After a mysterious announcement of Brink last week, we tracked down Splash Damage at E3 to see the game running.
With over a billion matches played over six years in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, London-based developers Splash Damage feel pretty cocksure of their multiplayer prowess. What makes Brink so interesting is that rather than simply repeating a tried and tested formula, once again they're attempting something new. Brink is... well, this will take some explaining.
It's certainly not a straightforward multiplayer shooter. But it can be played as a multiplayer shooter. Nor is it a straightforward co-op. But you can team up with up to eight other players. Nor is it a single player game. But you can play through the entire story-led solo campaign with AI buddies.
Some time in the future we humans struck upon the idea of creating an idealistic utopia, Ark, a "green vision" to contend with a world increasingly overwhelmed by environmental damage. It became the last refuge for humans after the reported rising of the oceans (an emphasis mysteriously put on the word during today's presentation). However, as is so often the case with idealistic utopian cities, it quickly descended into a messy factional war, and now resembles a run down shanty town. Two factions remain, the Resistance (mercenaries rebelling against the evil dictatorship) and the Security (officials attempting to maintain or restore their law and order).
So what do you do in this Ark? Rather a lot, as it happens. At first glance of the FPS, it was hard to spot what was original about it. It's 8v8 multiplayer, with the eight on each side working cooperatively. Beyond the game looking pretty gorgeous, it doesn't seem like it's doing anything special. Until you see the Objective Wheel.
Your team of eight, whether all human, some human, or just you and the machines, has tasks to complete. Many, many tasks. And many each. These aren't objectives everyone works together on - instead you pull up the Objective Wheel (OW, because it's funny in capital letters) to see what needs doing. Perhaps an enemy needs interrogating, or an engineer is needed to perform some specific tasks, or a robot needs escorting. Pick one, it becomes your task, the floaty compass pointing you toward it, and it may well effect the tasks available to everyone else on your team. Perhaps they'll now have options to help back you up.
Part of this means being able to change class at any time you can find a terminal. Become a soldier and you'll be tasked with blasting through enemies. Switch to engineer and you'll have jobs like laying down turrets or fixing cranes. Find that the bot escort mission you were on isn't making good progress? Switch out to another challenge and perhaps help clear the way. In order to pick things from the OW you'll need to spend XP, which is earned by completing tasks and shooting the enemy. XP is also spent on new weapons and customisations for your character, which are persistent changes in the game world.
If you're muddled about any of that, then frankly so are we. Quite getting to grips with how eight people choosing different objectives but working together is going to work we can't know without playing it. But Splash Damage say they spend all day every day playing the multiplayer, and are confident they're tweaking it to perfection.
Also of note is the SMART system. A quite astoundingly horrible acronym, standing for Smooth Movement Around Random Terrain (in the demo the terrain seemed remarkably predictable - no exploding turtles or pavements turning into soup), but a potentially excellent inclusion. SMART means the game is constantly calculating every potential next move you could make, and able to offer the "smartest choice of movement."
In practise this means that when holding down the SMART button, you'll automatically traverse the terrain without having to juggle the controls yourself. SD were quick to point out this wasn't an attempt to simplify the controls for "newbies", but rather to allow more complicated manoeuvrability. So yes, holding it down and run forward, and you'll automatically jump fences, dodge furniture, etc. But apply it tactically and it can let you intuitively move in an intelligent way. See an archway that's dangerous to run through? Look up as you hold down SMART and it will know you want to jump up and over it. Look down and you'll feet-first slide as if stealing base. It means you can leap and glide around while focusing on combat. There's still a hesitation here - the Assassin's Creed Syndrome where you feel you're uninvolved in the more fun acrobatics could still be a problem. Again, we'd have to play with it ourselves before we could know either way.
Eight player co-op multiplayer is an interesting mid-point between smaller co-op 'offline' gaming, and larger death matches. Even in single player solo you'll have seven AI players on your side. There's cutscenes triggered after completing sections to tell the larger story, and set up the next situation, which if played in co-op give your team a chance to spend XP, upgrade weapons, and so on, if they've seen it before.
Brink is looking like an interesting new angle on co-op/multiplayer gaming. A slightly bemusing one, certainly, but one I'm interested to decipher.