Splash Damage understands shooters. The name might not be as recognisable as blockbuster contemporaries like Bungie and Infinity Ward, but this independent UK-based studio has been steadily refining its technique ever since grabbing attention with its 2001 mod Quake 3 Fortress. Since then, it has worked exclusively with id Software properties, providing multiplayer maps for Return To Castle Wolfenstein, and carving out a unique approach to team-based competitive multiplayer with the excellent Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars.
Splash Damage’s games appeal to the more discriminating shooter fan, so the imminent release of Brink is a cause for cautious excitement: cautious because what’s being attempted here has never really been done before, and genuinely new ideas are difficult to get right; excited because Splash Damage is arguably Britain’s finest independent developer, and Brink is the first time it has had the funding and freedom to create an entirely original vision.
Brink is set in a future where ecological catastrophe has left much of the world submerged in water. The game takes place on The Ark, a floating utopia that was designed to be the save of humanity, but has become little more than another playground for our destructive tendencies. There are two factions - Resistance and Security - and players must choose to fight for one or the other, and create a warrior to take part in the ongoing struggle for control.
The goal is to create a shooter that bridges the gap between traditional single-player and multiplayer modes. Alone or with friends, co-operative or competitive, Resistance or Security, in Brink you’re always playing the same game. You could be playing four-on-four – Brink allows any combination of up to eight-players – and even if all seven of your friends decide to call it a night the game will seamlessly introduce AI partners. If three of your friends decide to come back for more, they will be slotted in and the game will continue.
As basic concepts go it’s undeniably strong, if somewhat reliant on near flawless partner A.I. to make the single-player experience sufficiently engaging. I can’t comment on that, but I recently played through two whole missions - as part of a team of four, against four A.I. enemies – and can confirm that Brink is all set to fulfil its obvious potential.
The character creation tools offer plenty of choice for those who enjoy that sort of thing, while the wonderfully chunky and expressive art-style means your hoodlum will look pretty great even if you don’t. It wasn’t the final build, and it’s clear that everything is going to receive a few coats of polish before the game actually ships, but the environments felt agreeably lived in, and offered immediate rewards for those willing to do a little exploring.
This is helped by a system Splash Damage is calling Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain: SMART. In simplest terms, it’s a button that allows you to perform parkour-esque chains of movement and acrobatics by pushing a single button, and while it didn’t feel as tight or responsive as I hoped, it’s clear that Splash Damage is still refining the feel. Good news, because the way it changes how you look at the environment adds a very welcome new dimension to the game.
This idea of smoothing out the bumps is carried over to the gameplay as well. Brink is class-based, but players can change both class and weapon loadouts on the fly through scattered computer terminals. Completing objectives is a similarly fluid process, with players able to choose from a number of possible tasks at any given time. If you need to chaperone a tank, for example, it would be wise to choose a soldier, but if the tank breaks down you can switch to an engineer to perform repairs, and if your teammates take a beating in the meantime you can always become a medic to revive them. And that may not even be your current main objective.
My time with Brink answered a number of nagging questions about how Splash Damage’s fascinating idea actually works, but a few still remain. I have yet to be convinced that the story will be good enough to make the single-player experience especially satisfying, for example, so it remains to be seen whether the seamless solo/multiplayer integration is anything more than marketing hype.
But there are always questions, and until we found out for sure Brink looks like one of the most promising games of the year.