Monday, May 23, 2011

Brink Review

Brink, developed by Splash Damage and published by Bethesda Softworks.
The Good: Strong focus on team play through distinct classes, fluid movement around and over objects, all weapons available for every class restricted only by body type, online opponents can join your single player campaign automatically, large variety of weapons and attachments, informative HUD and dynamic objective wheel, patient-controlled medic revival and other innovations, most unlocked abilities not required to survive, cooperative and competitive multiplayer, most weapons and all basic abilities initially available to new players and unlock fairly quickly, online matches segregated by rank, extensive character customization
The Not So Good: Disappointing teammate AI makes for mediocre single player, only eight maps
What say you? This class-based first person shooter places emphases on team dynamics through objectives and adds a multitude of notable advancements to the genre: 7/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

NOTE: I am currently having a couple of technical issues with the game: the sound stops functioning on two of the maps, and my ATI graphics card shows garbled text characters, occasionally makes some units invisible, and exhibits poor performance with some graphical settings enabled. I hope these issues will be solved in an expedient manner.

The days of isolationism are over: it’s time to work together! Clearly, cooperative play is all the rage in computer gaming these days, as tackling the world’s problems is too much for one man. This trend has extended to online shooters, as team-based affairs are steadily increasing in popularity. You know the drill: pick a class, throw out some health packs or build some turrets, and help your team towards ultimate victory. One of the better takes on the class-based shooter is the Enemy Territory series, last encountered in Quake Wars, a personal favorite. Next up is Brink (not BRINK: there is no shouting, unless we are taking about TASTY WAFFLES), and the developer has taken the battles and streamlined them with smaller maps and fewer classes, with a couple of new assists for completing objectives and moving fluidly around the map. Does this make Brink a must-have?

Brink features a unique visual style, combining Team Fortress 2’s cartoon aesthetic and a more realistic future of industrial ruin. Each of the game’s eight maps are detailed, featuring distinctive indoor settings. The texture work is varied and done well overall, creating a run-down, rusty, and dilapidated environment. The character models are highlighted by the varied options given to customize the appearance of your in-game avatars. The animations could use more work: interactions involve inputting far away from devices, and death animations are silly, with downed enemies flopping as if faking a foul in soccer. The weapons have convincing models that make it easy to identify its real-life counterpart, and tracers scream across the battlefield. While larger explosions are powerful, grenades are visually very weak. The sound design is pretty good, starting with the weapon effects: each of the game’s guns has a different sound, and adept players can identify a weapon based on sound alone. Running is accompanied by movement sounds (equipment rubbing together inappropriately) reminiscent of ArmA. There aren’t as many environmental war effects as other online shooters, but they are good enough. The voice acting is a bit varied, and the occasional background music is haunting while incapacitated. Overall, I have little to complain about in terms of graphics and sound.

Brink is an objective-based shooter that features different classes that must work together to succeed. The game is played with eight-on-eight battles (obviously a concession for the console’s poor peer-to-peer multiplayer networking) that take place across two campaigns, presented Left 4 Dead-style with interstitial cutscenes (complete with the player customized characters seen during a game...neat). Each side gets eight missions, although they are the same eight missions, just played in a slightly different order with opposing objectives. The objectives are a linear series of tasks that must be completed in order: plant bombs, hack computers, repair things, deliver item, or escort things like VIPs and vehicles. Most objectives must be completed by a specific class, so a well-rounded team is mandatory. There are typically multiple paths (two to three) to each objective from your spawn point, but the map design is still chokepoint-heavy (especially around objective locations) where stalemates may arise (good news for the defenders).

Brink allows you to play each campaign mission alone, cooperatively against AI bots, or versus other human players. The latter two options are strongly suggested, as the friendly AI teammates are less than stellar (enemy AI puts up a good fight, though, especially if they are defending). The game will automatically match you with players of the same rank, making sure everyone (AI included) is playing with a similar set of abilities. Online players can also be incorporated into your game mid-match, which is cool (although I tend to join other people’s games in the last minute, for some reason). Losing a campaign mission will replay it, while the opposing team (if they are human) will advance to the next map. If the linear structure of the campaign is too restrictive for you, free play missions are available where you can customize the game settings: AI difficulty, team size, friendly fire, and team balancing (all of these options can be adjusted on a dedicated server, too). An additional option is stopwatch mode, where the teams switch sides and the previous defender tries to best the attacker’s time. While Brink features a server browser, it lacks intuitive filters (just try to figure out how to filter out empty or full servers). There is also no “quick match” option to join any campaign mission immediately.

In addition to the campaign modes, there are four challenges that act like interactive tutorials. They are used to teach the basics of the game mechanics while unlocking weapons and attachments. The three difficulty levels for each must be completed in sequential order, and they can be tough. Luckily, you can play these online as well, and having competent allies is very useful in completing the missions. Unfortunately, playing cooperatively disables the ability to unlock new items, so you must deal with AI teammates if you want all of the goods. The utter incompetence of friendly bots makes it impossible to pass two-star (and above) challenges: I'm always fighting one-on-five, and the enemy bots are far more accurate than my allies. Still, this method of learning the game is much more entertaining than having to sit through the lengthy and tedious videos.

Brink features four classes, and the basic abilities (described below) of each are available immediately; no more dying through twenty games waiting for medic paddles. The soldier can complete explosive objectives, refill the ammunition of nearby allies, and throw molotovs. The medic can buff the health of others and throw revive syringes to incapacitated teammates. The engineer can complete construction objectives, plant and defuse mines, or buff weapon damage. And, finally, the operative can hack objectives, spot enemy mines, and disguise as deceased enemy units. I found strengths in all four classes, and all are necessary to keep your team going. The operative starts out as the least useful (and, consequently, least played) because they don’t have any low-level buffs to gain easy experience, but once their mid-level abilities are unlocked (namely their varied grenades and turret hacking skills), they become an integral part of the battlefield. You can change your class at any time by using a command post (don’t have to respawn), and capturing additional command posts will give a team-wide buff to health or supplies. Unlike other games, in Brink you toss items (ammo, health) directly at your allies instead of placing them on the ground and hoping they notice. This is an admittedly minor improvement, but it’s a good one since I don’t have people ignore my health packs anymore, depriving me of precious experience points.

Brink lets you use any gun as any class, the only restriction being body type (light, medium, and heavy, unlocked fairly early (a couple of hours) in the game). This is a fantastic amount of freedom that allows for combinations other team-based shooters simply don’t allow. A medic with a shotgun? Sure. An operative with a grenade launcher? Why not. An engineer with a machine gun? Absolutely. You can carry two weapons, one of your body type and one lighter than your body type. Heavy characters can wield machine guns and grenade launchers, medium characters can use assault rifles and shotguns, and light units are girlie men that can only carry submachine guns and light rifles. Anyone can carry a handgun for backup, too, of course. There are two to five options in each class that vary in damage, range, rate of fire, accuracy, stability, reload speed, equip speed, and ammo clip size, although these differences are very minor and rarely result in a noticeable difference between guns in the same class. Most of the guns run out of ammo quickly, requiring you to stay near a soldier to refill your ammo. Each weapons can be outfitted with four attachments: the front can get silencers and reduced recoil, the top for iron and red-dot sights, the bottom for grips and grenade launchers, and the magazine for higher capacity or faster reload. In all cases, an improvement in one area reduces attributes in others, so weapon balance is preserved. In addition to customizing your weapons, your avatar can undergo some wardrobe changes as well: the face, hair, head, shirt, jacket, pants, and voice can all be altered in color and appearance. Sadly, there are no ladies in the future, which is disappointing on several levels.

Everything useful you do in Brink awards experience points, which are used to unlock new abilities. Luckily, this is one of the least painful unlock schemes I’ve encountered, as things are opened up quickly (it took me an hour to reach level five of twenty). Brink awards experience for most everything and does not concentrate on kills: you earn significantly more experience for reviving, supplying, buffing, capturing, defending, or other helpful actions. In fact, you earn some experience for simply hitting an enemy (or assisting others in doing so), so “kill stealing” is almost nonexistent. Brink doesn’t even track kill/death ratios, which shows the game’s emphasis on team play. With all of the basic abilities available to everyone, you never feel “stuck” in a class and will reach the better ability options quickly. Of course, people can argue that maxing out your character gives you nothing to do, but I argue that you should want to play a game because it’s fun, not because you’ll get a slightly better scope in five more hours.

Each experience level gives you a point, and new abilities unlock every rank (five levels). Most of the ability upgrades are minor increases in effectiveness, rather than absolutely required attributes that put new players at a distinct disadvantage. All classes can invest in the universal abilities that grant extra health, faster or extra supplies, silent running, firing while incapacitated, shooting grenades, or indicating unseen enemies. Each class also has their own set of ten or so abilities, and most increase existing skills, awarding extra ammo, more grenade damage, extra supplies, improved buffs, or faster disarming of explosives. However, each class has at least a couple of interesting abilities to note. Soldiers can scavenge supplies from killed enemies, throw flashbangs, or place remote-controlled bombs. Medics can move faster, self-revive, and give allies temporary invincibility or faster health regeneration. Engineers have turrets, and operatives have the most interesting array of upper-level abilities: iron-sighting red outlines on enemies, obtaining information from incapacitated enemies, self-destructing when incapacitated, and throwing sticky bombs, EMPs, and caltrops. You have a limited supply of special abilities that slowly regenerates over time, preventing spamming of, well, anything, really. Luckily, I think Brink compromises well between giving people unlocks without arbitrarily restricting key game content from new users, and honestly only one must-have unlocked ability (turrets, which are frankly unlocked pretty quickly (an hour for me)) is tolerable.

Brink features an informative HUD that puts a lot of information right at the user’s fingertips. It starts with the on-screen icons that show objective locations (though not the actual path to the objective) and progress, mission time, health (plus any bonuses), special ability supplies, ammunition, experience, and teammate information applicable to your class (ammo for soldiers, health for medics). You are also given key prompts (which, of course, change if you have reconfigured your controls) for appropriate tasks. The objective wheel, pulled up using the middle mouse button, shows a circular list of tasks you can perform, the most appropriate for your class and location listed at the top. The wheel shows how many people have selected each mission, and informs others when you switch objectives. While I wish it was easier to navigate (based on mouse position rather than clicking to select), it is a handy tool, especially for beginners wondering what to do next. The minimap is very simple, showing relative position of friendly and spotted enemy units, rather than superimposing it on top of an overhead map of the level terrain. Still, I was pleased with the amount of information the HUD gives the player.

While Brink uses conventional first person shooter controls, one feature that sets it apart from the rest is the SMART movement system. Basically, you hold down the sprint button (left shift, by default) and automatically traverse across the map: scale walls, duck under pipes, and hop over boxes. It’s a pretty slick system that allows for some cool moves, like sliding behind cover or into enemy units (knocking them over) or performing wall jumps. If full automation is not your thing, you can manually navigate the terrain using the “jump” and “crouch” buttons, which will perform the same actions. The end result is people coming out of and going in to non-traditional locations. However, the overall map design only takes advantage of this system occasionally, as there are far too many bland single-level hallways lacking obstacles. Still, leaping over a create, baseball-sliding into an enemy, and then caving in their skull with the butt of your gun is pretty sweet.

Brink has a healthy pace thanks to the SMART movement system and intimate level design. The game certainly emphasizes teamwork, where you and your allies can help each other and use abilities in harmony. Lengthy timers for completing objectives also means you must be covered by your teammates: the “lone wolf” will die early and often, so those who like that kind of gameplay should steer clear. The gunplay lies somewhere between Section 8 and Call of Duty: short, but not too short, engagements that require you to actually aim. Manual burst fire is a necessity with the assault rifles, and the submachine guns are great for close encounters. The predominantly indoor environments (no vehicles, then) allow for almost constant close quarters combat. There are no one-shot kills (even with the light sniper rifles, which are thankfully useless in most instances), and health regenerates if you hide (or are helped by a medic). However, ammunition does not and is used rather quickly, making the solider class important for resupply. Other buffs (health from medics, damage from engineers) are minor but can play a role in a close battle.

Brink has a couple of neat innovations: mines only explode when you step off of them, so engineers can disable them while you are still on top of it, and thrown revive syringes are used whenever you want: no more being paddled and immediately dying because you’re right next to an enemy. The respawn time (longer for defenders) and locations means it’s usually better to wait for the firefight to die down and use the revive syringe a nearby medic happily supplied. Also, turrets can be used to tie down a narrow corridor, and invincible turrets prevent spawn camping (although I have occasionally been victim of grenade camping from outside of turret range by human opponents). The worst aspect of the game is the AI: while they will use skills and buffs and move towards objectives, they are unaware of their surroundings (standing right next to an oblivious enemy AI is all too common), inaccurate, and runs out into enemy fire too often. You also can’t issue orders or objectives to the AI, so coordination is impossible. For whatever reason, the enemy AI always seems to be more competent than your allies, so in a cooperative setting where humans replace your teammates, things are better. But, the AI is simply not a good substitute for a decent human player.

Are there enough differences to make Brink stand out in a crowded genre? Well, let’s see what we have. The SMART parkour movement system is more than a simple gimmick, allowing you do encounter the enemy from previously unexpected angles and positions. The system also allows for quick semi-automated movement across the game’s maps, navigating over, under, and around obstacles that, in other games, would only slow you down and get you shot. Brink’s four classes are traditional but offer distinct roles in the game that can be expanded with experience. Now, I’m first in line to complain about unlocks, but Brink tries (and succeeds) to strike a balance between giving veterans a goal though unlocks and giving new players enough tools to be successful, making the process as painless as possible. Plus, the unlocks are usually minor enhancements to existing abilities or small new abilities that simply offer different tactics, and they unlock rather quickly: there’s only one (turrets, which only took me an hour to unlock) out of forty that I’d want to start out with that you don’t already. In addition, you’ll be playing against people of the same rank (unless you specifically say otherwise) with access to the same ability options (higher-level abilities are disabled when playing with lower-level players, too) online, instead of being sniped by someone who’s played 200 hours and unlocked the best scopes while you are just starting off. Weapons in the game are varied and class-independent: anybody can use any of the weapons, eschewing the usual restrictions. Brink also features robust character customization if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The HUD does a good job issuing dynamic objectives and helping out new players, giving you something to do and show you where to do it. This is good, as if you play Brink like a traditional shooter, you will die early and often: you must work with teammates and use the movement controls to navigate the terrain and sneak up on your foes. The use of mines (engineers place them, operatives spot them) and revive syringes (medics throw them but used at your discretion) show thought was used in streamlining or eliminating a lot of the little annoying things present in most online shooters. The game has constant combat through the varied indoor environments, although I would like to see more than eight maps for increased replay value. The weakest aspect of Brink is the AI: while they will occasionally accomplish objectives (usually when the timer is really low) and always buff teammates, they aren’t so good as self-preservation, routinely getting in the line of fire without using cover and forgetting to engage the enemy when it would really be helpful. I would be very wary of playing Brink as a purely single-player affair; cooperative play against the AI is better (if the bots are defending), but matching up against other humans is clearly the best option. Luckily, Brink will pull down online players to fill out your matches (if you choose) automatically, so you should never be alone. A fine title for fans of online team-based shooters, Brink offers a number of innovations in an increasingly tired genre.