Now that the review embargo of “Brink,” which hits stores today, is up, I can talk freely of what I’ve been playing since Friday. I put in several lengthy sessions over the weekend, and I can say that I love the idea of “Brink” tremendously. However, the game has issues that are making me want to wait to see how it plays on release day before I prepare a final assessment. Here are some quick thoughts on worked and didn’t work.
It’s not a true single-player game: “Brink” reminds me a lot of Valve’s “Left 4 Dead” games, not because you’re battling hordes of flesh-eating zombies, but because it’s best enjoyed with friends. It has a cool backstory about two factions battling it out on a floating utopia gone wrong, but it’s largely window-dressing the same way the “L4D” stories are. As for the gameplay, you can play the campaign with an eight-man team comprised entirely of yourself and computer-controlled bots, but it’s aggravating and unfun. The bots sometimes focus on the wrong objectives, heal the wrong players, or stand around shooting when they should be hacking a terminal or planting explosives while you handle the bad guys. This might not be a huge issue because players can actually set up a game so that they play “solo” with other people. You’ll be working with other campaign players to complete the same objectives, but you won’t hear them if you don’t want to, and they can’t sit there and kill their teammates over and over because friendly fire is turned off by default. Generally, my frustrations with the bots disappeared when I played with even one or two real people at my side. The bots do OK when it comes to supporting their teammates, so if there are two or three of you to actually complete the objectives, you’ll be OK.
It’s easy to work together: Splash Damage tried hard to make an shooter to appeal to people who love first-person shooters but hate listening to idiots prattle on in online multiplayer. The heads-up-display and user interface is well-designed, and once you get the hang of it, it’s possible to work together quite well with your team even if no one ever speaks through a headset. When you select an objective from the game’s “objective wheel,” your character will actually call out, “rebuilding an MG nest” so you don’t have to. What’s more, “Brink” rewards you for completing objectives and aiding your teammates more than it rewards you for killing enemies. In one round, I led my team in kills but finished last in points. How? I played as an engineer and locked down choke points with turrets and mines. My teammates, meanwhile, kept me supplied with ammunition and health while they completed objectives. In an era in which nearly every online shooter is fixated upon kill/death ratios, this is awesome.
The learning curve is steep: The first time you fire up “Brink,” the game will suggest you watch an introductory movie. It’s gotta be close to 20 minutes long, and that’s not hyperbole. It’s good to watch it to get the core concepts of gameplay, but those were an incredibly long 20 minutes. There has to be a better way to teach your players your core concepts. Once you finish the video and enter a game, there’s a lot going on. In one scenario, you have to blow open a door with explosives, then enter an office and hack a safe, then ferry a passcode to another portion of the level, then escort a prisoner back to where you began the level. And those are just the four primary objectives. While all that is going on, you can also capture command centers that, if your team controls them, bestow extra health or supplies. And various levels have shortcuts and other optional objectives. In other words, there’s a heck of a lot going on, and lots of players will be lost or confused.
When your team works together and succeeds, it’s immensely satisfying: That said, after a day or so, once you start to learn the ins and outs of various scenarios and get used to coordinating with teammates, it’s tremendous fun to tackle an objective. There’s nothing quite like completing an objective with five seconds left on the clock and belting out a triumphant holler of relief. People who “get” “Brink” will really like the game, provided the networking issues (mentioned below) are resolved.
When your team fails, it’s agonizing: Remember that scenario I described above? Blow the door, hack the safe, ferry the data, escort the prisoner? Well, if you fail to complete any of the core objectives in the time allotted, it’s back to square one. In other words, you can spend more than a half-hour trying to complete those four tasks, but if you can’t escort the pilot down that last ramp before the 20-minute time limit expires, you’ll have to start all over. Fail two or three times, and it’s maddening. Some kind of checkpoint system for the campaign mode would have been welcome.
There may or may not be serious network and coding issues: Some of the day-of-release reviews I’ve seen have talked about serious graphical glitches and game-breaking problems with lag. A day or two before I received my review copy, I was advised there would be a day-of-release patch to clear up some of these issues. I have no idea how well the patch has addressed these problems, which is why you’re getting impressions instead of a review. Also, I followed publisher Bethesda Softworks’ advice and installed “Brink” to my Xbox 360′s hard drive. I haven’t had many graphical issues. I did, however, take part in one session in which our online connection lagged so badly the game was unplayable. The framerate slowed to about three frames per second, making shooting or completing objectives impossible. Other than that one horrible session, my online gameplay went smoothly. I mostly played with one other journalist, though a couple of three-player matches I took part in ran smoothly as well. “Brink” is supposed to support way more players than three, though, so the lag issue bears watching. Even though it’s eminently fixable via patches and server updates, lag is the kind of thing that can kill an online shooter before it really gets off the ground.
What’s up with the parkour?: One of “Brink’s” supposed selling points is S.M.A.R.T. (smooth movement across random terrain). Characters are supposed to be able to quickly run through levels and vault over obstacles. This wasn’t nearly as prevalent a feature as I was led to believe it was, though the game opened up a bit in this regard once I selected the “light” body type for my character. (Because light characters go down relatively easy, the body type isn’t available from the get-go.) It mostly seemed to come into play during the courier missions, which means that one light-bodied character will be sprinting and vaulting over stuff while the other seven teammates largely fail to use S.M.A.R.T. It’s possible, though, that S.M.A.R.T. is one of those more intricate features that becomes more readily apparent the more you play “Brink.” So far, though? Oversold.