Monday, December 05, 2011

On the Brink

Brink had free weekend this past weekend on Steam, so I was able to put a few hours into the game. Brink is great for about two hours, but past that it’s a bore to play. Brink is the rare game that gets all the extraneous features spot on, but fails to inspire with its completely bland game play. Brink, essentially, is on the Brink of being a good game.

Most of the initial two hours is spent in the character creator and then in the tutorial-type challenges unlocking parts for your guns so players can then go back into the gun customizer to outfit some weapons. The customization, of everything about the character, is the impressive part of Brink. Even with the artistic approach to characters (long faces, exaggerated body types), I found an amazing amount of possibilities. On top of this, the weapons can be heavily customized both visually and functionally.

The only roadblock is the fact that many of the customization options are locked behind level or challenge requirements. The challenges are easy enough and within an hour a novice player can have most of the basic gun unlocks and enough character appearance items to make them feel unique. Experience rolls in easily enough while playing and is rewarded for every possible action the player can take, so there is no need to be an FPS god to rack up the points.

The online play is tough to describe. For a new player it is very confusing on what match type does what. A new player will look at a list of servers and game modes and be completely baffled as to whether they are getting into a co-op or team death match or team objective game. While Brink does a good job introducing the game modes in the challenge tutorials, it does not do a good job of explaining what match type a player is getting into.
I started with the campaign game mode first. Initially, I thought I was the cat’s meow as I racked up the top spot on my team several matches in a row. However, my elation came to an end when I realized I was playing against bots in a campaign co-op match. I did a bit of Google research and figured out I needed to be playing the Objective game mode against real opponents. A few matches into Objective and I was brought back to earth, often failing to break out of the middle ranks.

Players can score points from getting kills, assisting team mates, completing objectives, defending areas, and many more non-combat activities. However, there are no kill or death counts on the scoreboard. Players only see the total score of a player’s combined actions. This is something every other team-based shooter needs to take a lesson from. Team and class-based shooters are NOT about kill to death ratios, they are about the objectives, so it makes no sense to display kills and deaths on the scoreboard (I’m looking at you Battlefield 3!). The scoring system in Brink is one of the extraneous features that shines.

The problems with Brink come into play when players start to realize that the gun play is sloppy. Weapons have very distinct ranges and guns with short ranges feature vanishing bullets making it very hard for a new player to understand why they aren’t able to hit an enemy with their gun, even if that enemy seems to be within their range.

The range on weapons plays into the next aggravating feature of Brink: the SMART system. Brink was designed to be about movement and using movement to get an advantageous position on your enemy. The SMART system allows players to vault over obstacles, shimmy up walls, slide around corners, and for the most part live out their parkour fantasies. I found myself making incredible leaps to outflank opponents, but at some point I realized I was being killed more often than not while stuck in a pull-up or hurdling animation. The transitions just take too long to be useful in the middle of combat or the action the player’s avatar takes is not anywhere near what the player was expecting. Add this to the odd vanishing bullets with the limited gun ranges and new players quickly find themselves confused and dead.

The SMART system plays into my next gripe: the maps. The SMART system makes the maps very difficult to learn as many routes are available. A player has to spend a good amount of time learning the nuances of what can and cannot be achieved via the SMART system. Many times a route looks perfectly viable, but the player finds themselves floundering like a fish out of water when they go to make the jump. The jump/move may or may not be doable. Sometimes I would watch a player make a cool SMART move over an obstacle only to follow and fail to clear it myself. The system seemed inconsistent and more damaging than anything.

Also annoying about the maps are the glass walls. I can’t count the number of times I thought I was shooting someone only to find out there was a glass wall between us. Glass, in any game, should break when shot. Glass isn’t the only environmental problem. There are fences and openings around every corner that are invisible walls that bullets cannot pass through.

After a few matches most players are probably confused. Their selection of guns don’t seem to hit what they are aimed at as aside from a loading screen tip, there is no explanation of how gun range works. The SMART system has shown them that there are alternate routes to take on the maps, but they have most likely failed several times trying to take advantage of them. And even when their weapon of choice does manage to hit an enemy it is difficult to tell how much damage needs to be done to kill them. Then there is the grenade spam which the player has probably gotten stuck in multiple times.

Once acquainted with the game after about three hours of play I found myself not making many of the obvious newb mistakes, but I still felt like I was fighting the game trying to figure out the weapons and SMART system. It then dawned on me that it really doesn’t matter as I watched some of the top scoring players. It was better to just sit back and spam a class ability on team mates for points rather than to charge into objectives or to try and kill other players. Through brute force one side was eventually going to push into an area, completely negating the SMART system.

At the end of the day, Brink is a very boring game to play. All of Brink’s best features are outside of the actual game itself. Character and weapon customization are among the best of any FPS I’ve ever played. The art style and visuals are awesome. Unfortunately the gun play and fact that the SMART system is a moot point makes Brink a “what if” contender. I wouldn’t recommend this game to anyone at this point.

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