the first few hours: Borderlands 2

I really need to keep a notebook next to my bed.

I woke up this morning after a long Borderlands 2 session last night, and knew right off the bat that I was going to write a huge thing today.  I had this whole epic premise mapped out in my head – partly about what Borderlands 2 represents in terms of overall achievement in game design and what it is about open world RPGs that are so compelling and addictive, but also that there were three specific elements that a shooter needed to shine in order to be considered “successful.”  I know that one of these elements was graphics; I specifically remember that one of them wasn’t narrative (and I had a pretty convincing reason as to why such an important element in most games was not entirely the most important thing in a shooter); and I think that I made a distinction between the quality and variety of the weapons and the actual pleasurability of firing them.  I remember lying in bed, saying to myself, “I should really write this down so that I can put it in the blog later”, and then not doing that, and now, of course, I can’t remember what the 3 things were, and it’s entirely possible that this brilliant post of mine is now forever lost.

Anyway.  My earlier post this week about feeling like I hadn’t played enough of Borderlands 2 in order to write about it?  I’ve now played enough to talk about it.  I’m around 10 hours in with my Commando, and I think I just hit level 13 before I turned it off in order to come to the coffeeshop where I’m currently sitting and trying to remember what the hell I wanted to talk about.

Regardless of whether or not I can reclaim that brilliant premise I had in my half-awake state this morning, I can certainly say that I am of two minds about the game.

On the one hand, it does so many things really, really well.  The meta-challenges and the “Badass Rank” in particular are brilliant – the game tracks pretty much every single thing you do and how you do it, and so during every other firefight you’ll get a bonus for, say, setting 100 enemies on fire, and every time you achieve a new Badass Rank you get an opportunity to increase a certain stat – weapon damage, shield recharge, etc. – and so it’s constantly encouraging you to be incredibly thorough in how you explore the world, which is handy because (a) that’s how I like to play these sorts of games anyway, and (b) there’s SO MUCH GODDAMNED LOOT.   The designers have smartly done away with certain conventions such as fall damage and limited sprinting – you can fall off any mountain and run as far as the day is long and that’s just fine with me, thank you very much.

In a way, this game makes a very convincing argument that from this point forward, all shooters should be like this – open world, RPG progression, endless customization.  You’d never mistake Borderlands for Skyrim, obviously, but you can certainly see the resemblance between the two.

On the other hand, the game has a bunch of weird quirks.  One of the game’s selling points is that it has eleventybillion guns, and even within the first hour you’ll find more guns than you can carry.   This is a problem, though, because your inventory is SEVERELY limited in the beginning (and is somewhat expensive to upgrade), and so you will almost always be struggling with what to keep and what to throw away.  The game smartly includes a system where you can tag stuff in your inventory so that you’ll automatically sell it when you get to a vending machine – but vending machines are few and far between.

And one of the more annoying problems with these guns is that reloading takes FOREVER.   The game addresses this by making reload time an upgradeable ability – and certainly I’ve begun to notice a difference as I’ve been sinking more and more points into improving that specific stat – but it makes the shooting of guns a pain in the ass, which is a somewhat significant problem in that shooting guns is all you do.

My brilliant reasoning for omitting narrative as one of the three most important qualities in a shooter is a bit murky now that I’ve forgotten how I’d phrased it, but in any event I think the point I was trying to make was that in almost every shooter (at least in terms of the single-player campaign), you are never driven forward by WHY.  Indeed, you are driven forward because of SPECTACLE and CRAZY SHIT BLOWING UP and because clearing out a room lets you enter the next room, which will be visually and spatially different than the room you’re currently in, and it’s fun to see new things.

In more specific terms, I have no idea why I’m doing any of the things I’m doing in Borderlands 2, even though I am compelled to do all of them, especially the optional stuff, because when I finish a mission I get XP and maybe a new shield or grenade mod or something.  Indeed, there are a few recurring characters from the first game, including this weird ghostly AI that has a direct line of communication with you, and I remember that there was a reason for that in the first game but it wasn’t particularly memorable, and I am similarly at a loss as to what she’s doing here.

And the thing is, it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into crafting the dialogue in this game, and the voice acting is pretty strong (if a little goofy), and there’s lots of funny bits all over the place.  But there’s a difference between snappy dialogue and a compelling narrative, and if there is a compelling narrative in this game I am yet to see it.  Let me say again that I’ve been playing for 10 hours already and when I’m done writing this post I’m going to head back to my apartment and play for another 10-20 before this weekend is through, and I’m looking forward to it, even though I have no idea where the story is going, and even though nobody (including me) seems to care.

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