Trouble Thinking

May 13, 2011

Brink: Okay… Okay, Let’s Talk About Brink.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Durandal @ 11:10 am

So, I’ve been kind of hyped about Brink, published by Bethesda and developed by Splash Damage, for a long time. I love myself some objective-based, class-based shooting. I love it, it allows me to come out on top simply by understanding my role in combat rather than having the world’s best aim. I mean, I am just oddly terrible at aiming, I don’t even know.

But anyway, I’ve been a huge fan of what this game was planning to do since forever. Here’s the thing: I love this game and I want everyone to buy it so I have people to play against. It has given me more fun moments than any shooter in a long time. But holy moly is it flawed. It’s just… it’s not even flawed the way you expect. It’s not just that things are cut-rate because they didn’t get a big enough budget or something. Mostly, the flaws make it feel like Splash Damage didn’t ever test the game with people who weren’t on the development team.

Let me make this clear: With 16 people who play well, talk to each other, and attempt to win the game and get the highest score this game is incredible. It’s fast, exciting, varied, and chock-full of moments of awesome. I’m usually a Light Medic, and there’s nothing quite so cool as sprinting toward the front, bouncing off two walls on the way down to a courtyard, vaulting a barrier and going into a slide while tossing revive syringes and speed boosts before leaping back up to the balconies and firing on the enemy to distract them from the people I’ve just brought back to life until they kill me and I revive myself so I can hop right back and do it all again.

It’s awesome. Here, look at this video and tell me you don’t want to move like that in every FPS.

When things line up. When they don’t line up I feel embarrassed for Brink. I want to hug Brink and say “It’s okay, I know you’re beautiful Brink. On the inside.”

There’s one major reason Brink is sometimes terrible, and it’s the same reason I love it. Brink is a shooter where you are, generally, not supposed to shoot people. The maps all consist of Offense and Defense. Offense wins by completing a series of objectives in a set time, Defense wins by… defending.  So here’s the thing: in Brink you play as both a Body Type and a Class. Body Type is set for the entire map, Light, Medium, or Heavy. The benefits and drawbacks of Body Type are related to health and mobility. If you’re a Light, you can bounce off walls in order to get places faster or reach areas that other people can’t. If you’re a heavy, you move at a comparative crawl but you’ve got a big health boost and access to heavy weaponry. Classes all perform basically the same when it comes to shooting people, but they each come with a specialized role that is usually related directly to helping other people on the team. For instance my favorite class, the Medic, has access to a variety of abilities that increase health regeneration rate, movement speed, health total, and can bring people back from the dead (with all the benefits I’ve been conferring to them all match).

Each other class has some similar ability to help out the team. Soldiers can toss extra ammunition out as well as toss out extremely effective grenades, Engineers can grant teammates a boost in damage as well as laying down traps like mines and turrets, Operatives can sneak behind enemy lines and frustrate them with a variety of little tricks, point out enemy mines and players so they’re highlighted through walls, and can also take direct control of an Engineer’s turret in order to turn it into a much more effective weapon. Every class also has a specific Objective that only they can complete, whether it be blowing the door or hacking the mainframe.

The difference between a team that is working together and one that isn’t is immense. If you have a few good medics your team is moving a double time, can take an extra clip to the chest, and heals like the dickens. A good Operative means you know where everyone is, you’ve got Turrets that can slice a team to ribbons, and so on. Your Soldier blows the door while the rest of the team watches his back and your Operative goes behind enemy lines to distract them. It’s great fun that I highly recommend.

But it’s hard. It requires communication of a sort that I don’t think strangers on the internet are really okay with, much as this sort of online gaming has become standard. And the thing is, a mediocre Offense team will almost always lose to a mediocre Defense team. Defense is much less effective if they don’t figure out how to work together, but they aren’t absolutely forced to do so because when it comes down to it Defense just needs to kill anyone who gets too close to an Objective. The scoring system, which rewards players for doing things that benefit the team, helps a bit but doesn’t feel nearly as real as a game like Call of Duty for some reason. “+75? For healing? That can’t be right, I barely did anything” is the basic sensation. It’s definitely a good idea, but it needs to be played with and modified extensively before it becomes a really effective breadcrumb trail for new players. The game has been balanced, but it’s been balanced with people who are pretty good at working together in mind.

Which leads me back to my basic hypothesis: this game wasn’t tested by a general audience for nearly long enough, nor was it tested with new players nearly often enough during development. It’s obvious in the flailing terror with which the game tries to explain itself to you, and in a dozen tiny but conspicuously odd design decisions.

For instance, the very first thing you do in the game is choose a side, Resistance or Security. What does this first, highlighted choice do? Nothing. Nothing at all. It affects the default display model of the current character you’re creating. Note that it has no effect on which side you’ll be playing, because each game will place you with either Resistance or Security depending on which team has open slots. And even making characters is a slightly strange experience. You choose a body type, which can only be changed in that menu, not in-game. You also choose upgrades that apply to the classes you play, which you choose in-game and are expected to shift constantly as play progresses. Any time you want to alter any of this, you’re forced to disconnect from the game to go back to character-creation.  Hell, even in character creation there are strange, unnecessary dead-ends. When you change your character’s clothing or body type, you can press “back” to go back to the paper-doll model and choose another thing to alter. When you change their hair and facial features, the only button available is “done”, which kicks you to the main menu. During the game, your list of objectives will on many occasions say, for instance “Guard The Door” when actually it means “A solider needs to blow this door, and you should guard him while he does that”. No one a soldier on your team? Better hope someone realizes that pretty quick. Little things that an experienced player doesn’t need to worry about, but a new player will find completely off-putting.

The server browser is shoddy, and frankly I still cannot understand how I’m supposed to mark something as a “favorite”. I’ve yet to play a campaign game because I’ve never been able to connect, so I’ve been searching for “freeplay” which I feel wasn’t intended to be the most-played mode the first week out the gate. VOIP support is inconsistent, and because I run an ATI Radeon 4XXX card, I’ve got strange graphical mixups that make a truly pretty game turn into something terrible. It’s just not quite as ready for prime time as the packaging makes it out to be.

Splash Damage cut their teeth making really excellent multiplayer mods, and it shows. The basic, boring elements of game design like the menus and the matchmaking and simply having a clear vision of what you want people to do with your game are all lacking. The game is awesome, and it’s great fun when you’ve got a team that knows which end is up. But Splash Damage couldn’t figure out how to effectively communicate with people who weren’t already hardcore fans of online shooters, and it is glaringly obvious. It takes time and effort to figure out your place in this game, and it’s time I’m afraid many people won’t take.

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