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Brink review: Jumping high and falling flat

In decades past, when the first-person shooter genre -- hell, when the whole of three-dimensional gaming -- was still very much in its infancy, shooters could scrape by on nothing more than their inclusion of amusing, oftentimes absurd innovations. Combat didn't have to be perfectly tight, weapons didn't have to be balanced to a T, and developers didn't need to worry about character progression to retain their audience. Some might argue that the genre's formative years produced some of the greatest shooters of all time. What they cannot argue with, however, is this: Those days are over.

Brink is built on the back of some very unique ideas, the most notable of which being its fluid, parkour-inspired movement and its procedurally generated player objectives. They have promise, to be sure, and even manage to realize some of their potential -- but unfortunately, any innovation Brink brings to the table is mired in its habitually imbalanced nature, as well as its sometimes stupefyingly flawed gameplay design.

Gallery: Brink (2/15/10) | 8 Photos

Brink focuses on the never-ending power struggle between The Security and The Resistance, two sects living on the far overpopulated floating island known as The Ark. Their fight is split up over 16 campaign missions, each of which feature a number of objectives the attacking team must complete without getting shut out by the defending team. Smaller missions may only feature one primary objective, but larger, lengthier encounters could feature as many as five different phases.

Most of these objectives can only be achieved by one of Brink's four classes: The Soldier, the Medic, the Engineer and the Operative. For example, the Soldier is the only one that can blow up sealed gates, while the Operative is the only one that can hack into the opposing team's computers. Each eight-player team needs some representation from each class if they want to succeed -- though if a class is missing from your roster, players can change to another vocation at any time by using a Command Post.

Here's one of the first major problems with Brink's objective-based structure: Each level that a player earns lets them unlock a new ability. Though there are a few permanent boosts the player can spend their unlocks on, most of these abilities are class-specific, meaning eventually, you're going to find a class you like and spend most of your points on it. Naturally, you'll have a predilection to play as that class -- but should you refuse to switch your class to suit the objective, you're going to feel like your services aren't really required three-quarters of the time.

There are plenty of secondary objectives for you to focus on during your class' frequent off-seasons, like capturing Command Posts, which gives your team a bonus to their health or "supplies" (an energy bar for using Brink's special abilities). But frequently, the best course of action will be to switch to a role you're not very invested in to further the cause of the primary objective, removing you from the element in which you feel most comfortable.

Its moments of triumph are unsatisfying and far outnumbered by its moments of crushing frustration.

Brink adheres to a "strength in numbers" philosophy present in titles like MAG and notably absent in twitchier shooters like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Headshots and frag grenades don't grant one-hit kills in Brink's universe, so outnumbering another player is usually the best way to take them down. This is actually kind of refreshing for gamers who lack the split-second reflexes required to succeed at a Call of Duty -- but the general lack of "hero moments" is frustrating in those matches where the rest of your team just can't seem to get it together.

Unfortunately, Brink follows that "strength in numbers" philosophy to its own folly. The absolute best strategy, 100 percent of the time, is to form up your entire team on the objective and hold off the opposing force. Whether its a defending team protecting an objective or the attacking team keeping heat off of whomever is completing the objective, it's extremely difficult to oust an entrenched team.

This is the most egregious imbalance which Brink suffers from, but not the only imbalance. Many maps feature choke points so brutal that it makes the attacking team's mission nearly impossible. Also, the classes themselves are oddly balanced: The Engineer, with his deployable turrets and landmines and damage-boosting buffs, is a far more formidable killing force than the Soldier, who can throw Molotov Cocktails and dispense ammo to teammates.

Perhaps Brink's greatest sin is its omission of a traditional party-based matchmaking system, using instead a system designed to automatically populate single-player matches with real-life players. It achieves this goal well, but with one caveat: The single-player experience is absolutely abysmal, and should be avoided at all costs.

It's not that the game's artificial intelligence is inherently bad -- it just never seems to figure out how to cooperate with the human element. There's no way to coordinate with your computer-brained allies, usually leading them to run mindlessly towards the objective, where all eight of the opposing team's AI players sit and wait, a field of landmines and turrets between the two forces. Even on the easiest difficulty, single-player Brink is a fruitless exercise in Sisyphean frustration.

There's a standalone Challenge mode which can be played solo or cooperatively, though this proves to be little more than a momentary distraction from the core game. The mode consists of exactly four training missions with three different difficulty ranks. By completing the first and second rank of each mission, you unlock weapons and their many attachments. I completed this task -- and had unlocked Brink's entire, overwhelming armory -- within 45 minutes of booting up the game for the very first time.

Brink is chock-full of inexplicable missteps like this uneven rewards scheme. For instance, players are shown each mission's (thankfully skippable) opening cutscene every time they load up a match. Also, other than showing experience gains and who played which class the best, there's no post-game statistics page. If you're interested in how many kills you may have received in a given match, you should probably have a pen and paper handy. And possibly some sort of transcriptionist, since you'll be busy, you know, shooting.

Also, why is there no lobby system? Launching a game with your friends requires you to start the game without them, then wait for them to join you or accept your invites. After the game, players automatically move on to the next map, unless they vote to play a different mission. Or, you know, disband and reform with a new host. This inaccessibility was made all the more arduous by frequent standstill lag, which made most multiplayer matches almost unplayable. (For what it's worth, Bethesda promises to fix these "minor networking issues" with a day-one patch.)

But an update to address Brink's connectivity issues would only fix the most superficial of its flaws. There's something inherently topsy-turvy with its core game design: Despite its focus on rapidly-changing objectives, it rewards mindless dog-piling on the primary goal. It punishes players who invest in a single class that resonates with them. Its moments of triumph are unsatisfying, and far outnumbered by its moments of crushing frustration. At every turn, it doesn't just settle for mediocrity -- it runs towards it with ramming speed.

Brink's artistically compelling soldiers can sail effortlessly over obstacles, landing acrobatic maneuvers never before seen in the genre with effortless poise -- unfortunately, just about everything else lands flat on its face.

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Brink provided by Bethesda. It was played for 12 hours across single-player and multiplayer modes, including Campaign, Freeplay and Challenge. The reviewer was not on the winning side of three of the Campaign missions, despite multiple attempts.

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