By Alec Meer on September 18th, 2009 at 6:06 pm.
Earlier this week, I saw Brink, a game whose substance no-one had hitherto seemed terribly clear about. Pray allow me to try to correct this…
You can tell this is a Splash Damage game because it’s about two teams of players fighting an eternal, bloody war against each other in objective-based maps. It’s not nominally an Enemy Territory game (as have been SD’s two titles to date, Wolfenstein: ET and Quake Wars), but for all the Kent-based developers’ claims that Brink is something of a new beginning, it’s very much a natural extension of what they’ve done previously.
You can’t tell this is a Splash Damage game because, well, everything.
While they might be broadly sticking to their genre guns, it’s not as if this young studio has that much in the way of hallmarks yet – so far, they’ve specialised solely in hyper-quality modifications of id games/franchises. Brink is where they’re going to create those hallmarks, how they’re going to establish their own voice and style, so that in future someone will confidently say “now that’s a Splash Damage game.”
Brink is about dudes fighting on big maps and earning experience points: this is what Splash Damage do, and it’s something they reckon they were one of, if not the, first to do when they released Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. But it’s nothing so simple as a multiplayer game. It’s a singleplayer game too, consisting of a string of levels within a story-led structure, documenting the near-future conflict between the refugee-descended Resistance and the ruling Security. Neither side is right or wrong – they’re simply fighting for their own rights and safety, though they are, it’s hinted, potentially misled by erroneous information from on-high. The land they fight over is The Ark, an enclave surrounded by the waters of what they’re told is a flooded Earth.
But where Wolf and Quake Wars were simply Good Guys vs Bad Guys, be the latter Nazis or Strogg, here there’s a story to be told. This is Splash Damage’s own universe, and it isn’t simply a canvas for bloodshed. There is mystery. We’re going to find stuff out. It’s not what you’d expect of a team-based multiplayer shooter, and the reason for that is, quite simply, that Splash Damage aren’t preaching to the converted here. They want to preach the guys who’d traditionally run screaming from Enemy Territory or Battlefield, to the guys who don’t even realise that Call of Duty has a multiplayer mode.
Story’s just one way in which they’re trying to achieve that. Where Quake Wars was a tale already told, hampered by what, in SD’s lead writer Ed Stern’s own words was something of a “HUD from hell”, this is Bioshock-like trying to attract people with the promise of A New Place. To make that clear to a passer-by is the graphical approach, a fusion of hyper-silly and hyper-macho: halfway between Gears of War and a Pixar movie. It’s hard not to think of Borderlands when you see it, but, with all due respect to Gearbox, the detail and solidity here makes the upcoming Diablo-with-guns look several years behind. In the played-live stuff I saw, Brink is beautiful – the only whiff of bullshot about the screenshots you see here are the unlikely camera angles and an ungodly amount of anti-aliasing.
Then there’s movement. You and I know how to navigate a first-person videogame world, and how to muster at least a degree of the momentum necessary for survival in a multiplayer shooter. Many, many people don’t – the coordination and forward-planning necessary for bounding over or ducking under obstacles isn’t something they already know how to do. So there’s the SMART system, a one-button control that auto-hurdles walls or slides under barriers. It’s not as simplistic or detached as Assassin’s Creed – while it does do a fair chunk of the legwork for you, it’s context based. So, look up while running to signal that your intent is to jump or climb when you approach the next obstacle, or down to home-run-slide under a low-slung thinger.
I can feel the heat of the fury-steam of the “OMG dumbed down for consoles!” crowd from here. Yes, it is designed to be accessible to those who would normally run a mile, but you don’t have to use SMART. You can jump and duck and whatnot manually if you wish, and SD claim doing so does give you an edge (presuming you’re good at that kind of thing). Player matchmaking is done according to their level, so if you’re unnatural good at shooters you’ll find yourself levelling pretty quickly and, in turn, facing off against folk of equivalent experience/ability rather than feckless newcomers. Or me.
That said, Me will be Me in Brink. There is, thank grud, no Alec Meer player model, but there is an elaborate character editor, a little akin to City of Heroes and APB. You choose your face, your body type, your hair, your tatooos, your beard, your clothing…
With three quick clicks, the default character design is made into a guy that looks entirely different. It’s a far cry from picking Bloke With Hat or Bloke With Slightly Longer Coat – you construct a character that, we’re told, will essentially be unique to you. As you level up, you’ll also collect/unlock more items to further customise your beefcake of choice. A Resistance character starts off wearing armour made from junk – a breast-plate of tyres, for instance – but as he hits the high notes he looks far more like a proper soldier. Bar the comedy nose and massive tattoos, anyway.
So you’ve got your guy, you pick your side, and you drop into a fight. If it’s you on your todd, you play with or against bots. If a mate pops up online (via Steam – despite this being a Bethesda-published game, SD are adamant we won’t have Games For Windaaaaargh Live inflicted on us here. They’re agreeably if cautiously rude about it, in fact), you can invite him in and he’ll take over from one of those bots. If he has to leave, a bot will replace him.
Once in the game, you and any other player pick a class – Soldier, Medic, Engineer and so forth – and then a Specialisation beyond that, which affects your weapon set. Each class can do things the others can’t – certain obstacles can only be removed by Engineers’ tools, for instance.
Which is a problem if no-one’s an Engineer. Except it isn’t, because you can change class at will, simply by popping to a terminal in your base. On top of that, everyone gets to pick missions – some reflecting the entire team’s objectives, such as get this barrier down, defuse this bomb, keep the enemy from the gates…
Others are tailored just to your situation and class. If you’re a medic, you can accept a quest to go heal a fallen comrade, and win bonus XP for it. If you’re an Operative playing for the other side, you can accept a quest to go finish off or interrogate said fallen chap. Crucial to this is that you’re explicitly rewarded for doing stuff that other team-based shooters just expect you to do anyway. Everyone wants XP, but no matter how hatefully selfish they are, they get it by helping the cause, by helping their team-mates. All carrot, no stick. The harder the task, the more XP you get – but it’ll be harder because it requires co-ordinating with a few team mates. And the mission system responds to that – if you accept a certain big goal, a bunch of new missions will be offered to your squad, promising rewards for assisting you.
Is it the answer to the omnipresent selfishness of public servers, or is a molly-coddle too much? I can’t say until I’ve played it, but I think the pairing of our lizard-brain desire for experience points with objectives that help your side really could achieve great things.
What I do know is that I don’t want to repeat the experience I once had when I dropped into a Battlefield 2 server and was made Commander. No-one was in squads, no-one was giving or following orders. I requested a couple of times that my side got into squads so we could all co-ordinate our offense/defense. No-one obliged or even replied. We were decimated. At the end of the map, I was voted out of my Commander’s chair for having the temerity to try and organise this motley crew. If Brink’s mission/XP system can stop this self-defeating selfishness, I’m all for it.
It’s a Splash Damage game. It’s not a Splash Damage game. For both those reasons, I think it’s going to be stellar.