My first impression of Splash Damage & Bethesda’s new offering, Brink, was that these guys get it. According to Ed Stern, a producer at Splash Damage, multiplayer games can either be one of your best or worst gaming experiences – something that definitely rings true. I can remember staying up until 4 in the morning having a blast with friends, but also remember complaining about the lack of teamwork and every match becoming a Deathmatch regardless of mode. With Brink, Splash Damage is looking to remove those barriers.
Before sitting down with Stern, I was able to watch a thirty-minute, hands-off demo of Brink in action. The demo began with a short teaser followed by our first look at the game. Brink takes place in the future on The Ark, an artificial island city build at sea, lost in isolation for the last 20 years. Seconds into gameplay, it was apparent that two decades in isolation wasn’t going over well. The attention to detail was outstanding and rivals the best of what Fallout 3 and Bioshock throw at players.
I later learned that the attention to detail is a big part of Splash Damage’s design philosophy – Instant Deep Context. According to Stern, the “Instant” is rooted in visual storytelling; within a few seconds of seeing something, you have a good idea about what is going on. However, the goal isn’t to force story on players. For comparison’s sake, there are players who will run around Rapture with the sole purpose of killing Big Daddies. For them, story is secondary. Then there are players who investigated every bolt, leak and crack with an annotated copy of Atlus Shrugged.
For the players that just want to shoot things, Brink brings that by the truckload. But for those that want a deeper story, there’s the “Deep Context” part of the philosophy. Put simply: The more you look, the more you see. As Stern put it, there’s no reason players have to turn off parts of their brains when playing. If you want to see more, you can take it all in. However, he also emphasized that Brink is a shooter first. If you want to turn your brain off, well by all means do it. It's about giving players the experience they want, not the one developers want to force down their throats.
The Ark is split between two factions, the Sentry (security) and the Resistance, who are fighting for control of the island. Where Brink differs from most shooters is the ability to create your own custom character. Depending on your faction and class, different clothing options are available. You also choose a body type, which affects gameplay. CEO Paul Wedgewood (our incredibly peppy demo driver) didn’t get into too much detail about how body types would influence play, but touched on the basics. Bigger characters were stronger, smaller ones were faster… you get the idea.
With Brink, Splash Damage is looking at a completely new way to handle movement in a game. This idea plays out through a system known as S.M.A.R.T. (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain – thank you marketing!). In the demo, Wedgewood was able to effortlessly bound over an obstacle by aiming the targeting reticule above the structure, holding down the Sprint button and running towards it. The system looks similar to Mirror’s Edge, but Stern pointed out that Brink is not a parkour game. The system assists in jumps but doesn’t make allow you to make impossible jumps, nor is it an “instant play” button. Stern even pointed out that you could play through the game without using the button; it’s just a new way of thinking about how a character should interact with the environment. The goal is to present something that is more natural rather than the current system when even the slightest rise in terrain can trip up a player. Or, as Stern eloquently put it, having characters “…move more like people and less like fridges on wheels.”
The second part of the demo brought us to The Ark’s dockyards and offered a look at the team-based gameplay. Each game is an 8-on-8 affair with players taking part of a small squad and completing goals that help their faction progress through the mission. Even when playing in a single-player campaign, you’ll always have a squad playing the game and working towards the team’s goals. In an interesting twist, single-player missions are drop-in/ drop-out. New players can drop into the game at any time (with your permission, of course) and replace an A.I. ally or opponent. The goal is to completely blur the lines between single and multiplayer games.
At the start of the mission, you choose one of four classes and a basic weapon load out. Wedgewood began as an Operative but was immediately prompted with the option of switching to an Engineer to repair a switch. Objectives constantly shift depending on what is going on during a game and players will constantly have to switch classes to keep games going. Some will even require help from another class. This is Splash Damage’s way of encouraging players to play as a team rather than a lone wolf.
In the event players need a little more encouragement to switch to a new class, every mission comes with an experience amount. If a certain class is really needed, the amount of experience a player can earn continues to increase. In a sense, the game bribes players to act like a team player. Between games, experience is used to purchase new weapons, upgrades, classes and abilities. Your character is constant across all modes, so anything purchased in one mode is useable in the other. If multiplayer games have taught me anything, players love to show off how good they are and nothing says “I’m Awesome” better than a pricey item.
I couldn’t talk about Brink without mentioning its distinctive art style. Brink walks the line between gritty realism and comic book art. The style is reminiscent of TimeSplitters, but trends more towards Gears of War’s realistic style. Characters look realistic, but with slight exaggeration. Interestingly enough, environments aim more towards realism.
I’m looking forward to playing a lot of the games I saw at E3, but of all of them, Brink is the game I want to play the most. Brink is slated for release next year on the PS3, 360 and PC.