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Second Opinion Review: Brink
by Linford Butler

Our first review of the PC version of Brink can be found here.

"Move more than you shoot" is an interesting premise, not least in a first-person shooter, a genre of gaming that intrinsically lends itself to combat-heavy bulletfests. Counting them on one hand, there aren't many FPS games that I can think of in which more movement than combat would be logical, let alone effective. Yet, it's key advice in Brink; a focus on movement, rather than the discharging of one's weapon, is supposed to be the core mechanic of the game, the key component around which the rest of the game is built. Goodness knows that the S.M.A.R.T. system - the mechanic which facilitates the movement aspect of Brink, and is surprisingly reminiscent of EA's Mirror's Edge - has been lauded enough. Yet, Brink is also simultaneously trying to play the 'meaty, manly, gritty FPS' card, one which we know lends itself to mindless explosive shooting and not alot besides. Being frank, Brink steers dangerously close to being an incomprehensible, hazily-defined mess of nearly-incompatible ideas, but Splash Damage's latest creation manages to hold steadfast by rewarding players with a rare, intelligent tactical experience that, when all the aspects come together, can sometimes create the perfect storm.

That only happens in very specific circumstances, however. At the outset, Brink can feel bloated, laggy, inaccessible and generally unpolished, as though the foundations are there but are barely built upon. This is, perhaps, the main criticism of Brink cited by games journalists; though the original creative interpretation, the 'vision', is there, most of what Brink does and is feels underdeveloped, with seemingly important aspects proving, in truth, the most irrelevant. The first question Brink asks you, for example, is whether you choose to save or escape the Ark, the floating city in which the game's action plays out. Two simple options on a serious monocrome screen, that - whether through the minimalism or the build-up that the choice is given through an 'all-that-happened-up-to-now' video preluding the choice - suggests some level of importance leading into the rest of the game. It should have been a choice that massively shapes how you experience Brink but, in fact, it has no effect whatsoever; it seems a superflous addition that appears to act solely to give some underdefined sense of context to the story. The story itself is really given little attention; there is the vague suggestion of a relatively generic civil-war-esque struggle, but the narrative is limited to the extreme, delivered within the tight boundaries of incredibly short cut-scenes at the beginning and end of each mission, and a slightly longer but still restricted cut-scene at the outset and resolution of the overarching campaign.

Brink's campaign mode is played out in what is, essentially, a series of faux-multiplayer arenas. This, combined with the minimal narrative, is a real shame. Brink's basis is there, but stylistically it is poorly executed offline; I found myself craving a much more linear, character- and narrative-based storyline, instead of the arena-based multiplayer-with-AI that Brink's offline component is made up of. Such a storyline, as seen in other first-person shooters, would have provided opportunities to develop the sense of plotline and character progression, giving much more of a feeling of being part of a larger struggle and allowing some aspect of emotional involvement with the characters' plight, and therefore increasing the player's immersion in the world of Brink. Unfortunately, the style of offline gameplay that the developers chose - whilst admittedly increasing the players familiarity with an online style of gameplay, even before jumping into the internet-based world of Brink's online component - simply didn't leave any space for a rewarding narrative and plot, a major oversight which leaves the player feeling, at the end of each campaign, no more affected or involved than they felt at the outset.

On a lighter note, the combat in Brink is solid, and - whilst occassionally suffering from slight lag issues, and despite needing some concerted effort to even out the damage balancing - can admittedly be enjoyable to play. There is a wide range of weaponry, all of which is available from the beginning of the game, and which can be tweaked and customised with additional unlocks (such as scopes, special magazines or muzzle breakers) earned through completing the game's 'challenges'. Customisation is a major aspect of Brink which is developed and polished: the sheer number of possible options for customising your character or weaponry (from headwear to clothing, and much more besides) is incredible, and ensures that a player can be relatively sure that their character, warts and all, is unique. The shooting itself is fine, but nothing particularly special, and major improvement to the damage balancing (in addition to increasing the level of force feedback through the Dualshock 3) would serve well to increase the level of satisfaction gleaned from the shooting mechanic itself, something which is currently lacking. Brink's class-based structure can work well, but is really only fully effective online; offline, the only useful aspect is the medic's ability to revive fallen teammates, although the class roles can remain entirely untouched without much impact on the outcome of the mission.

Brink's 'S.M.A.R.T.' system - which stands for 'Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain', a sort of parkour-based free movement mechanic which essentially enables the player to move freely over obstacles and climb objects, in Mirror's Edge-esque style - is a strange beast. The idea is interesting and innovative, introducing something rare and unusual to a first-person shooter; a component which reduces the relatively monotonous, unvarying nature of a shooter's mechanic by adding something that removes the restrictions posed by the game environment, allowing a more free-flowing, organic-feeling battle through much more liberated movement. Whilst, the majority of the time, S.M.A.R.T. does its job, it can be rather hit-and-miss at times, and though it's meant to be one of the most core aspects of Brink, it is incredibly easy to largely ignore or grossly underuse during play. There just isn't enough in the way of signposting or involvement in the game's situations; where S.M.A.R.T. could have been the central entity, key to success, S.M.A.R.T. feels, honestly, like merely a late addition. We all know it isn't, as it has been heralded throughout Brink's extended marketing campaign as the game's unique selling point, but it just doesn't feel as key or as central as it should have done; it can be easily sidelined or even forgotten entirely by the player, particularly in the face of the multitude of different objectives and enemies that one has to deal with simultaneously. Moreover - and Andrew touched on this in our first review of Brink - the mere concept of the player moving instead of trying to despatch enemies is illogical, considering the fact that the enemy can merely shoot players down, mid-freerun.

S.M.A.R.T. an intelligent, inspired concept that has real potential, but needed to be more focussed and more integral to the core functions of Brink; in other words, the implementation needed to lead players down a more linear route in order to make the S.M.A.R.T. system key to solving challenges posed by the environment that the player encounters - the freedom of movement would be better obtained not by giving the player entire freedom to traverse the map as they wish, but instead by leading them more directly into challenges where the S.M.A.R.T. system would have to have been utilised, increasing player familiarity with the function and also making it tenfold more relevant.

To be frank, I've thus far been relatively scathing of Brink. The truth is, it isn't bad. It's just that all the technical aspects of the game are just... well, passable, but flawed. They're nothing special, they aren't polished and some aspects are underdeveloped, but they do function at least somewhat well, allowing the player to meander through the storyline and have some fun in places. Yet, as a whole of its technical parts, Brink solely does what it has to do to work, and not a whole lot else. Each idea behind it is interesting and, potentially, could have been groundbreaking, but they're many ideas which have come together to make an indistinct mess of different influences, rather than the carefully shaped composition it should have been, and which would have ensured success.

And then you go online, and things change drastically.

This is the 'perfect storm' I mentioned earlier, and it only happens online and when some key constituents come together. Playing with people you know, utilising voice comms, and particularly if your online compatriots are familiar with the game's mechanics and environments, Brink becomes an entirely different beast altogether. When playing with real people, all those individual aspects that, offline, create a mulch of goodness-knows-what, become clearer, more defined, and infinitely more relevant. Instead of gameplay where the class-based team structure has little or no pertinency, due to the patchy use of buffs by AI, each online player has a real sense of responsibility to support their teammates within the power of their class - each person becomes important, even essential, to the overall performance during a mission. Furthermore - and this applies to most FPS games online, but particularly to Brink, due to the objective-centric gameplay - the online encourages a gameplay style which is boundlessly more tactical than offline, due to the fact that - playing alongside real human beings - one can predict and anticipate their teammates' movements and offensives, and so can then compensate in their own playstyle for their teammates tactics and plan accordingly, leading to an overall more tactical, more intelligent experience that's likely to be much more successful and rewarding to the player, due to each player's individual feeling of involvement and influence. True, there are still slight issues with lag (and all the other technical shortcomings that plague the offline function), but online play on Brink is truly an experience, which somewhat evens out the problems and pulls Brink further towards what it should have been in the first place - an intelligent, tactical, rewarding shooter.

Brink has been a particularly interesting game to review. It poses questions about the inherent nature of videogames reviewing, ones that have seriously made me reassess the way I analyse and judge a game, and the way games journalism tackles reviewing in general. Should a reviewer consider the game based solely on what is there in front of them, the sum of its technical parts and nothing more; or should one review a game based on the emotional response it inspires, the abstract concept of an 'experience' which isn't included on the disc, but which the game serves as the trigger for? It's a question with particular gravity when it comes to Brink, as the two different approaches to reviewing would warrant two entirely different review scores, two strikingly dissimilar responses. Technically, I think it's fair to say that Brink is sub-par and, in many ways, a disappointment, particularly considering the extensive marketing campaign that painted the picture of a game of the year candidate. However, when the right things come together - that is, when online - Brink can be tense, exciting, tactical, and - dare I say it - groundbreaking, a first-person shooter that disinclines the typical run-and-gun fray and, by the nature of its objective- and role-based mechanics, creates an FPS in which pre-emptive thought is not merely a sideline, but is entirely instrumental in the success of the team.

When it comes down to it, however, Brink exhibits many key technical issues which show less than the highest level of polish. Those looking for a deep storyline or developed narrative won't find a home here, and whilst the art style is original, texture popping and other such graphical issues can often prove irritating, entirely ruining player immersion in whichever cut-scene they're watching. The gun roster is relatively widely spread, but the effort spent on it would have been better employed in ensuring the damage was balanced between player and enemy. The S.M.A.R.T. system is an intelligent idea but, sadly, underdeveloped and largely sidelined. Brink, online, can be intelligent and rewarding, but the mere fact that it takes certain independent components to come together before Brink is rendered entirely enjoyable (in this case, other people) is a testament to the fact that more work was needed in every aspect - further development of the core game mechanics, and a larger focus on appropriating them to be essential in the way a mission plays out, rather than the somewhat ignorable implementation of those mechanics in Brink currently. Brink has potential and can be an excellent experience, but it just doesn't deliver on what it could have been. It's an intelligent, even groundbreaking, idea - but it could have been so much more.

6/10 [?]

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- Linford Butler

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