Review: BRINK (PC)

Brink Logo

Brink Logo

Brink is a stylized multiplayer-only objective-based first person shooter by smaller Bethesda-owned developer Splash Damage (of Enemy Territory fame.) Judging by the chatter on message boards a great deal of people quickly jumped to the conclusion that Brink is simply a Team Fortress 2 clone. However, this is not the case.

No, Brink is not Team Fortress. Its core gameplay is manly men firing real-world weaponry at each other like in your standard military shooters. Unlike those games, however, Brink seems to follow a mantra of gameplay over realism.

The biggest example of this would be the way the game handles weapon lethality: even the weakest characters can take two to three times as much punishment as in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Instant kills are very rare and even the grenades are used for softening up a group of targets instead of netting free kills.

In fact, free kills are largely absent from Brink. Even as an engineer placing down turrets and mines everywhere it was rare that I got kills I didn’t have to work for. It’s a decidedly old school design decision and coupled with the weapon handling that feels somewhere between Call of Duty and Bad Company 2 (really, the guns feel great) it leaves more room for tactics than in other modern shooters. It’s like Splash Damage decided that the main problem with shooters these days is that every gunfight is over the moment it starts. I’m inclined to agree.

Brink also sports a movement system called SMART which basically lets you automatically make precision jumps and vault over obstacles by holding down the sprint button. It’s often clunky, but when it works well it feels natural and makes movement flow much better compared to other modern shooters. Coupled with the higher health pools, SMART makes Brink feel like a breath of fresh air in a genre that has lately become stale.

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A smart take on objectives

While the return to old-school sensibilities like increased health pools and the smooth movement certainly help make the game more enjoyable, the true innovation at play here is how Brink encourages the common public gamer to work with the team instead of whoring for cheap kills.

Brink strips down the scoreboard to a single stat – XP – that you are awarded for everything you do. Repair a turret, damage an enemy, kill an enemy, get an assist on an enemy, complete an objective and merely progress on an objective, all these actions award you XP that goes towards unlocking new appearance options and abilities.

The net effect of this is that the many players who would in Call of Duty camp a corner of the map for cheap kills, instead have to help their team out if they want to place high on the scoreboards. This sounds like a small change but it really makes a ton of difference; seeing players running around ignoring the objective is very rare and you never get the feeling that you lost because your team was too busy playing with the sniper rifles.

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Held back by some dumb design

The main thing keeping the objectives system from perfection also happens to be Brink’s most stupid flaw. When you level up in Brink you gain an ability point to spend on a perk of your choosing. At first, only generic abilities are available but after a few levels you have to start specializing into the different classes.

The problem here is that after that point most players become reluctant to switch from their preferred class. Having to trade away the Soldier or Medic abilities you spent so many points in to play an Operative with no abilities just because you landed on a server with no Operatives on your team is never fun. Matches are won and lost because players refuse to do so way too often. You truly feel locked into your favoured class. It’s truly at odds with the objectives system.

Brink gives you two options for dealing with this. Firstly, you can create a new character and specialize that one towards another class, if you feel like starting the long level grind for abilities all over again. The other option is to reset all your abilities, which costs you a level – probably in an attempt to make the “create a new character” option seem more attractive. It feels like a cheap attempt to lengthen the game’s life.

Either way, you can’t switch characters or reset your abilities in the middle of a match, so you’re still stuck either playing a class you have no abilities in, losing the match, or looking for a more balanced server. It doesn’t help that the Operative class is significantly less powerful than the other ones.

ability reset

Lacking character customization

One of Brink’s supposed selling points is the aforementioned customization features, letting you choose how your character looks and plays. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Aside from causing issues with class representation, the skill point mechanic doesn’t feel like it offers up much choice beyond what class you are focusing in. Once you start hitting the later levels you’ll have so many skill points you can pick everything you want in the general section and for your chosen class, without making any meaningful sacrifices.

Guns are not unlocked simply by levelling up, but instead from a series of challenge missions that are really designed as a form of tutorial. The game won’t tell you this, though. There’s no indication you should do them before heading into the main game. Once I did do them, these challenges took me less than an hour, including time wasted on a game crash. The challenge maps can be played co-op, but you do not unlock any weapons when doing so.

What kind of does work is the weapon customization. Every weapon in brink apart from the grenade launchers and minigun have two to four attachment slots and there’s a decent amount of attachments for most weapons. The problem is that there is very often one obviously best choice for every slot – you have little reason for putting a silencer on a shotgun, or using a light rifle without attaching a sniper scope.

Weapon customization
You can choose to not put a scope on the rifle... if you really want to.

Once again there’s the feeling that someone felt they had to pad the game; there are three different red dot sights and four muzzle vents, all of which perform exactly the same. It makes for a pretty impressive list of attachments per weapon until you realize half of them are purely minor cosmetic options.

Another thing that ends up being mostly a cosmetic option is what gun you pick. There are several different types of weapons all of which behave meaningfully different, but within those categories the majority of guns just feel like re-skinned versions of each others, with very minor stat changes,

While visual customization is nice and all, in Brink it’s just too subtle to make out in the frantic pace of the combat. Generally, you are too busy figuring out what body type and weaponry the enemies are sporting to care or even register what colour their hat is. This is a recurring problem with the visual design. Everything is nicely textured but the outlines of the models themselves look very similar, resulting in a samey visual style where details are hard to make out in the heat of battle. It may look good in screenshots, but it doesn’t work in motion.

Brink on low settings
Turning down the graphics yields horrible visuals for little performance gain

And a great deal of technical issues

Technically, the graphics aren’t bad but there’s certainly nothing special here and definitely nothing excusing the high system requirements.

Brink is a tough game to run at stable frame rates and lowering the graphics settings makes the game look terrible for a pretty much nonexistent performance increase. The in-game options do not offer enough on the technical side and to really tweak the settings you’ll have to download a third party configuration utility. Unless you’re willing to do a lot of tweaking, Brink is not a game for those with weaker PCs.

The technical issues don’t stop there at all. Brink is filled with issues of all sizes. Sometimes the hitboxes feel really out of place. Sometimes the netcode just decides to be extremely unstable. I’ve seen a large number of disconnects and joining a game usually requires trying four or five different servers that will just time out on connection.

One of the most infuriating things I encountered was when I lost connection to the steam community network and the game kicked me out of the game I was in. This happened to me three times and I’m not sure if it’s a technical error or some sort of DRM, but I have not seen it in any other steamworks title.

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An all too common sight.

repetitive and unfinished

The final nail in the coffin for brink is that it’s completely unvaried. The game’s 8 maps for the most part all play like a series of corridors and most of the time fail to take advantage of the SMART system. Although there are a great many weapons, most of them kind of play the same, lending absolutely no variety to the gameplay. It feels like Brink could have done better with a few rocket launchers or plasma rifles to spicy up the mix.

The three major game modes apart from the challenge maps are just different configurations on the same game type. You can play Objective mode as itself, or with one of the teams being comprised of bots, or take turns being attacker and defender. That’s it, it’s really the same game mode with minor alterations.

In summary, Brink is interesting and unconventional but flawed; held back by a few design fuckups and a crucial lack of polish. It’s greatest strengths lies in how the larger health pools give you more incentive to play tactically and the experience system which promotes good team-play over going it in Rambo style. With a redesign of the way the character system works so it doesn’t encourage you to stay in one role all the time, and more development time to iron out the kinks, it could have easily competed with the top dogs of the genre. As it stands, Brink just feels too unfinished to recommend to anyone.

Platform: PC, PS3, X360
Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: first person shooter
Gripes: Technical problems, messy design that clashes with itself, bad level design, lack of variety, wonky class balance, samey visuals.
Get it for the: More tactical pace,  rarity of instant kills and “random” deaths, smooth movement.
Full disclosure: The game was played  for seven hours online and another three in campaign mode against bots. All maps were played on both sides and all challenges were completed.