Brink is a game that consciously sets out to embrace change. Yes, it's yet another first-person shooter, and yes the backdrop is a post-apocalyptic near future - a setting so overused that when the world really does descend into some kind of nuke-drenched meteorological hell, we'll all be saying, "Ooh, it's just like Fallout 3/Rage/Stalker/Metro 2033." But at its heart, Brink is game that wants to mix things up. It's an online FPS, but one where the single-player campaign and multiplayer deathmatch are effectively one and the same. It uses a specialist class system, but it all but forces the player to switch roles every few minutes. It's a blend of the old and the new, served up in a fresh, fluid way.
That's the theory, anyway. We caught our first glimpse of the game during a presentation at E3 2009, a showing so impressive that we labelled it as one of our games of the show. Since then, however, things have been a tad quiet. It was only Bethesda's Easter showcase, some 10 months later, that we got a second look - and even then it was a case of "watch, don't play". We've had to wait almost exactly a year to sample the mercurial action for ourselves, snatching a brief hands-on amid the hustle and chatter of the LA Convention Centre.
So, does Brink have the stones to match all the patter we've had from Splash Damage? On the basis of what I've played so far, the answer is "quite possibly". The game's appearance at last month's E3 was undoubtedly less barn-storming than its 2009 debut, but it seems to be making decent progress in all the areas that matter. For a start, and just as we observed last time, the core weapons handling seems to be pretty much spot on. There's a classic free-aim/aim down the sights setup, and thankfully all the guns seem to actually feel like guns. You pull the trigger, there's a loud bang for each and every bullet, and your opponents jerk about as if something's hitting them. This might be painfully obvious, but there's nothing worse than a shooter where the weapons feel fake and toy-like, or one where there's no obvious feedback to your murderous actions. This is FPS 101 stuff we're talking about, but people do still get it wrong from time to time.
Digital Charlton Heston ramblings aside, the engaging thing about Brink is that the dynamic class changing thing actually works. Say, for example, that you start out playing as a Soldier - a natural jump-in point for anyone who likes a bit of the old run-and-gun game. You set out into the level, take down a few enemies (who might either be AI-controlled or other humans), and then you might get a prompt mentioning a new mission. Holding up on the D-pad will summon an on-screen dial with a choice of four assignments, then you simply tap the pad again in the relevant direction to accept your new task. The nature of this work will obviously vary depending on what's going on with everyone else, but the mission mapped to "up" will always be the one that's the most valuable to your side overall.
The most important jobs will often force you to change class - meaning a quick trip to a nearby command point. The switch only takes a few seconds, and while you'll invariably have to adjust your tactics to match your new loadout, the reward is a far greater payout in terms of XP. In game design terms, the bigger gain is that you'll be forced to try a new approach to the game. One minute you're an Engineer, planting charges to destroy a barrier that's blocking your team-mates' path; the next you're a stealthy Operative, sneaking behind the enemy's back for a spot of sabotage. There are only four classes (the Medic being the one I've not mentioned yet), but as there are only eight players per side, there will nearly always be something vital that needs a particular specialist. The result is a team deathmatch game where you genuinely feel that your presence matters. Everyone can contribute something to the battle, and where most FPS titles encourage you to stick rigidly to your chosen role, the best Brink players will be the versatile ones who can do anything their buddies need.
Along with all the class hopping, Brink's other big feature is the SMART system. SMART stands for "Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain" - a relatively successful acronym by gaming standards, though MEB ("Mirrors Edge Button") would also have done the job. All your clambering and sliding needs are handled by a quick tap of R1, allowing your character to sail over or under obstacles, depending on the context. I've yet to fully appreciate the tactical subtlety of SMART, but it's certainly fun to use - a mechanic that tempts you to go dashing across the level like a Parkour expert with a bee in his shorts. Needless to say the maps have been designed with this kind of play in mind, offering plenty of walkways to leap from, sniping platforms and roof-hatches for entering rooms from above.
Can Brink really do something new with the multiplayer deathmatch? It's easy to go wrong with this kind of structural experimentation, but for every MAG there's a Borderlands. Splash Damage certainly believes in its product and has a good pedigree in the genre, while Bethesda is a publisher big enough to give the game the support it needs. The only major foreseeable problem is that the release date has just slipped to Spring next year - and that feels like a long way away. There are already quite a few big first-person jaunts due for 2011, so let's hope that Brink turns out to be worth the wait.
Brink is due for release on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in spring 2011.