You’d have to go back a while to find a video game as polarizing as “Brink,” the new first-person shooter from the studio behind the “Enemy Territory” games.
On the one hand, Splash Damage’s emphasis on teamwork caters to players of team- and squad-based games like Valve Software’s “Team Fortress 2” and “Left 4 Dead.” If you have a group of players ready to work together to achieve objectives, talk things over and adjust strategies, you’ll have a blast. The game’s odd visual style and parkour-influenced wall-climbing, sliding and jumping give it a distinct flavor.
That said, if you prefer kill-count, lone-wolf-oriented fare like “Call of Duty” and “Halo,” you’ll find “Brink” obtuse, needlessly difficult and infuriating. And you’ll likely be much less willing to overlook numerous graphical glitches, design flaws and occasionally buggy online multiplayer.
“Brink” (rated T, $60 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $50 on PC) takes place on the Ark, a futuristic floating city designed to be self-sustaining. But as Earth warmed and the ice caps melted, thousands of refugees poured in. As the game starts, the Ark’s population is nine times larger than what it was designed to support.
One faction, the Resistance, is made up of have-nots. They want to seize command of the city’s resources and use them to launch the Ark’s lone plane to search for what’s left of the outside world. The other faction, the Security, works for the haves. They want to preserve the status quo and prevent the squandering of resources on a venture that may upset the apple cart.
But the narrative potential largely goes untapped and serves as window dressing for the game’s missions. Each faction has a core six-mission story and two “what-if” scenarios, but the net result is that there are a total of eight scenarios in the game, and you can play as either faction.
In each scenario, one faction is the attacking team and must complete a series of objectives. In one Resistance mission, you’ll have to blow up an electrical panel, and then enter an office to steal a security code from a locked safe. Once you hack the safe, a player on your team will have to ferry the code to a locked door, where you’ll free a pilot. Then, the entire team must escort the pilot back to where you began the level, where a boat awaits. The Security forces are charged simply with stopping the Resistance.
Each team is made up of eight humans or computer-controlled bots, and each player has four classes to choose from. The soldier is a demolitions expert who can refill teammates’ ammo stocks. The medic can heal teammates, revive downed comrades and offer various health and speed-related boosts. The engineer specializes in repairing broken things, increasing the damage his squadmates deal and locking down key areas with mines and turrets. The operative can hack terminals, play dead and disguise himself as the enemy.
Many objectives can only be completed by one class, but classes can be adjusted on the fly at secondary objectives called command posts.
If all this sounds complicated, it is, which is precisely why a game like “Brink” will rub a lot of players the wrong way. “Brink” throws a lot at its players all at once, and essentially says, “You figure out how it works.” There are some challenge missions, used to unlock different weapons and attachments, that help serve as a tutorial for the game, but nowhere does Splash Damage actually recommend you do these first.
Like the “Left 4 Dead” games, the multiplayer and single-player components of “Brink” are identical. If you play solo, you’re playing with computer-controlled bots at your side rather than real people. Sadly, bots are never as competent as people, even dumb people. When I tried to play “Brink” solo, I was frequently frustrated that my squadmates prioritized killing enemies over completing objectives. With real people, you can say, “You focus on hacking and I’ll lock down the area and deal with these bad guys.” So I usually ended up switching to whatever class was needed to complete the current objective, but my bot teammates typically proved less capable of protecting me than my friends did.
The net result is a frustrating, unfun single-player experience. Splash Damage tried to “fix” this by making it so that players playing “alone” are actually funneled into each other’s sessions. As you sit on your couch playing campaign, it’s possible to have other players dropped into your match. You don’t actually hear each other unless you want to. It’s a cool idea, but “Brink” is a complex enough game that you’re always better off putting on a headset and talking things through.
The folks at Splash Damage have worked hard to foster teamwork, doing away with or de-emphasizing a lot of common first-person shooter trappings. You won’t, for example, be able to figure out your kill-to-death ratio without hiring an assistant to tally up the numbers as you play. Even though “Call of Duty” fans are raging in online forums, this is a smart move that discourages everyone playing from playing as an engineer and padding their kill counts with turrets and mines.
The game’s scoring system favors completing objectives and helping teammates more than straight-up killing. In one round, I led my team in kills but finished last in points. How? I locked down a strategic area with a turret and mines while my teammates completed secondary objectives, healed me and kept me stocked with ammunition.
Despite this revolutionary design, though, “Brink” isn’t the game it could have been, thanks to a host of design, graphical and online performance issues.
Graphically, “Brink” is often glitchy, with textures on objects initially appearing blurry until the details suddenly pop in. It’s like looking at something without glasses and then putting glasses on. (Or, if you have perfect vision, like looking at something through someone’s glasses, then taking them off.) It doesn’t affect gameplay, but it’s there, and it’s worse in “Brink” than other recent games I’ve played.
Online, many of “Brink’s” players have complained about what’s known in gaming circles as “lag.” Essentially, it’s what happens when the controls you’re inputting fail to sync up properly with what’s on screen because of network-performance issues. Before a release-day patch, I ran into this issue a couple of times, and the game was unplayable when it happened. The action skipped and stuttered all over the place, and completing objectives, much less killing enemies, was impossible. Post-launch, I’ve had no problems, while others have had significant issues with online play. I would guess the problem gets worse the more players you add, so the fact that I’ve mostly played with a group of about six people against a team of bots rather than live competition might have something to do with my lack of trouble.
As time passes, many of these wrinkles will no doubt be ironed out or mitigated, so there’s no crime in waiting to buy, even if “Brink” is right up your alley. But ironing out the game’s antiquated online lobby system might take more work. After each round, as you see your experience points and levels rise, you ought to be able to purchase new abilities and edit your customizable character. But you can’t. To do that, you have to back all the way out of your game to the main menu, and then rejoin your friends in-progress.
What’s more, some of the level design seems suspect. To complete certain objectives, the attacking team might occasionally find itself almost right on top of the enemy’s spawn point. This can lead to frustrating loops where the attacking team keeps repeatedly assaulting the objective, only to eventually die and then be forced to race all the way across the map again, inevitably finding a dug-in foe waiting for them. I’m not quite ready to declare this a huge problem, as combat is by definition supposed to be asymmetrical at times, and there’s a good chance that there are solutions to some of these bottlenecks that my friends and I have yet to find. Still, it bears watching.
All that said, I’ve sunk 25 hours into “Brink” and much prefer its teamwork-driven play to kill/death ratio-oriented fare like “Call of Duty.” Despite some glitches and a poorly designed lobby and matchmaking system, I can see it becoming a personal favorite, mostly because so few shooters emphasize teamwork so well. Hopefully, Splash Damage and publisher Bethesda Softworks will continue to refine and patch “Brink” to get it to the state it should have released in, as opposed to its current flawed-but-fun state.
My enthusiasm for the game is best summed up with a metaphor:
Let’s say you really like sushi, but you live in a town where the nearest restaurant that serves it is two hours away. Then, a sushi restaurant opens in your town. The service is mediocre, and the fish is sometimes frozen rather than fresh, but it’s still sushi. Until another place with fresh fish opens up, you find yourself going to the local sushi place again and again, hoping the owner makes some improvements. After all, you’ve been going to Italian restaurants your whole life.