Posted by Phill Cameron (October 07, 2010)

The Mission is simple. The Resistance have a bio-weapon, and being the terrorist mouth-breathers that they are, they’re probably going to use it somewhere in the Arc, and we need to stop them before that happens. Escort the defusal bot to the heart of Container City, get the bio-weapon, and hightail it out of there. Got it?

The Mission is simple. The Security forces have been withholding vaccine, doling it out to the elite and leaving us alone and diseased. So we’ve got ourselves some, by force, and now they want it back. We can’t let that happen. Who are they to dictate who should and shouldn’t be vaccinated? No, let them come, and we’ll stop them. Got it?

The Mission is never simple.

Splash Damage are going out on a limb with Brink. They’re creating a multiplayer game with context, and not just ‘you guys hate those guys, so kill those guys.’ There’s an actual narrative that they’re putting forward, to try and drive you to actually care about which side you pick, rather than just ‘I prefer red over blue.’ And you know what? It works.

But that’s all just backdrop, a way to engage you before you ever put finger to trigger and head into the game world Splash Damage have set up. Speaking to Paul Wedgewood, the Creative Director on Brink, I asked him whether this heavy emphasis on narrative might distract and detract from the actual experience of playing the game.

"Well, I think that the thing is it all has to do with the way that we see the cinematic narrative morphing into player stories. Ultimately, you’ve had a good experience if you can tell your friends about it, and we discovered this really with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and of course we did Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, which was an objective-based game, but it wasn’t exactly the same objectives every time you play.

"So what we tried to do with Brink is that the geography changes with every objective, and because of the combat role that you’re playing, the task you take on is different, not just because of your combat role, but also because of what your teammates are doing. So if I’m playing a medic, my primary mission may well be to escort somebody who’s going to plant a charge on the door. But if someone else was going to do a mission, I could escort them or I could take a mission to capture the command post, or to revive somebody who’s a valuable player because they’re an engineer and they’re needed to repair the defusal robot. So even in my one task of ultimately giving someone a health pack, there are five different ways that I can play that, that involve me climbing and mantling, sneaking around or running down the middle of a street, guns blazing, and that just changes dramatically from objective to objective."

And it’s this variety in play that’s the first immediate, brilliant experience that you take when you sit down with the game. Each section of each level seems geared towards flanking and alternate routes. The narrative sets up the levels, but it’s what actually happens and how you get the job done, that tell the real story. Playing as Security, the defusal robot serves as a focal point regardless of which combat role you’ve chosen. It’s something akin to Team Fortress 2’s Payload game type, but that doesn’t mean that you’re stuck defending it the whole time.

Some of the alternate routes are blocked off, at first. They might require a door to be hacked, or blown off, before you can continue. Or maybe they need an engineer to get around and hammer up some scaffolding together and put up some makeshift stairs. Even though these are relatively typical actions, they provide a diversity of play that can quickly turn the tide of a fight.

What something like escorting a Defusal Bot does is provide a grounding, something for the emergent narrative to form around. And these aren’t purely dependent on which side you’re playing. Your combat role has a huge effect too.

"When you play the game multiple times," Wedgewood noted, "you have a very different experience. Just to take the very beginning, I’m an engineer and I have to escort and repair the defusal robot. Right through the center, through the heart of the enemy’s defenses. If I’m a soldier, my initial job is to blow up the gate. If I’m the operative, I could choose to sneak around the outside, hack open a door and open up a side route so that we can now flank the enemy. If I’m playing medic, I might choose to use parkour to get up over the containers and get behind enemy lines and capture a command post that’s going to give my entire team a morale boost that will increase their health or power. So, the game experience changes depending on the combat role that you play, and with the missions having these primary objectives, you always have half a dozen that you can pick from to provide a more varied experience."

At the same time, there’s a very big learning curve between offline and online play with multiplayer shooters, not to mention the fact that these two halves of a game tend to play very, very differently. Brink realises this, and its developers are working to fix it. Through something they’ve been calling ‘Rich Presence’. Essentially, Splash Damage don’t want you to continue seeing a distinction between single player, co-op, and multiplayer. They’re all just different sides to the same three-sided coin. Or something. Paul Wedgewood was nice enough to clarify.

"It’s one game. If you're playing it for the very first time there’s a sequence to the missions that has an arcing narrative with cinematics and objectives that match that storyline and that process, and that’s how you play it through if you think of ‘career mode’ in a racing game. During that process, if one of your friends comes online, using Rich Presence, you can invite them in with their persistent character that they’ve been upgrading and leveling up and everything else. And later on that evening, if you want to swap out all of the AI with real people you can open up the game to strangers and let it flood with strangers.

"The difference from the traditional single player game is that despite having an arcing narrative that’s different for the Resistance and Security, and all of those features you’d expect from a single player experience, we give the player complete freedom within that game world, which is quite a difference, kind of a step outside the circle of shooters because you’re not in a mine car, going a very specific route, witnessing the best moments of the game, every time you play. You may well play through Container City, not see the gate destroyed, not see the crane move the defusal robot over the center... you miss all those cinematic moments except at the beginning and the end because you’re off doing something else, but you’re doing something you enjoy, so we don’t care. We’re not precious about forcing you to see it.’

There’s something incredibly enjoyable about seeing developers not care that you witness every single piece of their game, and that’s probably because they know that, eventually, you probably will. They’re free to provide alternate routes, allow you some freedom, because really, if they’ve done their jobs right, you’re going to hang around long enough to get out everything they’ve put in. And it’s not just in the way you play the game that you’re allowed freedom; the character customisation is startlingly versatile, allowing you to create anything from a Seasick Steve impersonator to something wholly more serious. Through working your way through a series of variants for face, facepain, headgear and so on and so forth, you’re entirely able to create something new and unique.

Which, of course, raises its own issues. In the world where anyone can look like anyone, how do you make sure someone on the Resistance side doesn’t start displaying their love of leather, berets and shiney blues? Because that’s going to be awfully confusing for the Security Forces, what with those being their gang hallmarks. Luckily I had the foresight to ask Paul just this.

"We have rim lighting to make it a little bit easier," he told me, "so the enemy always has a subtly red tint to them no matter what you’re doing. But, there is a distinction in palette. The Security Force tend to use more silvers, blues, greys, blacks, and security colours, whereas the Resistance colour scheme is much more organic, with a lot more neutral hues. So despite the fact that there are masses of customisation options, there is in fact no blue variants of any of the t-shirts that the Resistance wear so they can’t be confused with security."

Which is indicative of how Brink feels as a whole, in general. It’s freedom, but it’s directed. You’re not being given a sandbox shooter, but instead an objective-based, directed effort that allows you the freedom of the circumstances that you’re presented with. Even with a system as versatile and easy to pickup as the S.M.A.R.T., which allows you to jump, slide and vault over pretty much anything you’d expect to, you are always kept from abusing the system by the enemy team.

The one aspect that wasn’t on show at the Expo was the range of different body variants, which almost form a set of archetypes with the heavy being tougher, slower, and having much, much bigger guns, and the agile being faster, more agile and a hell of a lot more squishy. With just the medium build on show, it provided a very balanced view of the game, without offering that extra layer of variety that will no doubt permeate the finished product.

Even with only a single level under my belt, and a few questions answered, Brink is by far the most interesting shooter on the horizon. There’s a layer of intuition on display that I haven’t seen since I first picked up Team Fortress 2, and if that’s the benchmark by which I’m comparing it in my mind, then Brink is something you should be very excited by.


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