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Brunked: Brink Impressions

My first ever published review was of Project Gotham Racing, and ended with this thought: “Because really, what’s the point of winning if you don’t look cool doing it?”

Which is a concept that I feel has hobbled FPSes for a while now. An FPS athlete isn’t some cowboy gunslinger, thrashing superior numbers with grace and cunning. He’s a robot. A horrible, jinking turret, popping the heads of other players like a rushed bartender opens bottles. Having played about an hour of Brink at the Eurogamer Expo last weekend, I can safely say that Brink bucks this trend. Winning actually feels cool. And here’s why.

Some of it’s down to the SMART system, which in Splash Damage language means “Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain” and in English means “A sprint button that also causes your character to go hurtling up and over things automatically”. You’ll jump small gaps, vault fences, and go mantling up onto high ledges. Most importantly, tapping crouch while sprinting like this drops your character into a long slide, which is actually both evasive and aggressive. You can shoot during it (with much-reduced accuracy), and sliding into another player knocks them over.

There’s been some naysaying from people who can’t have touched SMART about how it’ll just “play the game for you”, but that’s absolutely not true. It’s a plausible, satisfying upgrade for the sprint button we all already use. But that’s not why I like it.

I like it because what it’s doing is quietly opening up the FPS. The reason great FPS players often resemble disturbing, living aimbots is because aiming and shooting is, for the most part, all you can do within the game. Without forcing players to use a single extra button, SMART makes tactical retreats a more plausible option, the slide move gives a boost to daring, aggressive attacks, and the whole thing makes for level design that allows unexpected angles of attack. In short, you can get cunning. Plus it looks cool. That too.

Now take this idea of opening up a multiplayer shooter, and apply it not just to sprinting, but the game's entire structure. Brink is really quite a raw FPS, with compacted levels, no vehicles and no weapons besides guns and grenades (I don’t think), and yet I spent a surprising amount of time neither shooting, getting shot, or making my way to a place where I would shoot or get shot. Let me explain.

As a medic, I stood at the entrance to a killzone, literally throwing health-boosting syringes to soldiers as they ran past. When one of my boys went down, I went sprinting in after them, slid all the way over to him and got him back on his feet. Very cool.

As an engineer on a team tasked with escorting a security bot, I found that despite the level seeming quite claustrophobic, it was actually big enough that I could circle all the way round to a walkway above where three members of the enemy team were guarding the broken down bot, oblivious to my presence. I gunned them down, vaulted the railing along the walkway, then promptly blew myself up trying to disarm a mine in front of the bot. Epic win! Epic fail. Cool.

Yet neither of these situations saw me being faster than somebody else. In the first case, I did well by holding back, then rushing forward. In the second case, I did well by circling round. And these situations weren’t rarities. There are even command posts buried in far corners of the map that’ll give your entire team a boost to health or damage if you capture them.

Another way of looking at this is that in most multiplayer shooters (Battlefield, say, or Modern Warfare) it’s easy to get the sense that if you’re not knee-deep in the heart of the action, killing and dying and supporting your team, you’re a dead weight. With Brink, you can hang back, buff your team, build defenses, and you feel cool. Or you can sidestep the fight, and create shortcuts by building staircases or hacking doors. Then you definitely feel cool. Or you can slink around behind enemy lines. That’s super-cool. Or you can drop into knee-deep action and just gun people down. Your call. But whatever you do, wherever you are, you can make a difference, and the game’s Objective Wheel that'll tell you how is always just a click away.

On a more mundane note, holy shit is Brink ever polished. You only get half a sense of how satisfying it is to move and shoot in the videos Splash Damage has released, and every item of clothing, facial feature and weapon mod in the character customisation is something you’d be proud to wear.

Now, this next bit wasn't a detail I noticed it while playing (instead being informed of it afterwards by senior game designer Ed Stern), but when your characters shout their automated barks (“I need a medic”, “I’m going to set the charges”) over the radio, the bark is accompanied by the sounds occuring in the area directly around them. You know, as if that character were really speaking into a radio. I fear the brain of whichever developer came up with this stuff. See also: your gun is that much louder when you’re aiming down iron sights, because it’s that much closer to your ears. I bet that designer has a special, much more efficient way of tying his shoelaces.

One trick of Brink's that wasn't in the build I played is different body types. Your body type is something you choose that’s distinct from your class, and allows you to either weigh in either as Heavy, Normal, or Jerk. Sorry, I mean Agile.

Heavies get more health and can choose from a whole new category of heavy weapons, but they works with a reduced Smart system. If you hop a wall, a heavy can’t follow you. It’s the Agile type that interests me, however. You get much reduced health, but you can run faster and Smart up to whole segments of the map that nobody else can reach. I’m eagerly anticipating panicked Agile duels at the very top of the map and having a slightly better slide than everybody else. I love sliding. If I was a dinosaur, I expect I’d be a slideosaurus.

In summary: Brink always looked great. Now it turns out it plays great too. Since I literally can’t wait until it arrives early next year, I’m off to Bromley to wait until everybody at Splash Damage has gone home for the weekend, then I’ll break a window and play the latest build until the police come to tell me off, or whatever it is they do. Bye!

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