Developer: Splash Damage
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
The Ark began as a utopian beacon, a project demonstrating that humanity could live in a self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable floating city. It was even built using a genetically modified coral that sucked in greenhouse gasses while turning into strong foundation for structures. By the 2020s, global climate change accelerated so rapidly that billions living on the planet's coasts were displaced, and the global economy collapsed.
The Ark was moved to a secret location, but thousands of refugees found their way to the Ark anyway, where they were accommodated in hastily constructed "Accommodation Islands." Known as "Guests," the refugees are living in glorified slums, and remain angry at the Ark's "Founders" for their grim quality of life. The Founders are equally in a bind. The Ark's population vastly exceeds what it can sustainably maintain, and resources are dwindling as the Ark itself decays into squalor.
It's 2045, and planes and ships stopped arriving at the Ark nearly 20 years ago. The Guests want to venture forth and search for other survivors, while the Founders believe they are protecting the Guests by confining them to the Ark. Unable to resolve those differences peacefully, a desperate resistance now battles against equally desperate Ark Security to maintain order. The once exemplary Ark is now decaying and embroiled in civil war.
The last bastion of civilization on Earth, the Ark, is collapsing around us, and those bastards in the Resistance want to signal our location to every barbarian with a working boat? We'll be overrun, and that's only if the water doesn't give out first. It makes me want to pick up a gun and join the security forces. Too bad I'm a dismal shot. Wait! This is a Splash Damage shooter – I don't have to be a brilliant shot to perform a critical role. There's always a need for a trained medic, engineer or even a skilled hacker. I have sympathy for the resistance, too. It sucks to be on fresh water rations in the middle of the ocean. The plague and oppression aren't much fun either.
It's no secret that I've been a tremendous fan of Splash Damage's past work (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory). Splash Damage knows how to make an engaging multiplayer, class-based shooter. Brink is another success. The main difference from past efforts is that it's a cozier experience.
Made with a console audience in mind, Brink features teams of eight in an intimate setting (that just happens to be a floating, oceanic arcology). Brink maintains the splendidly balanced class dynamics of Splash Damage's past games, but adds meaningful body-type choices that are nearly as important as class selection, a parkour-like sensibility for navigating the battlefield and persistent character development. Brink even does something so few console shooters manage – Brink has decent bots, so matches are always full and it's possible to practice offline to learn the ropes.
The Ark may have started as a carefully designed haven, but the slapdash housing built for the Guests and the general state of disrepair mean the battlefields in Brink are littered with debris. These mutli-leveled monstrosities would be impossible to navigate if I had to trudge around on flat surfaces like in every other game. In Brink, players can vault barriers, slide under low obstacles and wall-jump to reach high platforms. Choose a heavy body type, and you are tougher and can carry heavier weapons (such as massive Gatling guns), but you can't jump or leap. Light body types can't take much punishment, and can only carry lighter rifles and submachine guns, but can reach otherwise inaccessible vantages from which to snipe, build turrets or just gloat about their parkour prowess.
It's a testament to the balance of the body types that I still can't decide which I prefer. Sometimes it's most satisfying to race to the firefight and approach from an unorthodox angle, other times I'd rather slowly wade in with the heaviest weapons the game has to offer. And sometimes I want the more balanced approach that the medium body type offers. It's disappointing that I can't switch body types mid-match as I can classes, but I suppose the Ark's Founders didn't plan on placing plastic surgery terminals throughout the facility. This place certainly isn't Rapture.
Usually, the free-running works elegantly. It's really freeing to jump into battle with the light body type and go careening off walls, bouncing to and fro. I really enjoyed running through the airport or café settings, leaping over chairs and tables, rather than running into the impenetrable obstacles other games would make such chairs. The parkour is splendid, but not perfect. It can be glaringly painful when certain areas are inaccessible, and I had serious trouble escaping from a central canal on the "Chopper Down" map that should have been a knee-high step up. But when it works, the parkour interface is brilliant, and that's the vast majority of the time.
Brink relies on four classes. Soldiers pack the serious punch and can plant explosives. Medics can revive other players. Engineers can place mines, build turrets, repair and disarm. Operatives can disguise themselves as the enemy and hack electronic objectives. It's a given that all four classes will be needed on any given mission, and missions work best when all players stick together. Sometimes that's in two groups of four, but if everyone runs off randomly, things fall apart quickly.
As in Splash Damage's previous games, it's easy to change classes on the fly if a strategy isn't working, or if you just don't have enough of a class to complete an objective. The persistent, role-playing game-style advancement tends to lock players into a preferred class (or perhaps two), but it's still possible to switch mid-stream, even if it isn't preferable for someone tied closely to one class. Most importantly, there are enough classes to ensure a style of play for every preference. No matter how I feel like playing Brink, there's a class to accommodate me.
Given the tremendous complexity of Brink, there is a substantial learning curve. The developers clearly try to phase things in gradually, adding special abilities for each class that are only available after substantial play. The matchmaking is structured so that you don't have to play with others more advanced than you, so there's some time to get used to the various abilities. Still, especially if you haven't played a past Splash Damage game, it takes a moment to get used to the many available choices, and learn how to operate the convenient objective-selector that provides play guidance. To that end, the game provides videos, text tips and challenges.
I was particularly impressed with the challenges. In the guise of tasks that can slap your name up on leaderboards, the game presents mini-games that help you learn the skills needed to play Brink. There's even a serious incentive to play them, as they unlock extra weapon choices. Even more impressive is the bot support. The ability to play a map with AI opponents lets you get used to the objectives, classes and maps without having to suffer the indignity of being beaten down and insulted by others who got the game a day before you did. While it's too early to be certain, Brink looks like the kind of multiplayer shooter you could actually join in on well after the initial release.
Brink is a wonderful multiplayer experience, and for a multiplayer shooter, it has a surprisingly deep story. The Ark and the world of 2045 is exceptionally well fleshed-out, with tons of supplemental story material hidden in the various menus for players to discover. Neither the audio logs nor the cut-scenes are mandatory, but they exist for those of us who thrive on the details of this decaying dystopia. Both Security and the Resistance have compelling motivations. You don't have to care why you're picking up an assault rifle and storming the aquarium, but I do – and I'm satisfied.
The art, too, speaks of a decaying world and lends the Ark a sense of history more prosaic shooters lack. It's easy to see the evidence of past battles, or just simple decay as civil war attempts to consign the Ark to the depths of the sea. The whole environment is presented as a sort of caricature, an exaggerated realism that makes the differences between Brink's art endearing rather than a failing. The Ark's inhabitants are lanky and elongated, with exaggerated noses and chins, just as the Ark itself is dominated by the exaggerated spire of the Founder's Tower. It's a world similar enough to our own to be relatable, but stylized and different enough to entertain instead of horrify.
I've loved my experience with Brink so far. It is poised to become a standby option for online fun. Yes, this review is based on limited, pre-release multiplayer with other humans and tons of play with bots, but I'll be on when the servers populate as the game is released, and I'll be sure to update this review if things change as the community settles in to play Brink. If you're considering Brink, go for it. Especially if you have the slightest propensity for tactics or cooperation in your online, multiplayer shooter, you won't be disappointed.