Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 is a fun game. It certainly isn't without its flaws, but when you play with a friend or two it's a good time.

My friend David Howe and I have been rolling through the wastes, fighting off insane psychopaths. Our weapons are scavenged from the dead, and often. Time after time we throw ourselves against bands of monsters and marauders, relentlessly surging forward, relentlessly shooting. Occasionally the carnage pauses and we find ourselves surrounded by a beautiful landscape. Then somebody screams in our ears and the bullets start flying again.

The core experience of this game, that which I've described above, is satisfying. It's 2012's version of Doom, with a friend along for the ride. See bad guys, shoot bad guys, simple as that. (Halo also has a strong influence on Borderlands 2, as evidenced by the warthog control scheme for vehicles, wide-open terrain, and floaty player jump.) Yet underneath the veneer of a classic twitch FPS, Borderlands 2's skeleton is that of an ARPG, a loot and leveling system that is too often an interruption.

At its best, Borderlands 2 is a bullet-fest that utilizes teamwork to get stuff done. At its worst, it's an inventory management game in which you compare lots of different numbers for lots of different guns. The phrase "Diablo with guns" orbits the hype of this series primarily because of the similar ARPG elements, though the comparison is flimsy when you compare the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Here are the things Diablo and Borderlands have in common:
  • Exploration
  • Character leveling and class-specific traits
  • Loot
We know where all that stuff bottoms out: the combat. The verbs you take in combat in these games could not be more different. In Diablo, a top-down game, the UI and RPG mechanics mediate all the action. You don't control your character so much as you tell it what to do and where to go. The skill and fun aren't found in the movement of the character, but in a dance of stats and effects and rolls. Borderlands, however, is a first person shooter.

Here are the verbs I find myself taking in combat in this game:
  • Aim, shoot, reload
  • Sprint (often to cover)
  • Throw grenade
  • Use class skill (throw down turret, activate hologram, suspend somebody in mid-air, go berserk)
  • Revive squad-mate  
Aside from the class skills (which I'll get to in a second), these verbs are standard fare in modern first person shooters. We know how they work and what to expect from them. For the most part Borderlands 2 meets these expectations, though every once in a while the game's ARPG mechanics supersede them. For example, unless you have a sniper rifle, head-shots are not usually one-hit kills. Where in Halo a head-shot bears a small explosion of purple goo (as grunt heads pop like rotten cherries), Borderlands 2 offers flashy non-diegetic numbers and "CRITICAL"s.

When I'm playing alone, or with somebody the same level as me, I hardly notice these things. Trying to play with somebody of a different level, however, highlights the game's insecurities.

Steam says I have six friends that play Borderlands 2. We all play the game for different amounts of time, some more than others. Because of the game's RPG mechanics, that time discrepancy means we're all at different levels (literal levels, with numbers, not abstract skill levels). As it turns out, the level you're on determines how much health the enemies have. Playing with friends of a higher level than you immediately turns every enemy into a bullet sponge. The floating damage numbers, so friendly before, begin to laugh at and spite you.

Loot provides only the illusion of depth in Borderlands 2. I honestly don't remember what the appeal of loot is in Diablo, but I know that here it's merely a nuisance. Guns have approximately six different stats that boil down to "how much damage per second does it do?" and "how often do I have to reload?" Unfortunately the facts aren't presented so concisely, and in-game action is punctuated by sometimes lengthy bouts of inventory management.

To me, loot seems to serve two basic functions. One: to randomize some aspects of your character progression. Two: to exploit consumerism in order to keep people interested. Roguelike games like Binding of Isaac and FTL: Faster Than Light utilize the first function well, while Diablo III dropped all pretense and attached money to in-game objects to fully utilize the second function. Loot in Borderlands 2 does neither of these things well. A steady stream of guns pass through your inventory, a hodge-podge of effects and stats, each as forgettable as the last. All I ever want to know is "does it shoot? Does it shoot a lot? Then we're good to go." It takes far too long to answer that question in this game, and the payoff for the time spent is hard to measure (or even see).

I heard once that RPGs are a way to get people who aren't good at video games to play them. They require very little of the reflex needed to play action games. If you die, the idea goes, just keep playing. You may not get better, but your character will. This idea is essentially true for Borderlands 2. Spawn points are located close to the action, so if you die you're never out of the battle for long (and the enemies don't reset). As long as you just keep shooting, the game will become easier and you'll eventually make it through.

Borderlands 2 lacks both depth and challenge. Despite that, the core experience can be satisfying. Sometimes, you just want to roll around in a jeep shooting monsters and bad guys with your friends. Pandora does more than enough to accommodate this wish, with beautiful open environments that I feel privileged to litter with bullets.

I feel it's important to mention the tone here, as it assaults you at every opportunity. The writing in this game is sophomoric, pandering, and cheesy. There are plenty of pop-culture references, which don't appear with any rhyme or reason aside from cheap humor. In keeping with the game's vulgar intertextuality, references to internet culture abound. Somewhere in Pandora there's a porta-potty adorned with a sign that says "no fapping."