Saturday, May 21, 2011

Happy Birthday

Just a quick note: as of the 20th of May, Three's a Game has reached it's first birthday (yeah, that was a failed attempt at a pun).

I know TAG's going through a rough patch at the moment, but nonetheless thanks for all (eight) of you who've stuck with it for the last year. I'm trying to work on something special for such an event, which I hoped to get finished by the 20th (seems I'm a day late...)

So to anyone out there still reading; what have your experiences with TAG been like? Have you stuck with it from the beginning? Were you there to see me draw a comic or two? Did you just find this webpage and wanted to say how shoddy the drawings are? Leave a comment and let your fellow readers know.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mind on the Brink

You tend to get ignored by your fellow team members...

Having eagerly pre-ordered my Steelbook Edition of Brink last week, I was expecting big things from Splash Damage’s new take on the FPS genre. The promise of extensive character customisation, the blurring of single- and multiplayer gameplay, and the integration of the new SMART system had me hooked the moment I first discovered the game’s existence about two months back. And while yes, Brink has achieved these three expectations, overall the game has, sadly, been somewhat of a disappointment.

Before I go on, I need to reinforce that, having no Xbox Live connection for a while now, I haven’t had a chance to play any of Brink’s online multiplayer, and thus I cannot compare single- and multiplayer experiences

Brink’s story takes place in the near-future (give or take 50 years) in a semi-futuristic city called “The Ark” which, thanks to its floating superstructure and self-sustainability, has survived the catastrophic flooding caused by the onset of global warming. Refugees from the rest of the now submerged world have fled to the safety of The Ark-originally built to house only 5000 inhabitants, now serving home to ten times that amount. Now decades later, The Ark has become divided between two opposing factions; a brotherhood of The Ark’s poorer residents known as The Resistance, and The Ark’s Security force attempting to keep the peace and restore order to the city. One of the things I was immediately attracted to was the lack of a defined “good” and “bad” side, as both factions have justifiable motivations-one group trying to escape what they believe to be a harsh and oppressive Security force, the other trying to save a crumbling society from internecine warfare.

Unfortunately, the game’s brief cinematics hardly develops what could otherwise be an intriguing story for either side. Lasting about 30 seconds each, these seem to act more as a stall while the match loads than any kind of story progression. Characters briefly describe the backdrop of each mission-usually one character questioning his orders whilst another debates with him before the team leader rallies them to complete their task-but these moments don’t add much to the bland, basic storyline; in the simplest terms possible, the Resistance are trying to get a plane, and the Security are trying to stop them from destroying The Ark in the process. The only real opportunity for character or back-story development is the game’s multitude of audio logs, usually unlocked every time a mission is completed, but there’s hardly any incentive or challenge in collecting these and are easily forgotten about.

Though the game has two campaigns, one for each warring faction, both storylines consist of the same eight missions and maps-where one faction attempts to complete a series of 3-5 primary objectives, while the other attempts to stop them-and usually consists of a combination of only a handful of basic tasks; either a Soldier class must destroy an obstacle, an Engineer needs to crack open a safe, a Medic/Engineer must escort a VIP/robot, an Operative has to hack a mainframe computer/doorway, or else a player (of any class) needs to deliver an object to a set location. Each mission also has a handful of Secondary Objectives that can be completed to make the mission easier (capturing Command Posts and creating/demolishing shortcuts), these are still divided into the exact same objective archetypes. The result is a surprisingly repetitive experience that, once you’ve played through a handful of missions, becomes tiresome.

The unlockable customisation options for either your Resistance or Security character provides some reason to continue trudging through the game. Levelling up your character, which can be achieved playing either single- or multiplayer modes and carries over in-between, provides new aesthetic features (each with a varied set of colours and designs) and gameplay abilities that appear both in gameplay and story cinematics-however, you only ever appear as a silent minor character who stands to the side whilst your remaining team discuss the upcoming mission, having almost no interaction with them during. Additionally, completing the game’s four Challenge missions-each with three successive levels of difficulty-unlocks new attachments for your weapon, (up to three-four at a time, such as muzzle, scope, magazine and underslung pieces), increasing/decreasing various statistics such as damage, accuracy, clip size and equip speed.

One of the game’s saving graces is found in its amazing SMART system (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) and emphasis on parkour elements borrowed from Mirror’s Edge. By simply holding down the game’s Sprint button (Left Bumper on an Xbox controller, though the control scheme can be modified extensively in the options menu), your character calculates the best way to move across a given surface, achieved through vaulting, sliding under, climbing and/or wall-jumping off of almost any kind of obstacle you encounter. Your character’s ability to move through these environments (as well as what weapons you’ll be able to equip) depends on your selected body type (heavy characters, though having the largest HP, are slow and can only vault and slide, whereas light characters have the most freedom of movement despite their comparatively low health), requiring players to make careful choices about their character.

Brink’s missions require strong team work to survive and are otherwise impossible without helping and being helped by your fellow teammates. It doesn’t take much to get incapacitated, and running off on your own will almost always result in getting shot down and isolated, so sticking together with your team is usually the best option. To further emphasise teamwork, four interchangeable classes are available, each with abilities that assist your teammates (which you can also use on yourself as needed) -Soldiers restock ammunition for teammates, Medics revive and heal the wounded/incapacitated, Engineers buff allies’ weapons, provide defensive devices (land mines and turrets) and can build/repair devices, and Operatives disguise as the enemy and can run reconnaissance for your team), and players can also purchase additional abilities for each class to further assist their comrades in gameplay. Usually one of these classes is required to complete the mission’s Primary Objective, and multiple players of the same class can speed up the process by joining in on hacks and repairs. Sometimes your fellow bot players display remarkable intelligence on-par with human players; Engineers have a remarkable knowledge of where best to place turrets and mines, and Medics know exactly which incapacitated players to prioritise in order to complete the mission. At times, those same AI can suddenly lose that very same capability-too often a bot player will stall at a Primary Objective, and enemy players can be caught-out doing the same thing when face-to-face with you.

One disappointing side note is that the game has no local play support-both my roommate Mitchell and I purchased individual copies of Brink with the hope of playing System Link matches with each other, only to find no functionality to do so. While I can understand the lack of Split-screen support (a lot of information needs to be displayed on your HUD, and split-screen would undoubtedly lead to a cluttered and illegible display), our inability to play and other kind of Local play is disappointing considering how much emphasis Brink has on multiplayer.

The game’s art style is one of Brink’s most defining and unique features. A hybrid of realism and cartoonism, Brink’s characters have realistic faces and movements, which are further exaggerated by cartoonish features (large noses, chins, body proportions, etc.), defining Brink in a sea of modern video games attempting to create ever-increasing realistic qualities. Brink’s environments are at times breathtaking and beautiful (I especially love Container City for its skybox and neon-lights in a rusted, favela-like township), but some of its smaller components (such as posters, graffiti, hack boxes) suffer from pixilation and slow texture-loading, though players will probably overlook some of these graphical issues during a firefight or whilst rushing to an objective. Most of the skyboxes appear murky as if painted with spilt ink, though this may be a deliberate choice by the artists to compliment the cartoon-like style rather than a graphical issue.

Like the game’s graphics, Brink’s sound has both moments of amazing and disappointing; gunfire, music and dialogue certainly sounds great (gunfire is loud and satisfying, there’s amazing variety of character accents and nationalities even if some cinematic dialogue is lost in the thickest of accents, and in-game radio chatter and messages have surprising clarity), but explosives tend to be lacking; though your character will be briefly deafened by a nearby explosion, it’s hard not to notice the lack of sound associated with the detonation of a grenade or Molotov.

Initially, the game has some level of replay value-the desire to level up and progress, collect audio logs and the ability to save and use up to 10 separate character profiles can keep you going for a short while, but once the short campaigns and repetitive mission structure sets in, character progression almost becomes a chore. Since there are only a maximum of 20 levels for your character, it only takes a matter of days to level up any one character-even if you stick with it long enough to get that far. Though the game is built with replayability in mind, the overall gameplay and character progression is far too lacking to provide interest for any more than a couple of days.

Brink had an admirable goal-to create a game that wasn’t divided by single- and multiplayer restraints. A single-player game of Brink certainly plays the very same as a multiplayer game, but a lack of variety in mission types and maps detracts from this experience, and character customisation and progression simply isn’t enough to provide lasting appeal to the game. Brink’s SMART movement mechanics and art style definitely stand out in the increasingly monotonous FPS genre, but even these new innovations cannot give the game much of a lasting appeal. I sadly cannot see myself playing Brink for any more than a week or two at the very most.

The Verdict (individual scores are marked out of 2, and added into a Final Rating)

Story: 1.0
Gameplay: 1.0
Visuals: 1.5
Sound: 1.5
Replay value: 1.0

Final Rating: 6/10

So yeah...that's my review of Brink. Comment and let me know what you think.