I admit that it was very recent that I knew I wouldn’t be able to end this series without doing a general review. The entire Let’s Play has been a moment-by-moment perspective, nit picking the details without acknowledging how it all strings together. So I’d like to finish this Let’s Play with an over-all perspective, peppered like dandruff with “fun” facts about the Let’s Play.
So what better place to start hacking away at with the nearest object to hand (a mug in case you’re curious, I like challenges) than gameplay? Whenever I’d shake the game violently in the search for anything broken, like one does with a hard-drive (prior to it breaking anyway because you don’t violently shake electrical goods), the gameplay was always the part that rattled uncomfortably. Although to really show how uncomfortable it is, I think I’m have to do it piece by piece.
Roughly as uncomfortable as every interaction with Claptrap.
The first part in this awkward affair is its first-person shooting nature and how it is married by RPG. I’m still not particularly sure how the idea started, or if Borderlands even did kick off the idea of an even balance of shooting things and RPGs. What I can say is I believe it doesn’t entirely work. I think blending genres together ends in one of three outcomes:
It ends up greater than the sum of its parts. Just something about adding one thing to another compliments it enough that it creates its own new genre entirely. It may not appeal to either audience, but you can bet it’ll have its own audience. One example would be survival-horror, blending the horror sensation of mortal danger with the power-fantasy of action into a smoothie of murdering that which oppresses you until you get over-whelmed.
It fails to add anything new. It only manages to give a dull time to two sets of audiences rather than a good time to one. It’ll lack focus, has spread out resources and end up forgetting what sold a genre to its respective audience. Survival RPG is one example, blissfully ignoring how RPG mechanics are often a product of time and Survivalism is usually a short-lived exercise in the universe hating you.
They clash. Fortunately most games have avoided invoking this, but there are still a few who thought it was worth a punt and fumbled so hard as to make an interpretive dance of how to make a bad game. In the end, you’re just a witness to two genres fighting for attention. Probably best to leave turn-based action games alone, eh RONIN?
Borderlands’s attempt at combining FPS with RPG falls squarely and neatly into column 2. It has enough RPG elements to bog down the frothing-at-the-mouth twitchy FPS fans, and it has enough shooting to dissuade those wanting to manage the various spreadsheets as to power-game to victory. Instead, it never seems to provide much of interest from either genre and results in walking away feeling gross, dejected and defeated.
I guess if I wanted to extract the perfect example of Borderlands’s confusion of how to balance FPS and RPG, it would be with its collection of guns. I can’t help but imagine Gearbox Software looked at each other and asked: “well, what makes an RPG a RPG?”
“Well, don’t they have procedurally generated weapons, as you level up I mean?”
“Of course, so what if we procedurally generated guns?”
Then from that train of thought, you have over 17 million guns.
Which they feel the final reward deserving of you for completing a DLC is playing 52 Gun Pick-Up.
While this has been celebrated for its absolute freedom, I think it in turn forgets about one of the biggest complaints about RPGs: Item management. How it tends to go is this: You’ll fight enemies, picking up uncommon or rarer items only. Then, half an hour or so later you’ll sift through your now-full inventory to see what to keep and what to sell.
You’ll repeat this, sometimes more often and rarely less often, up to the point where you have more money than you know what to do with. After all, you get better loot from enemies/chests than by buying them. So you start actively ignoring loot unless it hits a much higher colour threshold, and even then you’ll just check if it is better than your current gun and move on. All in the name of measuring the numbers of your gun against the numbers of another gun to see which will help you decrease the numbers faster than your health numbers go down.
What still confuses me the most about the boasting that went on is the idea that more choice increases the quality of the choice. However, considering the nature of the generation of the choice, that is not true. Let’s consider the guns choice in Borderlands 2 vs the guns choice in Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Both games have different weapon types that offer different effects (which tie into character skills) and a natural progression as the more levelled they are the more hardier of a weapon they can use.
However, while Borderlands 2’s choice tends to be which one weapon to use for the next half an hour to a few hours out of several, Shadowrun: Hong Kong does things differently as it distils a weapon selection down to play styles. The best example is the handgun choice. By the end of the game, you have three clear distinct choices: You pick a pistol-shotgun that makes ranged fights a bad time, you pick a revolver that does more damage but locks off skills that aid doing multiple hits or you go with a normal pistol that let’s you use all your pistol skills and a burst fire attack. After this potent choice, you no longer have to concern yourself with juggling loot as you’ve hit the top. In contrast, Borderlands 2 is purely a numbers game rather than preference.
It starts off so easy, and quickly descends into comparing elemental stuff on top of the various stats. Guns rarely are clearly objectively better than the other ones.
So you have all the downside of item management from an RPG, and sadly without the interesting item choice because you’ve bombarded the player with so much that the choice is meaningless. The differences blur and blend together, making it harder to distinguish each weapon meaningfully. Even if you picked the one that isn’t quite as good or you’ve found something that clicks with you, Borderlands 2 will end up offering you a new gun anyway a short while later. I would have actually preferred it if they limited the weapon count to 100 at most of significantly different weapons than 17+ million guns that blur into an agency mush.
There is also the gameplay problems of skill-tree imbalance (while not signifying intentionally imbalanced), over-levelling via DLC and harder enemies usually just having more damage and more health on them. However, I get the feeling I’d be here all day if I was tearing this game down in the gameplay department. Just, well, suffice to say it isn’t pretty.
However, there is the writing. Contrary to the common opinion of Borderlands 2’s writing (i.e. it is a dysfunctional family made up of memes), I actually found it interesting beyond just being a check list of “here are things not to do”.
Let’s get the obvious out the way: The humour. The brand of humour here is that smarmy arrogant kind, the one that is self-aware and self-demonstrating without side-stepping the reasons that make such tropes easy pray for observational comedians. It also has a box of referential humour, a tweak of dark humour and a moment or three of other brands of humour. Will it win hearts and minds with its comedic routines? No.
In fact, it may make you lose your heart and mind.
What it will manage to do is add colour and enjoyment to what is a slog of a game. The total of my play time according to Steam is 79 hours, and as you may be able to tell from above I wasn’t exactly impressed with the gameplay. However, with the help of the various low-hanging fruit comedy acts, the experience was made a lot easier to play through. On the surface, “making a game bearable” isn’t too much of a task. The reality is that Borderlands 2 is really, really… Well, big. So to be able to fit humour in 40+ hours of gameplay without a single infamous comedy routine isn’t just difficult but is a hell of an achievement.
On the other end of the writing spectrum is where Borderlands 2 makes some unusual gains and losses: Drama. I admit this might be because I walked in not expecting anything more dramatic than “THERE IS BAD GUY, THEY KILL PEOPLE, GO KILL HIM!”, so my expectations were so low as to rival film remakes. While about 3/4s of the game is too afraid to drop the comedy act to depict something else, ¼ is still an impressive quantity for a game like Borderlands 2. Amongst this there are two moments that stand out the most for me (although I struggle to think of any more dramatic moments of note beyond said two).
The first was Angel’s Death. From the moment the elevator begun to hum downwards, I started to get the feeling something was wrong. The way Angel talks to you, you get the feeling it wouldn’t be as simple as “walk in, turn off machine or shoot siren driven mad, go home for some pink lemonade”. It only fully sinks in how horrid of a situation you’ve found yourself in once it is revealed you must kill Angel by turning off her life-support machine, the revelation that she is Handsome Jack’s daughter being stacked on top. So you’re trying to grant someone death during a 10 minute battle, while Angel’s father begs for you not to do it. Needless to say it is satisfying in how uncomfortable the situation is.
It only then serves as a let down Borderlands 2 continues on its humour as though nothing happened after stumbling around Sanctuary helping people grieve for Rolo the Plot Vehicle. I wouldn’t have expected Borderlands 2 to drop its humour altogether, but I would have appreciated if the game’s tone shifted slightly to acknowledge the events that had just occurred. If rather than Handsome Jack continuing on his better-than-thou humour, if instead he became more serious and less emotionally stable for the final part. Even if you assume Handsome Jack used his daughter, I would have at least expected fury at having a valuable tool being destroyed. Instead, you get a brief cold statement hinting you took the last thing he had left to lose, and he’s back to being smart-arse.
I had hoped for more moments like this.
The second moment was in the previous part, in the form of the game’s final goodbye to its self. I think Tiny Tina being torn up about losing Roland by the end of Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was the closure I had hoped the main core game would have been able to provide itself. Despite that, it is better late than never coming and I appreciate the perhaps-soppy message about “you have to accept death, but it doesn’t mean you have to let go of the person”.
In both instances, I greatly appreciate the game leaving humour alone for the scene. I have seen it a few times where a media piece (game, film, TV show, etc) has been balancing humour and drama, but then gets too anxious at having a pure tragic moment that they get fidgety and decide on doing the equivalent of attempting humour at a funeral.
On top of this, most of the characters have an unexpected amount of depth. As predicted, the protagonists may as well have been a block of tofu running around avoiding zombies for all the interaction and characterisation they showed. Despite this, the NPCs usually have arcs and depth to their actions. Even the ones that function as a humour delivery device (e.g. Ellie, Moxi and Scooter) exist as something more than walking caricatures looking to inject humour. Handsome Jack is the pinnacle of this, but then again talking about that would involve a lot of repeating myself.
The final form of Borderlands 2 is an unexpected enjoyable time. I admit that I would have burned out if I wasn’t committed to completing the Venture into the Borderlands series (Cap Scar’s Booty Treasure being the cut off point without a doubt), but it wasn’t so tedious as to inspire frustration, sighs and loathing. I know the humour would have been a lot more biting and I wouldn’t have been able to properly analyse after a while if I didn’t like the game. If I had to give a rough review score, it’d probably hit about a 7 or an 8 if you can team up with others happy to burn 40+ hours with you.
Please, can we not have a conversation about review scores? I know scores are overly simplistic.
So we arrive at the end of Venture into the Borderlands. The total play time was 79 hours and had 1413 screenshots done for it (most of which was trying to capture a very particular moment). In terms of “what now”, well, first I really need a break actually. It was a time consuming project, spending at least 5 hours playing the game and then over four hours writing, editing and formatting (including posting).
After that, well, we’ll see really. I’d like to in the future experiment with video content more (something Borderlands 2 made difficult to do due to the length). Although considering how much I dissected Borderlands 2, I’ll definitely want something different to discuss game design with. I also hope to in the future do more collaborative pieces, as I believe the sharing of ideas may lead to a better analysis. Besides the list of things I’d like to do, I don’t have anything planned really and I’m still hunting for the perfect game to analyse next if I continue on. So if you have any ideas, post in the comments below.
Before I shuffle off and leave you be, just a “quick” soppy paragraph: I would like to share a huge thanks to everyone who read through this series from beginning to end. I admit it has been a wordy time, but I hope it was as enjoyable for you as it was time-consuming for me (as well as enjoyable, I really did have a blast doing it). When I started I thought I would maybe get an audience of about 10 people at most. Instead, Part 8 has 282 page views as of writing on one place I post this series on. So, again, thank you for your time, honestly. It means a lot to me.
With that, it is time we go. Our Venture into the Borderlands is at an end as we’ve explored all there is to explore. Again thank you, and good night.
[Part 1: Funny Little Robot] [Part 2: Roland’s Disapproving Gaze] [Part 3: The Worst Fear & Loathing Tribute Band] [Part 4: Tiny Tina’s Troubling Teenage Temperament] [Part 5: CAPS LOCK IS CRUISE CONTROL FOR HUMOUR] [Part 6: There Are Brakes On The Plot Vehicle] [Part 7: I Don’t Know About Angels, But It’s Fear That Gives Men Wings] [Part 8: The End of the Tale of Handsome Jack] [Part 9: The Big Hunt with the Big Problems] [Part 10: Hunting for Seasonal Heads] [Part 11: The Finale]