It took about eight hours before Brink finally clicked for me. I'd levelled up, grabbed caltrops as a special secondary power and disguised myself as an enemy. Free-running, I was leaping from boxes to banisters and jumping off walls, doing so just for the pleasure of the movement, and heading to my objective: stop the Resistance stealing hydraulic fluid.
I was playing on the Security side, Operative class - hacker, disguiser, all-round jerk. Players tend not to spy-check in Brink, so when I arrived at the hydraulic fluid store cupboard, the Resistance didn't take any notice. Tee-hee! They were being pinned back by the rest of my team and focusing their attentions on the amassing forces. At least four of them were crammed in there. Their Engineer had dropped a turret inside. It was a stupid place to put it: it wasn't covering the entrance, but was pointing at his own team.
I reprogrammed the turret, and in doing so dropped my disguise, but surprise goes hand-in-hand with a sodding great turret. I tossed the caltrops to add to their misery, and the four foes in the room were ripped apart, all dropping to the ground and begging to be put down (which is actually an option). Now, to get to the fluid, they had to make it past me, their own reprogrammed turret and my shrapnel.
Breaking the stranglehold on the room let the rest of my team set up around it. We coordinated: the Heavy Soldiers took the sides, a Medic flitted between everyone, Engineers set up more turrets and another Operative set about harassing the Resistance. We held them off, and not even a brutal assault at the final tick of the clock unseated us. We owned that space.
It was my first great moment in Brink, but it took some time for the game to open up enough to let it happen. The first few hours of the mostly online, team-based shooter were filled with a series of scrappy battles. I don't think that was because they've made a complicated shooter; more that the game's disparate parts take a while to get used to when all you want is to go shooty-bang-bang.
Those disparate parts? The same levels for singleplayer, multiplayer and co-op. A generous XP system. Multiple objectives that depend on character class. Different body types that affect the game's free-running movement system. It's more than most games would be willing to throw into a pacey online shooter.
When you create a character, you're given a choice: 'Save the Ark?' or 'Escape the Ark?' Your answer leads to the Security or Resistance sides, respectively. The two teams are fighting over the giant, floating city you live in - the Ark. This leads to asymmetrical objectives. It's an interesting story, slickly told. Nobody is right, and motivations are selfish, but each side has fair points. How you handle that is up to you.
In Brink, the singleplayer is the same as the co-op and multiplayer (there are bots that populate maps clearly made for multiplayer). Even so, the only encouragement for playing offline is in the challenge maps, and only because it's there that you unlock weapons and costumes. The bots are alright, but there's no substitute for online play.
There are no faction-specific classes or weapons, but the character creation doles out various clothing options, and the objectives are different for each team when you hit the servers. I spent most of my time as a Security Operative, but dabbled with the rest of the casts: Soldier, Engineer and Medic, alternating between sides online. Aside from the usual hairdos and bandanas, you also select a body type in the character creator. This has implications for your overall movement. New characters are locked into the Medium body until you level up. You have access to most but not all of the weapons, and have a better range of movement than a Heavy (who gets all the weapons), but not as much as a Light. The idea is that you discover Brink's level-design diversity slowly, locking the 'SMART' free-running system until you've experienced a few games. It's a shame that it takes a few hours of having your wings clipped before you're given full reign, because SMART is Brink's most successful innovation.
You have the normal range of movement you'd expect from an FPS, but holding down the SMART button, or simply jumping or ducking at the right moments, adds mantling, wall-running and sliding. It's wonderfully fulfilling when you're sprinting alongside a group of other players, watching them peel off and run right at walls, leaping up to grasp ledges and then pull up and over. A sprinting group of gun-wielding acrobats, Medics and Engineers buffing everyone as they sprint to the objectives.
It also has a purpose: you use SMART to flank or hunt higher ground. It encourages some incredible moment-to-moment gunplay as you race along, spraying bullets into enemies and fleeing them by sliding through broken doorways. Even purposeless running is a joy. You find yourself steering for things to skip over or slide under, just for the fun of it. And without any fall damage, you can make dramatic entrances, leaping over barriers into enemy-packed warehouses. Sure you'll die, but what a death.
Body type is divorced from the character class limits, so you can be a Light, Medium or Heavy anything. Where the classes can be altered on-the-fly in the game (adjusting to your objective is a key principle), you have to quit to tweak your body type in the character creation screen. You also spend your XP points offline. Brink is generous: just joining a server for a few seconds before the end of a match earned me points for the next level. You have both general and class-specific unlocks.
It wasn't until I'd bagged the caltrops for the Operative that I felt there were some tactics to my approach, rather than just launching at the enemy from the level above, using the element of surprise to bring shock and awe to their dumb, gaping faces. Now I could lace entrances with spiny bits of shrapnel. When you do overwhelm someone, they don't die right away. They lie there in a state of suspension, waiting to resurrect or for a Medic. You can finish them off or surround them with caltrops and injure any Medic that comes to heal them. The game tells you where every bit of XP comes from, so lining a space with caltrops is a good way of knowing when an enemy is approaching.
The slick UI presents a lot of information well (when you select an objective, the camera spins to show you where it is). Yet the levels and objective placements are Brink's biggest letdown. Neither mesh that well with the free-running. They're tight, with more corridors than you'd expect in a game that encourages expressive acrobatics.
The completion countdown timers seemed surprisingly generous. It's because you spend a lot of time in stalemates, trying to force through chokepoints. Some are doorways, but others require the right class to hack a door or repair a crane. If you're not all crammed into a small space, fighting it out for ten minutes, you're on one of the escort missions that pepper Brink with annoying regularity. It's not that it's not possible to have fun, it's just that, for a game built for the joy of sprinting and leaping, the objectives are either slow or made for standoffs. Even the secondary, quickly capped tasks tend to take away from the main ones, making progress sluggish.
Brink is tuned to work under a particular set of circumstances, and these come along a bit too irregularly in public play. As in Enemy Territory, you need a team working together to make things special. I don't have a problem with that, but it's definitely a niche game draped in AAA clothing, where you don't just join up and do your own thing. You need to know the levels, understand that objectives need certain classes (there, Brink fails to be forceful enough) and be willing to muck in when required. I like it, but it's not for everyone.