“We’re trying to change the way people think about a first-person shooter,” Richard Ham tells me. We’re in a boutique Beverly Hills hotel and the creative director at Splash Damage is sitting cross-legged under a portrait of a chimpanzee dressed in colonial garb. As he speaks, a Playboy playmate floats out of the room behind him.
But the glaringly clichéd scene belies a man who is engrossed and enthusing about the studio’s upcoming game. The line isn’t rehearsed or delivered with an air of indifference; there are no sunglasses, no artisan water, no ego. It’s unlikely he’s aware of anything but my dictaphone.
Even the aforementioned Bunny is benign. She’s a model-turned-columnist for the men’s magazine. Eclectic though the scene may appear, the handful of people present are all here to play Brink.
It’s hardly surprising that the blinkered Ham is speaking so passionately about Brink. For a long time, the game suffered an identity crisis in the public consciousness, something that Splash Damage and publisher Bethesda are working hard to make up ground on. The gaming public knew that the studio behind the enormously successful Enemy Territory titles was working on a new game, they just didn’t know what it was: something about a role-playing shooter that was simultaneously online and offline?
Even after an extensive hands-on session it’s still difficult to describe the game succinctly: Brink is a team-based first-person shooter with a levelling system. You’ll build a highly customised character out of one of three archetypes and partake in a story across sixteen levels and two factions. Each level is also a multiplayer map and each can be played solo with AI, or with up to eight friends cooperatively, or in full eight versus eight multiplayer.
Like so many Bethesda titles, Brink is set in a post-apocalyptic world. The Earth has flooded and a floating utopia known as The Ark is on the brink (you see) of civil war. The futuristic Security, who firmly believe in peace through autocracy, are pitted against the anarchic Resistance.
Even the name came late: “I’ll be honest,” says Ham, “for the longest time we called it Ark. That was the internal name of the game.” The change occurred when Sony patented the name “arc” as a placeholder for what would later become the Move controller.
“So we got together with Bethesda before our first E3 showing and said, ‘Guys, we can’t guarantee that you can use ‘Ark’ at E3, we’ve gotta come up with something else.’ It was actually Bethesda’s PR who came up with the name Brink. It has a lot of resonance within the game. We really liked it, it’s nice and solid, it ends on a ‘K’ so it has that sharpness – it just really works for us.”
It’s an interesting glance behind the scenes but it still doesn’t get us any closer to locking down what Splash Damage has set out to achieve with Brink: “What we’re trying to do at the end of the day is convert singleplayer gamers into multiplayer gamers,” says Ham. He uses himself as an example: “Before working on Brink I would buy Call of Duty or Halo and love them, play them to death, consume them. But when I was finished with the singleplayer game? It went on the shelf – that was it. Done. I wouldn’t even try to go online because I had so many bad experiences.”
It’s easy to sympathise with him. The hardcore first-person shooter scene can be an unwelcoming place at the best of times. But like so many of us, Ham has lots of friends who would play the online "pathologically."
“With Brink we’re trying to appeal to gamers like myself who come to a game for an interesting story, exciting action, and pull them in, but then over the course of the game constantly tempt them, constantly tease them: ‘We know you’re having a great time, but how about in this mission you play it online?’”
A first-person shooter with seamless online integration is the true goal. The character you may build offline is the same one you’ll use in multiplayer. And unlike other first-person shooters, stresses Ham, the rules won’t change when you take your experience online. Movement is the same, the guns are the same, the levels are the same, the objectives are the same. “All the lessons you’ve learned in the singleplayer are entirely applicable. And your story will continue unabated.”
The result is a sleek package with a unique visual fingerprint that clearly sets Brink apart from the larger catalogue of first-person shooters. On top of that sits a character customisation system unlike any we’ve seen in the genre.
The game features three character archetypes, skinny, normal and heavy. Skinny characters are fast, agile and sport lighter weapons, heavy characters are lumbering tanks lugging devastating arsenal. Normal body types are the jack-of-all-trades, master of none. As players level up, they can begin to err towards one body type or another.
Beyond these physical attributes are four classes, soldier, medic, engineer and operative. Each class has a self-explanatory function: soldiers interact with explosive objectives and resupply ammunition, medics can heal and even self-resurrect, engineers improve their allies’ weapons and operatives hack computers and even dead opponents, briefly revealing, for example, the location of every opponent. New and intriguing skills also become available as you level up. Combat Intuition, for example, gives you a heads-up warning when an enemy is targeting you.