“I’m so sorry,” apologises Paul Wedgewood, CEO of Splash Damage and game director of Brink. “I’ve just realised that they inverted my controller when they were playing between presentations. I’m one of those old-school inverted guys and I absolutely can’t play the other way round. Next time my team work on an interface for E3 I’m going to make sure there’s an invert button right there on the screen that I can use!”
A throwaway moment during the behind-closed doors live gameplay demo of the game publisher Bethesda had considerably talked-up pre-E3. But it provides interesting insight into the mindset of London developer Splash Damage, responsible for the Enemy Territory series for id Software, and what it’s trying to do with the hugely ambitious Brink. The game marks the studio’s transition from a hardcore PC FPS dev into a multiplatform FPS dev. Wedgewood’s “old-school inverted” preference shows that, despite the fact that Brink will no doubt make a huge splash on Xbox 360 and PS3, underneath it all PC FPS principles keep the engine running.
Going in to this presentation, we’re not sure what to expect. Leaving it, we’re convinced that Brink could well be one of the best shooters of 2010, and a candidate for our game of E309. It’s not the stylised art design, an interesting fusion of Mirror’s Edge-esque near future pristine whites and blues and Fallout 3-style shanty-town browns and greys that has us enthused. Nor is it the Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain (SMART) system, which allows players to vault and climb and slide over entities simply by holding down a button and aiming the targeting reticule up or down. What’s best about Brink, what could make it a boundary pusher, a game to change the FPS genre forever, is how it blurs the lines between offline and online play so convincingly that it’s hard to work out the difference between the AI and real players.
Brink takes place on the Ark, an immense, artificial floating sea city built as part of a contemporary green vision. Now, in 2035, the reported rise in the Earth’s oceans has made the Ark the last refuge for humanity, but it is buckling under the pressure of an isolated and horrific civil war. It is to this backdrop that players pick between one of two factions (the Resistance and the Security), and allows Splash Damage to take them to the brink.
Wedgewood begins the demo in one of the Ark’s districts, the Airport. Deserted for 20 years, the Airport is free from enemies and is a pristine, shiny place that DICE might have crafted for Faith to play with. “What I want to talk to you about first is kinesthetics,” Wedgewood says, “and what we’re doing to try and improve, just in general, how it feels to play a first-person shooter.”
Players can walk around, spring and jump just as they can in any FPS, but SMART removes “frustrating artificial constraints”. By holding down the SMART button and aiming the targeting reticule up, for example, the game will automatically vault the player over geometry, a set of chairs for example, allowing incredibly agile movement not just horizontally, but vertically. It works for sliding, too. Wedgewood walks through a set of red beams, setting off an alarm. He tries again, this time holding down the SMART button and aiming down. He automatically slides under the beams without losing momentum. SMART makes Brink less like the complex Mirror’s Edge, which it at first suggests, and more like the momentum-based Prototype.
The upshot of all of this is that it allows Splash Damage to create much more complex geometry because it no longer has to place entities that tell the player where they can vault, mount and slide. “I’m a fairly chubby guy,” explains Wedgewood, “but I reckon even I could get over a five foot wall. Isn’t it frustrating when you run up to one in a shooter and you can’t because the designer decided you’re not supposed to mantle that point? This frees our designers to design whatever the hell they like and make it much more like the real world. This is not a system simply for newbies. The idea behind this is to improve the way you play the game.”
SMART, however, is not Brink’s most impressive feature, and it is not until Wedgewood takes us into Container City, another of the Ark’s districts, that we see it for ourselves. The area was originally a dockyard where the Ark’s wealthy inhabitants stored their prized possessions. The fully robotised system enabled them to literally phone room service and order up their goods. However, around 20 years before the events of the civil war the Ark lost contact with the rest of the world. The result was a massive influx of refugees that turned Container City into a sprawling shanty town.