Call of Duty has been a damn good FPS series over the years, but let's face it: it's never been big on promoting teamwork when playing online. Everyone fights for themselves, and the things that most Call of Duty players primarily care about - kill/death ratio, unlocking new stuff, being at the top of the scoreboard - aren't diminished in the slightest if your team loses. Ever since Activision's blockbuster franchise became the most successful in gaming, a few developers out there started trying to help today's newest generation of gamers become real team players. DICE has done that with recent efforts in the Battlefield series, but UK developer Splash Damage has too. Starting with mods back in the Quake days and leading to some of the most critically-acclaimed (if not terribly successful at retail) team-oriented action games around, Splash Damage, along with publisher Bethesda, has come full circle by delivering their first entirely new property.
In Brink, you'll be dumped into a dystopian future, playing one of two sides of a conflict taking place on a high-tech floating island that was originally supposed to be a new kind of habitat for the waning days of the human race. Only, the rest of the planet has mysteriously cut off contact with the people on the Ark, and now this sprawling, high-tech marvel has fallen into disarray as its inhabitants have started a civil war for control of the few resources left. The Founders (and their protection, Security) are the rich and powerful, while the Resistance lives in makeshift favelas on the other side of the Ark. Brink takes you through a key part of the conflict, showing both victory and failure for both sides, as the game can be played through campaigns centered around either side.
What you'll notice quickly is that Brink pulls in post-apocalyptic aesthetics with a graphic novel style of art, and the end result is a look that is altogether unique. From the characters' dirty, determined faces to the sweeping, majestic curved lines of the Ark pockmarked by explosions and littered with trash, you can often see precisely where things went wrong. Brink offers little in the way of exposition or backstory - instead offering you a measly starting bonus of 1000xp to get you to agree to watch a ridiculously long movie on how to play game (and unfortunately, this video wastes your time by repeating itself more than a few times). In a lot of ways, though, you already know the story - the way the game looks tells much of it without a single word.
After a few minutes with Brink, you'll quickly notice that Splash Damage didn't shoehorn a multiplayer game into a story-based narrative; it's more the other way around. The single player game is essentially just the multiplayer game powered not by scripted events, but by what us old Quake fanatics would call bots (AI "players" that attempt to recreate the behavior and playstyle of real people). And in competitive modes, you're furthering the story that each particular map is telling - whether it's Security trying to free a captive through a series of objectives, or the Resistance holding off assaults until they can launch a huge missile.
If you've never played a Splash Damage game before, then you might be unused to the notion of each map having its own set of objectives - because that was pretty much entirely their own invention. Each map plays out a single chapter of the story, and either side can win each with their own victory conditions. Often, one side is primarily defending on any given map, and here there's no "swapping sides" like you sometimes see in some games' Assault modes. It's tough to tell you right now whether this game's even remotely balanced, but the conventional wisdom is that any game with such asynchronous goals is often at least mildly imbalanced to start.
Brink has integrated class-based team action into nearly every objective on every map. Engineers increase their buddies' damage output, set up sentry turrets, perform critical repairs, build special stuff on maps in pre-determined spots, and toss down anti-personnel mines. Medics keep people (including special escort NPCs) healed and resurrect them when they fall. Soldiers can plant explosives on mission-critical targets, throw extra-powerful Molotov cocktails, and refill everyone's ammo. Finally, Operatives can hack special targets and disguise themselves to pull off some interesting trickery against the enemy team. All of this works together nicely as the map's objectives are completed and then shift to the next set, and players are funneled together into one or two points of contention at all times on a map, so even a rather sparsely-populated twelve player game doesn't feel so empty.
Movement can sometimes be a challenge in a game that's entirely in a first-person view, and Brink is attempting to innovate with their SMART system. If you hold down your sprint button, your soldier will automatically keep moving forwards, vaulting over objects and grabbing ledges automatically - all modified by the body type the player picks (more on that later). It's not a hugely amazing feature for such a shooting-heavy game, however, as often you're just better off sprinting normally like you would in any other shooter.
You might be wondering just how good a single player campaign you're really getting if it's built pretty much entirely on the foundation of an online, twitch-based shooter, and for those looking for a truly cinematic experience, you're almost certainly going to be disappointed. The cutscenes that make up the story do a solid-enough job (even if they're a bit short and consist almost entirely of people shouting at each other), but I think you'll find yourself numbed by all the constant order-barking that goes on during a match - er, a "story mission". In total, if you win every mission on the first try, the campaign should last you somewhere around five hours, although you will likely find that the horrible AI will almost constantly leave you hanging, running off for secondary objectives and getting killed as they trickle into a well-defended room one at a time. You'll often feel like you're the only one trying to finish the primary objective while most of the enemy team is actually defending that area properly. Simply put, the AI is bad enough that you'll be stuck retrying some chapters repeatedly, and it's just frustrating enough to almost ruin the single player mode entirely. This game often shines in its online mode, but it really falls flat when played alone. You can still do the campaign, but do it online where you're a team of real people fighting the AI.
You'll get a lot of customization options in Brink, including configuring a fairly diverse arsenal of guns, adding perks, and switching out your clothing. One downside to changing your outfit is that it's impossible to pick out, say, a medic or the engineer on the battlefield until you hover over them and see the icon, which makes picking targets in a firefight too much like guesswork. With your guns, you can configure the stock, barrel, sights, and attachments on your guns. You also can choose light, medium, or heavy builds for your character - the light can move quickly and perform unique acrobatic moves like running along a wall, but he has less health and can only carry small guns. The heavy, on the other hand, has extra health and can carry the heaviest guns, but he moves slowly and can only perform the most basic of acrobatic moves. (As you can probably guess, the medium is a balance between the two.) While playing through any gameplay mode, your soldier will rank up and and unlock a wide range of new perks, although most of the good ones are only unlocked once you complete missions in a separate, altogether unimpressive challenge mode.
On PC, Brink fully supports nearly every feature that online shooters require for years' worth of relevance: you can privately set up dedicated servers, fiddle with a good range of tweaking options via the old-school command console (Ctrl-Alt-~ is how you bring it up), use a tournament-style setup for online games, and enjoy a decent interface for jumping not just into any game, but the kind of game you want. There are some reports of frame rate issues in 16-player games and strange graphics problems on some PCs, but I haven't had any personally - I did have some issues with invisible AI enemies and the sound often cuts out for the remainder of a match, and of course online play can sometimes be laggy. On consoles, all the basics for each platform are supported precisely how you'd expect (although there are no split-screen modes at all), and while the experience is not quite as impressive as on PC - a lot of fidelity is lost in the barely-HD screen resolution and lower texture quality - it's still very comparable when set up next to many of today's online console shooters.
Brink has quite a few flaws, but the most frustrating one is the spawn-die-spawn-kill-die repetition in single player mode. At best it's a little banal and tedious, and at worst, it's downright rage-inducing. Your AI teammates and enemies often act strangely, exhibiting poor awareness of their surroundings, but they will unleash laser-accurate gunfire once they notice an enemy. This makes playing the game, especially at the start of the Security campaign, a real chore. It could be that the intent of the solo mode was only to train you for the multiplayer, but that's not what Splash Damage and Bethesda have been saying over the years, and either way, the few real innovations included in Brink are overshadowed by the game's sometimes iffy mission structure and offline play issues. It's a solid game online, but others have come out in the last several months that, frankly, are just more fun to play most of the time. It's entirely possible - and dare I say likely - that Splash Damage will be able to fix these issues, but right now, Brink is only worth your money and time if you are planning on playing online.