It’s rare these days that a first-person shooter manages to be interesting. Plenty are enjoyable, many are even worth buying, but few genuinely intrigue. “Oh look,” you’ll say. “A new shade of brown. Fascinating.” Or: “My god, you shot his arm off. Let us now exchange high fives in accordance with age-old masculine tradition.”
Splash Damage’s Brink, however, is all interest. There’s the setting: racked by environmental catastrophe, mankind has retreated to an enormous, blue-toned floating city called the Ark and, mankind being mankind, is embroiled in a full-scale civil war over the on-board resources.
There’s the souped-up art design, and particularly the beguiling goofy character models, poised somewhere between Team Fortress 2 and Francisco Goya’s satires – what you might get if you treated Duke Nukem to a selection of equatorial re-skins and stretched him out on a rack.
And of course, there’s the replay-friendly team-based action at the game’s heart, driven on the one hand by a freeform multiple objective system, and on the other by an uncommonly lush level of avatar, class and load-out customisation, extending from how you style your hockey mask to how you manage the recoil on your shotgun.
But most importantly of all, given recent revelations on the publishing front, there’s the parkour. As you may be aware, Electronic Arts has cast doubt over the future of the free-running, free-thinking Mirror’s Edge franchise.
This makes us sad pandas. You know what makes us sadder pandas, though? A security team dug in around a prison gate, supported on both flanks by automatic turrets and bolstered to the rear by annoyingly elusive medics. Pandas aren’t cool with annoyingly elusive medics. But never fear, there’s a solution. It involves a combination of our character’s Light build – which makes him puny but fleet-footed – a nearby stairway of horizontal pipes, and left bumper, or as Splash Damage calls it, the SMART button.
SMART stands for Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain, which stands for Mirror’s Edge With Decent Guns. Run into a raised surface while holding the bumper, and you won’t simply grind against it – or worse, glue your back to it, acquiring a sudden, inexplicable resilience to incoming fire.
Instead, you’ll clamber up and bound right off the obstacle – a phoenix bursting from the ashes of lock-to-cover tedium, arms spread to grasp at new and exciting possibilities. And ledges. Ledges like the one overlooking the gate, from which cosy vantage point to drill those irksome medics full of red-hot nickel. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
On first load, Brink presents the player with an ostensibly simple choice: you can attempt either to halt the Ark’s slow spiral to self-destruction, or escape it before everything goes to hell.
Choose to save the place, and you’ll wind up in the arms of the Resistance, junk-loving lower caste sorts who have cobbled together their own settlements on the outskirts of the city. Elect to call it quits, and you’ll be welcomed into the ranks of the Ark’s enforcers, with their riot helmets, boot polish and cool corporate pigmentation.
One thing the two sides have in common is a spread of ethnicities, reflecting the Ark’s population of drifters and refugees. While it’s possible to fashion a stubble-headed son of Sam, belligerent black sports star or thin-lipped Yakuza with the character editor, the templates range far beyond these well-trodden baselines.
My ability to match faces with places isn’t up to much, but I was able to pick out Frenchies and South Africans in the default line-up, each mug dripping with a personality that’s worlds away from the porcelain effigies we’re accustomed to in certain other Bethesda releases.
And that’s more than some mere question of cosmetics. Brink’s plot lacks an obvious main character and is, we’re guessing, short, with only eight maps to its name. Opening and concluding cut scenes provide each mission with a bit of narrative momentum, but the bulk of the fiction, lead writer Ed Stern tells us, must be teased out of the make-up of the environments themselves and the gun-toting caricatures who scurry through them.
We’re talking about “emergent storytelling”, then, that old friend of the ludologist critic – an increasingly familiar quantity in solo gaming, but still comparatively unknown (or at least uninvestigated) in multiplayer circles.
The two maps on show are thickly layered with backstory. Besides the run-down prison, there’s Container City, a dockyard slum composed of bright, rusty blocks of shipping crate. Graffiti draws the eye to remote doorways, but the other team gives us very little leisure to take stock as we escort a bunker-busting drone to an illegal bio-weapons lab (“Or is it?” Stern mysteriously interjects).
Thanks to the SMART system – and regardless of whether you patch turrets as an Engineer, don disguises as an Operative, haul ammo as a Soldier or toss healing shots as a Medic – Brink’s gunplay is a fluid, fast-paced affair. It’s possible at intervals to find a corner, bust out the ironsights and defend against all comers, particularly if you plump for a Heavy character. But default to this tactic too regularly and you’ll spend a lot of time at the bottom of the scoreboards.
Nimbler opponents will slide under your shots, kicking out your legs in the process. Others may ignore you altogether, switching their waypoints to softer objectives by way of a stripped-down selection wheel on D-pad up.
And when they do, you’ll come to appreciate the bitter pearl at the heart of Brink’s experience system: shooting people is not the only, nor even the best way to crank out experience points. Those who buff their comrades and burn through the mission to-do list will earn their unlocks quicker than players who tot up scalps.
Just to recap that last point for emphasis: this is a multiplayer FPS that thinks you have better things to do with your time than kill things. Little old London-based Splash Damage may not have the resources of a Guerrilla or the brand power of a Valve, but if sheer ballsiness counts for anything, the studio’s next game is a match for every other shooter you’ll play this year.