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Brink 360 has a story with potential and some great game mechanics, but its old school FPS face-offs are too throwaway to be truly satisfying.
Brink is a tricky beast. On paper it looks like a great idea: a multiplayer shooter with a futuristic back story and a core of RPG-style progression, whereby XP is earned and new abilities and weapons unlocked. In practice it isn't as fun as that elevator pitch makes it sound.
The back story to Brink is a good one, smoothly introduced via a video showing a model of the Ark. The Ark is an Arcology, a self-sustained floating city in the future that started out as a utopian dream but has become an overpopulated sprawl due to influxes of refugee 'guests' as the Earth's landmasses flooded. As the honey-voiced female narrator explains this, the animated model expands then decays in an excellent animatic by CG studio The Mill (best known as effects provider for Doctor Who).
The Ark has been cut off from the rest of the world for a couple of decades, and the factions in the game are divided by how to respond to the Ark's problems: the security forces employed by the Ark's rich Founders want to maintain the Ark's boundaries, while the Resistance drawn from the poverty-stricken guests in their shanty towns believe the only hope is to breach those boundaries and escape to the outside world.
Conflict between the two sides is rising, and the measures taken become more extreme. On both sides there are doubters - whose cause is really the right one?
That back story is in and of itself interesting, as is the setting of the Ark, a sort of flipped version of Bioshock's Rapture. While Rapture lay beneath the waves, the Ark floats on them, and while the former utopia was all rust and gunmetal, Brink's setting has clean white surfaces and smooth curves and riotously colourful slums.
While Rapture lay beneath the waves, the Ark floats on them.
It's a setting with great potential, but that potential struggles to express itself in the context of the kind of game Brink is: an unashamed team based, player vs player first person shooter. In other words, a death match.
While there's a narrative context to each mission and its objectives, they're essentially fairly straightforward match types played out across contained maps: escort missions, object captures, and so forth. Each mission has various objectives that need to be pursued, but each has a primary objective that is either offensive or defensive.
The Campaign mode which follows the through-line of the game's story is broken down into two sets of missions, for the Security forces and the Resistance, interacting with each other on the game's maps. Missions are menu-accessed individually: the game has neither the open-world setting of Borderlands or the long winding campaigns of Left 4 Dead. There's menus and the confined maps and nothing inbetween.
Without a wider world to explore, the story is mainly told through narration over the loading screens and cinematic intros and outros for each mission. Audio logs are unlocked as you progress through the game, but these are accessible through the main menu rather than autoplaying in-game, so they're a bit of a bolt-on and don't add atmosphere to the core gameplay.
Brink does not have a gentle introduction. It opens with cinematics and character creation options, but there's no automatic playable tutorial to ease player's into Brink's systems and world, instead there's an optional training video showing the basics and the potential to look at further videos for the subtleties.
Characters are interchangeable, unsympathetic and the same physical type.
It's all a bit severe: wade through some videos, then throw yourself in at the deep end.
Get to grips with the controls, and Brink's play mechanics have much to recommend them. The much-vaunted SMART system is essentially an Assassin's Creed action button that allows you to jump, climb and slide around the environment as required by holding down a bumper button, and leads to a fluid sense of movement not dissimilar to the first-person parkour of Mirror's Edge.
Shooting is slick and tactile, and depressing the left stick to use a health syringe has a similar satisfying physical feedback. Picking options from wheel menus is quick and efficient.
Production values are excellent, with very high-end animation, characters and environments. However the style lacks depth - while the Ark is a fascinating setting, the environments range from straight-forward modernist curves to equally standard shanty town areas and industrial zones. There's a bit more colour and brightness than in the average grey-brown FPS, but nothing incredibly distinctive.
Character models are initially extremely striking, but the long-faced men eventually blur into one Easter-Island-headed dude, regardless of their different accents and ethnic characteristics.
There are plenty of costume customisation options that gradually unlock as you level up, but these are all restricted to a very narrow idea of militaristic gang cool. There's the odd cowboy hat or other distinctive item, but otherwise it's all big gang tattoos and other macho junk. There's no opportunity to charge through the Ark wearing a dressing gown, a feather boa and a fez, more's the pity.
The samey-ness of these characters really bites in the cut-scenes, where a small group from your faction have variations on the same debate again and again - are we the bad guys, or are they? Have we/they gone too far? These are well acted and animated exchanges, but the characters are interchangeable, unsympathetic and the same physical type. They're also all men, the only women in the game appearing in voice over, heard but not seen.
Regardless, there's a certain compulsive quality to Brink.
Regardless of all this, there's a certain compulsive quality to Brink. There's that great in-game flow, and shoot-outs can be fun while they're going well. But these feel like bites of back and forth gameplay that have been over-extended to create a full game, and the progression of levelling up and unlocking new powers doesn't give enough sense of progression to glue the parts into a satisfying whole.
Objectives can feel insubstantial and tricksy - spending fifteen minutes trying to get a briefcase across the map while repeatedly being diced by the enemy isn't challenging in a good way.
There's also a problem of coordination. If you have a long friends list to play Brink with, it could be a quite decent blast, as you'd be in the position to coordinate tactics amongst a large group.
In the wilds of X-Box Live trying to organise your forces is for dedicated cat-herders only, and chances are you'll all be working to a slightly different game-plan. Death comes too easily in Brink for this to work out, and constant respawns to the other side of the map become wearisome after not too long.
There are of course players who will delight in Brink for its very spikiness, the purity of its stripped down combat, the lack of a modern learning curve and the absence of extended narrative frivolities. I suspect that hardcore shooter audience is mainly a PC one, though, and that as a mainstream console FPS Brink is a bit of a niche proposition.
Sugar-rush bites of death match gameplay feel shallow and, ultimately, disposable.
By basing a game around a rather dated idea of death match play, Brink constrains itself to small areas suitable for the fast respawning and traversing required for this kind of game. These relatively small, arena type levels have a hard job communicating any sense of a journey, or wider sense of place. The setting may be interesting, and the back story revealed in Audio Logs has great potential, but not much of that intrigue bleeds through into the shallow skirmishes of the actual missions.
Instead, what we're left with is a set of contained multiplayer levels. It's a harsh thing to say, but sometimes Brink feels like the bolted-on multiplayer option that you'd find in the menu of a single player shooter. It raises the question of whether there's a place for a game like this, a big budget old-school death match shooter marketed as a standalone, boxed product with the price tag that entails -- in a market where fast and frantic shooters are increasingly being released over download services as shorter, punchier experiences, probably not.
As polished as Brink is, its sugar-rush bites of death match gameplay feel shallow and, ultimately, disposable. There's fun to be had on the Ark, and dedicated gun-heads may get there kicks, but for me Brink doesn't have either enough narrative bite or long-term replayability.
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