The game I most wish I was playing right now is Brink. I played it a week ago. It delivered on an unusual promise.
Brink is a first-person team shooter set on an advanced seaborne city of the future. You can play it solo or with up to eight players against either others. It's one of those modern games that seamlessly transitions from singleplayer to multiplayer.
A year ago, this is what Paul Wedgwood, head of Brink development studio Splash Damage, told me: "The buzz you get from coordinated team play is beyond and above just about every other experience that you can have as a video gamer."
Brink could do that, he told me. Brink could make me feel the glory of team-based greatness. I guess it would be like becoming a member of the A-Team after feeling for so many years playing online shooters like the bad guys the A-Team shot.
Brink is supposed to enable anyone, even bad gamers, to get that experience that normally only an elite Team Fortress 2 player might have, an experience of slick coordination in which everyone knows their role and slickly performs it. That bad player might as well have been me. And a year after Wedgwood told me Brink could deliver that opportunity, I tried the game - and - he was right.
Brink, ingeniously, works.
In Dallas last week, during QuakeCon 2010, Wedgwood walked me through Brink's redesigned and lovely character selection screens, let me mod my weapons and then allowed me to start a mission with him on my team. The Brink player can have up to 16 characters saved in the game, each with permanent tattoos, unusual disfigurements (rough acne scars is a real option) and wild wardrobes.
After a cutscene, our characters and the rest of an elite security squad that was controlled by the computer docked and entered a part of the game's city, the Arc. Our big mission was to escort a bomb-disposal truck. We were in a mission in the game's Security campaign. In theory, we were trying to get rid of a dirty bomb, though Wedgwood said that gamers who play through Brink's rebel campaign will see from that side of the mission that the bomb is really vaccine.
At the start of the action I could select our character class and then plunge forth. If I knew what I was doing, I could just do it. Maybe as a soldier I'd run ahead of the rolling bomb robot and clear out the enemy. Maybe as a medic I'd hang back and heal. Or, as an engineer, maybe I'd try stick to the robot since I'd be capable of repairing damage it took. For any of these actions - for each shot fired that causes damage, for each downed ally healed, for each moment spent near the robot keeping it safe and so on - I'd gain experience points. Play Brink well and you are constantly gaining XP, which ticks up on the right side of the screen. The XP can be spent to unlock new items and abilities.
But what if you aren't sure what to do? What if the other team is more skilled than you and the people with whom you are playing - or just better communicators? Then, again, you might be me. If you were, you would pick your class (you can change it mid-mission at a terminal) and press up on the d-pad. With that press you'd see a big circle appear on the screen. That's the mission wheel. The wheel is chopped into sections, each representing a possible task for you. The longer arcs represent missions that generate more XP. The most valuable mission is coloured in yellow. The mission associated with whatever your first-person perspective is pointed toward is blue. The missions, Wedgwood convincingly explained, are dynamically generated based on your character class, your location and the needs of the overall mission at that moment. As a medic, I saw missions that involved healing certain characters who were in trouble, human or AI. I also saw missions to protect the truck and several others. There were always about five missions from which to choose.
How I played Brink: press up on the d-pad, get mission, execute, press up on the d-pad, get mission, execute, etc. (OK, with some dying in there; Splash Damage's current build of Brink is tough.)
As Wedgwood said, a skilled player could ignore the mission wheel. But the amateur like me can use it in order to be constantly useful to the team. One imagines that a team of players using the wheel for guidance could do great things.
I didn't feel like I was playing a game with training wheels. I felt like I was playing a game with the ability to have sharp awareness of my situation and my orders. I felt like a grunt fighting for a trusted commander who could read the battlefield, recognise my focus and tell me my best options of what to do. It was a rarity for me in team multiplayer games. I felt like a success.
Brink has more than one smart design element. The game supports drop-in co-op. Friends can jump in and help out but can't earn experience points if they quit early. (Players will gain extra XP by playing co-op and will be split into tiered matches online, depending on character achievement.) Brink offers players lots of special abilities, all with trade-offs, Wedgwood said. For example the "sense of perspective" perk that puts the game in third-person while you are hacking a terminal but locks your movement as the trade-off. Some perks didn't sound like they have down-sides, like the one the causes the screen to flash yellow if an enemy targets you or the one that lets you toss and then shoot grenades.
Wedgwood's career focus has been team-based combat games. I'm gratified he and Splash Damage have recognised both what is fun about them and what keeps players like me out. They've wrapped their clever mission system into a game that has a slick, modern aesthetic drawn in the greys and blues of modern machinery moreso than the browns and oranges of rust and dirt.
It is exciting to see a game that is this progressive. I'm eager for 2011 when I can finally play Brink on my own console but, happily, not have to play it on my own.