US: 10 May 2011
Brink is a flawed game, but its flaws are fascinating in that they’re not obvious from the beginning. If you were to play a demo of Brink, you would likely enjoy yourself, but the more time you spend with the game, the more you learn how its systems work (or rather how they’re supposed to work) the more frustrating its flaws become. That’s because Brink has a lot of good ideas, but it doesn’t follow through on any of them.
Brink begins with an interesting premise. The world has flooded and most of humanity has fled to the Ark, a floating city built to be sustainable. But the rush of refugees has strained the economy of the Ark, splitting its society into haves and have nots until a full scale rebellion breaks out. Audio logs flesh out this interesting back story, but back story is not plot.
The plot is an incoherent mess. There are hints of a story in the mission briefings and cut scenes that play as each map loads, but the characters are bland and the dialogue is vague, so all this exposition just becomes background noise. The campaign consists of battles without context, like an online multiplayer shooter. This isn’t surprising since Brink tries to wed single player and multiplayer styles, but in doing so, it loses all the qualities that make a single player game so compelling: story, characters, and pacing. There is no true single player mode in Brink, just offline multiplayer.
As a game focused on its multiplayer, Brink tries to set itself apart by emphasizing the team rather than the individual. Players can switch between five classes at any point in the match, and each class is usually given a special objective. If your team is supposed to escort a security robot, the Engineer class is tasked with protecting and repairing the robot while the Soldier class is tasked with clearing the path of any debris. The classes are well balanced, as each one brings a welcome trait to the team both offensively and defensively. Soldiers pass out ammo and throw Molotov cocktails, Engineers buff guns and set turrets, Medics revive and heal, and Operatives reveal hidden enemies and go stealth themselves. If Brink were just about Team Deathmatch, the variety of classes would allow even the worst player to help the team. But Brink is about completing objectives within a time limit, and sadly the objectives don’t take advantage of this class variety.
The primary objective is too important, and secondary objectives are so secondary that they’re pointless. Capturing command posts or building machine gun nests have no discernible impact on the flow of battle. The best strategy is to swarm the primary objective with every class. Since the classes support each other well in battle, a team working together can complete most objectives. Unless you’re on the attacking team, in which case the odds are stacked against you from the beginning due to some incredibly poor level design.
The maps heavily favor the defenders. Attackers often have to repair/hack/detonate something, but the path to that something funnels the team into some brutal chokepoints. The paths are too narrow, allowing a small group of defenders to slaughter a larger group of attackers. Add in some turrets and mines from enemy Engineers and you’ve got an impassable gauntlet of carnage. It’s during these moments that the game drags. It feels unfair and frustrating. You spawn only to die at the same place over and over again. There are other paths to take but they’re also easily defendable, so a couple defenders set at each path can hold back any attack. The only way through is by sheer force. The game ceases to be tactical and gets bogged down in mindless shooting.
Once you break through these defenses, the objective itself is always is an open area, so anyone trying to do their job is an easy target. It doesn’t help that objectives take a long time to complete, and if you’re killed at any point, the enemy can reverse your progress. You’ll spend five frantic minutes hacking a terminal amidst a firefight only to be killed at 99% completion, and then the defending team will take your progress back to zero in 30 seconds. The fun of any multiplayer shooter stems from the back and forth of battle, but in Brink, there is no back and forth. Attackers are always fighting against the tide, so much so that the outcome of a match is pretty much determined before the match even begins.
Since “the team” is so important in Brink, if you play offline, you’ll play with and against computer controlled opponents. Though even if you play online, you’ll fight with these bots a lot since half your team is usually bots anyway, and the moment a player leaves the AI takes over that character.
The AI is horribly inconsistent. At the beginning of a match the bots are cowards, always happy to buff your gun or speed or health but never brave enough to push forwards on their own. The player must lead any attack and capture any objectives, but the bots don’t provide proper offensive support. They don’t offer covering fire. They don’t build turrets or place mines. They don’t watch your back. They just revive you when you die, and this sort of defensive play doesn’t win matches. This behavior continues until there’s about one minute left on the clock at which point the AI gets smarter and everyone starts working together, but by then, it’s too late to complete the objective. It feels like the bots are purposefully gimped for the majority of the game just to prolong the match.
The one success of Brink is its S.M.A.R.T. (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) movement system that allows players to perform parkour like a pro. While holding the run button, you automatically jump over gaps, vault over cover, climb up walls, etc. The fluidity with which you can run and jump makes simple movement fun, but this wonderful system is just used as a band aid in Brink to cover up more flaws. There’s no forward spawn, so you’ll spend a lot of time running from the beginning of a level to where the action is. If your team is stuck in one of those gauntlets, you can easily spend more time running than shooting. In any other game, this constant running back and forth would be annoying, but the S.M.A.R.T. system makes it fun. In this case however, fun doesn’t mean well designed.
Brink also touts a lot of customization but delivers mixed results. The character creator has an impressive variety of races, and Brink is perhaps the most racially diverse shooter on the market. You have to really work to create a generic looking white guy. But this racial diversity makes the absence of women all the more glaring. You can also customize your character with abilities that you earn from leveling up, but this doesn’t last long since the levels end at 20. You can reach that within a week while you go through all the campaign levels, and after that, there’s not much of a reason to keep playing. Progression is fun and addictive and there’s a reason that Call of Duty games let players “prestige” and reset their progress. There’s an intrinsic pleasure in watching your creation evolve over time, and Brink ends that evolution too early.
Nothing in Brink works as it should. The maps are grossly unbalanced, secondary objectives don’t matter, it takes far too long to complete objectives, the fun parkour just covers up repetitive gameplay, and you can max out a character in a week. The more that you play Brink the more its unbalanced design wears on you until playing becomes a chore. There are a lot of good ideas here, the team-based objective-driven gameplay, the attempt to add a story to multiplayer, and the especially the S.M.A.R.T. movement system, but these ideas deserve a better game. One that can actually fulfill their potential.