Brink may not be out until spring 2011, but it's already so well defined that half the world's games journalists could probably rebuild it from memory. It's a class-based first-person shooter set on the last floating remnant of human civilisation, it throws out the distinction between online and offline play by optionally populating campaign missions with human comrades and adversaries, and it's being put together at Splash Damage by a team precisely assembled by the determined wallets of ambitious publisher Bethesda Softworks.
We've already poured over the character customisation suite, which allows you to build a fighter in the authoritarian Security forces, or in the trampy Resistance, with their discarded car number plates and tyre cuttings for shoulder pads, bin liners for sleeves and toxic war paint. We've also been told about the objective wheel, your constant guide to what's next, and Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain (SMART), the brilliantly-monikered vaulting and climbing aid.
But up to now we haven't had a chance to put its ambitious designs to the test. Interestingly, when we do it's on a PlayStation 3 - Splash Damage apparently keen to demonstrate that it's not only taking on some of the biggest challenges in the genre, but that it's not scared of doing so on famously challenging hardware either. The game's also due out for PC and Xbox 360, supported by the usual pre-release claims that each version will be largely identical to the next.
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The demo we get to play begins with a challenge map, which is designed to hold players' hands and train them to understand the game's systems, visual language and of course the four classes - Soldier, Engineer, Operative and Medic. In this case we're seeing a bit of everything, fighting through a three-storey maze of interconnected wire-mesh gantries and staircases in a warehouse to destroy a barricade, repair a power generator and then hack a security system to retrieve materials valuable to the Resistance.
Having never previously played Brink, and having had my brain filled up and wiped by reading and editing 478 million previews and reviews since the last time we saw it, I'm one of the ideal targets for these challenge maps: I cut my teeth on Quakeworld and Counter-Strike, I adore simple and innovative solutions to complex problems in game worlds, and I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing. I should get this quickly if Bethesda's millions are paying off.
The game quickly explains that our first objective is to destroy a barricade and that I'm a Soldier. It also directs my attention to the objective wheel, accessed by holding up on the d-pad, and notes that the most important thing I can possibly do at any given moment will always be the whopping slice of objective right at the top of the wheel: in this case it's to advance on the barricade and plant an explosive charge. Once I become more confident and already know what I need to do, I can just tap the d-pad to quickly assume the primary objective and get the relevant arrows and distances to appear on the HUD, rather than having to pause and peruse.
Control is familiar two-stick shooting with iron sights, melee and sprinting buttons, and it's nice to be able to lean out of natural cover using the d-pad. Control sensitivity is good enough by default that I barely notice it and immediately set about shooting mother******s in the head with whatever I'm carrying. "You're a natural, Tom. A killing machine," my Bethesda guardian notes. Correct.
Having cleared a good number of the aforementioned mothers, it's time to blow the barricade under covering fire from my AI team-mates. When the explosive is strapped on you're given 15 seconds until detonation, but rather than just legging it you first need to defend, because enemies can come over and rip it off. You need to worry about it remaining in place but also to keep an eye on the count, lest you get blown up when it finally does go off.
Blowing the barricade opens up a command post, and these can be used to change classes at any time. In this case I'm convinced by the tutorial to go for Engineer because the next objective requires it. Using the objective wheel I assume a new target, and on the way I play around with the Engineer's new abilities - for example, I can buff my own damage, coating my shotgun in shimmery varnish that amplifies death.
At this point Brink feels like an interesting counterpoint to Valve's imperious Team Fortress 2, another class-based multiplayer shooter where the developers sought to create a simple visual language that people could quickly interpret and adapt to - most notably in weapons like the medical gun, which fires a stream of healing red crosses into an ally. Brink has similar principles, but Splash Damage's expression of them is less extreme and caricatured.
While the objective wheel is a good example of this, SMART is the ultimate example. It's a shoulder button that you can hold to automate climbing, vaulting, sliding and other moves that you would otherwise have to remember a button combination to perform. The rationale is that moving around should be easy and cool because you're busy trying to shoot people or get to objectives. If you're pursuing, your target is more interesting if they're agile and elusive.
In some ways it's the keystone to the whole crossover between single-player and multiplayer. It's quite difficult to suspend your disbelief about being in a futuristic war against hardened, brainwashed super-soldiers or freedom fighters if the guy you're up against was just mown down because he ran into a doorframe or snagged himself on the corner of a box. With SMART that shouldn't happen, and so you'll continue to hang your disbelief somewhere on the other side of the room.
That's clever anyway, and everyone - rather than just inexperienced players - should enjoy the impact SMART has on the way they play. However, it also has depths to explore. At one point I'm running along holding SMART and I drop into a slide so I'm harder to target, but in this position I can also fire in another direction without losing my original momentum - and all I need to worry about is pointing and shooting.
The third phase of the challenge level offensive involves switching to an Operative and assaulting another objective I can only reach from above. As I'm climbing onto a gantry using SMART, my Bethesda rep notes that if I had combined SMART with the jump button at the last moment I would have vaulted the railing with my gun ready instead. These advanced applications are obviously designed to open up new behavioural possibilities within the game world - an exciting prospect in an era where most FPS games are still arguing over whether to let you jump over hedges.
With the challenge level completed, I get to invest all the XP and unlocks I've earned in character, weapon and ability customisation, ground well trodden by existing previews and videos. I end up with a facial tattoo (amusingly, tattoos in-game are genuinely permanent) and a wolfy moustache and matching hairdo. The ability perks are a mixture of obvious (Sprinting Reload, Sprinting Grenade Throw, Grenade Shooting) and cunning (like an on-screen indicator for when you're in someone's sights), but my favourite one listed is the Lazarus Grenade: "experimental pharmaceutical aerosol bomb - you revive all downed team-mates within its healing cloud". Boom.
Finally I get to try a campaign mission. For the opening, lavishly detailed in-game cut-scene our Resistance squad leader is giving a rousing speech to a band of fighters, my custom wolf-man included, about our assault on a nuclear reactor, which we're trying to take control of to use as a bargaining chip in our ongoing dispute with Security about resources.
Initially you might play this mission on your own with a team of bots against another team of bots, which is what I'm doing. As you get better though, the game may prompt you to invite a few human friends onto your team, and then perhaps strangers. It can also populate the opposing team with real enemies. You're all playing the campaign, but you're also engaged in multiplayer.
Sadly we don't get to see this in action, but we are told how it will work from the opposite perspective: Security players will be told that the Resistance is storming the reactor to wipe out power across the island. How well the two individual narratives hold up despite their opposing conditions will no doubt be vital to Brink's success on the single-player side of this increasingly blurred single/multi divide - but with Splash Damage adamant that you won't be able to max out a character on a single playthrough, the implication is that they will be distinctive enough on all fronts.
It's all brilliantly, horribly ambitious. Splash Damage, and particularly moneybags Bethesda, wants Brink to be of an equivalent quality to a Modern Warfare or Team Fortress - accessible yet deep, innovative yet familiar, single-player yet multiplayer. And actually that's a lie: they don't want Brink to live up to a Modern Warfare or Team Fortress, they want it to be better.
The game is full of neat ideas already - even incidental ones, like a signal strength indicator on your portable hacking device so you can initiate a hack and then hide a small distance away from the target at the cost of hacking speed. The bigger ideas are appropriately bold, and there's something happily, proudly videogame about it compared to other similar endeavours. Brink embraces its hardcore origins. Through evolving mechanics, it seeks to diversify the traditional feeling of a first-person shooter for all - not just for those casual consumers.
Yet despite playing it, and despite having etched most of the framework and feel of the game out of access to its bold, lavishly funded development already, there are still more than six months to go and Brink is still unproven. It feels like it will take a larger-scale, multi-person hands-on session over a few hours to start to nail down how well the game really works, and the controlled conditions of a press demo may not be appropriate. In the meantime though, Brink at leasts shows enormous promise to support enormous ambition.
Brink is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in spring 2011.