On the Brink of greatness?

2011-05-20 by . 0 comments

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Yes, apologies for the cheesy title, but well, it sort of works…

Preface

Photo retail box for Brink PC game

OK, I’m writing this section having not yet played the game. The box is here on my desk – and apparently it’s the “special edition“, which is nice, but I’m fairly sure I only ordered the base game [Actually, I've now checked, and I did only order (and more importantly only pay for) the normal version, so apparently that's an extra £3 of random unlocks for "free"...]. Anyway, it’s waiting to be opened and pushed on to Steam, but the release date in the UK is tomorrow, so I’ll probably have to keep waiting.

Let me just say that at this stage my attraction Brink confuses me. Prior to release I’ve been quite excited about it, but this is strange, as I’ve “gone off” the FPS genre over the last few years. I can’t really put my finger on it, but they just don’t really attract me any more. Sure, I’ve played the Mass Effects and Fallouts, but there the shooting there isn’t really the main focus, so probably the only full-on shooter I’ve played any time recently is Team Fortress 2, and I don’t think I’ve even played that for a months. But, something about this game has grabbed my attention, I can’t now put my finger on what that is right now, hopefully after I’ve logged some play time.

Out of interest, I had a look at some reviews of the game on the web, and they seem to be slightly mixed. A week after the US release, and the PC version was scoring 72 on MetaCritic, which is not bad, but hardly excellent. It’s fair to say that since reading the reviews I’ve been a little bit apprehensive, but will have to wait until tomorrow to try it out myself (and seriously, what’s with the staggered global release dates? Especially when the game’s PC version is Steam only. It just feel’s so out-dated).

Oh, and for completeness I tried the install anyway. Steam let me associate the game to my account [It sounds like this was a lucky move! The game has disappeared from the UK Steam store, and hasn't reappeared yet, preventing purchase and activation!], but won’t let me install from the disk (I get a not-yet-released error). However, I can pre-load the game by downloading it. Erm… logic fail? (Presumably, the pre-loaded version will be encrypted, but the disk install not so much, but still it feels daft).

Review

You should note that the game has been patched twice in the release week, and I’m discussion the resulting version – not the originally released one – but it’s mostly just necessary bug, performance and lag fixes, and some AI tweaks by the looks of things. Also, there were reports of critical bugs for PC users (it seems that the problem lies in ATI drivers), but I was lucky enough to avoid them (I’m on nVidia), but do suffer a bug where some levels will just drop all sounds and be almost silent for the rest of the round. Anyway, the point is that the game’s release hasn’t been the smoothest, but don’t let that colour its future. Apparently, because of these problems, Splash Damage / Bethesda will be releasing the game’s first DLC for free (when it arrives, which is given as June), there’s no word on what that will contain, but it at least means they’ve acknowledged the problems and are trying to keep the games momentum up.

But anyway, on to the game.

Let me start my saying that the single most disappointing thing about Brink, for me anyway, is that they’ve crafted a wonderful world and backstory here, and it simply feels like it’s being wasted. The single player isn’t (more on this later), and much of the backstory is hidden away in unlockable audio logs, which are essentially disjoint from the rest of the game. They’ve built a world full of moral greys, where through out the campaign characters in both sides doubt their orders and doubt their resolve. Then the audio logs go on to reveal information about the disaster that befell the outside world, the Ark’s history and a more complicated political spectrum than the game even hints at. For example, Chen, the resistance leader, isn’t someone randomly starting an uprising; he’s been working directly with the rulers of the Ark – and Security’s Captain – for years it seems, as essentially a trade union leader representing the working class “guests”; the in-game stuff never even alludes to this fact. There’s so much more could have been done with this world than has been. The backstory and characters they have are well written and designed, but are hidden away; this world really deserves a fully fleshed out and scripted single player campaign.

But anyway, on to the game…

There’s a slight learning curve – in fact check out the first screenshot, taken just after I created my first character. As a firm PC gamer I find this rather amusing, although possibly a slight exaggeration, and I believe the video you get shown is same as the “Get SMART Series” videos posted by Bethesda on YouTube. But, the underlying point here is that the game is slightly different from the norm for the genre at the moment, in several ways. The focus is firmly on objectives and team play – such that there’s no mention of kills or kill ratios, the scoreboards are sorted by XP earnt. XP which is earnt mainly for being useful to your team; killing nets XP too, but objectives, team buffs, guarding, reviving teammates, waiting to be revived, change classes to the class needed to finish the primary objective and so on will earn you lots more in the long run. This is all actually a very good thing, and having played a bit I now realise that this is why the game had attracted me; it’s not just another generic FPS, it has extra layers that require your attention if you want to excel (and the potential story probably pulled me in a bit too, but I’ve covered that already).

The character style is interesting, and the characters you’ll meet will be varied thanks to the myriad of ways players can customise their characters appearance (although most need unlocking), which even though I’m quite apathetic about cosmetic customisation, it is well implemented and provides a lot of options. The level style is less so, but still good enough. You’ll find yourself either in the clean lines of the Ark itself or the rusty cobbled together homes of the “guests”, so there’s much less variance in theme, but they’ve done their best to vary the content within. The layout of the levels provide several paths between locations, but some of them feature some choke points that regularly clog up – the escort sections in particular, because the escorted objectives follow a predetermined path.

The game is team-based, with players across four classes (soldier, medic, engineer and operative). Unlike many class-based games, the classes are disjoint from the other factors like health, mobility and firepower – so you can have a light soldier armed with only an SMG and pistol or a heavy operative (aka spy) armed with a minigun and assault rifle. You are gently encouraged to switch class during play to meet whatever objectives are presented, and this is easy to do on the fly and works quite well (except one issue I’ll mention later). Classes can buff one-another (Medics add health, Engineers buff weapon damage, Soldiers refill ammo and they all have more unlockable abilities), doing this is vital if you wish to win and in practice it works very well (and can net you a lot of XP!).

All the weapon unlocks (to a total of 24 weapons in the core game, then limited by a character’s body size) are obtained by passing the one- and two-star levels in the four challenge missions, which is an easy task and probably only an hour of work for a decent player. Reaching the top level (20) will unlock all the cosmetic changes. These weapon and appearance changes unlock across all your characters, so at that point each character’s level only unlocks abilities to match with their rank. The problem with unlocking abilities for your character is that you get 1 point per level (so 20 in total) while there are 46 abilities to unlock, and you are made to choose from class-specific abilities, which are then meaningless if you switch class. This is probably fine for an organised clan team, where players will take a fixed role, but for public play (where you’ll probably have to switch class to fill a gap at some point) it potentially leaves you with a character could be is weaker than they should be if you have to switch class. That said, you can get a good balance across two classes with 20 points and can have up to 10 characters, so there’s plenty of opportunity to play with different builds, and you can reset all the abilities on a character if you wish to change their build later on (but at the cost of an entire level).

The movement system – dubbed “SMART” – is straight forward to use, and while it can occasionally be a little bit picky, you get used to it quickly and it really makes moving around seem fresher somehow. The idea is simple, by holding down the “SMART” button (which doubles as “run”) your character will automatically move over the terrain presented – vault low fences, tables, etc; automatically jump across gaps; mantle walls; side-jump from walls for extra distance; etc. A press of crouch while running (or falling) breaks you into a slide – which is great for avoiding fire and knocking down opponents, and there’s something awesome about sliding under a barrier and gunning down an opponent mid-slide. If you want to see the best results that this can produce, check out the YouTube video below. It’s someone completing the hardest of the parkour movement challenge levels in a very fast and fluid 18 seconds – watch the player stance icon at the bottom middle of the screen to see exactly what’s happening if need be – and all is achieved that via a single button and some clever aiming by the player.

The in-game HUD is a little bit busy, in clockwise order it contains: top-left is your class icon, and health (maybe with buff icons, extra pips and a notice if you can self-buff); top-right is the mission timer, main objective and any side objective you have selected (each with timers or % of completion); bottom-right is the radar, current weapon icon and ammo, other weapon icon and grenade icon and cooldown meter; middle-bottom is a stance indicator; left-bottom is your supply meter and the icons for your special abilities, with cooldowns. This isn’t even considering the bits that pop up against game objects in the world, reminding you to buff or revive teammates, repair objects, locate objective, etc. While this might sound a little overwhelming (and it was for my first few lives), you quickly get a feel for which bits you need to pay attention to.

Objectives, and beating them, are obviously the name of the game, and while you’ll always have a main one available (sometimes it is simply to “guard” the main objective until a player of the correct class arrives), there’s also plenty of side objectives to complete. These include opening and closing new paths by building, repairing or exploding; reviving team mates; upgrading and capturing command posts; etc. The latter is important, as command posts buff your entire team’s health or supply level, and if your team isn’t getting buffed then the other team is. So, even if you’re hitting you head against the wall on a primary objective, there’s often plenty else to break off to and clean up, and defending these side objectives provides distraction for teams that are solidly “winning” as well.

Health works on a regenerative system, but while your health will recharge once injured, you lose any health buffs you had (so this keeps the medics busy). Players that run out of health fall to the ground instead of dying, where they can flip their choice between respawning with the next wave, or wait indefinitely to be revived by a medic (assuming someone doesn’t kill their downed character first), as they see fit. If you consider that a revived or time-healed player keeps all non-health buffs and returns at (non-health buffed) full strength on the front line, you see that having a player respawn can be quite a loss. As such the game even encourages you to wait for a medic, because you even receive XP for getting revived instead of respawning.

Like any team based shooter, the people you play with can make or ruin the game, and the game claims to blur the lines between single and multiplayer, and it does this with the Campaign mode. When you choose this mode, you select a mission and then choose to play “Solo”, “Private” or “Public” – solo will just be you and the bots (with no blurring), but in Private or Public the game will try to seamlessly insert friends or members of the public in to your game (or you in to theirs), with players simply replacing some of the bots on your team. This sounds more clever than it really is, but it works pretty well and I have played games where I’ve had to stop for a moment and check the scoreboard to determine if someone on my team was a bot or not (I’ll remember the bot names at some point…), so the blurring clearly works to some level. The game also features a “Free Play” mode, which is your normal server-based affair that’d you expect in any modern shooter.

Overall, Brink is a good multiplayer game, if you like your teamwork and objective management with a bit of shooting mixed in, but it’s not a great game. There are a few balance issues on some of the levels that could do with tweaking, there aren’t quite enough levels or at least isn’t enough variety in the provided levels. But, the core gameplay is fun enough, so if they can patch out the current problems quickly and pad the game out with some new levels and/or objectives relatively soon (fingers crossed for some in that promised June DLC), then I might find my self spending a reasonable amount of time with Brink. Lets just hope that they also find some time to let players explore more of the Ark, it’s backstory and maybe the world beyond too…

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