Splash Damage opus under the spotlight

When I reviewed Killzone 3 recently, I bemoaned its lack of inspiration. While it's clearly an experience that's been buffed to a gleaming sparkle, with perfect responsiveness and weight, excellent weapons and perhaps the best graphics I've ever seen, it lacked any kind of creative spark. While only a fool would claim Killzone 3 is bad, it nevertheless feels like game design by numbers.

I shouldn't single Killzone 3 out either, really. It's just a recent example. I did much the same in a recent Resistance preview. For me, with relatively few exceptions, the genre is treading stale creative waters. Something needs to change. From what I've seen so far, Brink is a huge jump in the right direction.

It's not that Splash Damage have plucked unique ideas out of thin air. It's more that they've gone back to the drawing board and, rather than repeating the mistakes of others, have started all over again in an utterly refreshing way. It may be overstating things, but some of Brink's tweaks are so fresh that you feel the FPS may never be the same again.

The most persuasive of these is Brink's much-vaunted approach to the campaign. Single-player, co-op and multi-player, online and offline, it breaks all of those boundaries down, creating a seamless whole that can react to changes of situation on the fly, with friends and enemies swapping out for AI controlled bots at a moment's notice. That's the promise anyway. If Splash Damage can pull it off convincingly, things may never be the same again.

Before we get stuck into the new bits and bobs showcased at the recent Bethesda event, I'll quickly re-cap the setup. Brink is set on the Ark, a floating city in the sea ripped apart by a civil war. There are two sides; the Security and the Resistance. While the Security are intent on keeping the walled-in, affluent portion of the Ark to themselves, the Resistance are fighting to escape the slums.

That means teams of up to four-players, constituting Soldiers, Medics, Engineers and Operatives (Spy-like sneakers), can choose sides and play across two distinct, yet overlapping campaigns. And, of course, there's all that business I mentioned earlier, the melding of online and offline into one seamless whole.

Our demo started with five minutes fiddling with the character customisation options. It wasn't nearly long enough. I'm not sure if I've ever encountered customisation with such depth before. Not on console anyway. This was the PS3 build.

There's a huge range of looks, hairstyles, clothes and tattoos that you can adorn your character with, alongside a massive amount of weapon customisation. But perhaps the most striking thing is that it all looks rather cool. How many games have you played where the choices were simply between clothing items that were all, frankly, a bit rubbish? Not here. I could have spent hours perfecting my look.

But it wasn't to be. All too soon, our time was up. There were faces to shoot.

First, we went through the Container City level, but I won't linger on that. It's been covered extensively. However, it was my first exposure to the revised SMART system, so that's worth mentioning. Whereas in previous demos SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) allowed you to vault, slide and nimbly navigate the environment by holding down a shoulder button, now it's a little different.

Now, your build factors into SMART's effectiveness. While you start as a chap with a medium build, with suitably mid-ranged SMART abilities, later levels allow you to unlock light and heavy builds. Light characters are sprightly, yet unable to carry the game's heavy weapons and have slightly reduced health. Burly types, meanwhile, have increased health, can carry dirty great big rocket launchers and such but are relatively immobile. SMART has little or no affect on them.

The new level I played was an escort mission, of sorts. Playing as the Resistance we had to rescue a prisoner from the rich side of the Ark, the bit controlled by Security, and get him out of there sharpish, and alive. Once we had bust him out of his cell, the prisoner limped and crawled slowly to safety, with our pitched battle raging around him.

Far from the rusty reds and worn browns of Container City, this particular level is relatively dull, visually. It's all grey buildings and straight lines, perspex, steel and concrete. Altogether sterile.

It's nicely designed, mind. Quite an open map, it nevertheless has some murderous chokepoints. Indeed, it's quite brilliantly designed. Get killed and you'll not face a long slog back to where the action is, nor will you be confined to one particular route. It's compact, yet quietly sprawling.

Did I mention the murderous choke points? It was particularly grizzly by the end. As the Security threw everything they had at us and the battle reached the top of a stairwell, it was a bloodbath. Again and again, we threw man after man at them, dying and respawning, dying and respawning. It seemed a little grind-y, making slow, incremental progress where before we'd been flying, relatively. Maybe I'm just bitter that we lost.

There are a couple of minor concerns at this stage. Playing as a Medic, when I attempted to buff the health of a team-mate I got unwillingly dragged off a ledge as my more nimble friend leapt to a higher platform. Offering aide results in being sucked, tractor beam-style, towards the person. Handy in most cases, but annoying in this instance. I didn't die, you can't fall off the map and you can always just let go of the button. But yeah, annoying.

I'm clutching at straws a little, in an attempt to offer a little bit of balance. Because the truth is, an FPS hasn't had me that intrigued for a long time. Perhaps it's timing, perhaps its design or maybe it's just the infectious energy of the development team. They know they're onto something good. Brink could be very special indeed.

E3 Trailer