Available for PC (version played), Xbox 360 & PS3
Time Played 42 hours
“Minor gripes aside, Brink is a clever, bold and unfortunately underrated addition to the team-based multiplayer canon. It isn’t for everyone, but for those who can appreciate what Splash Damage were aiming for and what they have achieved, it’s nothing but a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded and staid genre.”
Arriving years after a propulsive marketing barrage, Brink had a rough launch to say the least. Releasing late during the PSN outage and mired with technical issues, it also disappeared from Steam in the UK for what seemed like an age. As launches go, it was disastrous, and since then, despite Splash Damage quashing the most egregious bugs and releasing free DLC for a limited time, ill-will seems to have snowballed to such an extent that I’m unsure of the franchise’s future. And what a franchise it is.
Since its release I’ve been quietly apprehensive about Brink, reading reviews, comments and many forum posts across the ‘net wondering whether Splash Damage had genuinely dropped the ball since the excellent Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, or whether launch problems had irretrievably tarred the experience for anybody who’d touched it. My brother liked it and still does. Tom Chick seemed to like it (but said it was one of the most disappointing games of the year). Simon Parkin liked it over at Eurogamer, as did Nigel Cowen at The Guardian. Ben Croshaw unsurprisingly did not. Edge didn’t seem overly fussed by it either. Even Tap regular Ernest dropped by to say he hated it. Aside from the above, hardly anybody seems to like it. So many in fact, that that score up there has probably lost me seven of the nine loyal readers I once had — before my Grim Fandango review I was thirteen strong! Either way, what I think doesn’t matter at this stage, Brink has been a commercial success sadly floating on what appears to be a sea of disappointment. I write this review for catharsis, posterity and for anybody else out there still open to a recommendation. It’s a long one so don’t look down.
Here’s the lovely intro:
It has to be said that the Brink jingle is a little miracle and turns up in various guises throughout the game’s fantastic soundtrack depending on whether you play as Security or Resistance. Security’s themes sound delicate and more electronic whilst Resistance’s are rawer, percussive and feature more traditional instruments. There’s a clear duality in Brink which the soundtrack helps tremondously with, but more on that later.
If you took ET:QW and mixed it with Team Fortress 2 and Mirrors Edge you’d get something like Brink; a tight team and objective-based shooter featuring slick free-running elements, distinctive characters (with hats and stuff!1) and intricate, carefully designed maps. There are no vehicles, no gigantic maps, no asymmetrical teams and no Strogg. If I was to go a step further I’d say there were also shades of Rapture in Splash Damage’s Ark; a modern day utopia, a ‘self-sustaining city of the future’, floating on the ocean of a flooded earth.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. Brink, as mentioned above, is a team and objective-based shooter where each team has a set of linear primary objectives to carry out in order to win. So for instance, an attacking team might be required to destroy a door within an allotted time to gain access to the next objective while the defending team’s objective would be to prevent them from doing so. There are also a bunch of non-linear secondary and tertiary objectives that help bolster a team’s efforts. Most objectives can only be carried out by a specific class, and each class has its own unique abilities with which to assist their team. Soldiers come equipped with high explosive charges for destruction objectives; engineers repair various things, disarm explosives and remove hackboxes; medics keep escorts on their feet and moving forwards; and operatives plant hackboxes. Unlike most class-based shooters Brink differs in that being a particular class doesn’t limit your weapon load-out: your body type does. Not only this, but you’re able switch classes at any command post during a mission, so no more having to kill yourself to change class.
There are three body types to choose from: light, medium and heavy. The light and heavy body types are unlocked relatively early on once you’re more familiar with basic movement. The heavy body type is the slowest and most cumbersome but has access to all the weaponry in the game (including grenade launchers, chain guns and heavy duty shotguns) and is considerably more resilient; the light body type is obviously the total opposite: quick and agile but easy to take down and limited to light weaponry and pistols; and the medium body type is the middle ground between the two and the one the game starts you off with. Separating the weapons from each class type works really well and in addition to the robust customisation options allows for an even greater degree of experimentation and creativity with your class.
Like in ET:QW, when your health reaches zero you become incapacitated which means that you’re still alive but on the brink of death. During this period you can choose to redeploy with the next wave or wait for a medic to (hopefully) pass you a revive syringe. If you’re unlucky then an enemy will finish you off, forcing you to redeploy with the next wave anyway. Revive syringes aren’t used automatically, instead it’s up to the player to decide when is best to inject them. They also take a few moments to administer and a few more moments for you to be properly ready again. The great thing about this mechanic is that, aside from removing insta-revives completely, which have always annoyed me, it totally eradicates those infuriating moments where careless medics spam insta-revive fallen comrades for cheap point scoring, even if the newly revived are going to be sitting ducks. In Brink you can sometimes quietly lie there with your revive syringe feigning helplessness, waiting for the chaos to die down before getting back up again. The same goes for if a grenade blast just knocks you over: you don’t have to get up straight away. Very neat. Another nice touch is that if you narrowly miss the current redeployment wave, instead of having to wait 10-20 seconds for the next one there are two or three seconds leeway to get straight back in there. Even in ET:QW if you missed the wave, you missed the wave.
Despite Splash Damage’s efforts to ease the player into the game with a helpful if unwieldy video guide and an excellent but scant set of tutorials disguised as ‘challenges’ that introduce you to the game’s mechanics, Brink is an initially confusing experience. Like its spiritual predecessor ET:QW, there’s always a ton of stuff for you to do and keep an eye on regardless of what class you are, and the HUD, which seems to have taken flak from certain quarters for being cluttered and messy, does a superb job of relaying a lot of information cleanly and economically. Here’s a screen shot:
The biggest problem is that unless you have some idea of the layout of a map — and every single one is a tapestry of routes, especially with the S.M.A.R.T. system in tow (more on that later) — then actually finding your way to the primary objective and any of your other objectives can be really tricky, even with markers showing their locations. This is of course a problem that dissolves as you become familiar with each map, but for newcomers — who are most likely focusing on merely staying alive — it can be more than a tad disconcerting.
When you begin the game you’re presented with the choice of ‘Saving the Ark’ or ‘Escaping the Ark’. Whatever you choose will dictate whether you play as Security or Resistance respectively. Once you’ve made your choice you’re whisked off to the character creator. I don’t tend to get excited by character creation — I’ve had fun making Nintendo Miis out of real people, if only to biff some of them in Wii Sports boxing, but I’m not sure that counts — however, the character creator in Brink is bloody brilliant. It’s kind of like playing Mr Potato Head with pseudo-realistic tough men, choosing a face then clipping on hats and masks and goggles and different hair styles and beards and vests and bin liner arm bands and car tyre shoulder pads and stuff — there’s no faffing around with cheek bone protrusion and chin dimples here. If you decide to adorn your character with tattoos or scars then naturally, and somewhat alarmingly, that shit is permanent. Once you’ve established the appearance of your character you can select a voice from an excellent range of international accents. This voice is used whenever your character automatically communicates critical information to your teammates as you play.
It’s rare for an online first person shooter to include a character creator, especially one brimming with so much personality, but it couldn’t be better placed in Brink. Despite the relatively limited number of presets to mix and match (especially before unlocking more) it’s remarkable just how many different combinations there are and how much that adds to the visual palette of the game. It’s just a real shame there are no tough women to give the men a run for their money. Some have noted that because there are no visual differences between the four classes it’s impossible to know who is what, but as the HUD screenshot above shows, each character’s class is clearly shown above their head, something I’ve personally not found problematic. Sure, it’s not the silhouettes of TF2 but short of adding huge unwieldy class-specific accessories you’d be hard pushed to overcome such a mixed variety of characters.
Splash Damage didn’t stop at the character customisation though. Now I’m no gun fetishist but the fictitious weapons of Brink look, sound and feel perfect, and allow for a very surprising and satisfying level of customisation. You can swap out standard ammo clips for high capacity magazines and ammo drums compromising accuracy, reload and equip speed. There are barrel muzzles that enhance weapon stability but sacrifice range, silencers that reduce weapon damage but prevent gunshots from revealing your position on enemies’ radar. There are speed slings for fast weapon equipping, front grips for enhanced accuracy, different scopes and red dot sights, weapon shields, underslung grenade launchers and bayonets. Each weapon setup is saved so that when you choose a different weapon load-out there’s no unnecessary messing around and you’re ready to go straight away. To add to all this tinkering goodness, each lovingly rendered weapon (and any of its attachments) can be rotated and appreciated in full 3D as well. It’s gratuitous gun porn, but it’s pretty damn sweet. Although Brink starts with a sizable lineup of weaponry and attachments to choose from, the entire collection is unlocked simply by completing the challenges mentioned earlier on.
A quick note on the firefights in Brink. Brink treads a fine line between bullet-sponging tough men and the vulnerable paper dolls of something like Battlefield, depending entirely on what weapon you’re using, how good you are with it and the state of your enemy ie. a fully buffed heavy in a kevlar vest is going to take some bringing down. Despite the decreased lethality of weapons across the board, heads are still pulpy soft spots ripe for one shot kills (at least with the game’s higher powered weapons).
In Brink you level up by completing objectives, helping your team and killing enemies to acquire XP. There are a refreshingly modest 24 levels in total that are divided into 5 ranks. Ranking up unlocks new perks or ‘abilities’ as well as new items to customise the appearance of your character. I’m not a fan of unlock systems that reward persistent play because they tend to put newcomers at an even greater disadvantage but Brink cleverly employs a system that only allows players of the same rank to fight against each other. If a higher ranked player wishes to play with others of a lower rank (friends for instance) then their rank will be temporarily lowered, forfeiting any unlocks. Which is quite frankly brilliant.
There are two types of abilities: universal abilities which apply to all classes, and class specific abilities. Assigning or purchasing an ability costs a level up token which you get when you level up, obviously. If you decide that you want to respec your character then it’s possible to sell all your abilities so that you can respend your tokens again but in doing so you lose a level. Given how much the game encourages you to customise your character, it seems really odd that your abilities can’t be easily and readily switched around once unlocked.
Despite its focus on competitive multiplayer the fiction carefully tucked away behind Brink’s gameplay is perhaps its most surprising asset. Two groups or factions are on the brink of civil war. There’s the Ark’s Security force, a privileged ‘upper’ class of sorts led by Captain Clinton Mokoena, fighting to maintain law and order to preserve the Ark from outsiders; and there’s the Resistance, a ragtag militia group led by Brother Joseph Chen, fighting to seize power over the Ark in order to escape it and seek help from what remains of the outside world.
The story is told primarily over the loading screens and via short cut-scenes before each mission. The cut-scenes are solid, well voiced overall and unobtrusive and can be skipped or alternatively ignored while you decide on your class and weapon load-out. The campaign mode, which is presumably where the story is best enjoyed, just links the multiplayer maps together in chronological order and can be played solo against bots or openly with other humans. The story can be followed in the online ‘freeplay’ mode but with most servers running custom game modes and randomising the map order it’d be a pretty disjointed affair first time round.
The fact that there’s no bespoke campaign is undoubtedly disappointing given the strength of Brink’s fiction and world but Brink is first and foremost a competitive multiplayer game and it’s entirely focused on that. I’ve no doubt that developing a standalone campaign alongside the competitive multiplayer element would have been a significant undertaking and one perhaps Splash Damage simply didn’t have the resources for. As it stands, giving each conflict some context, fitting each mission into not just a single narrative arc but two (one for Security and one for Resistance) has worked surprisingly well. It’s there if you want it but slight enough to ignore or skip.
I played the Security side of the campaign first so the story was naturally relayed from their perspective. Only when I began playing as the Resistance did I discover that all was not as it had first seemed. Resistance (or ‘the guests’) represented an oppressed underclass fighting for freedom and equality; they weren’t anarchists or terrorists as Security (or ‘the fascists’) had led me to believe. The more missions I completed and the more I came to understand their motivations and intentions, the more I realised just how much Security — intentionally or otherwise — were misinterpreting their actions. But while Security may sound like the ‘bad guys’ here, it’s not so cut and dry as that either. It’s clear from the cut-scenes that the men fighting for Security are just doing what they’re told and are fighting for what they see (or are relayed) as the greater good while Resistance interpret their well intentioned but seemingly barbaric actions as tyrannical. Even the Founders of the Ark — Security’s superiors — insist that Security are “not barbarians” and in one instance a Security officer defiantly declares that “this is some Stormtrooper BS” shortly before an assault on the slums. It’s morally ambiguous with neither faction being clearly good or evil and serves as a really juicy layer over the action, encouraging you to play through the entire campaign just to hear both sides of the story. As you complete specific objectives you unlock an assortment of audio logs recorded by various characters that can be accessed from the main menu. These unlockable pieces of exposition are utterly fascinating and go a considerable way in helping flesh out the back story, particularly the lead up to the catastrophe. Again, they’re there if you want them but easily ignored if not. One in particular, a Professor Habib, recalls:
No one had seen pale refugees before. No one had seen whole camps of pale refugees before. And so many of them! White refugees fleeing to Africa, from chaos and disease and violence at home. It was funny. At first. They were in shock, like sheep in a slaughterhouse. Then they tried to treat it like a holiday, a joke. But cholera, typhoid, packed into those camps, not so funny. We gave all we could, but we could not save them all. You never can.
The game takes place in ten locations including the two DLC maps on either side of the divide splitting the Ark. The base game features an aquarium, a transport terminal, a rusty shipyard, the Ark’s luxury resort and nuclear reactor, Container City and Security’s high security prison and aircraft hangar. The DLC adds a science lab and Founder’s Tower, the slender (and unfinished) kilometer high skyscraper featured in most of Brink’s imagery and most significantly its logo. The Ark — Security’s territory — is opulent and impeccably designed and rendered, made up of clean organic forms and bright whites, and, as Dead End Thrills says on his incredible blog, ‘high on hubris and low on hope’. The Ark is architecturally resplendent and visionary; a picture perfect utopia that mockingly overlooks Resistance’s ad-hoc ghetto Container City; an overpopulated trash heap piled high with inhabited dock containers — presumably from the many vessels that eavesdropped there after the flood. The world behind Brink is a remarkable achievement. Each environment is clearly a labour of love, bursting with detail — detail you’re unlikely to see unless you’re neglecting to help your team, gawping and cooing at the sights. There’s a genuine sense of place on every map; that rare feeling that there’s much more going on outside the frame and in such a fast-paced objective-driven shooter that quality can’t be understated. The ID Tech 4 engine has never looked so good.
Thankfully the maps aren’t just pretty to look at. They’re labyrinthine; tightly packed with myriad routes to escape and flank the enemy. I’ve clocked in about 40+ hours so far and there are still routes I haven’t found or exploited yet, which, given that there are ten modestly sized maps is very impressive. As you become more familiar with each map these routes become a joy to negotiate using the much touted S.M.A.R.T system (or Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) which allows you to glide effortlessly through the environments, mantling surfaces, vaulting over obstacles, wall jumping and sliding behind cover. S.M.A.R.T. is something you quickly take for granted and as much as Brink’s marketing pushed the system, it’s simply a great addition to the game and a real delight to use even if the environments don’t quite maximise its potential.
Despite the welcome non-linear structure of each map, the objectives funnel teams together, and whether you like it or not you’re going to be hitting seemingly impenetrable walls of enemies — you could say BRINK WALLS of enemies. Har har. It’s here however, where I think the game becomes so divisive. Like it’s forebear ET:QW, Brink is a game that requires a co-ordinated team to smash down these walls and prevent them from being built in the first place, anything less and your efforts are likely to be met with failure and repeated, infuriating death. Successfully dogpiling an objective and narrowly accomplishing it with mere seconds left on the clock is when Brink is at its finest.
Something which many seemed to have taken issue with in Brink is the standard frag grenades available to each class. They’re artificially weak and seemingly useless, but interestingly, they’re supposed to be used as a means of knocking enemies over and dazing them; for pocking a momentary hole in their defences, long enough for your team to flood in and cause trouble. Frag grenades don’t cause much damage, have a sensible cooldown and require sufficient supply to lob so they have to be used far more considerately than in most shooters. As a direct result there’s far greater emphasis on competent gunplay and less on cheesing grenades at the enemy. The soldier is kitted out with a plethora of more destructive grenade types but it’s a class specific ability. As far as I’m concerned it’s a deft design decision, treading a fine line between TF2’s dedicated Demolition class and the more universal Battlefield /Call of Duty tradition of every player being a part-time grenadier.
As Tom Chick said “The problem with Brink is that it’s not very Call of Duty” and he’s right. In Brink there’s no place for lonewolves and heroes, each player needs to know their role and play it proactively. There is no ‘I’ in team (but there is an ‘I’ in pie). There’s no kill or death count, just an XP score. The game goes to great lengths to seduce you into helping your team with XP handouts for accomplishing objectives but effectively prioritising these objectives is what ultimately matters. Medics need to stay alive to keep their team on their feet and moving — a bad medic can totally undermine any momentum a team happens to build up. Engineers need to be dealing out kevlar vests and placing turrets and mines to give the enemy something else to think about. Operatives need to be disguising themselves, spotting enemies and turning the enemy’s defences inside out by hacking turrets and attacking them from behind. Soldiers need to be keeping ammo topped up on the frontline and giving the enemy hell from as many angles as possible. There’s an exhilarating synergy in Brink when a team really starts working together, and it’s this feeling that really scratches the itch I’ve had since ET:QW. Unfortunately, Brink makes a bit of a hash of communication.
The extremely handy ‘vsay’ radial speech menu from ET:QW that was used for quickly communicating with teammates — as well as being the only way to communicate with bots — has gone, so if you’ve not got a mic then there’s no way of manually communicating with your team without typing stuff in. In a recent game I saw an engineer standing there stationary repeatedly asking for ammo by keyboard. Not good. “People don’t type shit in anymore though Gregg, they talk with their mouths and stuff.” Since starting Brink I haven’t heard one player speak. Not one. The reason? The standard default game mode disallows it unless you’re in a fireteam. Which quite frankly — for a team game absolutely focused on teamwork — is just astonishing. There have been a great many times I’ve had to listen to some gibbering amoeba in other games featuring open chat but if there has been a mute facility, I’ve damn well used it. The problem is that Splash Damage have effectively neutered the voice chatting culture of Brink by making it an effort to use and enable, consequently making teamwork a decidedly silent affair precariously balancing on guesswork. For me it would have been much more sensible to keep open chat as default and let players opt-in or opt-out before entering a game. To inconvenience an entire community because of a handful of imbeciles is never the right way to go. As far as I’m concerned it’s Brink’s greatest misstep.
Oh yeah, those bots.
I can’t comment on the Easy or Medium bots, but the Hard bots in Brink are perfectly imperfect: they do everything a human player is guilty of. They shoot accurately, flank enemies and sometimes fail to spot them altogether; they retreat and hide; they use all the equipment and abilities at their disposal; they patch-up and ply teammates with ammo and buffs; they complete objectives when they’re not getting distracted by other things; they reliably revive incapacitated teammates (more so than human players); they even melee attack incapacitated foes so they can’t be revived. I can say without a shadow of a doubt I’ve been more stressed with human players playing stupidly than Brink’s bots throughout the entire campaign, and this is with no way of possibly communicating with them. As competent human substitutes they’re exemplary.
Brink has lodged itself in an awkward position somewhere between the mass market CoD hivemind and the hardcore Enemy Territory cognoscenti. While this seems an intentional move by Splash Damage (and should be commended) bizarrely, they seem to have alienated both parties. Realistic weaponry coupled with spongier combat; no kills or death scores; S.M.A.R.T. movement over hardcore strafe-jumping and physics manipulation; story-infused multiplayer missions; a light unlock system; fair matchmaking; a single dedicated game mode. Thankfully however, I reside somewhere between the two camps and as such — and after all the negativity — Brink has proven more than a pleasant surprise offering a bold, thrilling and ultimately unique twist on the very genre that Splash Damage have been championing for the last ten years. It’s a difficult game to get to grips with but once you’ve got hold of it, once you get what it’s trying to do, it’s unlike any other shooter out there. Unfortunately the inconvenience of getting into a position where you can actually talk with your teammates to try and play with a little more co-ordination is, for me, a real spanner in the works for such an unabashedly team oriented game. Combined with the lack of any sort of quick radial speech menu it undermines nearly everything Brink does so well. The question is: would there be more voice chatting in Brink if it was enabled by default or is it the playerbase’s fault for not switching their microphones on and getting into fireteams? I wish I knew the answer to that. The bottom line is this though: even after 40 hours and no voice chat, I’m still thoroughly enjoying it.
Email the author of this review at firstname.lastname@example.org
Website: www.brinkthegame.com (cool website btw)
Minimum System Requirements (PC):
- Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz processor or equivalent
- Memory: 2 GB RAM
- Graphics: Nvidia 8800GS / ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro or equivalent
- OS: Windows XP (SP3)/ Vista / Windows 7
- Space: 8 GB hard disk space
- Processor: i5 2500K 3.5GHz
- Memory: 4 GB RAM
- Graphics: MSI GTX 560 Ti
- OS: Windows 7 64bit