Hands-on with Bethesda’s latest.

Going into the BRINK demo at PAX I can’t say I entertained more than an idle curiosity in the game. I didn’t even know much about it, really, and this was the first time I got to dive into actual gameplay. The demo opened with an intro video covering the four different classes and weapons, and gave a glimpse at the character customization – I lamented that I couldn’t wear a beret on top of my gas mask, but when it comes to accessorizing Brink is serious business. When it comes to gameplay, well then it’s just serious fun.

Sharing a lot with other squad-based shooters, classes and teamwork are key to success in the game. You can swap between each of the four classes (soldier, operative, engineer and medic) at a console station in the game environment, making the most of their unique abilities. It’s dead easy to change your class, and since everyone was trying out different things at the demo it was funny to look and see that once when I was injured there were six medics en route. If you’re thinking “Team Fortress 2” that’s OK, just add in additional customization and and a dash of darkness.

Character customisation is pretty detailed for a bunch of dudes, and that customised character will be playable in your game as well as your friend’s with a persistent leveling system. Since there are different classes and RPG elements in play here BRINK allows you to create and save multiple characters. Choosing and modding your weapon is also a big part of BRINK, though I didn’t spend too much time with the character customization and even less with the weapons since we were all itching for a fight. Given the volume of assault rifles and SMGs I’m thinking there was a lot of nuance there.

After choosing what looked like a good catch-all assault rifle I spawned as a medic, and got shot. OK, some stuff happened in between, like me figuring out that I could bolster the health of an ally and successfully dispensing at least one syringe to a fallen teammate, but then I pretty much got shot. As a medic, however, this wasn’t quite as much of an obstacle to progress since I was soon able to stab myself with one of those healing juice syringes and hop back up. Leveling as a medic was pretty easy as points are awarded for actions like healing teammates, which you can do from a short distance with little downtime by chucking those aforementioned syringes at them while they lie writhing on the ground. There is a cost: if you heal an ally then get taken down, you won’t be able to immediately heal yourself and will likely have to wait for the next respawn, which is the primary choice for non-medic classes.

The weapons you wield are more dependent upon the character you develop than the class, though three of those four classes should plan on firing less than the average soldier. All classes can feel free to target enemies if they choose, they just won’t be rewarded for it like the soldier and the leader boards will likely surprise those that prefer to run and gun regardless of class, as score is determined by more than just KD ratio. An engineer, for example, is rewarded for buffing weapons and completing objectives like repairing the robot and an operatives for disguising as a downed enemy or interrogating them for intel.

There are two factions at war on Ark, one of those last bastions of humanity sort of places. When tasked with a mission it is comprised of smaller objectives that you can take on, like escort missions, or rescuing a fallen team member, and you can change those objectives at the same in-game station where you swap classes. The mission is timed, with extensions granted as you progress. At first there’s a temptation to just run out there and get tangled up in a firefight, and folks from the Splash Damage team were on hand to guide our focus when we played like naughty school children that just want to eat the paste. I set up a turret or two as the engineer, and otherwise I was trying to do things like buff weapons and get a robot tank working so the team could progress. After repairing the bot once and watching it crawl all of ten feet before being halted again by damage from enemy fire I realized what a united effort this needed to be.

A touted feature of Brink is SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain), a sort of enlightened sprint that allows you to move quickly through the environment with the AI handling vaulting obstacles. It’s like shooter Parkour, so far as I can tell. I got to use SMART a bit more after I respawned, as the spawn points aren’t right at the action all the time. With SMART I was able to skirt the outside of the battleground, climbing up to some new areas and finding a better (safer) way to flank the enemy. As you play with more gamers that are familiar with the maps, I strongly suspect that using the environments creatively will become a necessity.

I’m not some awesome multiplayer shooter gamer that can drop in and destroy everyone in sight, but I wasn’t exactly rubbish at BRINK, either. There’s an accessibility that comes from the team-driven effort, the task-oriented classes. When you do get something right – that turret goes up, the robot is moving down the alley, you heal an ally – it’s rewarding, both to your score and to the team. BRINK is a hard game to dive into not because it’s unintuitive but because there are a lot of good things going on, too many good things to absorb and parse in so brief a time on a crowded show floor, with the PAX throngs looming behind you. What I got to play of BRINK left me wanting more, lots more.

Scheduled for a Spring 2011 release on 360, PS3 and PC.

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