When I first heard about the concepts behind Splash Damage’s promising Brink, I was intrigued: the SMART (Smooth Movement Across Rough Terrain) mechanic, which is akin to the free running in Mirror’s Edge, a single-player campaign with 40,000 lines of dialogue, and a multiplayer option fueled by team-based strategy. Such a premise would indeed be compelling had the developers made everything work correctly, and provided players with a dynamic, continually engaging experience. Unfortunately, while the all-human gameplay can be rewarding and the actual control and movement functions nicely, the rest just doesn’t live up to expectations.
It’s difficult to say if the graphics are a bonus or a detriment; this one seems more reliant on subjective viewpoints rather than critical, objective graphical analysis. The game is certainly more colorful than most FPSs (especially the military-based ones), and the character designs have this goofy caricature-like aspect, so there’s some definite originality. On the other hand, I don’t think too highly of all the level design and maps, as they aren’t as inspired and various as I would’ve hoped, and too many of the backdrops and environments are all too similar. The special effects are hit or miss; they tend to fit with the style and atmosphere, but they also can’t blow us out of our seats. Oh, and things can appear blurry and inconsistent, too.
The sound is in much the same boat, as the voice performances are decent and the soundtrack suits the action, but there’s nothing that separates and shines. Furthermore, the balancing can suffer at times and although they lauded the many different weapon reports, none of them really assault your speakers with appropriate drama. It’s not that we don’t have a solid piece of audio; it’s that it rarely adds the necessary impact to the on-screen events. The music and sound seem content with sitting in the background most of the time and that just doesn’t cut it from a technical standpoint. There’s nothing glaringly bad about either the graphics or sound but sadly, there also isn’t anything worth mentioning from a top-quality standpoint.
Like I said, the ideas behind this game are great. First up is that SMART mechanic, which allows you to hurdle, slide, and sprint your way around the battlefield, depending on your body type. There are three body types (light, medium, and heavy) and these dictate the potential of the SMART physics; i.e., light players have the most mobility and are capable of various physical and even aerial maneuvers. Heavy players aren’t as agile, of course, but they’re more durable and tote around bigger weapons. At first, I thought the light character type had an unfair advantage (he can reach parts of the map others can’t) but after a time, the extra health and heavy weaponry felt more useful.
So here, the balance isn’t really a problem. The control is pretty solid, too, but after playing a few maps, you’ll start to notice some erratic behavior. The problem lies not in the execution of jumps, hurdles and slides, but in the preparation: in other words, if you’re running towards something you intend to hurdle, you may end up running into it if your aim is off. Plus, I never did quite learn exactly which ledges can be clambered over and which ones remain out of reach. These drawbacks hamper the fluidity and overall feel of the game, and sort of makes SMART feel a little less intelligent than the name implies. I still liked sliding into people and knocking ‘em over, though.
In the single-player campaign, you can choose to be among the rebels (seeking to escape the evidently doomed Ark) or the authority enforcers (seeking to restore law and order on the Ark), and then you’ll create your character. There are a ton of customization options but besides the body type, they’re all purely cosmetic. But the bottom line is that the campaign feels a lot like any multiplayer match; there’s a story, but you still play on maps, you still have objectives – which quickly get crazy repetitive, by the way – and after playing for a while, I found little difference between playing the campaign or playing online. Free Play is a nice option but it’s not really enough, despite the customization and freedom.
Essentially, there’s just no reason to play this for the storyline and it’d be a mistake to assume the campaign is anything like normal campaigns, distinctly separate from standard online map play. Plus, there are only 8 total maps and 4 Challenge maps so you’ve seen everything there is to see in a short span of time, regardless of the mode you choose. The addition of classes adds some much-needed depth and might almost save the game – depending on your tolerance of the other issues – due to the unique abilities. Soldiers, Medics and Engineers are all important and all can assist your team with crucial buffs. Medics can toss syringes that restore your health or get you back on your feet, Soldiers have grenades and can give teammates ammo, and Engineers can place mines and turrets. There are quite a few other abilities, too.
That’s really the best part of Brink; that and the all-human action. I say that because the AI is just plain mediocre and in the so-called “campaign,” your computer counterparts will screw things up more often than not. You really need to play with friends to get anything out of the game, and it really doesn’t matter if you choose to follow the story or not. But even then, the problems don’t go away, as the repetitiveness of the objectives remain, the less-than-inspired technical presentation is typically forgettable, the SMART system isn’t always perfect, and there just aren’t enough maps. I should also mention that since the PSN came back, I’ve experienced plenty of lag in my sessions. Not sure if that's a problem for others, though.
Brink is just one of those games that doesn’t deliver on what it promises. I must emphasize that there isn’t anything broken about the game (with the possible exception of the stupid AI), and the mechanics on which the game is built tend to work quite well. But with a slew of little problems, a bunch of repetition, a campaign that isn’t anything like a campaign (let’s face it; this is a multiplayer game only), and lacking environmental variety, it’s tough to recommend. There are other games out there.
The Good: Interesting visual design. Decent control. SMART movement adds some flair. Classes and body type enhance depth and appeal. Multiplayer can be fun.
The Bad: Graphics and effects aren’t quite up to snuff. Story and campaign feel like multiplayer extensions. Dumb AI. Not enough maps or diversity. Repetitive objectives. SMART isn’t always 100% reliable.
The Ugly: “…the hell are you doing now? Forget it, I’ll do it myself.”
5/17/2011 Ben Dutka