The machines are taking over. Microsoft's star attraction at E3 2009 was a virtual boy you could talk to. Our games consoles know how fat we are, how far we've walked and what's good for us. One reason Valve is able to turn out two Left 4 Deads in two years is that it has programmed an algorithm to direct the gameplay. And Splash Damage and Bethesda's multiplayer shooter Brink is a structure rather than a game - a collection of content the shape of which will be decided by the software, and its observation of players.
I'm being a bit disingenuous. The reason Left 4 Dead and Brink feature so much automation is really because the people are taking over, not the machines - the people being other players. These are games that blur the line between solo and multiplayer gaming, that can't afford to be as scripted and didactic as a straight single-player experience. They have to be flexible and fast on their feet, able to swap human players for bots at a moment's notice, simultaneously linear and endlessly replayable.
Brink goes several steps further than the co-op-focused Left 4 Dead, blending just about every modern FPS gameplay style into what Splash Damage hopes will be a seamless whole. Co-op, competition, class-based team dynamics, experience-based character progression, dynamic objectives, factional warfare and sci-fi storytelling all meet on The Ark, the futuristic floating city that's mankind's last refuge after an environmental disaster. There, the conspiracy-theorist Resistance is struggling for control against the autocratic Security, and players can take either side.
The character-customisation options are extensive - as long as you want to create an edgy, war-painted macho man in street clothes and body armour, in the game's distinctive, exaggerated, hyper-real style. You can't exactly call it pretty, but it is striking, and the environments - ranging from smooth sci-fi monumentalism to ramshackle, filthy container cities - are simply bursting with colour and detail over huge draw distances.
One character will be sufficient for all four of the game's classes, which can be switched mid-game, along with weapons loadouts, at command post terminals on the maps. They're fairly standard archetypes: Soldier (tough assault unit), Engineer (explosives, gadgets and hacking), Operative (stealth) and Medic. You'll advance them separately by earning experience and new skills in that particular role, but your character will also gain global abilities from general play.
"We're all big fans of MMOs, and we really want to give shooter players that kind of experience, that kind of depth, that kind of endless horizon full of exciting opportunities," says creative director Richard Ham, a single-player specialist of Syphon Filter and Fable II fame hired by the Enemy Territory developer to balance out its multiplayer expertise.
"All the classes have a very large number of abilities you can level up and pay experience points to learn, and on top of that there's a fifth class of general-purpose abilities that anybody can have no matter what. So you'll always hold on to spider-s... oh." Ham stops himself from saying "spider-sense" just in time, whether that's down to trademark issues or internal secrecy we're not sure, but it's an intriguing insight into the kind of skills Splash Damage has planned, either way.
"Umm... you'll always hold on to that no matter which class you're choosing. So there's a lot of control, you can make yourself the ultimate Medic, focus everything on to that, really eschew all other roles and still have a really rich experience because there's always something to do within a class. Or you could go really broad and really general."
Both Ham and senior game designer Ed Stern are keen to point out that classes won't feel too limited at the start, however. "Even if you are absolutely new to the game, you can do everything that that class requires," Stern points out. "There have been some games where it's like, really? I'm just a guy with a knife? I have to play for 20 hours before I can plant explosives? That's ridiculous."
Plunging us into an extremely loud demo in a soundproofed theatre on Bethesda's E3 stand, Splash Damage boss Paul Wedgwood starts with some navigational basics, introducing Brink's S.M.A.R.T. button - which stands, neatly, for Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain. Essentially, this is means a contextual acrobatic command that's supposed to lift some of the physical limitations of shooter maps, making it easy to sprint, climb, vault over and slide under obstacles, modifying the single-button press with nothing more than a look up or down as appropriate. Splash Damage has obviously been paying attention to Mirror's Edge, and even hands-off you can tell that movement in Brink has a more solid, physical feel than many online FPS games, as well as more freedom.
We then join a Security team invading a Resistance-held container city, with the goal of escorting a bomb-defusal robot across the map and disabling a Resistance weapon. Wedgwood plays with one live friend, the rest of the Security team and all of the enemy being handled by AI. He's at pains to point out that it will be possible to play everything in Brink offline and solo, but that maps like this one could also take the form of full eight-on-eight multiplayer matches.
"Everything in the game has got to work from every possible direction for every kind of player in every possible context," says Stern. "So effectively, they're all multiplayer assets. It's very complex for us making the environments in terms of routes and so on, but hopefully very simple for the player, because it's all completely consistent. That's really one of the big goals of the game, in that we're trying to get rid of this different mindset for single-player and multiplayer - it's like, well no, that's silly, we're beyond that now.
"Splash Damage obviously comes from a PC hardcore FPS background, so it's been kind of weird for us to hear people go, 'wow, four-player co-op is kind of cool'. We know! We've been trying to tell you! But four-player co-op is not enough, so this is eight-player co-op. We think in terms of solo, co-op and competitive, rather than single- and multiplayer."
What's interesting is that Splash Damage's ambitions in Brink have been entirely focused on this kind of flexibility, rather than scale. Player numbers are restricted to two teams of eight, which might seem like small beer compared to the multiplayer modes of many mainstream shooters, never mind the dedicated likes of the Battlefield series, Sony and Zipper Interactive's extraordinary 256-player MAG, and even Splash Damage's own work.
"Sometimes we had enormous servers and you just never lived very long... it's about just what gives the most players most fun most of the time," says Stern. "The sweet spot for us is absolutely eight-v-eight. We'd rather have closer engagements. For example, we don't have any really hardcore sniping in this game. There is a more accurate rifle that fires a bit slower, but the whole sniper alley thing just isn't enough fun for enough players."
"I tend to think of this game as the shooter that will convince people who don't like multiplayer shooters that, yeah, you do, if it's done right," adds Ham, revealing that he was previously one of those people. "I'm really the target audience. I love Call of Duty, I've loved them all - even the Treyarch ones. But I've always finished the story campaign and then just walked away. I would never go online because it's really just a cesspit of the foulest of humanity."
Back to the demo, and the map is, unusually for a multiplayer game, introduced with a short scene-setting cinematic and some banter between the Security team-members. Ham reveals that storytelling is being limited to 30-second bursts like this one, long enough to add colour and context for the solo player, short enough that it can simply act as background for the usual pre-match countdown and setup-fiddling in multiplayer matches.
Then we're introduced to Brink's secret weapon: the mission wheel. This is a selection of automatically-generated and ranked optional objectives, available from the d-pad. The top one, selected with a tap on up, always rewards the most experience and is dynamically picked by the game to suggest what will be the most useful - and the most fun - for everybody concerned.
"If you just press up, you'll get given the most useful thing you can do, either do an objective yourself, or help the guy who's doing it. If there's no-one of that class, we'll give you an XP bonus for switching to that class," says Stern. "Richard's got a great phrase for it - the game doesn't tell you how to play the game. It's like having someone who knows the game over your shoulder, just offering advice. We're not going to make players play a particular way. We're just going to say, actually it would be pretty useful if you did this, but go for your life."
"And if you ever find yourself in a situation that you're always being completely owned - that's something that we definitely want to recognise, that you're not having fun," says Ham. "We're going to take care of that. Your team-mates will get objectives to actually give you more bonuses than they would be able to normally. The enemy will get objectives to assassinate the guy who's bringing the game down for everybody."
It's a similar system to one in MAG, but where Zipper's game focuses on player-command and only steps in when there's a power vacuum, Brink takes a more active role in shaping the flow of play while offering more choices to the player at any one time. This apparently simple menu is the heart of Brink, modulating the game according to player numbers, behaviour, composition and balance, and offering enough freedom that, hopefully, no map or story segment will play the same way twice.
It's an interesting system, and it's at least got the potential to fulfil Stern's lofty dream of creating a game that's "a completely consistent gameplay experience whether you're doing it solo and offline or co-op and online". A more pressing question for Brink is whether the content itself, these loose agglomerations of missions, can live up to the expectations of players weaned on the obsessively-crafted single-player set-pieces of a Modern Warfare.
Left 4 Dead managed that through its ruthless simplicity and cunning enemy designs. Brink's combat certainly appears meaty enough, but some of the objectives seem like weak sauce: a crude "interrogation" (zapping a lifeless NPC with a taser for 10 seconds), lots of pressing buttons on terminals, setting charges and operating cranes. In isolation, they don't thrill, but it will be how they play off each other in co-op and competitive matches that provides the real interest. We still have our doubts that Brink won't feel like an empty shell played solo; that also depends on whether Splash Damage's claims for its AI bots ("good, competitive, helpful team-mates") stand up to scrutiny.
Nevertheless, and despite its rather generic setting, Brink is a striking game and a firm step for both Splash Damage and Bethesda out of their respective comfort-zones. As online gaming continues its cautious creep on consoles from menu option to underlying philosophy, it could well be hybrids like Brink that lead the way.
Brink is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in spring 2010.