For a few years now I’ve wondered why there isn’t more mobility in first person shooters. Platformers have adopted smoother movement styles and have evolved from Mario into the acrobatics in Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed. RPGs have moved on from static world maps into massive environments that the player can explore at will. Even stealth games have grown past the chunky, cumbersome control of Solid Snake to the smooth sneaking and takedown moves of Sam Fisher. So why are Gordon Freeman, Master Chief and the innumerable soldiers of Call of Duty still smacking into chest-high-walls instead of vaulting over them?
We’ve had a couple games like Mirror’s Edge that take the concept of full mobility and run with it (heh) but even the simplest concepts of Parkour have yet to be adopted by the mainstream multiplayer FPS. Splash Damage, old hands at team-based shooters, decided to change this with Brink. The game’s motto is “move more than you shoot,” and for the past week I’ve had the opportunity to test drive their new SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) system in online battles and across single player scenarios.
The SMART system basically takes your fully-customizable character’s body type and assigns it degrees of mobility and movement speed. Heavy characters are slowest and can only vault over low surfaces, players who choose the medium build move faster and gain the ability to mantle over high and low surfaces, and light characters run like the wind and can even wall-kick off of vertical surfaces to cross otherwise impassable pits and trenches. The trade-off comes in the amount of base health each body type has, with heavy being the most resilient and light being precariously weak.
SMART has a few more subtleties that surprised me. Aiming high or low determines if you will slide under or vault over (or mantle, if possible) a surface, so paying attention to your crosshair elevation becomes crucial to maintaining a fluid pace through a map. Every character type can also perform a sliding kick—similar to the one popularized by FarCry 2—which dramatically reduces your target profile and can temporarily knock down and stun opponents if it connects.
As with most aspects of Brink I was initially disappointed with the SMART system. I was expecting my entire team and I to be leaping great distances and scaling obstacles freeform from the get-go, but SMART is a nuanced mechanic and takes time to learn. Thankfully Brink can play as a traditional FPS; you can quite effectively plod through the levels without using SMART, you’ll just be much slower and against experienced players, you’ll be an easy target.
Splash Damage has fashioned an inviting playground for players to test their moving and shooting skills in. Brink takes place in the near future on an artificial self-sustaining island nation called the Ark. Originally an experiment intended to house 5000 people, a global flooding catastrophe packed the Ark with ten times its intended population. Naturally a war broke out between the corrupt government and a people’s militia group aptly named The Resistance, and the game lets you play as either faction. The biblical symbolism is a bit too obvious for my tastes and the premise isn’t anything new, but the execution is tantalizing.The Ark has a very plausible, lived-in-space aesthetic to it. Imagine the pristine domed city from Logan’s Run after a thorough post-apocalyptic working over and you’ll get a good idea of what the Ark looks like. While several maps fit the necessary Mad Max-style slums and ghettos, many others are set in the Ark’s privileged areas. You’ll be waging war in wealthy shopping malls, housing districts, airports and docks, all of them graced with a futuristic, utilitarian-yet-decadent style that recalls a lot of 70s scifi classics. The visual design is really something to behold and it’s a nice shift from the art deco style that has been copied ad-nauseam ever since Bioshock came out.
All of this means that you have a lot of interesting environments to traverse with the SMART system, filled with sloping arches, bridges, spires and other utopian mainstays. It would’ve been much easier for Splash Damage to attach their SMART mechanic to a standard flat, crates-n’-barrels FPS design and they deserve credit for having some artistic ambition to go along with their new movement system. The character design mirrors the architecture with exaggerated models and faces, reminiscent of the Timesplitters series. Brink features an unusually deep character creation tool for a shooter, and it’s rare for an FPS to have a visual design compelling enough to make you care what your model looks like.
The rest of the production values are fantastic. Voice acting is top notch, with several accents spanning American, European and African ethnicities, making the Ark feel like a true melting pot of cultures brought together out of necessity. Brink’s musical score is sweeping and orchestral, mixing traditional orchestra pieces and chorus with African and Australian tribal motifs, adding another layer to the world-culture atmosphere of the Ark. It’s just a shame that Brink doesn’t have a solid single player game to really show off the world Splash Damage created.
To be fair Brink probably has the best-realized world of any of Splash Damage’s games. Unfortunately that still isn’t saying much because both Wolfenstein Enemy Territory and Quake Wars used their respective licenses as a thin veneer for yet more cumbersome team-based multiplayer—they used it as an excuse to evolve their previous team multi design in technology and sophistication, not necessarily as an opportunity to tell a good story. This disappointed me with Quake Wars because I wanted to see the Strogg invasion of Earth in detail, and the multiplayer gameplay on offer was somewhat dense and impenetrable compared to more approachable games like Team Fortress 2.
Thankfully Brink is easy enough to get into but it has the same bare bones single player as its predecessors. Each level is bookended by cutscenes that do their best to elaborate on the compelling story, but the gameplay within is just multiplayer with obtusely dumb bots, again. Similar cutscenes also play out before and after multiplayer matches. I can appreciate that Splash Damage is trying to tell a story in their own way, but with the inherently randomized nature of multiplayer these cinema scenes rarely connect to one another in any meaningful way, making it difficult to construct any kind of cohesive narrative out of them. The single player game has a more ordered story for both factions, but playing alongside and against the bots is never as fun as playing with humans pushing the SMART system to its limits, so you might be hard-pressed to actually slog through all the single player missions. It’s too bad because the art style, music and voice acting could have made for a memorable dedicated solo story.
Single player issues aside, Brink has the most solid and well-balanced core gameplay yet from Splash Damage. If you’ve played any team-based shooters recently, particularly Team Fortress 2, Brink will be very familiar. There are only four classic compared to TF2’s nine, but they’re less cluttered and more direct than TF2’s. Soldiers can throw ammo to their teammates, plant mines and spot enemy mines, and make mines visible to their entire team by sighting in on the mine for a few seconds. Engineers can augment their teammates’ guns, place sentries, repair mission critical objects and cut open hardened targets with their blowtorch. Medics can buff a teammate’s health on the fly and toss revival syringes to downed allies. Operatives can hack objective computers and nab a disguise from dead enemies.The classes may seem scaled back from more elaborate team games but you can buy upgrades for each class that makes them more versatile. Medics have a number of bonuses they can confer to their team, including increased regeneration and a bonus that delays all damage to a teammate for a limited time—until it all comes crashing in at once. Engineers gain increasingly deadly turrets and Operatives can eventually download intel from dead enemies, revealing all enemies on the radar to the whole team for a limited time. The way these powers are balanced works well too. Each player has a supply meter that depletes and slowly refills every time you use a class-specific ability, which is better than TF2’s medic supplying a constant healing stream, or running out of metal as an engineer.
Brink’s maps offer a wide variety of game types, from escorting VIPs and intel robots to blowing up structures and clearing a path through various objectives, but the goal is never to simply storm the enemy spawn. Each team’s starting base is armed with deadly indestructible turrets, which neatly eliminates spawn camping and keeps the action centered on the mission at hand. The maps do contain several neutral command posts that can be captured to buff team health and supplies and advance spawn points, a feature I’ve seen as recently as Conduit 2 on the Wii. Your AI commander will also shout out class-specific objectives ranging from rescuing incapacitated teammates to defending locations and VIPs. This mechanic is a helpful guide for new or disoriented players and keeps the team focused. If you’re using the 360 headset mic these objectives are transmitted through the earpiece, adding even more to the immersion. When you’re huddled next to a terminal, feverishly hacking away while half your team desperately surrounds and defends you with their lives, the rush is hard to put into words.
If you’ve played any online shooters since CoD 4 you’ll instantly recognize Brink’s leveling system. It rewards you with XP like every other shooter on the leveling bandwagon these days, but also gives you points to unlock the aforementioned class upgrades. The great thing is that these upgrades are cumulative; you don’t have to swap them in and out nearly as much as you do in CoD. This can unbalance things a bit for new players, as all the experienced people will have the good powers, but removing the constant tradeoffs gives a sense of accomplishment and growth for your classes and characters.
My only issue with Brink’s leveling is the amount of superfluous material. Most unlockables are costume and appearance modifiers, with a few audio logs tossed on in an attempt to pad out the story. You also have to unlock the heavy and light builds, with only the medium build available from the beginning. These body types unlock after only a short period of dedicated play, but I would’ve preferred to have these and the costume options from the start; aside from the build types none of these appearance mods really change how your character plays, so why don’t we get all of them at once?
Unlocking new weapons is also a little strange. You have to play though specific challenge modes to get new guns—your XP and level have no effect on your available arsenal. This does even the playing field a bit at the beginning, with everyone playing with the same basic guns, but it’s a little bland too. I’d rather not have to slog through challenges just to add some variety to my loadout.
All in all Brink’s gameplay isn’t anything we haven’t seen before but Splash Damage has found creative ways to balance out a few team multi clichés, and the SMART system adds a whole new dimension to the battlefield. The art style, story and production values save this from being another gray-brown smear like Quake Wars, but at the same time most of it seems untapped because Splash Damage still refuses to integrate story and setting into a dedicated single player mode. This makes Brink feel a little like the same game over again with new bells and whistles and a fresh coat of paint. That said it’s still a huge step up from their previous games and future shooters would do well to pay attention to the SMART system and the mobility options it opens up. If you’re looking for a solid team multiplayer game, Brink is a highly polished example with some enticing new ideas.