REVIEWS -- Brink -- PC
On the verge of being good
by Tim White
Fun factor: Average
Worth to: Rent
Brink is not without its bright spots, but many may find its blemishes too numerous to bear.
Before I say anything more, I should first point out that Brink is not at all the type of game I thought it was. From the trailers I had seen and reviews I had read, I interpreted it to be an RPG-shooter a-la Borderlands, perhaps leaning more heavily toward the shooter side. Once my initial confusion passed, I found a story which is all too common these days: great potential buried under a mound of poor execution.
Anyone who played the ill-received videogame translation of Shadowrun will immediately recognize many elements of Brink. The first thing you do is choose whether you’ll be fighting on the side of the cleverly-named Security or the Resistance they’re trying to put down. The Security wants the Resistance to stay on the Ark – some sort of floating slum city – though this is where Brink hits its first of many hiccups. What the Ark really is, why it came to be, why the Security is willing to kill to keep people on it – none of this is ever even remotely explained. Brink’s approach is basically “here are some bland, boring maps – go kill stuff, if you can get past the awful gun mechanics and semi-broken parkour.” What’s worse is that I don’t care. Nothing in the weaksauce back story makes me even a little curious. The whole affair comes across as being written by a high school freshman who read 1984 but didn’t really understand it.
Once you’re past the nonsensical intro, you’re asked to create a character. The customization options start off on the right track, offering a wide variety of hairstyles, tattoos and clothing. One thing is rather jarring: not only can you not create a female character, but there are apparently no women whatsoever in the world of Brink, except for the kinda-sorta Judi Dench narrator. Perhaps the men of the Resistance have somehow become hermaphroditic, and the Security cannot allow this bizarre new technology to escape the Ark and upset our very biology – your guess is as good as mine, really.
Once you’ve created a character, you’re given a quick rundown of the basics and then left free to start a single-player campaign, complete some lackluster challenges, run around aimlessly in free-play, or hop into some online multiplayer. None of these options were very appealing, particularly in light of how awesome they could have been with such a good idea at Brink’s foundation, but I sat through all four modes anyway, partially for the sake of a thorough review and partially hoping at some point it would blow me away like I had been hoping it would prior to release. Despite the general “meh” response the game elicits, there are nonetheless some things worth praising, but let’s establish some context first.
Needs a SMARTer parkour engine
I started by running through the challenges – a whopping four of them – since completing them is the only way to unlock new weapons and gear. Each one starts at an easy difficulty, and you can play it twice more to progress to normal and hard level challenges each time. Regardless of the difficulty you select, the only difference it really makes is how easily you die and how many thousands of bullets your opponents can absorb before noticing they’re being shot. This is my biggest beef with this game: every mission, every mode, follows a pattern of predictable, patronizing AI that makes the game feel like a chore rather than a leisure activity (unless you’re playing online with real people, but that has its own set of issues – more on that later).
Each mission sets you up with a few objectives to accomplish and a time limit to do so, but it really doesn’t matter how good you are or aren’t. The first half of the match, you may as well not bother; after some experimentation, I have concluded that the objectives are basically designed to be impossible for about the first half of the match, after which AI opponents become steadily more incompetent, thereby allowing you to breeze on through the mission. It’s almost as though the developers didn’t want you to be able to finish a mission too quickly and felt it necessary to make you spend at least x minutes on each objective. Dudes that were pistol-sniping you in the brain from 12 football fields away earlier are now too busy running into a soda machine to notice or care that you are casually sauntering out of their base with their briefcase of irreplaceable intel.
On the subject of running, Brink takes a great idea and fumbles it when it comes to movement. Pretty much every shooter out there lets you run, crouch, jump, and occasionally do a context-sensitive vault, but that’s about it. Brink takes movement ten steps further by implementing a system they call S.M.A.R.T, or “smooth movement across random terrain.” Fancy name aside, it’s basically parkour, or it would be, if it worked. It’s not completely broken, but it certainly isn’t what the trailers make it look like. The idea is a good one: hold down a single button while running to climb, vault or jump over anything in your way, smoothly stringing together freerunning techniques to complete the mission and look way more awesome while doing it. The problem is in its execution, which reeks of inconsistency. I typically played with a Light Body Type character – smaller guys who move faster and jump higher, but are less durable. This sounds great, and looks great as you smoothly hop over a pipe and scramble up and over a tall fence, but furrowed brows abound when you suddenly slam to a halt in front of a waist-high table.
The game claims you can vault or climb pretty much anything inside the boundaries of the map, but this is basically a lie. Easily half of the objects which should easily be SMART-able by even the casual athlete end up netting you a bullet in the skull while you ponder why, exactly, you can’t jump over this three-foot garbage can. Even when the mechanic works, it’s often ugly – leaping across a wide gap usually results in you face-planting into the wall, falling a few feet, then magically floating back up and transitioning into a climbing animation, presumably while giving physics a giant middle finger with whatever third hand is holding your gun while you do this.
Mission structure is at least reasonably solid – there are four classes, each with a specific set of talents. Certain objectives can only be accomplished by a given class – only soldiers can blow things up, for example. This mechanic encourages good teamwork and a balance of classes, but if you’re playing solo, you’ll end up doing all the work, because your teammates are content to spend the whole day dying in the most unlikely fashions. It got to the point where I would finally get the bomb planted, then immediately kill myself so I could spawn as a different class to take on the next objective, since waiting for your AI companions to do something useful is a good way to... do a lot of waiting, I guess. In addition, the missions themselves seem completely random. Bust this guy out of prison, but why? Who is he, and why are we sending a dozen men in after him? Also, the introduction and completion to each mission is exactly the same no matter which side you’re playing on – the Security’s victory screen is the Resistance’s failure screen and vice versa. Once you’ve played through as one side, you’ve seen the whole campaign.
The one good thing I can say about the gameplay is the weapon customization. There are lots of gadgets you can hook onto your guns, and mixing and matching them is easy and fun. Player skills and unlockable class abilities function in basically the same way, but they’re more or less divided into categories of “must have to succeed” and “things I wouldn’t buy if I literally had nothing else to spend skill points on.” As fun as the gunsmithing is, the sensation quickly evaporates when it comes time to use your new toys. The shooting mechanics are simply awful: every gun feels comically underpowered; professional soldiers feel no need to carry more than 2 magazines of ammunition into battle; and the recoil on even the dinkiest peashooters is pure Hollywood. I’m an experienced shooter in real life, and I can assure you that a house cat with an assault rifle duct-taped to its back can maintain better control of a weapon than these guys can; even firing in short bursts makes your sights bounce all over the screen like you’re having a seizure. The guns are so wildly inaccurate that I used grenades as a primary weapon – at least they explode and have a chance of hitting something.
On the technical side of the field, Brink is pretty much average across the board. Voice acting is so-so, music is forgettable, and sound effects are passable, but not terrible. Graphics are good, with pretty colors and a good frame rate, but for some reason everyone has a horse-face. Maps are boring, but at least they’re a pretty-to-look-at kind of boring.
If you’re still reading, you, like me, probably had some high hopes for this game. I’m happy to now announce that it isn’t a complete failure. If you’re going to play Brink, do it online with real people, but you should probably wait for a patch first. Matchmaking is a hot mess; connections are dropped frequently, but this usually happens during setup – I never experienced it once I was actually in a match. Most of the time I ran lag-free, but about once every two or three matches I’d hit a total freeze which seemed to affect everyone for about five seconds. I’m running a 25mbps connection, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t me, but I asked Google to be sure and found many other people reporting similar issues.
Teeth-grinding aside, when Brink is running smoothly in multiplayer is when it’s more or less actually enjoyable. Rapidly sizing up the battlefield and staying in constant contact with your teammates regarding changing objectives and switching classes is great fun, so much so that you can ignore how badly you’re all shooting, since it’s at least a level playing field without shamelessly cheating bots. Usually when I play games online, I find myself drifting to a different lobby after a few matches once my threshold for F-bombing 10 year-olds is reached, but I actually added a few people from Brink to my friends list. For some reason, it seems to attract more people who actually want to play a team-based game and use tactics. It may even be appropriate to say that Brink forces you to work well together: the balance is precarious and can shift often, so a single rogue can guarantee your team’s defeat.
To summarize, Brink can best be classified as a learning experience. This may sound strange, but I hope to see a Brink 2 – in other words, what this game could have and should have been. The idea of a team-based parkour-shooter with classes, levels and customization out the wazoo is so cool I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. The idea of a playlist of campaign missions which can tell a story through a team vs. team structure is also highly appealing, and I’d like to see more of it, just with more emphasis on the story. I get that not every game is about weaving an epic tale full of mystery and intrigue, and that’s fine, just be honest about it, rather than spending twenty minutes to throw together a super-generic plot which could just as easily not exist.
All in all, if you’re a GameFly subscriber, or if there is still something akin to a Blockbuster in your town, pick up Brink and give it a try. It deserves that much, but only the most jubilant of online gamers will want to buy it.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Splash Damage
Release Date: May 13, 2011
Review Date: 20-06-2011
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: 2-16
Notes: Leaderboards, Voice Chat, Downloadable Content
Environments are boring, but pretty. People look kinda weird, but it’s a style choice, not a question of competence in animation.
Guns = broken. Parkour needs a lot of work to function like it’s meant to, and AI is either astoundingly stupid or Terminator-deadly, with nothing in between.
It’s hard to say whether the parkour is poorly programmed, or if it works like it was intended to and is therefore a bad design choice, but I’m venturing a guess at the former. Other production elements are solid.
Nothing outstanding, but nothing jaw-droppingly bad either.
Another difficult call, but if you enjoy team-based games with real people, you might get a big kick out of Brink. If you’re still playing it after a day, you’ve probably come to terms with its other issues and are happily savoring its better moments in multiplayer.