By RPS on October 20th, 2009 at 9:47 am.
We’ve played Gearbox’s fancy-lookin’ “role-playing shooter”, Borderlands, and we’re ready for a verdict. What will we have to say?
Jim: Who wants to try to define the game in a single sentence then, eh?
Kieron: Hellgate in a desert, but not shit.
Alec: There’s some sort definition involving the words “Diablo” and “guns”, but I can’t work out how to stick them together.
Jim: Diablo with first-person perspectives, with guns, with vehicles. And bloody. And co-opy. Actually I think WoW is a more appropriate point of reference.
Jim: I mean Diablo is the root of the tree, but so much of it feels like the starting areas of an MMO. And it’s 3D, obviously. It’s almost how I’d imagine a MMOFPS actually working, were such things made by men.
Alec: Absolutely. Even down to the starting area being a bit nob.
John: I’d start with Far Cry 2, as it happens.
Jim: John: speak of Far Cry 2.
John: “Imagine if Far Cry 2 were fun.” That would be my pitch.
Jim: Cruel. I liked Far Cry 2. But Borderlands is more fun. A lot more fun.
Alec: Sir, you speak of the impossible
John: It’s a wide open sprawling shooter where you gather many guns and shoot many men, who respawn and the like. Except with an inventory, quest variety, and funny robots.
Jim: An inventory would have made all the difference to Far Cry 2, wouldn’t it?
Kieron: Where it differs from Far Cry is that what drives the game is the character development and the loot collection. That’s a fundamental difference. I’m not even reading the quest logs in Borderlands. (Which is one way it is WoW like.)
Alec: Yeah, it adds purpose, even if it’s the most basic of gaming purpose – MMO-style, as you say.
Jim: Yeah, I’ve had to read logs a bit more in the later game, because it becomes so sprawling.
Kieron: That’s why I say it’s not really like Far Cry at all – the core of the game, why you’re doing it is Hellgate (i.e. Diablo Re-jigged as an FPS).
Jim: Structurally, in terms how how you move around from place to place, it’s rather like Stalker, in that you do a back and forth to hubs from various “dungeon” areas. That said, it’s nothing like Stalker to play, so perhaps I am being irrelevant.
Alec: I’m going to be ever so bold and say it’s more like Diablo than anything else. Even down to how you grind away at things you can’t quite do until you reach their level, then progress, with no real fear of death to prevent you doing so.
Jim: And it’s more fun co-op
Alec: Yes, the co-op/single-player distinction is important. It’s certainly compulsive played solo, but I didn’t catch myself ever thinking “gosh, this is fun” unless in a group.
Jim: I had a few hours where it really made sense solo, but the repetition of the baddies basically ended that.
Kieron: John differs on this, doesn’t he? (I also find it interesting that we’re doing a spectacularly bad job at explaining the game, which is probably to Borderlands’ credit.)
John: Yes, I have the opposite-o-pinion. But this might be because I’m a sociopath.
Alec: I’m looking forward to hearing this…
John: I far prefer soloing, and for all the reasons I’ve always given before. I hate being beholden or dependent upon another player. It ceases to be playing, and starts to be obligations. I thought this game might be different for me, but it is not.
Jim: Kieron, you mentioned that co-op creates an uncomfortable pace too?
Kieron: Yeah. But, like John’s, it’s a standard problem with co-op games rather than a specific one with Borderlands. It’s that if you want to sit and have a think about your build or selling shit, you can’t. You’re slowing the game down for everyone else. I do actually think Borderlands has specific co-op problems worth talking about.
Jim: Yes, it’s an important topic, because this is not co-op like Left 4 Dead, despite the FPS pace through combat. This is much more sprawling, with varied pace and objectives. I mean just contrast the battles inside punk bases to the racing around in vehicles – it’s quite a spectrum of co-op explosioneering.
John: Yeah – I hate that sorting through the 900000 bits of loot I just picked up becomes something I feel guilty about.
Alec: I agree there – perhaps it needs to increase your inventory size during co-op.
Kieron: Yes. At its best, it’s Gauntlet – everyone on the same level-ish… but playing with a bit of a gap, finding an area which is actually okay for the lowest person can be trickier than it should be.
Jim: The lowest person does level fast though.
Kieron: Yeah, totally, but only when you go to an area where it’s vaguely working. At other times, no-one’s killing anything and we’re basically sitting and waiting and trying to work out what we can actually do.
Alec: There is a slight afterthought vibe to the co-op. It’s essentially functional, but even down to things like how quests are shared (i.e. it doesn’t signify if any players have any quests in common, and there’s no way to give any to others apart from the host choosing a specific mission and thus forcing its objectives into the interface of others – who, while they’ll get XP, won’t receive any of the loot rewards once it’s completed) it doesn’t seem like it wants you to play much of the game in that mode.
John: There are walls. Kieron and I were playing, me level 20, him 16, and there was nothing we could do.
Kieron: John – that’s what I mean by “finding an area”. There were places we could go and play… but not there.
John: Well, we could play. But there were no quests available for us.
Kieron: Totally. You have to ignore the quests and go and kill baddies in an appropriate area.
Jim: Yes, it becomes grind that that point just killing dudes to level the lower person. We did that from 1-15 with KG’s Brick. But the level structure is weird anyway: it’s a freakin’ an FPS with levels! That alone is kind of bizarre to me. Usually i hate that approach, but it seems to work almost by force of personality here.
Kieron: Elaborate on that, Jim? I think I agree.
Jim: The force of personality thing: the game feels right as a shooter. The guns are meaty, the explosions boomy and that bads die in a satisfying way.
Kieron: That’s it’s strength.
John: Yes – we’re in danger of sounding negative by complaining about co-op problems before we’ve all said why it’s such a fun game.
Jim: It’s a healthy action game.
Alec: I still find the shooting feels a little light.
Kieron: It feels arcadey more than light to me.
Alec: It’s a spectacular light show, but there’s something very intangible about the enemies – but the sound and fury of it all is rarely less than joyous.
Jim: Really? the enemies seem to get smacked about by the bullets at least. It doesn’t err on “fall over dead”.
Alec: They seem fairly non-reactive until death, and even then you usually don’t see it because a) the screen’s covered in particle effects and b) it’s busy spawning half a dozen guys on top of you so you can’t hang around.
Jim: All the enemies have knock-back routines from the guns, especially the midgets.
John: I only experienced it over-spawning once. Most of the time it managed that well.
Jim: Actually I think there’s a difference between the fundamental characters in how you experience the combat. Mordecai’s sniping regularly gives you incredible BIFF weapons where you can take someone out in a single shot.
Kieron: We really sound like we hate this game considering we all love it.
Alec: I think it’s more a matter of circling, unsure how to define why we like it
Jim: It’s genuinely entertaining, isn’t it?
Alec: Yeah, it makes that MMO/Diablo compulsion absolutely a virtue, in that you’re rewarded with something that has a visible and tactile rather than purely statistical improvement.
Jim: Which is a neat trick in itself, given that we’d all said how we were fed up with that stuff. It’s like the linear shooter – everyone says they’ve had enough, and then you get a Modern Warfare. In this case it’s a good shooter that does something else clever.
John: It’s a good shooter. That’s really significant. Name the last good shooter. It’s utterly beautiful to look at, you get stupidly powerful guns and after a few hours essentially infinite ammo, and you can just have a mad amount of fun running around shooting stuff.
Alec: Doom 2.
Jim: Kieron: Why is it a good shooter? I mean don’t you tire of shooters, traditionally?
Kieron: I do. In this case… well, one reason why it works as a shooter is that Gearbox have shooting experience. It’s why Hellgate failed on a fundamental level – it felt wrong, because when you go first person and/or direct control rather than indirect control, everything changes. Gearbox knew that, and levered all their experience with the genre into making it work. Hell, even look at the vehicles – it wouldn’t surprise me if they were repurposed code which they had lying around from the Halo PC Conversion. This is them putting all that experience they’ve got into a game which is actually still something of a new idea.
Jim: It’s very Halo in it’s combat dynamic – I mean the shield is Halo-like, but it has its own thing going on – it ends up being as important as any of the guns. The shield was something I didn’t expect or even consider really.
Kieron: Yeah, totally.
John: We should each explain our class.
Jim: I’m playing Mordecai, the hunter, and his special power is a falcon-thing, a “bloodwing” that does single hit damage to enemies. He can be specced for that, or for pistols or sniper rifles.
Alec: I’m Lillith, the Siren. I can turn invisible, but that’s more about layering on a bunch of damage over time effects than preserving my own hide. Though I only just found out that apparently I grow wings of flame at certain times. That’s something you don’t realise if you’re playing alone, you need someone to tell you.
John: I’m Roland (which Kieron thinks is the funniest thing ever) the Soldier. He gets a special shield that’s sort of like a buddy in a way. It’s a temporary stationary item that when leveled up can restore health and ammo to all nearby. And oddly he’s the healer class – you can level him so firing bullets at friends will heal them. Which is never better than when firing a rocket launcher at someone to make them better.
Kieron: Me! Brick. Enormous Heavy-esque thug who can be speced for explosive weapons, soaking up damage or just activating his frenzy power at increasing ludicrous frequency. During which, he puts down his weapons, gets out two fists and just starts punching PUNCHING! PUNCHING! while screaming all the while. It is very much my life.
Jim: As a follow-up point, I don’t think the classes are distinct or characterful enough. Brick is the only one I’ve really felt stands out, if just for the screaming.
Kieron: I don’t know about Mordecai, Jim, but I’d say Brick and Lilith have plenty of personality when they level up. Alec and I were just playing now, with level 20 characters, and she’s running around with wings of flame while I’m a masturbatory screaming monkey-beast. I think the missing thing is that we haven’t played 4-player co-op at Level 20+.
Alec: Yeah, it started making a lot more sense there. Punchy and Flamey ride again. Which almost makes me wonder if it’s best played with two rather than four – more direct feedback to each other.
Jim: My problem with Mordecai is the bird often gets stuck, or just doesn’t seem to hit anything.
John: I have preferred playing 2-player over 3 or 4, too.
Alec: There’s less “wait for me, oh god no time to look at my new toys” panic with two, too. There’s just more space to stop and admire how ridiculous/incredible the other player is.
Kieron: Four can be a bit overwhelming, I’ll admit.
John: We should stress that level 20 is only about six or eight hours play, right?
Jim: I think it’s more than that, if you actually logged it. I was trying to record my time, but lost track of it. I think it took close to 30hrs to level 35, with lots of sidequesting. The 100 hours thing quoted by Gearbox seems very optimistic though.
Alec: It depends, hugely. If you’re pretty skilled at FPS, you can stick close to the core quests and hit the big XP to level fast. Or you can amble away at subquests, getting vaster quantities of smaller XP. But it’s hard to do purely the main quests, as you can get spanked pretty quick.
Jim: I really think the game hits its stride from about level 20 onwards. And boss fights: they’re largely poor, aren’t they?
Alec: I wouldn’t call them poor, but they don’t really hit the heights of imagination they require to offset how annoying their mega-attacks and enormo-HP is.
Jim: And sidequests generally? The main quest line doesn’t give out enough XP to keep up with the curve… you pretty much have to do some sidequests every 3-4 levels.
John: I’m too meticulous with games to not play the side quests.
Alec: I did a big stretch where I stuck purely to late-teens core quests. Involved a few more respawns, but you can whittle away at them even whilst a couple of levels below. That said, my magic running away power probably makes Lilith a bit handier in that regard.
Jim: Random: I don’t think you can dismiss quests. I’ve got loads of low-level ones stuck in my list.
Alec: You’re right. There’s also a fairly finite number of quests in each zone, it seems, and they don’t seem to level with you. So you end up with vast areas you’ll never visit again clogging up the quest log.
Kieron: I think this is where Gearbox’s lack of RPG experience shows – just bits of RPG-standards we’d perhaps expect. The canceling quests – the lack of a storage box to keep extra loot, etc. Tiny bits of interface problems.
John: I think the interface problems are much bigger than tiny.
Jim: And none of the quests are very interesting, but the fireworks seem to make up for it. I don’t mind the robbing. I mean, the entire world is broken in that regard – everything is full of money, even the giant bats (which are awesome, incidentally).
Kieron: I do love the giant bats. The first time they swooped in was a heart-in-mouth moment.
Alec: Yeah, the pinata-shower of happy things when you take ‘em down
as they fly over is hugely gratifying.
Alec: And, as I’ve bored everyone with whining about, robbing people’s houses in front of them. It’s not so much that I mind as just not understanding why the level designers just didn’t say “hey, let’s not put two boxes of cash in this guy’s front room, as god knows there’s a thousand million other ones in the world.”
Jim: Oddly, in the main shop in Newhaven there’s loads of stuff lying about that non-interactable, like the beardface man is the only person you can’t rob from.
Kieron: The best thing about the cash boxes is that they respawn. So there’s the idea that he’s refilling the boxes with cash every time you walk out the door.
John: “I’m sure they won’t steal from me AGAIN.”
Jim: It’s not realistic in any way.
Kieron: But, really, didn’t bother me at all. It’s Diablo.
Jim: It’s not even aiming for “worldiness” despite being an interesting world.
Alec: Yes, it’s important to state its roleplaying begins and ends at loot and leveling.
Kieron: The NPCs are broadly drawn comedy dark future types. I didn’t take it seriously enough to worry about verisimilitude. Literally and figuratively.
Jim: In this case we can say bollocks to realism, it’s very much a cartoon in its attitude. Speaking of which: any thoughts on the “look”?
John: I adore the look.
Kieron: Fantastic, generally speaking.
Alec: It looks great, for sure. Reminds me most of XIII.
John: Has there ever been a game before when you’ve thought, “Wow, look at that ROCK!”
Jim: Ah yes, XIII – and there are loads of games with good rocks. Terrain is a gaming artform.
John: There’s something more artistic about the rotoscoping in Borderlands.
Alec: Borderlands doesn’t star Adam West, and that’s a shame. I would have to deduct at least 98% from any score for that reason.
John: You know that Gearbox are kicking themselves as they read this. “Dammit, I SAID there was something we were missing. Adam West!”
Jim: But they don’t detract from it being grim – headshots are grisly shit.
John: Exploding someone is awesomely disgusting.
Jim: Actually, there’s a bit later in the game, a sidequest, that is genuinely shocking. I won’t spoiler it, but you’ll know when you get to it.
Kieron: The violence is impressive. It’s actually one of the best violent games in recent times.
Alec: Brick on full face-crushing rampage is quite the thing
Jim: Although the people burning is weird, I like some of the elemental death effects, like the skull of people being electrocuted to death.
Alec: Genuinely psychopathic and graphic.
Kieron: As Alec said, when I punch a dude’s head off it’s a thing of joy, especially when it says CRITICAL! (Like, no shit)
Jim: Yeah, the little chuckle from Mordecai when someone’s head explodes is splendid.
Alec: By about level 20, Lilith is simultaneously setting someone on fire and electrocuting them, so I’ve added in a poison shotgun for good measure. It’s quite the thing, in terms of screaming and satisfying big, colourful numbers floating from mens’ heads.
Kieron: That’s a thing – I like Brick’s talking. I don’t like Roland’s.
John: I could really do without Brick’s laughter. We should mention how bad the voice chat is, and how stupendously stupid it is to have a character who literally SCREAMS for over 30 seconds at a time.
Kieron: Yeah – I suspect the Brick will annoy certain players by his mere existence. By which I mean – it is annoying and happens a lot. But John didn’t like Ode To Joy in Peggle, it’s worth stressing.
John: When it makes communication impossible, I’d say the issue is greater.
Jim: The issue with voice chat is that it doesn’t dip volume when someone is speaking, and there’s no push-to-talk option. That has to be patched, asap. [It can't currently be turned off in the menu, and we're chasing Gearbox about that now - RPS.]
Alec: Oh – did you three get a chance to try the arena at a higher level? Because when we tried it around level 10, it was massively imbalanced in favour of the Hunter’s insta-kill Hawk
Kieron: I’m not convinced it can be balanced, the way the builds work. I mean, when I had my frenzy available, I won. When I didn’t, Mordecai won. But I can’t believe it’s the main lure for the game.
Alec: And Lilith couldn’t win, because her magic-o-power only does trickle damage. But it’s possible there are subtler strategies there that we’d have to learn.
Kieron: Yeah. It’s not as if we delved… and why would we? There’s a world of loot out there.
Jim: Yeah, the arena seemed like very much a sideshow, especially cos you can duel in-game at any time. But: loot!
John: My favourite moment playing was when Kieron and I duelled when I was five levels above him. We were both laughing so much at how unfair it was, but it was genuine fun.
Kieron: That was amazing. My desperate punching at your head.
Alec: Most of the loot you won’t use, it’s important to state. You’re not constantly picking up something and doing a little happy dance while eighteen mutant dogs explode into tiny chunks. But every couple of levels you’ll find something that seems EXTREME for a little while.
Jim: I suspect i threw away some good shit by the end – there’s just so much stuff.
Kieron: Which links back to its lack of a box to keep your malarkies.
Jim: And it’s often really good shit. I really like the way weapons work – that the brand name of the weapon roughly corresponds to its stats.
Kieron: There’s some weapons which are so agreeably oddball, but totally useless by the end.
Jim: There’s an odd sadness to parting with a weapon – it was like the incredible giant blue hammer I had in WoW. I kept it long after it was no use.
John: Yeah. “Goodbye old friend. You served me well.”
Alec: I had a low-level revolver which grew bullets.
Jim: Grew bullets? I didn’t even know they did stuff like that. Although the weapon vending machine boasts that weapons can heal you, which I’ve never seen either.
Alec: I also had a shotgun that fired rockets.
Kieron: That – with the leveled weapons – is where the oddness of the level structure throws it. I mean, it’s the classic RPG problem – but seems odder in a game which doesn’t deal with the tropes. I mean, why don’t the high level bandits from this region invade the place where the low level ones live?
Jim: I should mention at some point in this verdict that the ending of the campaign is rubbish. It’s not so much the story – which is just so much fluff – but it’s a bad ending mechanically. Oh and Claptrap’s announcements get more and more insistent as you go along, it gets to be excruciating.
Alec: Does anyone care why we’re doing what we’re doing in this game? I can’t help but think of it purely as a sandbox, despite its sometimes overwrought attempts to really be a story game.
John: Nah, I stopped reading the quest text straight away. I don’t care why it’s happening. I just have fun. Please note: I don’t care about the story, and ignore it.
Kieron: It’s the game’s genius: It gives you a mechanistic excuse to have fun. FPS mechanics and fights are just more interesting – mechanically speaking – than trad MMO ones.
Alec: The story is the story of you and your guns. “Remember that bit when I had a shotgun that fired rockets?”
John: I must have my rant about the interface. For a game that boasts it understands that PC players use the mouse, and that it’s PC first, something went wrong. The game opens with “PRESS ENTER”. Mmm hmm? Then there’s so much that’s insane. You can only invite people with “i”, and you can only get out of the invite screen by pressing “ESC to cancel”. Comparing weapons can be started with the mouse, but only exited with the keyboard. And here 360 control icons appear in the inventory. You can’t click on the keyboard shortcuts to activate them. You cannot scroll through quest text when being given it without using Page Up and Page Down, despite there being a triangle button for the mouse… It’s not good.
Jim: Okay. The interface has botched itself between mouse and keyboard…
John: It’s not pretty. It’s like an all-encompassing tribute to the inability to close the VATS thing in FO3.
Alec: It’s certainly a mess, but I wonder if it’s just general RPG interface inexperience rather than specifically console-port-fail?
Jim: VERDICT! OPTIMUS THUMB STATUS?
Jim: The thumb is aloft.
Kieron: Yeah, up. UP +2 versus scarabs.
Alec: UP! But with a tiny wart on it.
John: Mine’s up, and regenerating your up thumbs.
Jim: OK, close post-ramble. We’ll post about port-forwarding and deleting the uncuttable intro skipscenes at some point too.
John: I’m going to see if my skill for shooting Kieron with a gun to make him better works outside of the game.
Jim: And I am going to throw my bird at some mutants.
Alec: I’m going to see if setting fire to myself makes me better at killing people in the street.
John: Kieron, you should give screaming and punching people a rest.