Brink Review – Does it reach new heights or fall flat on it’s face?

Fans of first-person shooters are absolutely spoilt for choice this year, but with so many games now competing for your hard-earned time and money, developers are trying desperately to cram in new features, bells and whistles to make the old formula feel new again and release the next “big thing”.

Looking to get the jump on the June line-up, Brink – developed by London-based studio Splash Damage and released by FPS RPG juggernauts Bethesda – is just such a game that attempts to revolutionise the way you battle by mixing a tried-and-tested squad and class-based formula with the freedom and action of Parkour, AKA Free Running.

For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last few years (you got a console in there? Well done you), Parkour is an activity in which people attempt to traverse any and all urban landscapes and obstacles using speed, agility and the odd insane acrobatic technique. This isn’t the first time that’s it’s been used in a FPS, but 2008’s Mirror’s Edge was a purely single player affair.

Set in the not-too-distant future, mankind has milked our resources for all their worth and the ice caps have melted away, leaving the world completely flooded, just like an overblown Kevin Costner “epic”. What’s left of humanity have taken refuge on a floating city known as the Ark, but as more and more refugees have flooded in, things have become strained, and the tension between the privileged “us” and the poverty-striken “them” is now at boiling point.

The first thing you’ll do in Brink is create a character, starting with an archetype but then being able to pick from a decent array of voices, tattoos, scars, jackets, amusing hats, gimp masks… You get the picture. The artistic style owes a lot to current animation trends and suits the action and feel of the game nicely. Right away you know this game is not about realism.

Next up, you pick a side and basically get thrown head first into the action. For those of you who don’t necessarily want to jump straight into the deep end, there are a series of Challenges which function as a tutorial, and focus on one particular aspect of the game: Parkour, Challenges, Escorting and Defending. It’s definitely worth getting these done; not only will you pick up the skills and experience needed to kick some serious ass, but it’s the only way to unlock the best weapons to do so.

Instead of just shoehorning in another gimmick, Splash Damage have taken the Parkour element seriously. It functions in the game via the Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain system (Or SMART for short. Get it?). Catchy acronyms aside, the system holds up very well in practise. By simply holding down sprint and aiming yourself at your obstacle, or correctly timing a tap on the jump or crouch button, the SMART system predicts what you’re trying to do and translates it into effortless movements that your average gymnast would be proud of. The intraversible obstacles of previous games can suddenly be vaulted over or slid under with ease.

Once you really get the hang of things you’ll start combining sliding tackles, 360 degree flanking manoeuvres, well placed grenades and precise timing to take opponents out in very satisfying ways.

This game is all about fast-paced action, and the SMART system really helps it to stand out from the crowd. A super soldier you are most definitely not in this game, and given that each mission revolves around completing timed objectives, there is no reason for you to pace yourself. Weapons are well balanced – assault rifles have extra range and punch but submachine guns are much more stable – and the speed with which most characters can get around means that standing still is a recipe for a fast and brutal death.

As you progress you’ll do the usual levelling up but you’ll also unlock another nice feature that ties in with the Parkour: different body types. You start with a balanced medium body type; heavy types can not only handle the most powerful weapons but can take more damage too, the trade-off is that they are slower and much less agile. The light body type is where you can really show off, they are swift and agile enough to reach places the others can’t since they can spring off walls, however they can’t carry the same firepower or take as much damage.

Body types and even some unlockable features can be switched between games, so you have the opportunity to play around and fine-tune your character and style. The only permanent aspects to your character as the basics such as skin tone, voice and tattoos.

Splash Damage have stuck to a basic but effective class format – Soldiers, Engineers, Operatives and Medics each have their own particular abilities and you’ll need to be comfortable with each, as most objectives depend on a specific ability. The single player campaign is not a true story driven campaign like most other FPS games out there, but like Unreal Tournament before it, uses bots to simulate online matches. There is a story in there, but it’s a pretty bland affair and the brief cut-scenes do the job of explaining why you’re blowing up your next target. Basically, offline you’ll just be getting some practise in before you take the fight to your friends.

Sounds great so far, right? Well, it’s true, there are some really impressive elements to this game. The Parkour is a great addition to the formula, and the classes, weapons and customization features are simple but combine well together to offer some surprising depth. So why isn’t this the must have title of 2011?

The first thing you’ll notice is that the AI leaves a fair bit to be desired. Once you’ve levelled up, the enemy will present a decent challenge, but your teammates, however, will constantly frustrate you. You have no ability to command them, and they’ll frequently ignore primary objectives or bother to help you out, totally undermining the emphasis this game places on teamwork. Trying to tackle everything on your own is basically suicide.

The game runs on the ID Tech 4 engine, and holds up well most of the time, although texture pop-in is still a bit of an issue even after the first patch. However, with Rage running on the fifth incarnation and right around the corner, and both Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 offering jaw-dropping visuals on their shiny and new respective engines, Brink already feels a bit dated visually.

The biggest criticism though has to be on the amount of replay value the game offers straight out of the box. There are 8 maps for the single player campaign, and these are recycled for the online matches as well, and each map only has one pre-existing set of objectives. The only choice you have over game types is whether or not you and the opposing team swap sides or move onto the next map, meaning things start to feel very familiar, very quickly.

XP and unlockables come thick and fast in this game too, so although you’ll have fun playing around with the look and feel of your character to begin with, you don’t really get the same sense of satisfaction as in some other games which really make you put in the time and effort to max out your character.

At the time of writing the Xbox 360 servers suffer from a bit of a lag problem, but the PSN is back up and lag is not a serious issue.

Bottom Line – 

I was really impressed with Brink to begin with; it’s a game that unashamedly embraces fast and furious action; the Parkour is more than just a gimmick, it’s damn-near essential in all future games of this ilk. The AI problem is forgiveable as it’s little more than training for some epic online battles, but it just doesn’t feel like you get enough for your money at the moment. If Splash Damage can address the lack of variety and the lag issues, they might just find that Brink can win over even the most fickle of FPS fans; the foundation is already there.

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