'Brink's' reach exceeds its grasp; still fun though

'Brink's' reach exceeds its grasp; still fun though

“Brink” is a game that reaches for the stars ... and falls short.

It’s chock full of interesting and somewhat daring new game-play ideas, but most of them don’t feel fully fleshed out. The result is a game that is good, but not great or brilliant.

For instance, there’s a fantastic narrative that should be driving the action, but the way it’s worked into the game renders it almost completely incidental. You can easily skip through the little bits of story presented before you get into a match, while the bulk of it is confined to audio logs sequestered in a separate menu.

If you don’t bother to thumb through that dossier, you’ll never comprehend the full richness of the tale underlying the game-play.

Essentially, it’s a story about how a lack of trust and perceived inequality erodes a society. Two sides are at war on a floating city called the Ark, which might be the last bastion of humanity following a massive environmental disaster.

The Security side fights for the preservation of the Ark and its status quo, saying that even though things aren’t good now, they’ll only be worse if people don’t work together.

Yet a Resistance group has emerged amid feelings that the Founders of the city are denying a majority of the population a fair share of available resources. Water is too tightly rationed, they believe, despite claims from the powers-that-be that taxing the system any further would result in a complete breakdown.

Also, the Resistance fervently believes that something must have survived of the outside world, and they want to make contact with whatever remains of humanity. Yet Security won’t let anyone venture away from the Ark.

The story evolves as new audio logs become available throughout the game, and it becomes apparent that both sides know things they aren’t sharing with the opposition, to everyone’s detriment. It’s equally clear that neither side is good or evil, just human.

Unfortunately, I only know this because I took the time to go through the audio logs, a purely optional activity. It is, in many ways, a waste of a good story.

But it’s hardly the only wasted opportunity here.

Let’s break down “Brink” into its various concepts, because it’s such a complex title that it’s a little hard to tackle head-on.

Choose a side; make a character
“Brink” is a first-person shooter merged with elements of role-playing games, including a huge amount of customizability.

And it begins in the simplest of ways: First, you pick what side you want to play as initially — even though you can switch between Security and Resistance whenever you want — then you design your character’s basic facial appearance; all characters in “Brink” are male, by the way. That template will be used for your overall character, whose clothing can then be further customized so you have different looks depending on whom you’re fighting for.

But while there’s a huge number of ways you can make your character look, in the heat of battle, one guy becomes pretty indistinguishable from another. You could put hours into creating your perfect look, yet it’s unlikely that anyone would really notice. I’ve fought alongside some Xbox Live friends of mine for a few hours in the game, and I couldn’t begin to tell you what their guys looked like. And I doubt any of them noticed my Resistance fighter was wearing a purple “I’m With Stupid” shirt.

Customization isn’t limited to face and clothes though. Everyone starts with a normal body type, which offers a blend of durability and ease of movement. But as a player advances, two other body types are unlocked. If you choose a light body type, your character will be faster and able to reach otherwise inaccessible places, but won’t be able to endure any punishment. With a heavy body type, damage can be soaked up pretty well, but you’ll be slow and not very nimble.

There’s also a ton of guns to choose from, all tied to your body type. After all, a big guy can easily heft a big chain gun, while a little guy would collapse under the weight. But either way, there’s a multitude of weapon types to pick from, and all of them can be customized with scopes and sights and other gear — if you can earn the parts.

Who’s human anymore?
Most first-person shooters have separate single-player and multiplayer modes. Not “Brink.” Here they are one and the same.

Here’s how it works: After you pick a Security or Resistance mission to play (or Freeplay, which drops you into a random mission), you select if you want to play alone or with other players. If you choose the latter, you can decide to be part of a team of real players against computer-controlled opponents (cooperative) or have real players on both sides (versus).

No matter which mode you select, you’ll have seven allies on your side and eight enemies on the other. Any positions on the teams that aren’t occupied by real players will be controlled by artificially intelligent “bots.”

In many games that have bots, it’s pretty easy to tell the real people from the fake. But most of the time while playing “Brink,” I had a hard time distinguishing. The bots are programmed to behave convincingly lifelike. If it wasn’t for the fact that lots of real players have outlandish Xbox Live or PSN names, it would be almost impossible to tell them apart.

What I found really interesting though, was that in one match I was in — a cooperative match where there were seven of us “real” folks and one bot — I actually found the bot to be the most helpful player on my team. It was acting as a medic, and it often braved enemy fire to keep me on my feet. Most of my other teammates were acting as lone wolves, not doing anything to help each other out.

However, there is an occasional flaw that crops up with the bot players. They can get caught up in trying to achieve secondary goals during a match, which can hamstring any effort to achieve the real mission necessary for victory.

I don’t have any easy fix for the developer to make in that regard. But I found that the easiest way to win that sort of mission is to enlist “real” help.

You’ve got to have class
The missions you undertake in “Brink” are fairly complex in scope. Half the time, your mission will be to accomplish a series of goals in order to achieve one big objective, such as rescuing a captive comrade or making off with stolen data. The rest of the time, you’ll be trying to stop the other team from accomplishing those goals.

Basically, each Security mission has a corresponding Resistance mission, which sets up the clash between the factions.

The individual goals throughout the course of each mission generally can be accomplished only by a character who is equipped with a special “class” suited to that mission. The soldier class is needed for planting explosive charges on barriers. The operative class is needed to hack into computers. The engineer class is needed to repair equipment, defuse explosives, open safes and remove hacking devices from computers. And the medic class is needed to keep people alive, including AI-controlled captives.

Additional abilities characterize the four classes, provided the player unlocks certain upgrades: For instance, soldiers can replenish their teammates’ ammo, give themselves armor-piercing rounds and use exclusive types of grenades. Operatives can hack enemy turrets and disguise themselves. Engineers can set up turrets and mines, improve teammates’ weapons and hand out Kevlar armor. Medics can boost other players’ health and resurrect them directly on the battlefield.

A player can switch classes throughout the course of a match, simply by running up to a “command console” set up on the battlefield. So it’s up to individual players if they want to stick to one role or switch regularly in order to accomplish primary goals.

Unfortunately, the classes aren’t particularly well-balanced. For one, soldiers, plainly set up as a combat class, should be more effective fighters than the other professions, but there’s no discernible difference that I can see. The operative’s secondary abilities aren’t terribly effective. Medics rarely get the chance to do anything other than act as support. And, really, engineers are overpowered compared to the others; their turrets are pretty effective, they can rack up points by regularly upgrading their allies, and on defense, they’re the ones with the biggest job: defusing the enemies’ attempts at progress.

Goaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallll!!
Integral to the game-play is the idea that there’s no one right way to help your team.

Yes, you can work directly toward your side’s primary goal in the mission. However, there’s almost always secondary objectives you can pursue in order to give your team an advantage. An easily accessed “Objective” wheel allows you to see what options you’ve got for goals and choose one to pursue.

Capturing a health or supply command post gives everyone on your team a boost in the corresponding category. Other potential objectives include creating shortcuts for your team to exploit, destroying ones being used by the opposition or backing up a teammate who’s trying to accomplish the primary task.

Everything you do to help your team earns you experience, which is necessary for leveling up, which earns you the points you need for upgrades.

A few missions are pretty heavy on the secondary objectives, which is a good thing. Those missions feel like something new, where the two sides must actively work to outsmart each other.

Unfortunately, most missions have far too few alternative activities for players to pursue. As a result, they feel both repetitious and like run-of-the-mill slugfests, not the original that “Brink” is capable of being. If you are going to give a game a backbone that supports diverse styles of play, let us players exploit it to the fullest.

Running and gunning
Even the most basic components of a first-person shooter — moving your character around and shooting at enemies — are a bit different in “Brink.”

In this game, pretty much every character is something of a parkour master, able to run, jump and slide with ease. And if your character has a light body type, the world becomes a playground of objects to clamber up and vault away from.

The designers have admitted they wanted to make shooting almost secondary to movement. In some ways, they’ve succeeded. Sliding into an opponent in order to knock them off their feet, momentarily spoiling their ability to effectively aim and fire, is a well-integrated tactic in the game.

Still, learned behavior on the part of many players effectively makes static, toe-to-toe fighting pretty much the norm in human-on-human matches. At least, it is so far. Maybe that will change as the game ages.

However, I don’t think the parkour system reaches its full potential in this game. Even though there are usually multiple paths players can take to reach where they want to be on the battlefield, things still feel a little too limited in that regard. Too many of the maps have chokepoints that funnel most of the action into one area. And that’s especially a problem when the main goal for one side is delivery of an object that requires running through that chokepoint.

The result is a lack of balance between offense and defense.

However, the oddity of the game’s shooting mechanics almost cancels out that imbalance.

How should I put this ...

Keeping a steady bead on a target in “Brink” is almost impossible. Guns have lots of recoil, and because you are mostly playing as characters who aren’t professional soldiers, there’s a built-in flightiness to the aiming controls. Even if you’re not playing with the camera/aiming controls or even firing your gun, your character’s arms will buck like a bronco on occasion, adding a sense of panic and unease to the combat.

I appreciate it as a touch of realism if I’m playing a medic, engineer or operative (who’d be a computer programmer in real life terms). But I don’t think it works for the soldier class, which by its very nature should get a noticeable advantage with firearms. I think it’s an oversight that could easily be fixed with a game patch.

However, I also see it as a possible flaw in the minds of many gamers. After all, players forced Sony to change the controls in “Killzone 2” because they didn’t like the sense of weight weapons had in that FPS. I can’t imagine they’ll treat “Brink” any differently, though I wish they would.

A few extras
OK, there actually is one separate area from the regular mission-driven game-play, and that’s the four Challenge modes.

Each has a different focus: One focuses on making you switch from various classes to accomplish goals while under enemy fire. Another teaches you to fully exploit the parkour system. Another works on your engineering skills. And the last is focused on improving your defense.

It’s these missions that you must play in order to unlock new guns and the parts necessary to upgrade existing ones. And they aren’t easy.

As a player, I’m frustrated by the ones I haven’t beaten yet. As a critic, I have to like a game that rewards skill and effort over tenacity, yet doesn’t provide equipment that puts some people in a league of their own.

The kind of gear you earn, as I said before, includes things like weapon sights, silencers and expanded ammo clips, as well as parts that enhance your reload speed or improve the weapon’s stability. It’s a tweak, not a godlike boost.

Also, Bethesda Softworks, the publisher, announced recently that the first downloadable content that will be released for the game (in June, most likely) will be free. Got to like that.

Wrapping this up
As you may have noticed, there’s more than a few things I’d like to see improved on here. “Brink” feels like a rough draft of a game concept, not quite the perfect finished product.

Yet it’s a good game. Not a world-class, must-have title just yet, but a good game nonetheless.

“Brink”
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Price: $59.99 consoles; $49.99 PC.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: I really, really want to urge people to run out and buy this game, because I love the concept, but I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s just not quite developed enough. So do yourself a favor and rent it, and take the time to dig into the story.

Images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks
First: The Founders' Tower stretches off in the distance on the Ark.
Second: A Resistance fighter does his best to look intimidating.
Third: A Security engineer works on a repair while a teammate stands guard.
Fourth and fifth: Movement is a necessity for survival and a useful battle tactic.

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