Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
Back at the tail end of ’09 Borderlands came from nowhere to be the surprise hit of the season. It bucked the trend of competitive shooters, promoting a co-operative campaign that was more familiar to MMO players than the Call of Duty crowd. Its cell-shaded action drew praise from most quarters, but despite that and a host of appealing premises it left me cold.
I would now like to apologise for my harsh words against Borderlands. It’s taken someone else’s approach to online multiplayer to make me truly appreciate what Gearbox had done.
Brink is that approach. For where Borderlands had structure and control, Brink has chaos.
Virtually every mission involves two sides of eight combatants dashing manically across an attractive warren of a map, clashing head first, before succumbing to the opposition, respawning, and beginning the procedure over and over again ad infinitum. Although this level of carnage may be quite exhilarating to begin with, the majority of victories are earned through attrition and so individual skill can count for little.
This isn’t a Halo or a Call of Duty where a single skilled player can enter a room and take down all who stands before him, as though recreating an action scene from Hollywood. Gunplay is far more generous, meaning that everyone should feel competent at holding their own but conversely no one will ever standout.
Nowhere is this more notable than during a particular early “Protect the VIP” mission where said VIP did not move for over ten minutes thanks to the bottleneck he’d become incapacitated in. For each remaining second of that increasingly frustrating stand-off, members of each side would fall, only to be swiftly replaced by the next hapless volunteer. It was a blessing when the match finally ended.
Though this particular example was played out with bots making up the majority of the sides, the principle still seems to hold true for my experiences with online matchups. There are simply too many people fighting in too small a space for the most part and what results are frantic and indecipherable fracas.
Underneath it all, however, you can see hints of what could have been. To give developer give Splash Damage credit, everything is in place for a structured and highly individual objective-based FPS. Of the four classes that are on display, each can play a vital role on the battlefield, with all having their own set of designated dynamic objectives. Medics can patch-up the fallen; Engineers build turrets and are tasked with disarming gadgetry; whilst Soldiers have the skills to place critical explosives and Operatives are the sneaky gits who can disguise themselves and sneak behind enemy lines.
A simple tap on the dpad will bring up a host of different objectives aside your primary goal that will aid your side’s progress on the battlefield. At any one time part of your team may be off capturing control posts, an Operative might be flagging an enemy mine field, a pair of Engineers might be constructing sentry turrets, whilst the Medics are hanging back supporting the tip of your spear. Altogether the diversity could create a battlefield full of individual tales of heroism, but the disappointment comes when the AI shows off very little of the extra depth and instead defaults to blindly bungling forward.
Away from the intelligence of your team mates, artificial or otherwise, the most comendable addition is that of slick movement about your environment. Holding down the “SMART” button allows you character to smoothly vault, run and slide through an obstacle that faces him. There’s no separate jump or duck controls, it’s a single solution that removes the annoyance of platforming about a level and imbues you with a sense that you really belong in and know your surroundings.
Brink also offers up a tonne of unlockables that it hopes will keep you enthralled. Clothing, tattoos, weapon upgrades, audio logs and class-specific talents can all be bought to forge your avatar into your perfect soldier. All are earned through feats in battle, furthermore encouraging you to concentrate on primary- and class-objectives, and it’s these abilities that will add most to your experience.
Points can be spent across classes, giving you the chance to generalise in every area or hone your talents in one particular role. Buffing teammates comes as standard to all, but turret hacking, self-resurrection, increased speed, and the ability to detonate a powerful explosion upon your death are among the more interesting perks.
Almost implicitly these talents keep groups of fighters together in close proximity, cyclically buffing each other to improve health, ammo and damage, and working as efficiently as possible as a combat squad. Given a more considered pace to the game as a whole then I could well be talking more highly of such an approach given the ease and incentives for doing so.
These are the moments where you feel everything click. Where you, downed by a shadowy opponent, will be hauled to your feet by a passing Medic, only to repay the favour by topping up his depleted ammo. Meanwhile, your fellow friend is constructing a heavy turret next to you to form a point of resistance. In that snap second you have had a flash of brilliance from nowhere; where everything played out no doubt as they would have done a thousand times or more in the minds of the designers.
Thus it is a game that will live and die by the experience you have with your friends online. The campaign is simply a bot-ridden duplication of that and so little will be gleaned from it other than frustration at your inability to herd the cats around you. Grab your chums and posse up.
Throughout it all, every visual aspect is on the cusp of stunning. Set in a near-future setting where the oceans have risen and the world lives on a floating city, the developer allows a wide use of settings and palettes. The storyline also tries its best with tales of moral ambiguity, but neither are enough to save it as a whole.
For all the good intentions, Brink doesn’t deliver. It’s far from unplayable but the word that keeps resurfacing in my head is “frantic”. That and its caricatured cast may set it apart from other shooters, but ultimately all they do is just shift it closer towards Shadowrun.