So you’ve seen Brink‘s official website, maybe some trailers, and now you’re thinking, “Hey this looks pretty cool!”
But what you don’t realize is that it’s going to suck. Follow me as I explain why you should stop being hyped for Brink right now.
5. The Art Style
“Idiot!” you shout. “Brink has some of the best visual direction of any first person shooter! It looks great!”
You instantly dismiss this article and hover your mouse over the “Back” button, but wait: I AGREE. So here’s my question: why did the idiots over at Splash Damage fight the idea?
All you have to do is watch this marketing trailer, and if you’re like me you’ll get the following impression:
This guy is smart enough to state the obvious. ^
This guy has no clue what he’s doing, hates good ideas, and his glasses are stupid. ^
This guy is trying way too hard and shouldn’t be allowed to talk on camera. ^
As you can hear from listening to the trailer, Paul Wedgwood, the Game Director, argued against Art Director Olivier Leonardi about the same style everyone including himself now praises. He didn’t want a cartoony style; he wanted a generic photo-realistic look, and had to be convinced by a dissenter. This, to the point where, when they finally decided to concede and listen to Olivier, it warranted a victory sign posted on the back of his monitor:
This is a troubling sign.
So whatever appeal the graphics have, don’t bother giving credit to the game designers. Those guys wanted it to look generic! It’s just lucky for them that they had a rebel who was willing to fight the lead designers and show them how stupid they all were. What does that tell you about their lame game design mentality? As you’ll see, everything about Brink except the visuals is hackneyed.
But even if you love the graphics too much to ignore it, there are still problems. Check out the customization page. The styles may look awesome at first, but the different “factions” don’t actually look distinct, which is sure to lead to confusion. Who is on your side, and who’s on the other side? Each player character is custom designed, while the A.I. is probably random in design, so get ready to shoot your friends and play the old guessing game.
It’s not just a matter of recognizability either — the appearances get repetitive fast. Notice how everybody has the same oversized jaw, oversized nose, and beady little eyes with sunken cheeks? What’s the point of being cartoony if you can’t even use it to create a wide range of faces? There’s only a handful of “archetypes” for you to dress up, and the rest is collecting gear with typical loot schemes, keeping you grinding away at objectives al a Metal Gear Online. These “archetypes”, with original names like “The Anger”, “The Dude”, “The G”, and “The Warrior” demonstrate how much creativity is going around in the creative department. When your only interesting feature is awesome graphics and a customize character feature, why not allow people to actually go all out and change the size of their nose, the type of eyes, the width of their jaw, and so on? Probably because this game isn’t designed to be an in-depth single player experience, but rather a multiplayer game with A.I. bots for when you’re not online. Shame.
Visual noise is another problem. Massive levels of clutter and visual confusion may be great for a screenshot, but it’s terrible for a game experience. Some areas are smooth and clean, but others are a mess. Vivid colors are great too, but they need to be used strategically to assist gameplay. That’s not something I see anywhere in their levels. What will happen, therefore, is that you’ll love the look for the first 3 times you play a map (there’s no real seamless world), and then start to find that the lighting, shadows, and colors are actually impacting the game balance in unexpected ways.
Overall I get the impression that these guys threw up their hands and said, “Whatever, I guess.” And then they made trailers where they hype it up too much, instead of thinking of the actual psychology of visual design during gameplay, creating replayable maps and intuitive spaces. They have no clue, and the art direction proves it on all fronts.
4. The Class System
To see them promote their class system: http://www.brinkthegame.com/media/videos/?id=80
So, do you like Team Fortress? How about removing five of the classes, the pitch-perfect balance, and replacing it with a bunch of mashed-up unoriginality? That’s the class system for Brink. It focuses on “core abilities” of the four classes, and allows you to level up via Modern Warfare — thus customizing your character slightly. There’s three body sizes (not related to class, but rather your character’s appearance) which dictate whether you can utilize their parkour system, use special heavy weapons, or a little bit of both. Considering how little is known about the classes it’s hard to criticize in depth, but what they’ve shown so far is a totally uninspiring load of loud farts. Speaking metaphorically, of course.
A soldier, engie, medic and spy. I can’t blame them for sticking with things that are tried and true, but all you have to do is look at the massive weapon selection to see that this game doesn’t care for taking risks or thinking outside the box in terms of gameplay. Machine guns, shotguns, and the standard real-life weapons are all here, predictable and dull as ever; and like other games, you’ll be customizing them to reduce recoil, silence the muzzle blast, add extra ammunition, etc. If the class customization is this straightforward, there’s no reason to be hyped up. Innovation has not touched the class system.
3. Single Player / Multiplayer Combination
I want you to listen to this bullshit. Pretending to defy labels is pretty much the lamest attempt to hide the truth you can get, because the labels that accurately describe what you do are so insulting. There are very good reasons why developers keep single and multiplayer games seperate:
- Single player experiences are about immersion, and having other assholes jumping around randomly and trying to grief me while I’m trying to save the world or whatever is a perfect way to break that immersion.
- Single player is also about being totally unique. You want to feel like the hero, not another loser who just picked a preset class and tweaked some skills. Brink boasts about not being “just another hero”, but what they’re really saying is that you’re just another indistinguishable nobody who the hero would normally be killing left, right and center. Which would you rather be when you’re playing solo?
- Multiplayer games are all about being balanced. As soon as you replace fine-tuned balance with having your own little task sheet to complete in your own little corner, the whole thing becomes disjointed and lonely. You may as well be playing with A.I. bots, which is what Brink is all about. Another shame.
- Multiplayer games are designed to be repetitive. Anything that’s a little bit unfair at first glance will become hugely unfair later on, because of the way players exploit and refine the most efficient strategies to win. Patching can fix this in many cases, but the fundamental unfairness of a level gap between players will never be fixed, because it’s designed to create a rat race of envy and superiority, not skill, tactics and real teamwork.
As you can see in this marketing trailer, Brink does have cutscenes. They claim that you get “all the storytelling, all the character, the drama, the pacing that you get in a traditional single player game”, but with a one of a kind multiplayer twist. In the end the game is comparable to Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, with the difference being that your upgrades don’t reset at the end of a campaign in Brink. That’s where it borrows from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. That means a lot of people will love it, for sure.
In other words, it’s a persistent team-based multiplayer campaign game, with bots.
If I’m wrong about that, I will gladly revise my opinion. Maybe, just maybe, your character will actually be able to defeat the enemy, saving the day once and for all, or something. Maybe there is an end game. That would be impressive, and prove that it isn’t just a multiplayer game with bots. Regardless of that, though, and regardless of which side you choose (police or rebels), missions are generated by an unseen “commander” A.I. and it’s up to you to choose from a list of objectives that it gives you. These objectvies take into consideration your class, location, and whatever else. It’s a dynamic way of randomly keeping players busy again and again, with limited decision making and the illusion of progress. The fact that your stats, upgrades and unlocked gear is remembered makes that illusion more tangible and significant. But unless you break the endless conflict paradigm, or resolve something, the “end of the genre” rhetoric is nonsense, and merging two modes will be failure.
2. S.M.A.R.T. System
Aubrey Hesselwhatever now steps in to show us something truly interesting: the S.M.A.R.T. system.
S.M.A.R.T. stands for “Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain”, and it is easily the most intriguing aspect of Brink‘s gameplay. It’s also the part that will ruin the game more than anything, sadly.
The appeal of a dynamic, first-person view parkour system is obvious, as proven by the hype leading up to Mirror’s Edge disappointing execution. That game suffered from linear missions with play-by-number construction, but Brink will open the window and give you full freedom. Sliding, mounting, hurdling, and whatever else are available at the press of a single button. It’s context-sensitivity taken to an extreme.
In it’s relatively short history, context-sensitive buttons have been plauged with issues, and it’s no wonder why. Players will always develop their strategies based on the predictable outcome of their inputs; undermining that predictability by placing it in the hands of the program is a change from controlling their character to being controlled by them. Anybody who’s played Gears of War, Red Dead Redemption, or the dozens of other games with context-sensitive cover buttons will know this frustration. The problem is not that Brink‘s system won’t work; the problem is that it will only work the way the system dictates.
To this day, Super Mario 64 and its sequels have been the most powerful examples of free movement in gaming. Wall jumping, sliding, diving, ledge-climbing, backflipping, triple-jumping, butt-smashing—these things are all executed wonderfully, and with tight precision. There is no context-sensitive button, just raw input combinations.
Recently, I read about how Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 suffered from this same problem in an excellent A.V. Club review. By trying to make the controls hassle-free and user-friendly, the game ends up punishing those who have very specific strategies in mind, which would normally require precision accuracy:
The reason the 1988 game has stayed engaging for a quarter of a century is its demand for and rewarding of precision. In its attempt to broaden the game’s appeal, Fatshark ended up making it feel clumsy. The hook fires too quickly, detaches too readily from platforms, and sometimes fails to connect with the environment. Most games can overcome control problems, but in the case of Bionic Commando, where the central premise of the game lives and dies by exact control, a poor interface brings down the whole production.
Brink is doomed to the same fate, I’m afraid.
1. The Camera
Earthquake? Nope, just going for a jog.
Believe it or not, the number one reason why Brink will suck but few will admit it, is the camera.
First of all, let’s look at the problem of camera shake.
Whether you’re walking, running, jumping, shooting, or otherwise navigating around the maps, your camera will be constantly jostling and bobbing in order to—I guess—help you feel all shook up and “in the moment”? There are zero practical reasons for making a player’s camera shake, and I believe improper camera handling is the number one most underestimated problem in videogames, so this stands out to me right away. People like myself who are sensitive to motion sickness are instantly turned off, but it becomes a problem for everyone else too. Being shook affects your ability to aim properly, feels very unnatural, and quickly gets annoying when you’re trying to focus.
If you run in real life (you lazy bastard), you don’t really notice your head bobbing and shaking, right? You’re thinking about stuff like your breathing and stamina, whether there’s a clear path in front of your feet, and maybe the keys in your pocket. At no point do you look around and say, “Holy cow, I can barely see! Why is everything shaking?” It won’t be a surprise to you, because you actually feel the shake in your bones; you dictate the rythm of your own steps; you are doing the physical activity, so your body compensates and keeps you in synchronization. You don’t need to simulate shaking, because it actually feels less realistic than having none at all.
Pop quiz: what part of your body is responsible for giving you a sense of balance and equilibrium? Answer: your inner ear! And did you know that your inner ears are in no way connected to the videogame you’re playing? It’s true! Scientifically speaking, the disconnect between the movement your eyes are seeing (and are thus telling your brain) and what your inner ears are sensing (nothing, because you’re just sitting in your chair) is what causes motion sickness. The bigger the disconnect, the more severe the motion sickness. It’s impossible to become fully adjusted to this, although there are plenty of people with a higher tolerance than I, but the fact remains that this is why the vast majority of (good) action games don’t bother to jostle the camera too much.
Now you may argue that major series like Gears of War or Call of Duty, with their shaky cameras and sprint buttons, have proven this wrong. But you are wrong! Those games are popular in spite of the camera handling, not because of it. If you removed the camera shake from them, they would be much better.
Another problem will be a lack of awareness.
Most FPS games have such limited forms of movement that this isn’t an issue, but whenever a “first person” view requires you to keep track of complex movements or stay aware of your surroundings, you’ll notice players whipping their camera around violently and constantly. Again, since videogames can’t do justice to something like perhipheral vision, the player must do extra work. I’ve always likened the first person view to wearing a space helmet: you need to pivot your neck to see anything, instead of having the full range of vision. So in a game with as much mobility as Brink, you can expect a lot of head-whipping. It’s a problem that’s subtle and common enough that most players won’t complain about it, but it’s a problem nonethless.
How do you solve such a problem? The answer is simple. Switch to “third person view” in moments where you need to be more aware of what your character is doing or his surroundings. I point to the upcoming Deus Ex: Human Revolution as a prime example. While doing melee attacks or taking cover, the game smoothly transitions from one perspective to another. It’s so elegant and intuitive that you don’t even notice—and this is how you can add platformer/action elements to an FPS.
So there you have it. In the end, Brink bites off more than it can chew and stumbles under the weight of its own pretentiousness. It takes elements from a lot of popular games, but fails to recognize the more subtle reasons why they work in those games. And because dumb players also won’t have the insight to know what’s wrong, and thanks to the constant Skinner Box incentives and chaotic gameplay, few will be able to pinpoint the problems or admit to it. When it’s released, many will be lured in by its distinct visuals, but soon enough the problems will surface and the gameplay will stagnate, and Brink‘s marketing savvy will be just enough to keep it afloat. That’s my prediction at least.