I knew I was going to have a hard time deciding whether Brink was any good. I still can't say it is.
I can't say it's bad yet, either.
I've played Brink for several days. It's a hard game for me to judge.
Others have judged it, of course. It's been given wildly divergent review scores. I've played the game through, completed both of its missions and felt confident about how the game works to create a 10-minute video to show you how it works.
But I still can't give you a straight answer if you ask me if the game is worth buying.
The first problem is only sort of a problem: I'm no expert about this kind of thing. Brink is a class-based first-person shooter, just like the wildly popular Team Fortress 2, which I last played on or close to the day Team Fortress 2 came out. I'm not at all the kind of player who's ready for an eight-on-eight battle, with each player utilising their class role to the utmost. We've got the Security, who are the police of this floating city called The Ark, against the Resistance, a ragtag group who just might be terrorists.
I had expected my liability, my unfamiliarity with team shooters, to be a plus. One of Brink's innovations is its dynamic mission wheel that, on the fly and in the middle of a heated mission, can show you which things a character of your class can do and which of those are most worth doing. So far, in matches I've played of the game with computer-controlled allies and with real people, that wheel has worked. It's taken the place of having an expert player sitting next to me on my couch, suggesting what I can do next.
The mission wheel has helped me target key objectives, like a safe that needs to be cracked or a pillar that needs to be blown up. It's also helped me figure out what best to do when I'm playing a support role. It's shown me that there are machine gun nests that need building or other characters who need guarding.
The developers of Brink might as well call the mission wheel the Training Wheel, because I suspect that, as I get better at Brink, I'll use it less. I don't need it when I switch mid-mission to playing as a medic, since I'm pretty good at sticking with other characters on my team and healing them - the wheel's directions toward the next wounded players are irrelevant. It's been a good back-up though, and it proved most handy when I played the game with strangers. Instead of chatting with them to sort out their needs I could check the wheel, an advantage considering that they weren't stopping to strategise. It was best for me to use the wheel so I could figure out how to save them from their gung-ho selves.
The second problem is that Brink feels like the second day of college right now. The game is brand-new and not exactly the experience I imagined it would be. It's also not the experience I expect it will be remembered for. The game marries singleplayer and online, essentially allowing any of its 16 campaign missions to be played solo, with seven computer-controlled allies against eight enemies, or with up to 15 other human beings. You can, as I did, leave your campaign settings open, which means you may wind up starting a mission with real people in it, or have real people tumble into your match. The presence of human players transforms the game, for better and worse.
Played alone, Brink is OK. The teammate artificial intelligence is weak, but the enemies aren't much smarter. You can be a hero and win most of the game's adventures on your own, relying on most of the bots in the game to kill each other while you do the work of hacking, or setting charges or whatever. I, for example, was the only player on my team of otherwise computer-controlled heroes, who was smart enough to put a turret at a choke-point of one map, preventing the enemy force from advancing. Human enemies would have figured out how to flank me; the computer enemies did not. Sometimes its your computer-controlled buddies who let you down. Other times, the disappointment is the enemy.
But who is to say that relying on artificial intelligence will be the typical Brink experience? Over the weekend, I played about half of the game's campaign with another games reporter. Our two real brains were too much of a match for the computer-controlled enemies on the tougher missions. We played differently than I had with computer-controlled allies. He'd guard me when I was hacking a computer in an airport. I'd keep healing him as we sprinted, him in the lead, toward an escape route. When we played with a third person, the experience was even better, except when our connections were lagging. Occasionally the game did choke, stuttering its frames and turning into an unplayable slideshow, though this problem didn't seem to correspond to the number of people who played. (It's also an issue that's supposedly set to be addressed by a patch, though you never know how those things will go.)
One time, last Sunday, I was playing the game by myself. At least, I thought I was playing by myself. I was in a tough mission that I'd yet to complete without a real person helping out. I was struggling for a while, when suddenly things started going my team's way. It took me a little longer to realise that two strangers had joined my game. Real people. Helping out.
I still haven't experienced Brink will a full crew of human players. I imagine the game will feel even more alien to the thing I played via my Xbox 360 this past weekend. Brink has been better when I've had people playing with me, but who is to say that putting people in every role will improve everything? This experience my turn again. I'm not a highly skilled class-based team shooter player, and I fear that a week from now, any improvement of the Brink experience that may be gained thanks to the presence of other gamers might be off-set by the punishing skill exercised by human players. I do fine in Brink right now, maybe thanks only to the limited artificial intelligence. A week from now, will I be dying from well-thrown grenades and compromised by so many disguised operatives that I'll be shelving this game alongside my copy of Team Fortress 2? Or will that training wheel save me again?
Should you buy Brink now? I'd wait. It's just now touching the oxygen of being played by gamers online. Let the chemical reactions take. Brink today is not the game Brink will be in a week; the game today may be better, it may be worse, but it's temporary. For now, I'll give you a shrug and tell you: I'm just not sure.