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Brink Hands-on Preview: Aboard the Ark

on 5 March 2011

Splash Damage’s Brink is not easy to classify. “But wait,” you say, “isn’t Brink a first-person shooter?” Why yes, it is a first-person shooter, but it’s not a single-player, competitive multiplayer, or cooperative multiplayer game — it’s all three at once. Its parkour-style movement and dynamic objectives further complicate the genre issue, so I won’t slap a standard classification on Brink; instead, I’ll tell you that Brink is audacious, gorgeous, and a whole lot of fun.

Brink takes place in 2045 on a floating city known as the Ark. Financed by billionaire philanthropists, the Ark was constructed in 2012 as a green and sustainable city of the future. All goes well until 2025, when the oceanic metropolis suddenly loses contact with the rest of the earth. Soon, refugees pour in from flooded islands, leading the city’s residents to presume that rising oceans have engulfed all of humanity. Originally intended to support 5,000 people, the Ark now hosts 50,000 refugees. As conditions dilapidate and plagues break out, a rebellion begins to challenge the security forces on the Ark. The resistance forces seek a fairer distribution of resources from what they perceive as the dictatorial security forces, while the security forces see the rebels as terrorists. As such, the city lies on the ‘brink’ of civil war.

At Bethesda’s recent spring showcase event, I boarded the Ark to play two levels of Brink. After I watched a few intro videos, I hopped into the customization mode where I fiddled around with my appearance, weapon, and abilities. The customization options for both resistance soldiers and security forces are extremely extensive. Your weapon add-ons — silencers, scopes, ammo reserves and so on — directly influence gameplay. Even for the non-essential customization, Splash Damage paid such careful attention to detail that, for example, separate outfits sound distinctive as the characters skulk about the map. The audio design as a whole is quite superb — firing from the hip sounds dramatically different from firing down the sight. As Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgwood told me, “30% of what you see is actually what you hear.”

Brink offers four evenly powered character classes: soldier, the assault class; operative, the stealth class; engineer; the support class; and medic, the healer class. (You can switch classes in-game at any command post your team controls.) Starting off as a soldier, I hopped into one of the security force missions. Another journalist and I teamed up to take on the AI hordes cooperatively. After our customized avatars starred in the opening cutscene, we began to play.

Part 1 of PSU's interview with Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgwood

Playing a PS3 preview build, I quickly came to grips with the controls, which are fairly complex but well mapped. L2 controls the S.M.A.R.T. (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) button; you can either hold it down to have the AI determine your intended action, or press it at will to perform all sorts of parkour feats manually. After years of being foiled by chest-high walls in first-person shooters, the S.M.A.R.T. system is a breath of fresh air. I was easily able to clamber up walls, slide under objects, vault over rails and the like. I’ve never played a first-person game other than Mirror’s Edge that offered such freedom of movement. Since Brink is a first-person shooter, this equates to an explosion of new gameplay strategies. Rather than assault the enemies head on, perhaps it’s better to climb up a story or two and fire rain down the pain from above, or scurry over a nearby fence to flank the enemy forces.

While eliminating enemies — interchangeably humans or bots — is obviously a key part of Brink, doing so is a by-product of the game’s dynamic objectives. At any given time, you’re able to access a ‘mission wheel’ that displays a variety of objectives that need to be completed. There’s always a recommended objective tailored to the class you’re playing — engineers might be prompted to repair a friendly robot, for example — but you’re able to select whichever one you please. Once you’ve embarked on a mission, it’s not binding; you’re able to change objectives at will. Some will garner you more experience points than others, though.

Part 2 of PSU's interview with Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgwood

That embodies what is so brilliant about Brink: the game encourages ‘selfish’ teamwork. By providing the most XP for objectives that best benefit your team — whether it be healing people as a medic, blowing up a gate as a soldier, fixing a machine as an engineer — Brink’s teams will always work as a friendly, cohesive, productive unit. It’s genius; pure, unbridled genius.

I was about to end the preview there — it seemed like the right spot — but, like an overexcited child, I simply can’t stop gushing about this game. Featuring a neat lean and peak system that adds depth to the firefights, the core gunplay feels great. It looks great, too. Brink’s distinctive graphics straddle the line between a realistic world and a hand-drawn cartoon, successfully sidestepping the dreaded uncanny valley.

My first hands-on experience with Brink was like a high. Sitting here writing about it, but not actually playing it, I feel clammy and empty. I can’t wait to play more — in fact, I think I have to play more. Somehow, I’ll make do without it for the next two months. And on May 17, the game’s U.S. release date, I’ll taste Brink’s sweet, sweet nectar once again.