Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

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In close proximity.

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.

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.