I've never before played a game that asked me to sit through a 20-minute tutorial just to get my narrative and gameplaying bearings. Then again, I've never before played anything quite like Brink, a game in which narrative and gameplay are equally—and at times maddeningly—complex. Never mind that I was using the game's slickly functioning and much ballyhooed feature called S.M.A.R.T. (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain).
The latest offering from developer Splash Damage (best known for Enemy Territory: Quake Wars) is ostensibly a first-person shooter. And make no mistake, there's plenty of shooting to be had here. But runnin' and gunnin' alone isn't what Brink is about. In fact, defaulting to that kind of instinctive, smoking-barrel, blaze-of-glory approach will get you dead … fast.
You do need the right armament and equipment for certain objectives. But you also need a heaping helping of strategic forethought to successfully execute the missions at hand … missions that plop players into one of two camps warring for supremacy in a decaying urban environment known as the Ark.
Noah's Not on This Ark
The Ark is a floating archipelago constructed of environmentally friendly Arkoral. It was supposed to have been a self-sustaining oceanic utopia for the 5,000 or so humans who decamped there as Earth's oceans rose due to global warming in the early 21st century. But by 2045, the Ark's population has swelled to 50,000—10 times what it was designed to support—and no one has had so much as a glimpse of a ship or plane from the outside world in 20 years.
Utopia has devolved into dystopia … and the Ark's desperate factions hover on the brink of civil war.
Brink players must immediately choose sides: Save the Ark, which means playing on behalf of the city's Security forces. Or Escape the Ark, a choice to side with the Resistance. Customize your character's look, then begin scaling Brink's steep—as in straight up—learning curve.
Besides the scars and facial hair, tattoos or tribal paint you outfit your character with initially, you'll also choose one of four classes: soldier, medic, engineer or operative. Each class has unique skills to help your team of eight accomplish a broad range of mission objectives. You read that right: You're not just "you"; you also have to monitor what seven others (either AI in single-player mode or online teammates) are doing.
Missions include escorting an important leader from point A to point B; constructing, destructing or guarding something; and taking over a neutral command post (which restocks your ammo and provides characters a chance to switch classes). Success depends upon utilizing your character's skills while overseeing teammates' classes and abilities. Soldiers, for instance, provide ammo. Medics "buff" other players' health. Engineers engineer things … and know how to blow them up. Operatives have mad computer hacking skills and can impersonate enemies to infiltrate their teams (or yours).
Because certain classes can only perform certain tasks, you've got to pay close attention to where everyone is on the map, and what they're doing. Operatives, for instance, are the only ones who can see and mark deadly mines on the battlefield. And if you are incapacitated and the medic is several alleyways away, you're likely to lie there awhile until he can get back to help you. It's both realistic … and frustrating. And in those respects, Brink feels as much like a fast-moving role-playing game as a shooter.
Pulled Back From the Brink
Brink also swerves from the blockbuster shooter formula in another fairly significant way: its T rating. Whereas the vast majority of the most popular games in this hard-hitting genre unapologetically boast an M rating for buckets of blood, enemy entrails and the harshest of obscenities—think Call of Duty: Black Ops, Killzone 3, Crysis 2, Dead Space 2 and Medal of Honor—Brink's content is comparatively more restrained.
Note, though, the emphasis I've assigned to the word comparatively. There can still be quite a bit of blood when enemies get shot in Brink. There just aren't any dismemberments, disembowelings or decapitations. S-words and uses of "b‑‑tard" creep into cutscenes here and there, as does one f-word that gets cut off before it's fully expressed.
And no amount of comparisons can change the fact that Brink is still a game about killing. This is war. And war is worrisome when you make it a heavy part of your entertainment habit. That means Brink is both hard to play and hard on you when you play. So it's faint praise to conclude that it's a less problematic choice than most of the other shooters surrounding it.