The first time I saw Brink I remember thinking, "Ooh, this looks like my kind of thing." Cool character design, team-based multiplayer action featuring classes with distinct abilities, acrobatic traversal mechanics, and a unique system for dynamically shifting objectives within the arena of play are all things that get my "great game" antenna vibrating. To say I've been excited for it for a long time is an understatement. I've been wanting this game very badly.
So it makes me sad to say that Brink doesn't live up to expectations. On paper, it's borderline genius, with the variations between classes and customisable character models giving the player a lot of ways to accomplish the myriad objectives within each map. But in execution, it's lacking some fundamental capacity for enjoyment. Something just feels kind of ‘off’.
Scientists who work to create healthier foods talk a lot about something called "mouth feel." They can make a piece of tofu taste like bacon, but still can’t synthesise the way real, wonderful animal fat feels in your mouth. Brink has a similar problem: it looks and acts like one of the most innovative shooters out there, but it doesn't feel like it.
Grenades and explosions are anaemic and shooting enemies feels less like pumping bullets into a body and more like sending the other guy a memo about how many hit points he just lost. Great shooters - like Call of Duty, or the very comparable Team Fortress 2 - have a great visceral feel to them. Brink does not.
It's really too bad, because in many ways Brink is a brilliant game. The attackers/defenders model is revolutionised by the way secondary objectives are fluidly folded into the action. The amount of unique powers you can unlock - especially the teammate buffs and more personal upgrades like the ability to look behind you as you interact - are the work of a design team that understands the interplay between the thoughtful and the frenetic. But somewhere along the way choices were made that weaken my admiration for what is at the core of the experience.
Despite my disappointment in Brink's failures, I feel it’s necessary to praise the things I enjoyed about the game. The art style is fantastic. Imagine the sort of hyper-deformed look of Team Fortress 2, but greasier and more alive. The character designs and the ways you can customise those characters, as well as the design of the Ark, the dystopian floating city of the future on which the action takes place, are all worthy of awards.
It never seems silly, nor does it have that typical brown palette our industry has been raging against. To employ an overused term, the game just looks cool. If you’re playing the game on the Xbox 360, though, you'll definitely want to install the game on your hard drive. It makes a huge difference.
Multiplayer shooters that are meant to be played online like this one are generally just a collection of arenas. But developer Splash Damage ties everything together with an interesting narrative that you can pay attention to or not; it won't have a huge effect on your enjoyment of the game. The challenge modes are great too, teaching you how to master the different aspects of the game a whole hell of a lot better than the seemingly endless tutorial video that you can watch at its beginning.
The central problem is the anaemic feel to the action. I love complexity in games like this, but when the core action doesn't feel good enough it weakens the entire venture. When I shoot an enemy, especially in the head, I want them dead. Not lying on the ground waiting for a medic to revive them - dead. If there is a cardinal rule of shooters, it should be that nobody survives a headshot. Nobody.
I could go into a long rant here too about the unbalanced A.I. that seems to take more bullets than a shooting range mannequin, but truthfully, this game is not meant to be played against anything but human opponents. Playing solo against the AI is doubly frustrating, considering that your computer-controlled opponents rarely do anything useful.
If your job is to protect some computer terminal until an A.I.-controlled Operative class unit comes and hacks it, you're going to be waiting a long time. Same goes for when you say "screw it", go change into an Operative class, and come back to hack the control panel expecting it to be protected. The AI just won't do what a reasonably smart or co-operative human would. A system for giving orders to bots would have been a huge help.
I could go on all day about the minor irritations of Brink, but the truth is, multiplayer team shooters like this are living and breathing organisms. As a community builds up around it, I'm hopeful that they will vocalise these issues and Splash Damage and Bethesda will take measures to fix them. Brink is about two or three updates from being one of my favourite shooters of all time, but I'm not reviewing the game I want it to be. I'm reviewing the game it is, and it falls well short of its obvious potential.