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Fatties And Free-Running: Brink Hands-On

I've had brief encounters with Splash Damage's upcoming athletic shooter Brink a few times now, and by this point I'm simply very keen to be able to sit down and play it at my leisure, building my character under my own steam, tackling its challenges with an RPS collective. Fortunately it's now just a handful of weeks away, but even so there's a few things left to chat about.

On my most recent entanglement with it - while I was also seeing the likes of Skyrim, Prey 2 and Rage - I had a chance to poke my big, stupid nose into two aspects I'd not seen before. Number one! The training missions, which double up as tutorial for the more esoteric aspects of the game and a gear-unlocking, high score-chasing sub-game in their own right. Number two! Being a fat guy.

Let's start with the latter. To date, my Brinky-bouts have involved me playing as the default, 'medium' character body type, which offers a happy middleground between meatshield and athlete. This time around, I opted for the heavy build, which you gain after completing a suitable number of missions and objectives. This guy = fat. Whereas initially my character looked like a scrawny, small town sheriff who probably chews tobacco and frowns at people who own large dogs, now he looked like a steroid-addled wrestler with a Stetson fetish. It remains hard to say at this stage how noticeable this enfattening is to other players, as in this instance the server I waded into was full of Mediums, but in the character creator I looked a world of beefy difference from what I've grown to think of as the Brink look. Those long limbs and camel necks were replaced with, essentially, a human cube.

In game, the movement took an instantly noticeable hit. Rather than the light-footed parkour type I've played as before, I felt like an armoured caravan - a palpable change, not a minor stat-tweak. I forever trailed behind the rest of my team, often discovering that the skirmish was done and everyone had moved on up by the time I hauled my thickened carcass over to the nearest combat hotspot. Against this glacial dawdle was just how much of a bullet-soak I was. I elected to play as Medic class, which meant I added an extra health pip to the bonus one I was already granted for being a fattie. On top of that, an unlocked skill granted me another pip still, meaning that despite nominally being a healer I was also a wall of cackling meat, wading into a fight at the last minute and able to pick off a slew of skittering enemy Mediums while my recently-slaughtered allies got back into the fight. It evoked my fond memories of ritually playing Heavy in TF2, but I felt more like a necessary defensive than a bullet-spraying lunatic. My guess is that Brink is likely to be more of a class game than it might seem at this stage, with Lights and Heavies, and furthermore specific builds of Lights and Heavies being entirely recognisable and very pressing threats which require different tactics to tackle (and to control).

This brings me, in fact, to a gentle concern I have about Brink. Not about the quality of the game, but about it reaching the audience it deserves. There are a great many people who play a great many shooters but run screaming from online modes. I'm one of them, for the most part. Brink offers a bridge between the two, a game that works in both modes rather than requiring a hard-switch in discipline, but it's incredibly hard to not describe it as though it's a pure multiplayer game.

Without yet playing the game purely with bots, and experiencing it as the narrative-led linked missions it's designed to be, it's impossible to say for certain how satisfying a singleplayer experience it will be. What I can say at this point is that I could perceive very little, if any, difference between the human players on my server and the AI-controlled bots. Whatever I was doing, whoever I was, whoever I was doing it with, it seemed like a plausible surge of allies against a plausible counter-surge of enemies. I didn't experience the performance anxiety I often do when stepping onto a shooter's multiplayer server, yet I didn't feel I was trudging around with idiot, cheaty respawn-o-soldiers of the type seen in those sections when Call of Duty games pretend you're fighting as part of an army, or even with the eerie semi-minds of, say, Unreal Tournament's bots. So I'm expecting a team-based shooter I can cheerfully play offline without feeling like I'm missing much, but the proof will likely lie in the strength of the setpieces, the satisfaction of completing mission objectives and the promised plot progression.

It's certainly well-presented (extreme anti-aliasing and careful camera angles aside, the screenshots we've seen to date are entirely reflective of the game's high-colour, stretchy-limbed look), with all the assembled journos especially cooing at the intro FMV which depicted the construction of Brink's post-disaster, water-bounded human enclave The Ark as stop-motion architect's models. Sets the scene nicely, gets across that this is a game with a world to show you and a story to tell you as well as offering a bucketful of men for you to shoot.

Another element I rubbed my grimy hands across was the game's training missions, which were something I'd presumed from afar as being dreary tutorials aimed at the 3 people who've bought a first-person shooter without knowing how to look up in a first-person shooter. In fact, they're absorbing challenges in their own right, and also the key means of opening up weapon and outfit unlocks in the character creator. The mission I tried focused on the S.M.A.R.T. auto-Parkour system, both training me in how to leap and slide across the maps with minimal button presses and demonstrating that I got nowhere fast if I just held down the S.M.A.R.T. button and jogged forward in a straight line.

S.M.A.R.T. requires foresight and reflex, not slack-jawed laziness; it's a matter of surveying the terrain as you sprint and making judgement calls as to the best route, based on a certain familiarity with your character's athletic capabilities, and just a little bit of blind faith. Falling over and embarrassingly missing jumps happened just as much as it does in game where I must manually hit the jump button - this is about taking away some of the manual labour, not about dialling down the challenge or player perceptiveness.

The challenge was tiered, first daring me to hit a series of far-apart, up above and down below checkpoints in less than three minutes, then less than two minutes, then less than one. I made it to tier two, then repeatedly made a goddamned fool of myself in tier three. I didn't care about getting the unlock, but I wanted to prove I was man enough to navigate an obstacle course in a timely manner. I wasn't. But I will be. This I swear. There's a slew of other training challenges too, and if they play out as well as the Parkour one they should do a good job of adding the more personal objectives that the team objective-centric core fights perhaps don't.

So yeah, Brink. It's been an awful long time coming and I'm enormously glad it's finally lurking on the horizon. I'm not quite sure what the general reception will be, but I reckon there's a good chance it could pick up a fine following in these parts- showing off character builds, getting together for vendetta-fuelled fights, nervously allowing the appearance of real-live humans in maps we've grown confident at. We'll find out on May 13, eh?

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