Civil unrest is brewing in Bromley, Kent. Its residents though, whether treading the floors of Poundland or waiting by the conveyor in Argos for a Swingball set, are blissfully unaware. Brink - set in 2025 on a futuro-archipelago called The Ark, which may be humanity's last outpost on a flooded earth - is a team-based, objective-driven, story-packed first-person shooter, but it's designed to appeal to n00bs and normals alike. And yet the streets are not full of pitchforks, burning cars and decapitated heads being waved up at Splash Damage's office windows. It's a brave new world.
In essence Brink is a team-based battle between two factions (Security and Resistance) with four different classes, gameplay-conjured individual objectives, experience-driven levelling and all manner of different styles of gunplay. The problem being that if you read that sentence to someone who got here via Cooking Mama and Brain Training, their head will probably explode, or they'll fall asleep.
But Splash Damage is trying to make its game accessible nonetheless, and one way to explain that process is to compare the developer's efforts to those of Lionhead with Fable II - an RPG rendered simples by glowy gems of hovered-up experience and a 'can't die' mentality. With the Splash boys having been burnt by the lacklustre performance of the complex Enemy Territory: Quake Wars on console, and with Team Fortress 2's relative failure on Xbox 360 in mind, it certainly makes sense to mimic Albion's easy-listening approach to hitpoints and goblins. It's no surprise to discover, then, that one of the developer's big hires for Brink was creative director Richard Ham, whose last job was heading up development on, yep, Fable II.
And there's certainly something familiar about one of Brink's most obvious concessions to accessibility - the Smart system, an acronym from Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain. As you may have read before now, with this you aim yourself in the direction you want to go, get moving and depress the Smart button. You'll soon be sliding over level furniture, leaping over gaps and clambering up onto ledges like no-one's business - with a notably smaller degree of super-articulate skill required than usual.
But there's a difference between this and Fable II's sometimes-overbearing simplification: "It's not an auto-pilot," as lead writer Ed Stern puts it, with a finger in the air and an arched eyebrow to indicate the importance of his words. If you're pulling off all the moves under your own steam, you might be able to do them better. "It just means that you don't spend time worrying about the interface - it means you can just focus on 'Do I want to go over here, or over there?' We make it easy for you. If you'd like to claim those jumps for yourself, you can - and I do. I don't use the Smart button that much, because I know that if I sprint I'll make that jump quicker."
The Mirror's Edge style limb-o-vision situational awareness and on-screen extremities as you roll and vault around the place, meanwhile, aren't canned animations - they can be interrupted and are all attuned to what's going on in the action. If you're vaulting a wall, you'll be able to shoot as soon as your right hand is disengaged, and reload once your left has concluded discussion with the shiny surface you're now atop.
It really is a beautiful system to watch in action. With Smart you'll be able to press the magic button and slide beneath an obstacle if you're looking downwards, or leap above if you're looking up, but you'll also be able to do snazzier things - rather than slide beneath a laser, or jump over a metal detector in a dilapidated airport, for example, you could slide silkily through the narrow-bag X-ray machine. And while your own acrobatics in Brink are great to behold anyway, when you've got 16 players leaping, sliding and vaulting around a map it's going to look even more impressive.
Another way that Brink is being rendered approachable is by merging single-player, co-op and multiplayer into one package, albeit with gradual unlocks, to ensure that the experience is a constant one whether playing with real people or bots. Splash Damage wants to avoid having a 'multiplayer' option that's translated into the more novice gamer's mind as being the one where you're continuously insulted by a teenager in Utah, and as such is attempting to hound out the potential for griefing. If other players aren't on your friends list, for example, you won't be able to talk to them unless you expressly state your desire to be wound up from afar. Clever matchmaking with an intent eye on the experience and level of combatants, meanwhile, is intended to keep gamers of a like mind together.
The increasingly condensed Enemy Territory-style gameplay mechanics certainly deserve a broader audience. You can choose one of four classes as you make your way through each objective-driven level: Soldiers blow stuff up, Engineers repair things and can set up landmines and turrets, Medics heal and Operatives sneak behind enemy lines and torture incapacitated enemies or borrow their identities. Most maps (which can be played individually or in sequence) have one of the forces on the attack and the other defending something dear to them - and as such one side surges forward through a variety of bottlenecks, roadblocks and obstacles that teamwork and individual abilities can overcome, while the other lot tries to kill them before they get a chance.
For example, you could be merrily blasting away as a Soldier for the Security faction, but then look at your game-generated objective wheel and notice that there's 200 experience points on offer if you torture an opponent into spilling his guts about a gate unlock code. So you select the objective, swap over to an Operative class at a captured control-point, and then stalk panther-like into no-man's-land in pursuit of a Resistance hoodlum who's been shot into submission and is plaintively crying out for a Medic.
Once there, having fought off Medics rushing to help their injured brave and the floor-bound target's own feeble attempts at defence, you can then whip out something looking suspiciously like an iPhone-o-Death and torture the player into giving your side the code for said gate. Your character will then give a cheeksome thumbs-up, since the job's a good 'un: a quest complete and 200 XP in the bank to help levelling up and further developing your character between games. Next up: an engineer is needed to fix a crane that can lift the robot your team is escorting further into the level; find another career-change control point and away you go. Or just go back into the fray and shoot people to see Borderlands-style XP rewards floating out of their collapsing bodies. The choice is yours.
Brink is still a game in flux. Since we saw it at E3, it sounds like the narrative is edging away from mission-bookending cut-scenes and further into mise-en-scene ambient storytelling, for example. So you'll be able to read deeper into what's going on, and what's happened previously, through discarded placards and the state of the scenery, along with randomly dropped BioShock-style tape-recordings. Elsewhere, clever-clever stuff like allowing different classes to hear certain battle noises at different levels are being toyed with - meaning that Medics are better attuned to hear the cries of the wounded, while Operatives are more able to hear a rival sneakster reloading. The game is developing at quite a rate, and it'll be interesting to see what form it's in next time Splash Damage's lords and masters at Bethesda want it on show.
And that relationship is clearly vital, because Richard Ham hasn't been the only marquee signing. In fact, it's all gone a bit Manchester City. They've snagged the art lead from the utterly beautiful Prince of Persia, the lead programmer from Heavenly Sword, the guy who did the gun noises in Black, the character artist who created Shepard and his gang for Mass Effect, the lead level designer from Killzone 2, the bloke who did the Sam Fisher animation in the first Splinter Cell, the producer of Killzone 2 and LEGO Star Wars, and, last but not least, the level designer responsible for de_dust in Counter-Strike, and another who made cp_steel for Team Fortress 2. It's fantasy football game development.
Better than that though, they look to be playing well together, because Brink impresses from pretty much every angle. The Bromley locals may be indifferent, but they may be rather more interested once the game's finished, which should be some time in 2010. And even if the dream of a multiplayer FPS for the masses doesn't quite work out, we suspect the result will be a multiplayer FPS the traditional audience has a lot of good things to say about regardless.
Brink is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 next year.