Bethesda Softworks' war on ladders continues unabated. Yesterday we discovered Todd Howard's team has almost given up on them because they always turn out rubbish - hence no ladders in Fallout 3. But Splash Damage has banned them outright for Brink.
Lead designer Neil Alphonso tells us they detract from the game's elegant new movement system, SMART, which allows you to vault, slide and clamber around the game's environments. Poor old ladders.
Alphonso is quite right though, because SMART has a huge role to play in the three levels on show at QuakeCon. Container City, a towering fortress of rusting metal built around a derelict medical ship, is only so many corridors and chokepoints to begin with. However, once you start holding down that SMART button it's a 3D playground of clever flanking routes and alternative strategies.
During his QuakeCon presentation, Splash Damage founder Paul Wedgwood demos two other levels - an assault on a Security base where a Resistance pilot is held captive, and another battle for Security to liberate a kidnapped VIP in a dazzling undersea Aquarium. He comes under constant fire, but SMART usually saves the day.
At one point on Security Tower he runs straight into an AI-controlled Resistance fighter. He immediately turns right and vaults through a gap between two pillars, landing in a slide move to end up behind cover in a useful flanking position. It's a slick enough manoeuvre, but it's all the more impressive because he does it without thinking - and without any pause in his eloquent description of how the dynamic objective system works.
SMART is reminiscent of the platforming controls in Mirror's Edge, but it's virtually all on one button - although you can use ducks and jumps as modifiers to speed up your progress. You start to wonder how it would feel in other first-person shooters like the legendary Counter-Strike, where we've spent many a gruelling hour jumping up stacks of crates or falling off rooftops.
Container City has a strong Counter-Strike feel to it, actually. That's not too surprising given that it was designed by David Johnston, the man who brought us classic Counter-Strike levels Dust, Dust 2 and Cobble. Security forces are sent in to the stacks of shipping containers to retrieve a dangerous bio-weapon while Resistance forces believe they are defending a vaccine instead (contradictory intel is a common theme, with both sides convinced they're on the side of good).
Anyone who has ever played Dust at a competitive level, where hardcore Terrorist and Counter-Terrorist players switch to the knife to move quickly and sprint to engage one another with flashbangs and Carbines inside the central covered choke area, will recognise the initial rush for Security to plant explosives on a metal door while Resistance tries to stop them.
Planting the bomb involves holding it in position with a button press for a few seconds - long enough to be shot to pieces if you're unsupported. If the bomb is planted, Resistance forces have 30 seconds to neutralise it with a freezing agent, but this also involves leaving yourself vulnerable.
Should the action progress beyond the metal door, a mechanical cutting robot on caterpillar tracks rumbles through and the next phase has Security trying to protect it as it slowly inches down corridors formed by containers. All the while, it's coming under fire from Resistance troops who can assault it from straight ahead or elevated positions to either side.
If Security makes it through that, the next goal is to use a crane to lift the robot to the final area. Here the bio-weapon, vaccine or whatever it is can be exposed by cutting through the side of a container.
All the levels we've seen and played so far follow this pattern: multiple objectives, each flowing into the next, each requiring a specialist (the Soldier plants bombs, the Engineer operates the crane, etc) and each benefiting from organisation, selfless actions and clever use of the environment.
Traditional team games - especially first-person shooters - struggle to get people to do the last three of those things, and one of Brink's goals is to overcome this. On the QuakeCon evidence it stands a good chance.
When our Security team struggles to breach the metal door on Container City we switch to the Medic class to offer support. We're tossing health packs to downed team-mates partly because it seems logical, but partly because the mission wheel - the slick one-button menu that shows you available objectives as you play - shows that it confers a lot of experience points.
Likewise, when we do break through and the trundling robot comes under sustained fire, it seems like a good time to opt for the Engineer and break out some unmanned turret guns to beef up our rearguard. Thanks to SMART it's possible to climb up a container away to the right of the metal door and provide overwatch for the slow-moving robot, too. When enemies appear on a platform nearby it's easy to vault over there and butt them in the face with a rifle.
You're not always playing with a full complement of human team-mates or enemies so the AI fills in the gaps and already does a solid job. While Wedgwood is demonstrating the Aquarium level he thinks he's coming under fire from an enemy on a raised turret so he climbs onto a pillar, leaps to the gangway and turns on his aggressor - only to discover it's one of his own men, and he was actually supporting him by taking out enemies approaching through a nearby door. Wedgwood says the developers teach the AI tactics and how each system works but they are constantly surprised at how well they adapt and improvise.
QuakeCon also sees Splash Damage unveil pre-order incentives for the US market - and we're told to expect these in Europe too, in some form. Each package gives you a special weapon and unique clothing items, and while the Psycho and Spec Ops bundles look good we expect the Fallout and DOOM packs (complete with Vault 101 tattoos, UAC body armour t-shirts and the like) to prove most popular.
The more we play Brink, the more it comes together. Splash Damage jokes that it bribes people to help each other out - but this technique works. It sounds weird being able to do parkour stuff automatically by holding a button - but it works.
It's hard to imagine how much story can be conveyed by cut-scenes full of custom characters - but they work too, hinting at mysteries on the horizon at Founders' Tower, the spire that's visible in every skyline.
Splash Damage has made popular games before - Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory is in the top three most-played online PC shooters to this day, Wedgwood claims - but Brink looks well on course to be its best yet. And who needs ladders, anyway?
Brink is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in spring 2011.