Friday, March 11, 2011

Brink Hands-ON: Splash Damage At The Top Of Their (& Your) Game

UK-based developer Splash Damage has every right to be chest-out, chin up proud of their upcoming shooter, Brink. The game is a total blast to play and everything from the deep character and weapons customization to the smartly paced addictiveness of the team-centered FPS gameplay is stellar stuff. I got to check the game out recently when Betheseda dropped into NYC with it (and InXile's fun RPG action/romp Hunted: The Demon's Forge) and yes, it's not only ridiculously impressive, it's designed so brilliantly that even non-FPS fans will want to pick up a controller and have a go. With its destroyed futuristic "Ark" setting and two groups pitted against each other in a race against time for what each sees as humanity's future, there's a solid sense of urgency under the trappings of what would be just another shooter du jour in less capable hands.

What's so amazing about Brink is how everything clicks into place from the moment the stylized opening cinematic gets rolling. Once that's done you're sent into a series of menus where you can choose and customize a character, pick the Resistance or Security side and get playing. What's interesting here is how the game doesn't quite let you simply grab a character and go, although it's entirely possible to do so. You're actually rewarded XP for watching training videos on the gameplay (which might make a few eyeballs roll back in more thick-headed out there), but these lessons are VERY helpful. If you simply go into the game and try to play as a one-man death squad, you'll find Brink's enemy AI will make short work of your Rambo moves in an even shorter time.

Like the developer's Enemy Territory games, Brink's lightning pacing, solid controls, tough AI and solid online modes will no doubt immediately appeal to the hardcore shooter fan. On the other hand, Brink is designed and flows so well that even new players will feel like shooter champs within seconds because they game allows them to multitask nearly as efficiently as some of the best players out there. The PS3 version controls are perfect - fluid and precise. Naturally, some of the more PC-centric FPS elitists will want to go on and on about how console shooters aren't as good as PC versions, but here's a case where "Shut up and play it!" is the best response. That
and I'm sure that one of SplitFish's FragFX gaming mice setups will work well enough with the game for those that want what they feel is a more "natural" means of playing.

Although the game is first-person, it's incredible how well mercury slick movement throughout the environment is used based on your character's size. In certain areas, more nimble characters can pull off parkour moves by simply pressing up or down when approaching ledges, fences or other locations. Fans of DICE's sleeper hit Mirror's Edge will appreciate this, especially as these moves can be used to get around parts of the maps bigger and slower built team members and enemies can't. It was noted that players who choose to create a lighter, slimmer characters at the beginning of the game have this movement advantage, while bulkier builds lose the leaping about, but gain the benefit of more health and heavier weapons.

There's a GREAT always available help system that, with the touch of a button, points out objectives, directs your team members individually and delivers information without breaking the gameplay flow. Using these icons, along with teamwork is key to success whether you're blazing around the timed missions in single-player or online modes. Your team can be made up of one of four classes: Solider, Engineer, Medic, and Operative, each one a very important part of completing missions efficiently. Being able to boost weapon damage as a Soldier is awesome, but having that Medic around is hugely important in pitched battles when healing and reviving can mean the difference between winning and losing a round. Your Engineer can build new routes through a map, drop sentry turrets or get certain machines up and running. And then there's the sneaky Operative, who can hack terminals or disguise himself as an enemy and blend in as long as he doesn't do anything too conspicuous (like start shooting up the place).

While everyone is bound to have a favorite class, you'll find that during a match, swapping back and forth is not only fun, it allows you to see how well all the classes work together. I personally loved the third-person viewpoint skill the Operative uses, as it allows you to see if any one is creeping up on you. On the other hand, buffing damage, handing out extra ammo or health is also wickedly cool, especially as the game cleverly caps how often these skills can be used. You can't just go around spamming stats for an entire match, particularly with the AI constantly ambushing you or manning turrets to whittle your team down if you get too reckless or ignore your team and try to do it all yourself.

SD's Edward Stern (the game's enthusiastic lead writer) noted that the team designed the game to not only reward players for helping each other, but to subtly teach them how to work together by doling out XP as team members assist each other. As the team I was part of ran around one map, Stern pointed out a bonus objective (a stairway that could be repaired by an Engineer) and noted that even if we all wanted to play as Soldier class, we'd soon see that not having an engineer forces the team to take an alternate route.and you miss out on XP for repairing the stairs. You'll be able to swap out classes at terminals located in certain spots on each map, a nice touch that keeps things flowing as new obstacles are uncovered and dealt with.

Communication is key and yet another big deal Brink offers is successfully killing off some of the anger issues many who play online have to deal with constantly. In team play, you can ONLY talk to or hear your fellow teammates. There's no distracting trash talk or need to worry about some ranting losers ruining your game experience - excellent. Stern went over a wealth of features and tweaks to the formula the game will bring to the table, but I was so busy playing that I didn't do much note-taking. For me, one of the marks of a great game is how well it does in terms of immersion and Brink absolutely succeeded in capturing and holding the attention of everyone I saw who sat down to play it.

The entire game can be fully enjoyed in single or multiplayer modes from start to finish, as your character, acquired gear and XP carries over no matter which you play. Switching sides from Security to Resistance is even allowed (complete with different costumes and weapons options), yet another nice touch. As for the weapons, expect to fall off your chair when you see the superbly designed armory here. Yes, all the guns are customizable to the point where you can even choose the type of muzzle flash your gun displays (yikes). I can see too many people buying this on day one and not even getting online (or offline) play going for over an hour or so as they dive into the character editor. Even more impressive is the ridiculous amount of things to do outside the main game. You can compete in a series of timed challenge missions for each class that offers up XP and new gear as you complete tougher and tougher challenges.

As for the presentation, the art direction is fantastic, blending highly stylized characters with super detailed environments and despite the "cartoon" look to the character models, there's a solid sense of realism in every animation that makes the game come alive. Cut scenes are worth watching as the main mode plays out simply because both the Resistance and Security stories are well told. It's NOT just a simplistic "good guys versus bad guys" deal at all. Each side is fighting to get the job done in each stage, so you could play one map as [part of a Resistance team trying to secure a top secret sample before it's delivered or a Security team trying to protect that same sample. The sound design is worth noting all around with voice actors and effects all doing their thing to provide a powerful aural assault. Hell, even the menus and lovely interface are all satisfying to the point of "why isn't every shooter doing this?" superiority.

My sole complaint about the game so far is that there are ZERO playable female characters. I know a lot of shooter fans are gals (or guys AND gals who like strong women in games) and Brink's instantly impressive stylized characters could benefit from a bevy of females fighting for either side. Hmmmm... maybe there's a mission to explain the lack of ladies in this game world (I really can't see them all sitting at home holding down the fort). Of course, I'd imagine some talented PC modders will whip up a gal-packed patch at some point down the road. However, console-only gamers will have to hold out for a sequel or perhaps DLC with a more feminine touch. Hell, ring up DICE and "borrow" Faith from Mirror's Edge just to have her in the game as an unarmed "runner" for the Resistance for a downloadable mission or two. Other than that omission, this looking like one of those unique game experiences that raises the bar while allowing anyone to hop in and have a great time, no matter their skill level.

There's LOT more about the game, but I'll save that for a full review. I see Brink as the FPS even non-FPS gamers NEED to play just because the game is so accessible (without being a "dumbed down" experience). All I'll say is go pre-order this one even if you're not a huge shooter fan - you'll be hooked in before you know it whether you're playing online or off. Brink is set to hit PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on May 17, 2011 - back with more updates shortly.

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