. I know people like them, and I play them enough that I can say I understand the appeal, but honestly, it’s not exciting as a concept to me, sorry. That all said, Brink kind of caught my eye back when I first saw it at E3 last year, and a significant amount of time spent with the game back in February only interested me more. Splash Damage has obviously learned from their time with Id Software properties Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Doom 3 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, as they’ve taken their own game, Brink, and built it into the sort of game that, at first glance, looks like an online FPS for players who aren’t jumping for joy at the thought of playing an online FPS. Boasting a rewards system that pays dividends to players for doing just about anything that helps their team, the ability to jump in and out of matches with ease, seamless single and multiplayer integration and a solid customization system, Brink has all the makings of a worthwhile purchase for any sort of FPS fan, even those who aren’t the most gifted of players, by offering many different objectives and ways to profit from play.

Until you play it.

Brink tells the story of a somewhat dystopian future, and the entirety of the game events revolve around a location known as the Ark. The Ark is a man-made arcology built in the ocean that was essentially meant as a sort of self-sustaining island for shipping, transport, and scientific research while also offering the facilities needed to keep the residents alive without need for outside intervention. Well, when the world basically ends up going through a massive climate change event that causes the sea levels to rise, a bunch of people migrate to the Ark, pushing its self sufficient measures to their breaking point, which in turn causes the development of something of a class system between the refugees and the existing populace. This, as you might expect, goes over poorly, and when we join the storyline, the Ark has broken down into two major factions: the Security force, who are interested in trying to keep order on the Ark, and the Resistance, who are interested in equality between all people living there. The fundamental concepts of the storyline alone aren’t bad, as it’s not simply a case of good guys versus bad guys so much as it is between two different groups with different interests and beliefs that violently oppose one another, but what’s also interesting here is the execution of the individual missions makes it apparent that no one really knows what’s going on the opposite side, as you’ll see missions where one group believes the other has a horrible weapon that needs to be destroyed, while the other side is trying to defend some sort of food or medicine source, for example. It’s interesting to see how the missions overlap, but the objectives are often different, not just in deed, but in thought as well, and this helps to give the plot some interesting personality it otherwise wouldn’t have.

Brink is visually interesting, cross-breeding futuristic high-tech elements with rundown dilapidated areas, providing something that looks like a cross between Star Wars and Borderlands in overall execution. The characters feature an odd, stylized design that’s interesting to look at, especially once you’ve loaded them up with costume components, and the character animations are all fluid in motion and well designed. However, the game also features frequent visual rendering issues as textures often seem to pop into view after looking at them for a few seconds, sort of like playing Mass Effect, only constantly. The audio is more of a consistently good element of the game, as the in-game music is very well orchestrated both in and out of battle, giving the game a significantly epic feel that goes a long way to building the atmosphere. The voice acting is also very diverse and very well implemented, as the characters all sound great and have lots to say both in cutscenes and in battle. The sound effects are alright, as gunfire and explosions sound like they’re supposed to, but explosions do tend to sound muted and gunfire doesn’t have the sort of punch genre fans have come to expect. They’re not bad so to say, but they lack the sort of personality that an FPS really needs to have, and you don’t feel the menace behind a lot of the weapons because they simply don’t sound like menacing things.

The gameplay in Brink is pretty much similar to that of most FPS titles, and while there are some neat elements to the experience, the game isn’t so different as to be oppressive to learn. By default, the left stick moves and the right stick looks around, the left trigger aims and the right shoots, A jumps and vaults, B crouches and slides, X reloads and interacts with the game world, and Y is used to switch weapons. You can also use the Left Bumper to run or use the S.M.A.R.T. system, which we’ll address later, while the Right Bumper throws grenades, pushing the right stick in melee attacks, and pushing the left stick in uses buffs. In an interesting touch, Splash Damage, apparently aware that there are other shooters out there in the world, has also customized various default control schemes in a way that players of said other shooters can instantly have a control scheme that works for them. For example, if you’re a big fan of the Call of Duty franchise, you can pick the “Duty Calls” control scheme from the control menu and boom, you’ve instantly got a control scheme that’s similar to what you’re used to, so you don’t have to learn how Brink is set up if you’re more comfortable with something else. There are a lot of pre-made control schemes set up by default, for games like Gears of War, Killzone, Left 4 Dead and more, so fans of those games are set to go right from the get-go and can jump in with minimal downtime.

Brink has a lot more going on under the hood to add to the gameplay, of course. For one thing, you’re offered four job classes to choose from: Soldiers, who specialize in mass destruction and resupplying, Engineers, who specialize in mechanical work and repairs, Medics, who specialize in healing and buffing, and Operatives, who specialize in sabotage and spying. Each of the job classes has its own perks, both because of the interesting abilities offered to each, but also because each job is somewhat vital to survival in the game world. Various missions will require someone to be one of the jobs, as soldiers can plant charges to blow open doors, engineers can break open doors and safes, operatives can hack computers, and medics can heal persons of importance you need to escort. As you’ll need to have all of these classes available at various times, Brink offers you the ability to swap out to a new job class any time you’re near a Command Post, meaning you can switch jobs as the case merits, either to perform the mission critical functions or to work as different forms of backup when needed. You’ll also be able to take on secondary objectives, such as repairing stairwells, making up machine gun nests, capturing other Command Posts, and so on, which allows for more than just your normal mission objectives.

As you complete missions, you’ll also level up, which allows you to buy new skills for each job (in addition to general skills that affect all jobs), meaning that you can further improve the skills of each job class with new passive skills and toys. Each job can have multiple passive abilities running at once, as well as up to three active abilities, which are mapped to the D-Pad. Passive skills can include bullet proof armor, more pips (points) to use skills in the field, and armor piercing bullets, while active skills can include flashbangs, turrets, and sticky grenades, so each job has its own perks aside from the mission-specific benefits. Best of all, no one class is weaker than the other in terms of pure combat so you’re not being nerfed for playing a particular class, so go nuts. You can also pick from a wide variety of guns to outfit your character with, depending on their size and what you’ve unlocked through the Challenge missions, and you can customize the guns in various different ways, with barrel venting, scopes, added clip size and so on, though these enhancements both improve and decrease various stats to keep things balanced. You’re given a primary and secondary weapon slot to fill, with sub-machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, and more to choose from, so you’ll find there to be plenty of variety to the weapons for those who want to experiment.

The next major addition to the game is the S.M.A.R.T. system. Basically, the system allows you to freerun around the environments, to a point, allowing you to climb over obstacles and slide around under gaps, meaning you can take other routes into locations or slide to avoid enemy fire as well. As such, the system has both movement and combat purposes, making it an interesting system not unlike that of the one in Mirrors Edge, though to a lesser extent. The game also offers a complete character customization system, allowing you to customize your character’s build (which can change both their bullet resistance and maneuverability normally and while freerunning), clothing, tattoos, and so on, and since you unlock new pieces as you level up there’s more to use as you play. Each side has different clothing to unlock, to further distinguish the two factions, and they unlock concurrently, as each side can be switched to at any time, so you’re not stuck on one side or the other or stuck leveling on each side. As such, you can immediately jump in with friends on either side without having to worry about which character type your friend is or anything else, because the game doesn’t restrict which faction you are based on character, and you can in turn use this to level your character up while playing through the campaigns of both sides.

The game offers a main campaign consisting of six storyline missions and two “What If?” missions per side, with each side performing assault or defense tactics to win the match in each chapter, as well as the option to jump into Freeplay, which lets you choose one of the eight maps the game offers and either take on Objective (teams play Offense or Defense) or Stopwatch (teams switch between Offense and Defense) with various customizable options. You can also take on Challenges to unlock new weapons and enhancements or post Leaderboard scores, if you play the highest level of the specific Challenge. The game offers all of these modes online and offline, allowing you to play alone or with friends or strangers against the computer or other friends or strangers. Better yet, the modes all essentially match up to one another, so the online experience matches up comparably to the offline experience, so there’s not a large learning curve for the game, and players can jump in and out of games without it being a huge issue, as the game will fill in the gaps with bots as the case is needed, allowing you to play as you can without an issue. There’s also a pretty large variety of weapons and enhancements to play around with, as well, so you’ll be able to play around with different sets as you wish until you find what works best for you. The game also allows for players to not allow higher ranked players (rank being defined by player level, with ranks increasing every few levels) into their games if they want to avoid griefers, though lower level players are welcome to jump into higher level games if they wish, so games can be less lopsided.

That all having been said, Brink has some definite issues on board that cause it to really suffer dramatically as a result. Now, it could be argued that the talking points of the various previews offered with different members of Splash Damage led to some higher than normal expectations; after all, they did essentially promise the moon, talking about how higher level perks weren’t massively unbalancing and how balanced the game was, and this is really not so much the case. It could be argued that the S.M.A.R.T. system doesn’t work as well as it could, as the freerunning elements aren’t nearly as common as they could have been, and how the levels don’t take as much advantage of the mechanic as they should. It could be noted that, as the freerunning system doesn’t work as well as it could, the body size system isn’t particularly exciting either, as it essentially renders the lightest body type, useful mostly for freerunning and fast movement, somewhat inane to use when it gets shredded faster as a result. It could be pointed out that, for all of the unlockable options the game does have, a dedicated player could unlock them all in a day, and most players will see them inside of three. I could point that the game hard-locked my console twice and has hard-locked the consoles of everyone I’ve played with at least once, which is highly uncommon, to be frank. The game still has notable lag when larger groups of online players get together, even post day one patch, and while it doesn’t render online unplayable, it’s not as stable as some of the top tier online shooters on the market, which hurts a game of this sort. However, there’s one single major issue against Brink that hurts it beyond anything else, that seriously makes it harder than it really should be to recommend, and makes it underwhelming as a result.

At this stage of the game, Brink isn’t very fun to play.

See, there are three ways one can choose to play the game: alone, with humans against the bots, and with humans against humans, and of the three, the third choice is the only one that’s even remotely entertaining at all. When the game gets down to sixteen person pitched battles, there can be some real fun had there when everyone’s on the same page, working together toward a common goal, and that is where you’ll have your fun, if you do at all. But that’s really only one third of the experience, and as the experience goes, it’s somewhat more limited in scope than something like a Call of Duty, as there are less modes, maps, and perks for leveling up than in those games, so sooner or later you’ll gravitate towards one of the other two play options, and that’s when everything goes to hell. Playing against and with the CPU is not at all enjoyable, to be honest, as the AI is simply not very good, and it becomes apparent whether you’re assaulting or defending. When defending, your allies are often competent enough to get by, as is the enemy when they are doing so, but this is largely because defending requires little thought beyond “fix whatever the enemy broke”, “support your allies”, “shoot bad guys” and “don’t die”. When either side is on assault duty, however, is when the game falls apart, because the CPU characters generally can’t hang with this concept on any difficulty. They don’t understand proper task management. They don’t understand team tactics. They don’t understand much of anything, really, except that there’s an objective they need to get to and they don’t care if they die in the process, and that gets frustrating in a hurry.

Look, it makes perfect sense that the characters should be objective focused, and that’s fine, but when you can turn the game up to Hard difficulty and basically win a defense mission in the first round on your first try, but you can’t take out a specific assault mission on Easy because the defenders chew your squad up constantly with no effort, that’s a massive problem in both AI development and balancing. By default, it stands to reason that a game of this sort is going to be somewhat unbalanced in favor of the defenders, because that’s just how this sort of mode goes. It’s massively unbalanced at its core, as the defenders have an immediate advantage over the attackers just because all of the key areas are major choke points to begin with and the defenders can just hunker down and wait. Fine. It’d be nice if maybe the attackers had some sorts of bonuses to level the playing field, of course, but people who understand and like this type of game aren’t going to care. However, the problem here is that the CPU simply can’t be instructed on how to do anything, and as such, will make boneheaded decisions about what is a good and a bad tactic for the battle, and this only serves to make hard battles nearly impossible in some cases, which is the exact opposite of fun. Playing with and against the CPU, literally, feels like you’re bashing your head against a wall a lot of the time, and it’s simply not an enjoyable experience all the way around for anyone except those who enjoy being punished.

The bottom line here is that Brink looked like a great game at various points along the development process, but the final product is going to need several patches to get to a point where it can be considered “fun”, let alone “good”, and all of its wonderful potential has basically melted away to leave a game experience that’s, at best, only enjoyable at certain points. There’s an interesting storyline and a solid visual and audio style to the game, and the gameplay is friendly enough to both new and experience players in the genre, both because it’s well laid out and because it offers lots of controller maps for those who are used to other games. The special elements to the game, such as the multiple jobs, the ability to switch between them at will, the freerunning aspects of the gameplay, the multiple objectives on each map to play with, and the different weapons to play around with are all great fun in theory, and they’re generally interesting in concept, all around. However, the freerunning doesn’t work as well as it should, there are some graphical glitching and online lag issues, a lot of the mechanics don’t work as well as they should, the upgrades and unlocks can be burned through in no time, and the game has other various mechanical issues on top of it all.. Further, the AI simply doesn’t work as well as it should to a level that playing the game against the CPU is, simply put, not very fun at all, and it’s just not an enjoyable experience for the most part that comes across as needlessly unbalanced on top of everything else. After some significant patching and some additions in content, Brink might be closer to achieving the vision of the developers, and might even be enjoyable for someone who isn’t a diehard genre fan, but as it stands right now, it’s simply a game that’s only going to really appeal to a small subset of fans of the genre and is likely going to frustrate the hell out of everyone else.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: POOR
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: BAD


Short Attention Span Summary:
Look, I’m not going into the rehashed recap of the review here this time around folks, if you want to know the specifics of why the game got the score it did, read through the review. Instead, I want to talk about how much of a disappointment this was for me, because make no mistake, it was. When I went and played the game back in February, I enjoyed my time with it a lot, and I was actively going out and telling people how much fun I had with it and how they should be looking out for the game when it came out. I beat the word of mouth drum so hard, so often, that I convinced a pretty large amount of people, a lot of which were people I barely know, to put down their money on this game.

I regret that.

The fact is that somewhere between that preview build and this final release, Brink changed from a game I was telling everyone about to a game I don’t want to tell anyone about. It’s fine, mostly, and it’s an adequate enough experience all in all, but it doesn’t live up to its hype and a good portion of the game is simply unfriendly, and that’s really a shame, to be honest.

I’m not saying don’t buy the game, mind you, but I am saying that it’s really not for everyone, and only a very specific group of people is going to enjoy this, and while I’m not saying you’re not going to, I am saying that for the most part, no one I played with did. Just saying.



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4 responses to “Review: Brink (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

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