Monday, November 2, 2009

Borderlands

This game is great. So great, in fact, that I've had almost no desire to do anything else but play it for the past couple weeks. This is the kind of obsession that only Half Life 2, Ocarina of Time, and Diablo 2 have rivaled. Obviously the similarities to Diablo are worth noting, as Borderlands was designed with Diablo as a (or the) chief influence.


If you're not already aware, all 2 of you, Borderlands is a first-person shooter like Call of Duty or Halo, except for it's also a cooperative RPG like Diablo, complete with hit-points, leveling up, and collecting loot. Loot comes in the form of weapons, energy shields, ammo, grenades, and money... used to buy new weapons, shields, etc.

This is all golden, which is to say it's solid, well done, and a ton of fun. The way this game and games like it stay fresh and are so addictive are:

a. The gameplay is tight and fun to play. Controls work great, level design is generally pretty good and interesting, and the game is further evidence of why first-person-shooters are so popular...shooting things is fundamentally satisfying.

Especially when they explode.

b. It's multiplayer. The game is able to be played with up to four players online or over system-link... even two-players can play split-screen, albeit offline.

c. Your character is customizable. Like any good RPG, you can choose how your character progresses as he/she levels up. You can select abilities that cater to your favored play style, whether you want to just pump up your critical hit power to dish out 5000+ damage per headshot, or act as tank, maxing out your damage taking ability while still inflicting major carnage with a shotgun or whatnot. This makes the game highly replayable and greatly enriches the multiplayer aspect.

d. Loot. Going along with customization, there are so many different weapons, each with their own stats, special functions and aesthetics, it's rare you see the exact same one appear twice. While you may not end up using 1% of the weapons you find, that makes finding that unique awesome exploding shell sniper rifle all the more fulfilling.

e. Oh, and it looks good too.


So what don't I like about the game? As a matter of fact, I have a number of gripes with Borderlands. Mostly my disappointments with the game are my own fault. In my mind I had built up unrealistic expectations of the game, which I should have known wouldn't be realized exactly as I had imagined and hoped...especially years before the game was released.

You see, I saw this magazine on a shelf about two years ago.


I was intrigued, so I picked it up and read this cover story, which seemed to described a game with a procedurally created open world. I imagined the city called New Haven perched on the edge of a vast desert wasteland stretching as far as the eye could see. Venturing out into the wilderness in a vehicle, bandits in their dune buggies would unexpectedly attack from distant encampments, requiring you to fight them off as you cruise. You might come across a canyon infested with baddies where you'd get out of your vehicle and fight your way up to some loot, maybe discover an item that begins a quest, leading you out on another adventure across the landscape.

The screenshots portrayed something along these lines. Didn't they?




So now that the game has gone through two more years of development and undergone a complete graphical makeover...most of those early expectations seem to have been lost by the wayside. I was saddened by the fact that the game wasn't an open world game, but a rather linear series of zones enclosed on all sides by walls, both visible and invisible. The lay of the land isn't procedurally created as was originally intended. The different areas of the game (or should I say different canyons) are always the same layout, same enemies, same everything. The only things that are random are the items you find.

Did you see that one screenshot up there with the bug just about tipping that buggy over? There isn't anything even remotely like that in the game! You as much as nick a bug and they explode in a shower of blue goo and hit point values.

Notice those interesting crags off in the distance there in the last shot? Far off canyonlands, maybe a structure fading into the haze? In the real game, you'll never be able to go there. Even try, and some random inexplicably placed turret gun will blast the hell out of you. Sometimes there's a drop off at the edge of the map, indicating maybe you'd just die from the fall...you're not even allowed to do that! Before you even reach the edge, BLAM! you're toasted by rockets from every angle!

You may have also noticed that the scenes on the salt flats are shot from a fairly low angle, the horizon is often blurry or just obscured by dust. I foolishly imagined that stuff was probably just obscuring distance beyond the action portrayed in the screenshot. I was wrong, of course, the dust is just obscuring the fact that the zone ends ten feet behind the action. Probably some effing turrets ready to shoot your head off.

But the screenshot that really made me tingle with excitement and glee was this one:


Woooah, crap, that's pretty awesome! I understood this thing was supposed to be like a big pirate ship in a sea of sand and salt. Assaulting it meant driving your way to its base, shooting your way through enemy vehicles, hopping some platforms or something and boarding the colossus while it lumbers through the flats.

Imagine my disappointment when not only do I find the "salt flats" is just a name for a slightly larger zone than the rest, but that massive rolling crane machine is now unmoving, just sitting there. Bandits have even built up a little camp around it...not very exciting, even if it does look pretty cool...

Now my complaining isn't simply that Gearbox, the developer of Borderlands, gave us bullshots that don't accurately portray their game, but that there was so much potential that went untapped. Obviously there were internal discussions that went on among designers, programmers, artists, and animators about every one of these points and logical/technical/budgetary reasons why they didn't include them in the final game. They're an experienced development company that spent countless hours working on this game, trying to make it the best it can be to please worthless whiners like myself.

I am just bummed that they had to play it so safe, make the game so claustrophobic, and trim so much creativity out of the experience. It's a real shame.

Did I mention that I really, really enjoy this game?

Two thumbs up.