Splash damage ANNOUNCED Brink would be using dedicated servers before it was fashionable. Back when saying you'd support the community in the most basic way wasn't met with rapturous applause and sighs of relief, but with the blank stare of somebody who'd been told to continue absorbing oxygen through their lungs.
"I think it speaks a lot to the background of this company that we announced we were doing dedicated servers long before it became cool, laughs Richard Ham, creative director at the Kent-based studio.
Brink is standing on the shoulders of the Enemy Territory franchise, which in turn was built on an unshakeable foundation of clanners, modders and online communities. Splash Damage are brilliant nerds: the door to their lunch room reads "Om Norn Norn", the management types sit behind glass doors sheepishly adorned with the words "Grown Ups", and CEO Paul Wedgwood will talk to you for 45 minutes about their server room, if you'd only let him. If you're looking for the soul of PC gaming, you'll find all 21 grams of it in Bromley.
"The PC hardcore resent being called 'hardcore'" notes Ed Stern, lead designer on Brink. "They'd rather think of themselves as regular average Joes who just happen to know how to configure routers and customise their own servers to an extraordinary degree." "And how to change their autoexec.bat and their config.sys" adds Ham. "For us to abandon those guys would be an epic failure on our part. Why would we burn those bridges? There's no upside to that at all."
Before the "hooray for the PC" sentiment can turn venomous, we turn to the business at hand. I've been invited down to Bromley to play Brink, the team-focused multiplayer shooter Splash Damage have been working on since Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, an original venture and one that's still nearly a year away from being in our grubby hands.
On offer is the chance to play through the Container City mission seen at 2009's GamesCom in Cologne from both Resistance and Security perspectives, as well as a hitherto unseen section: the Shipyard level, in which Security forces attempt to thwart a missile launch by those vicious Resistance terrorists.
There are two campaigns, a series of overlapping scraps between the Security and the Resistance, opposing sides of a civil war being waged across the floating city, Ark.
No Good Guys
"One of our objectives from the start was to introduce ideas to confuse and confound the player's view of what's truly going on,' explains Wedgwood while Container City loads.
We know from having watched the mission played from the Security's perspective that they're tracking down a dirty bomb in the derelict rusted settlement Now, in the shoes of the downtrodden Resistance, we're told that the threat is actually a vaccine for "Ark flu", a substance that the fascist Security forces seek to control. Ethical ambiguity and outright misinformation will be fundamental to Brink's plot and it ensures that neither side is seen as entirely good, bad, or justified in their actions. It's a little bit clever.
Leading you to your eventual goal on any given map is a series of primary objectives, and playing as Security in Container City that first objective is to guide a maintenance bot through the maze of rusting shipping containers -retrofitted housing for the Ark's less fortunate. Conversely, the Resistance are tasked with simply stopping us.
The map works in a very similar way to Team Fortress 2s Payload games: the maintenance bot is a cross between Johnny Five and a Smart Car, and will only trundle forwards if there is at least one Security player nearby.
Escorting the thing, I decide, is boring and probably dangerous. Instead I consult Brings objective wheel, a platter of contextual mini-missions and tasks conjured into view by pressing the middle mouse button. Point your mouse at one of these missions - be it capturing a command post or building a machine gun nest - and release the middle mouse button to accept the mission. A quick click of the button will I automatically assign you the best k mission for your class.
I choose a mission to open A a shortcut that allows my teammates to move forward more easily. The SMART system - essentially a sprint key with added bells and whistles - allows me to vault elegantly through windows and over detritus as I follow the on-screen arrow to my personal objective.
As I carve a murderous path through the city, XP spills out of downed enemies, that can later be spent on useful stuff like character upgrades, new outfits, weapons, abilities and attachments.
That's a large chunk of Brink's appeal summarised in about two minutes of play. You can shy away from front-lines to pursue smaller, optional objectives, while the omniscient ghost of character progression looms over the battlefield, pouring buckets of experience points over you whenever you do well.
Weapon attachments will include muzzle breaks for improved recoil, larger ammo clips, scopes and sights, as well as silencers. The unlockable weapons will feature shooters like the Maximus MG, a beefy cannon used by players with Heavy-type bodies to fling copious and inaccurate rounds at shocked enemies.
And while the unlockable outfits are largely a cosmetic affair, they'll also provide some implicit information about the people you're playing with. "If somebody has the XP to buy those costumes," explains Stern, "you know they're going to be a good player." They'll also be more likely to have some of the weapon upgrades, which will have an undeniable effect on how you should react to their presence.
As if to prove the point upon finishing the mission I'm gifted with a sharp SWAT outfit replete with oppressive, eerily Soviet-style gas mask and a Kevlar jacket. There'll be chromatic similarities in the outfits you unlock too, so that Resistance and Security remain visually unambiguous. Your threads will be sartorial proof that you're a team player.
You Buff My Back...
"Although you could theoretically grind that much XP just by headshotting other players," says Wedgwood, "it'd take an impossibly long time to achieve anything. But if you stand by a group as a Medic, doling out health to a key player and taking out enemies, your XP would grow exponentially."
"You could get more XP by not firing a single shot" adds Stem as the Shipyard map now fades into view. Myself and the other Security players spend the first few seconds trading buffs, increasing one another's strength and health. In this manner, Brink is built to reward sportsmanship and co-operation with experience points.
On the most basic level, each class is capable of doling out some sort of benefit to another player. Engineers can increase another player's weapon damage. Medics can boost health, and Soldiers can re-supply ammunition. These actions cost as Splash Damage are currently calling them, pips. Using them rewards you with fistfuls of XP. "One of the cool things about playing online," claims Stem, "is the co-operation.
So the very first time you play, and somebody buffs your health, you'll get a message telling you that you can press F to buff him back, and immediately your team is better off as a result of that.
"It was a facepalm moment when we wondered why we hadn't thought of doing this earlier, but we've designed it so it costs two pips to buff yourself and one to buff a teammate. Straight away that makes it worth seeking out a teammate and doing that to one another."
...I'll Buff Yours
In this way, players are encouraged to form relationships built on a eroticsounding foundation of mutual buffing. "That's all carrot," adds Stern. "There's no stick involved, no punishment. Even if I wanted to just farm the XP there's no efficient way to do that without helping out my team."
With Shipyard well under way, I take the opportunity to play about with the Operative class, Brink's answer to TFZs Spy; or more accurately, an evolution of Quake Wars' corpse-nabbing Infiltrator. Downed players don't die out straight away, and in the time between them hitting the dirt and respawning (or being revived by a Medic) they can be interrogated by Operatives, an action that outlines enemy players through walls and floors for that Operative.
Operatives can also backstab, and disguise themselves as other things: bushes and lampshades are out, but members of the opposite team are in. "The Operative class has an ability they can earn to uncover enemy Operatives who are in disguise as well," explains Ham, "so if you're on a server where another player disguises themselves as somebody on your team, you get a mission to go and track him down. So you've got this Spy Vs Spy mini-game going on amid the greater conflict."
"And that's a great bit of emergent gameplay," adds Stern, "because it can be a lone wolfish sort of class. It's great to get a mission that will benefit your team, you can be the counter-espionage guy hunting down other Operatives."
"Yeah, this is a team-based game," continues Ham, "and to my mind in team games it's really only ever the Medic who has the sort of tools to support other players.
"In this game, as you've noticed, every class has a reason to reach out and touch another player, even at level one. Soldiers can dole out ammo, Engineers are able to buff their teammates' weapons. The Operative is the odd one out, he doesn't have the means to reach out and touch a teammate, instead he reaches put and touches the enemy."
Use the objective wheel to select a mission to hunt down an enemy Operative, and the sneaky chappy is warned of your intentions with a curt "They're on to you," from his commander. He'll be aware that you're on your way to his location, and will adjust his play style accordingly. In other words, he'll be expecting you. Downed players waiting for a revive syringe from a Medic will also have to consider nearby Operatives, if they dawdle for too long they risk an interrogation, thereby compromising the locations of everybody else on the team.
"Just because you're down does not necessarily mean that you're out" claims Ham, hinting at some unlockable abilities for use once you're incapacitated. "It doesn't mean that you've stopped playing the game and there's nothing for you to do - particularly if there's a sneaky Operative coming to interrogate you..."
Can we expect a surprise, post-death grenade blast a la Modern Warfare's martyrdom perk? Perhaps. "Some of the abilities haven't made the cut because they're overpowered or aren't fun," says Ham. "But we hope to have as much gameplay in our death mechanics as most games do in their life mechanics."
In Shipyard, I've reached the missile controls by flouncing past the enemy defences while disguised as one of their own. There's a distinct feeling that, with a year to go, the Al hasn't yet learned to rout out disguised enemy Operatives in their midst Not even the ones who are cheerfully hacking control panels in an attempt to activate the missile's self-destruct sequence. It took an accidental shotgun blast to a tattooed enemy face before they registered that I was not in fact a member of the Resistance.
The hacking works remotely. The closer you are to the console-to-be-hacked, the quicker the job gets done. Conversely, the further away you are, the better chance you have of surviving the torrent of players turning up to see what all the hacking is about.
Your hacking tool, alarmingly, emits a beeping sound to proudly convey what an excellent job of hacking it's doing, a | sound that unsurprisingly, can attract unwanted attention. Ducking into a nearby container was a sufficient tactic ! in my case, with no less than two Resistance members glibly strutting past my hiding place while I sabotaged their missile launch.
Old Dears Welcome
Successful, I'm plied with more XP, levelling up and earning a credit to spend on an ability (one which allows me an opportunity to revive myself).
Key to the experience, as Splash Damage tells it is making sure that both new and veteran players know exactly what they're doing at any given moment Accessibility is the word they avoid - as Ham insists, "We're not making Brink accessible to little old ladies Instead they're striving to ensure that no part of the game will be complex enough that it could deter the first-time player.
"A lot of multiplayer shooters are very unforgiving," explains Ham, "everybody gets thrown into the deep end of the pool and you sink or swim. And a lot of people just drown.
"If that happens on Brink that's a failure on our part. We're working to make sure you won't come across terrible anti-social behaviour."
"Voice chat defaults to off," adds Stern, seemingly overlooking that insults, racism and trolling are as much a part of PC gaming as the dedicated servers Splash Damage so cherish. "Why on Earth would voice chat ever default to on? What beautiful world do people live in where that's a really good idea?"
The objective wheel mitigates that immediate need for voice chat Anything you choose to do is announced only to the players it might be relevant to, and if further co-ordination is required it's a simple task to turn it back on.
All Is Not Rosy
And it could all change too, with almost a year until the thing's finished. As it stands Brink feels like a solid FPS, and one astounding in its distinct, detailed visuals and impressive (given the stage of development) aurally too. Approach a flashpoint in Container City and the world erupts in a molten cacophony of pings, whips, cracks and fwumps - a sumptuous wall of sound.
What's becoming clear are the depths and intricacies of Brink's classes, and the ways in which they'll be able to interact But harder to put a finger on without some intensive playtime are the systems, tactics and strategies that should naturally form naturally around these class relationships.
Just as concerning is the challenge Splash Damage face in girding the loins of PC gamers without the familiar tags of Quake and Wolfenstein in the title, or even their own Enemy Territory.
Brink is a brave and bold move, that's being made with a refreshing focus on the PC at a time when things felt to be slipping in the wrong direction. Splash Damage's dedication is as unwavering as their ambition - and Brink's promising something very special indeed.
Yes, They've Got big, funny faces. Get over it. There was a bloke in the long-awaited recent demonstration of how Splash Damage's first game since Enemy Territory: Quake Wars who couldn't get over the distorted body shapes.
"Is there a narrative reason," he inquired, "why everyone's got chimp-like arms and faces like Droopy Dawg?" No. No there isn't. This is just one of those all-too-rare first-person shooters which wishes to be instantly recognisable from a single screenshot. As well as having those delightfully goon-faced characters it's set in a floating city in a near-future, post-disaster world, which has an aesthetic halfway between those of Portal and Fallout 3. The game's looks are just one of a crap-load of reasons to be excited about Brink. Here's another: it wants to unite the tribes of single-player and multiplayer shooter fans in a way which hasn't been done before.
Tine broad-strokes categorisation of Brink is that it's a class-based team shooter in the Team Fortress 2 mould -two sets of nutters war over capture points - and it's a very good one at that. The Ark, a techno-refuge for Earth's survivors, isn't in great shape. Humanity has been grouped into two rival factions: Security, who are theoretically in charge, and the Resistance, a militant equal-rights group. The former are slick, high-tech soldiers, whilst the latter are bric-a-brac guerrillas.
As a multiplayer game, Brink seems to come from another world compared to the over-complicated Quake Wars. The interface is svelte and logical - all Applelike radial dials and big, friendly buttons -while team play is something you're actively rewarded for (primarily with experience points).
On top of that is the controversial SMART system. Vaguely analogous to Assassin's Creeds parkour button, this is a toggle that makes your character automatically leap under, over or onto t obstacles in the direction they're I moving in.
W The idea isn't that SMART grants an unfair edge, but simply that it allows you to concentrate on doing well at the shooting part of the game, rather than wasting time bumping into small walls or falling off ledges. Brink is accessible, in other words. While this is a red rag to hardcore shooter bulls, some as-yet-unspecified traditional multiplayer modes, plus the fact that fine control will often outdo SMART movement, should keep them off everyone else's backs. All of this is also available in Brink's single-player mode. This doesn't involve playing multiplayer maps with AI bots, and it's not an unrelated campaign of shooting idiots in corridors: it's the multiplayer game made single-player.
Or, to put it another way, it's the singleplayer game made multiplayer. At any point, you can take your single-player game online and invite in mates or let in strangers to replace the two teams of eight soldiers with real people.
You're playing through a story - two in fact, respectively documenting the struggles of the Security and Resistance sides - replete with impressive cutscenes that look at the war from an overall and personal perspectives. One mission, for instance, sees the Resistance trying to destroy a Security-run nuclear generator, but the cutscenes cover one soldier's misery that his brother has signed up with 'the fascists' as much as they do the inevitable mega-explosion.
This isn't a playlist of arena fights. It's the tale of a desperate battle for humanity's future, and of exactly who humanity is in this beleaguered world. Also, it has lots of guns in it.
If you like guns, you'll be well-served here. As is the vogue of the moment, Brink includes a weapons unlock system, where experience points get you all manner of customisation options. This is far more ambitious than the Now You Have A Slightly Different Machine Gun treadmill we're used to from other modern shooters.
First up, there are guns. Of course there are guns. Guns with names like Maximus and Sea Eagle. Then there are gun modifications - gloriously absurd disc-shaped Tommy gun ammo packs, scopes, and six-vent anti-recoil muzzles. You'll very quickly build visibly bespoke weaponry that suits your own play style. You'll do the same with your unlocked abilities which can be .buffs that up your hit points, tell you when you're in someone's crosshairs, bi or allow you to slip into a third-person mode for a better look at what's around you. They can also be class-specific skills, such as the Operative's Comms trick. This allows the Spy-a-like Operative to scan a dead foe's body to briefly reveal his mates' locations. Of course, by picking that you'll deny yourself another ability, such as the one that lets you disguise yourself as a downed enemy.
Levelling up means escalated power to some degree, but really it's about careful choice of abilities rather than having a horrifyingly unfair advantage over other players.
There's also a choice about how many pies you've eaten. Your character's body shape is the most critical choice you'll make. By default, you're a medium -a good all-rounder.
Once you've levelled up a bit you can choose to mutate into an Agile or Heavy body type - the former able to move at speed and reach areas the others can't, while the other is a hit point-laden warhorse, able to carry the game's most devastating guns. Unlike classes and weapons, which you can casually alter between re-spawns, your body type is a permanent decision. Splash Damage are hinting there will be ways to change your decision, but in general you're likely to start up a couple of alts so you get to play with a skinny, a biggy or a norm whenever you like.
You will, however, be able to tinker with your clothing at will. Brink's character designer is a slick wee thing, flicking guickly between trousers, hats and the like with an ease that puts The Sims to shame. From I'm With Stupid T-shirts to flame-patterned hockey masks, it promises some fairly dramatic customisation - though this probably means the DLC cow will get a sound milking. When you march to war, you'll be fielding a dude who's very much yours, and not a generic beefcake soldier with a slightly different-coloured hat.
Online shooters have been sniffing around MMOs' back yards for a while, but Brink appears to be the rare example of getting it Advancement isn't just about earning experience points - it's about building a character whoreflects you. So long as your definition of your identity involves huge guns and camouflage pants.
This customisation is a major part of Splash Damage's intention to get people who traditionally cling to the ankles of single-player games to relax their fear of online play. If you've built yourself a character you're proud of, you're going to want to show him off to people. Those NPC bots aren't going to notice, so open up your game and shake a tail feather.
Again, you can play the campaign mode online or in co-op, or you can play a standalone map, Battlefield-style. There's also the idea that you can choose objectives rather than simply surge forwards, into great danger, at all times.
Clearly Brink comes down to shooting other blokes in the face to achieve objectives that win the map for one side, but if you can't handle the heat, sneaking off to grab a command point or hack a safe earns team-wide bonuses.
The in-game GPS system will even recalculate a new route to an objective for you if it spots that you're headed towards a rear entrance or you're careering across rooftops. This is looking like a shooter that wants you to have fun, not to creep slowly forwards until some camper snipes you in the head.
Brink's a bloody ambitious game that's charging head-on into two huge risks: that its plans to lure in a new audience might alienate the shooter hardcore, and that it's still too close to the Enemy Territory/Battlefield model to lure in the mass audience it needs. The cutscene production values are very high, while the character customisation lends an additional backbone to proceedings. But much depends on how meaty its single-player game really is. -And if Brink players' gradual switch from offline to online play is to be as organic as Splash Damage hope, there
has'to be the same satisfaction to beating a single-player map. The proof will be in the play, and we'll be hands-on with this noble beast again very soon. Until then, it's safe to coo at how marvellous it looks, how clever its concepts are, and how svelte the interface is. We saw Brink at the same time as we saw id's Rage, and Brink seems fresher, stranger and more tantalising. The student may well be about to become the master. (And if you really want a narrative reason for the giant chins, let's just assume-it's a by-product of a failed generation of genetically engineered supermen.)
Paul Wedgwood, CEO of Splash Damage and game director on Brink, isn't a big fan of marketing spiel. He's talking about the game's fluid movement mechanic when he sighs: "It's called SMART -smooth movement across random terrain. The marketing guys at Bethesda made us call it that."
Though he's hardly enamoured with the silly moniker, he's rightfully pleased with the feature itself. The multiplayer shooter from the creators of Enemy Territory employs an Assassin's Creed-stye, multi-functional button which sees you sliding under waist-high bars and vaulting over crates with ease. Don't let the Assassin's Creed comparison put you off, it's anything but an easy autopilot ride, and it works with surprising efficiency. Whether Wedgwood likes it or not, it's SMART.
The Brink presentation sees Wedgwood nimbly bounding through sections of The Ark, a floating, near-future, sovereign state temporarily moored somewhere off the coast of San Francisco. As the world economy goes to pot it begins to take on increasing numbers of refugees, unironically referred to as the "guest population" in the wake of the island's previous function as a luxury resort.
"Just because it's a shooter doesn't mean there can't be some narrative and thematic stuff going on," claims Brings senior game designer Ed Stern. "You still run around shooting people in the face though," he laughs, "that's absolutely what Brink is about".
At E3 we witnessed a mission set in the outlying Container City, and this time around we're seeing it in even more detail. Previously a sprawling storage area for the furniture of the rich and famous, the platform of shipping containers has been transformed into a residential area for the downtrodden refugees. You and seven other players, assuming the role of Ark Security, must escort a bomb defusal robot to the location of a supposed dirty bomb hidden somewhere in the rusting maze of corrugated sheet metal, chain link fencing and general dock-based detritus, while eight other players take up opposing positions as resistance members. It makes for an interesting, campaign-led melding of single and multiplayer shooting - one that we're seeing more and more of with pmes like Left 4 Dead, Borderlands and APS joining the charge.
"We're no geniuses," admits Stem. "We're not the only people who've figured out that this sort of game might be fun. We've all played Left 4 Dead, and what they've already achieved with that game is just fantastic. We're taking everything we've learned about objective-led gameplay from Enemy Territory: Quake Wars - things like having to be a particular class to do a certain objective."
Wedgwood's demo reaches something of a crescendo as both security and resistance clash in a small open area. In order to proceed, somebody must blast through a barricade to allow the defusal bot to trundle onwards. Flicking to a radial menu, a shopping list of objectives fills the screen and Wedgwood settles on the order to destroy the resistance's blockade. It immediately breaks down the objective into steps, the first of which is flagged on-screen: find a command post to change class. Wedgwood will have to slip into the role of a soldier before he can plant the explosives.
Me, Myself And I
In doing so, Wedgwood's appearance changes only slightly. Brink's character creation system means you'll have a Customised, personalised character upon which you can layer your unlocks and new items - visual class indicators work around the character you've designed.
"What's cool about having a persistent character is that you invest in him," explains Stern. "That's why we make such a big effort in character customisation. That's your guy, he represents you and your status and what you've chosen to unlock, which is why we've gone foaming nuts in terms of the avatar customisation. Tim Applebee, our lead character artist created Commander Shepard from Mass Effect, and he comes out with this crazy stuff. So no two players will look the same."
Compare this to the Gearbox's similarly co-op driven Borderlands, in which every player must choose from only four player models, and you'll begin understand why Splash Damage are working hard to get this customisation engine right.