a review of Borderlands 2
a videogame developed by Gearbox Software
and published by 2k Games
for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360
text by Samuel Kite
This game is about one thing. There’s this whole type of gun that you throw. It explodes. For each bullet left in the clip of the gun, the power of the explosion is increased.
When I look for pure mechanics, whether they’re purely mechanical brain traps or purely mechanical magical, tangible, snappy, tight, rough-as-the-shag-on-a-bargain-bath-mat (the kind that looks like a muppet-skin rug) mechanics that make you feel like you’re plunging your arm, fist-clenched up to the elbow in the game, being able to describe it in 3 short sentences is like item number 3 on the list of ways to know You Got It (item 2 is being unable to describe the feeling it gives you without a scary number of adjectives (item 1 is probably being able to talk about it to anybody and see them get it immediately))..
In any game where quote random drops unquote happen, the only reason to categorize a weapon (or item (or object)) is to offer some kind of order to the rampant chaos of true randomness that supposedly enriches the experience. You can collect some objects. They are collectibles. It’s just a category of a thing. There’s really nothing but the category. When one of those categories has a mechanic, then you have a powerup. Sometimes the category is the mechanic. Remember how good old fashioned games had pure expressions of this (now muddy) item generator thing we all see in every game we pick up? Some games had nothing but collectibles. Sometimes an enemy was a collectible. Sometimes the enemy would leave behind a collectible. Pulling those things apart and putting them back together get you all the types of player-level-ups that didn’t quite happen. Well except for going to the next level. We all liked taking it to the next level.
In Zelda, health was the ultimate power up and collectible in one. Kill a monster, maybe get a heart. Go buy a potion, fill all your hearts. Find 4 heart pieces, get an extra heart tacked on to your total. Keep your hearts full and your sword powered up to fire magic darts.
Contrast that to the modern RPG. Kill monsters, get experience. After a certain amount, get an extra heart (more or less). Also get more stats. Slippery stats. You’re clambering up a greased mountain of tougher monsters who give more experience, against the steadily increasing requirements of getting another level to clamber faster. When you reach the top level, and start looking for the best weapons and items, you’re still clambering, only slower, exhausted. One step at a time up that mountain. You look up and see sky between the trees–you’re close to finally getting to the top. Maybe a foot slips and you have to take a step all over again. Then somebody adds another mile of mountain (but at least the flatten out the part you’re on (this is kind of a volcanic eruption scenario, I’m realizing (or maybe an eruption in reverse))).
Stats are weird. Stats are exactly what’s wrong with math from the standpoint of everyone decrypting it. Or maybe what’s wrong with inside jokes you have to explain even to insiders. Numbers are confusing. But numbers going up is exciting. So games attach a number to everything (this is not hard–games are made of numbers–you can just replace the asbestos ceiling tiles with clear plastic and see all the duct-work), and then make sure those numbers change.
Not all the time. Sometimes you can play something really great, like Re-Volt, and not only won’t the numbers go up (and not also only do those numbers come with trade offs (and not-not-also additionally do those trade offs come from more than a weighted score about how all the numbers affect some ultimate value-proposition of their sum (dps))), but there’s some things that just aren’t numbers, and never will be. Front wheel drive, baby (or whoever). Do you want to cross an oil patch going into a turn before a narrow bridge with anything else?
Maybe you do. That’s ok too. I do sometimes.
Sometimes a little growth is a good thing. Sega GT (or you know… just GT (or Forza)) says ‘look, here’s a Mazda Miata, it’s a nice C class–maybe you really like it. You want to race it in B class, here’s some mods so it can hang with the big-boys.’ Maybe you mod it out. Maybe you set the suspension just-so. Maybe you even win an A class race. Maybe not. Probably not.
But you do get that basic car. Then you get the ‘better’ version of that car. When you put turbos and fins and fancy new brakes on your beloved chassis, you both experience a change and a continuity. It’s a feeling of genuine growth, more than just numbers going up–the scenery changes, your competition can do things that you never saw before. Going around a corner 20 mph faster isn’t just the same as going around it at 40, delicately trying to avoid spilling speed and losing grip that you desperately need with your plucky little engine–it’s about shepherding this angry lion chasing a gazelle of your lap ghost. Or a Mitsubishi 3000GT. A ghostly Mitsubishi gazelle ronin, out for revenge, who terrorizes the local daimyo, but is cautiously revered by the peasants, whom are oppressed, yet admirably loyal to their lord. Your miata is the morally conflicted warrior, tasked with hunting this foe. Maybe it cannot be caught. Maybe, if caught, it cannot be defeated. Maybe you no longer care about the task, only that feeling of rounding a hairpin in 4 wheel drift, your sword glinting in the autumn sunset, a bead of sweat trickling down your spine while you wait for the moment to convert oversteer into a flawless acceleration down the straight away.
I played a little of the new Forza. You can get this big glowing path now that shows you whether you need to brake. On the one hand, I kind of like how it’s trying to replace the missing senses of how a car feels to drive. On the other hand, maybe just turn the whole thing into slot cars at that point. It’s kind of like Gitaroo Man looking at Guitar Hero and deciding it needed to be more like that. Or, to put it in more understandable terms, Mario looking at Canabalt, and deciding to take away the D-pad controls. That’s sort of why Sonic keeps failing, right?
Sonic isn’t a total failure. Some of the feeling of movement is still something that nobody gets as right as The Blue Hedge. But Sonic flies close to the sun mixing platforming with racing. It’s not like you can’t do that. But look at Smash Brothers (just look at it!). Smash is what happens when somebody realizes (maybe while watching 2 player Double Dragon II) that platforming games are basically *about* fighting. Gravity. Then they say ‘what is gravity, really’.
14 thoughtful men sit around a table with one Mitsubishi ronin gazelle ghost, reflecting. One says ‘gravity is what holds us down’. Another says ‘gravity is what keeps us from flying away’. Then MiGosuRonZeru says ‘Gravity is the edge of the track’.
Then they make a game about not falling off the screen. The platforms move and the level changes. The other players are platforms, and you are a platform to them. They can be as deadly as a spike plant coming up out of a pipe, or they can be as helpful as a Koopa as you stomp-bounce them.
Smash Brothers is where Sonic needed to go.
It’s a little sad that, of all the characters in the newest Smash, The Hedge is the most slippery, floaty, and amorphous. It’s like adding the main character from Marble Madness to Mario Kart (note: it is a marble).
Programming sprung a leak at some point and got its evolution from operations on variables to object orientation all over our peanut butter. By which I mean board and card games. There used to be these pieces. All they did was record position. There was this exogenous source of rules, man. Pages worth. Those rules would tell you when pieces move, and how. Nobody looks at a piece and knows what it holds. Cards aren’t about aces and jacks–they’re about rules. Somebody has to teach you that shit.
Then Magic: The Gathering (and hero clix, and all the other technically-not-collectible-thanks-to-patents card games) changed literally everything. I went to sleep and the sky was blue, and when I woke up, Sonic was a werewolf.
It’s nice, right? You don’t know how to play Magic, but you pick up a card, and after someone describes what the numbers and symbols mean a little bit (requires a pamphlet now, down from a pudgy little booklet that used to come crammed into a starter deck), that card tells you everything you need to know about it wherever it goes. What’s more, it’s more firmly tied to its ruleset. Sure, there’s variations on Magic. But It’s not like the old cards, or the old boardgame pieces where house rules could be created at will, and, frankly, were impossible to distinguish from the box rules. Who was going to complain if you imposed socialist values on Monopoly and put all bank fees in free parking, or permitted bankruptcy when you landed on hotel-packed properties. Or allowed hotels on properties for which you didn’t own the constituents. Hotels on Park Place while nobody owned Boardwalk–it’s just a game right? Maybe the dog can’t go to jail or pay taxes but also can’t get free parking or ride the train. Maybe the iron has to subtract 1 from its roll because it’s heavy, and also inert. Maybe the battleship can lodge itself in the temple of your older cousin, who is, afterall, a son of a bitch (no offense Aunt Ginna), because I want St Charles Place, and he’s holding out just to make me angry.
These cards, though, are like cute little cells. They go anywhere and try to be part of a game. They just need a proper host. What’s even better is that, at some point, the folks in charge of Magic (let’s call them folks, because they’re swell) quit this baseball card model of a crapshoot of random cards, and designed perfectly functional decks that can play against one another, which showcase some of the elaborate behavior that their cards can get up to. Now you don’t need to know that some white card that basically manufactures humans actually synergizes with a deck full of swamp vampires, or that an ocean full of twisted sorcery is just waiting for a nature deck to chew through your defenses and deposit an exploding mammoth. Or whatever. There’s ‘rules’ that are implied without being imposed. The game isn’t just one game, it’s a gamelike card ecology where each piece is also a rule.
For the most part this is what boardgames are like now. You buy base sets, and then some add-ons that try their best to imply their function in the meat of their pieces.
Meanwhile, in the electronic computer games our objects are getting weird.
I like power ups. I also like powering up. It doesn’t bother me that there are games that are basically just that, though it helps when powering up is kind of exciting. Really the best powering up you can do is charging a shot or an attack, or accelerating. Invincibility stars are nice too.
You go into the dungeon. You kill the monster, or you go into the wasteland and kill the mutant, and you get this weapon. It looks nice. The next monsters will probably be harder, so you’ll need a better weapon, and this one you found is good. Or maybe worse than what you have. It’s something. You look at it. What it looks like doesn’t really matter. It’s a weapon. Maybe it looks great and sucks shit. Maybe it looks like shit and makes your numbers huge.
I don’t know if anybody thought Mario looked stupid when he got the racoon hat. Maybe somebody did. Maybe they thought his fireball suit was better. I didn’t like his frog suit very much, though that was mostly because it was kind of hard to jump in. But it was for swimming anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter. I don’t know if koopas secretly liked green shells but switched to red because it was objectively better in-game. Certainly, once Yoshi was in the picture, the life of a red shelled koopa wasn’t worth much–that poor guy was a fireball; he just didn’t know it yet. Koopas probably were back at the barracks, sharing sober looks with each other thinking ‘man, any one of us could be the red shell that takes the rest out’. Maybe they pray to be digested into coins.
It’s probably ok that sometimes you get something that doesn’t look great but feels great. Maybe the Mario franchise is about just that. It’s hard to remember what a little kid thought the first time he saw some mustacheoed miniperson in normal clothes running around a world that had exactly zero robots and no lasers. No knights, no swords. There was a dragon, like, eventually, but it was a lame dragon. The kind of birthday present your dad might get when he doesn’t really understand what you’re into and that you’re a big boy who doesn’t like baby stuff. Sure, you’ve got those stuffed animals, but what does he think, you’re some kind of monster? Those guys rely on you. You’re not going to throw them out. It takes a village of cloth-mothers to raise a kid.
Mario had to win me over. That’s great. Do that.
Borderlands 2 does that, at first.
It has this gun.
Well it has a lot of guns, but it has this one particular brand of gun. When you reload it, you throw the gunhusk with whatever leftovers in its clip out at an angry world. That clip blows up. It’s your final act of defiance. Until your next one, anyway.
It’s not just great because of what it does. It’s great because its a rhythm of play born in the crucible of Halo and Call of Duty clones. Except backwards. It’s inside out, and it involves a video game miracle of a cross between the Punisher and Thor. It feels like you’re throwing the kitchen sink. It’s not even a grenade anymore. It’s a punctuation mark. It’s an ability.
This gun has something to say. It’s not an object, it’s an idea. It’s a Magic card. I’d like to tap it, and place tokens on the board with it.
It is a 2 and a half star gun.
Then there’s the rest of Borderlands 2, which is Fallout without the detail, and Mad Max without the context, and, in a weird way Sesame street without the parts that make any sense.
Maybe here’s what happened. In Borderlands, Gearbox looked next door, at Id, premier first person studio, with first person programming, and first person gameplay, and said, ‘we’ve learned lessons from good products, we’ve made our own good products–we know what people want, and Rage isn’t quite it. The kids want Diablo in Space. And a FPS MMO. If we release before Blizzard and before Id, we’ll have a piece of a pie so large, it warps space and time’.
They’re kind of right. I don’t know their sales numbers–though if I did, I could triangulate with their Metacritic score and derive a genuinely unbiased review. As it stands it just seems like they’re right. I bought the 4 pack and played with friends, right up until the final tentacle monster in a dimensional portal or whatever that was. I kind of hated it the whole time.
I also killed a lot of guys that first time. But they’re all back.
The bad guys in Borderlands are like if you took the Humongous from Mad Max and split him into a Hindu pantheon of wasteland archetypes. Each essentially beholden to their all-father, an Ur-asshole of deranged masculinity.
The problem with Borderlands 2 is that it sucks 1 and a half stars out of its own gun. First, there’s the level design. The seconds-to-crate score is 0. Less if you count the menu.
Borderlands 2 is obsessed in that modern RPG way with randomness as a back of the box feature. If Borderlands 2 could, it would pick from a list of over 2000 back of the box features a random assortment of 8, and present each user a different box, with different gameplay. That’s how committed it is to this principle. You’ll see this worship in all kinds of weird spots. For example, there will be a town full of Humongous assholes you have to murder on your way to murder the next group of the exact same guys. Somewhere in this town, a bandit will stand in one of those weird Video Game pieces of architecture. The kind that don’t exist in real life because they’re too much like a tree fort without a ladder. On this balcony he’ll be trapped, Rapunzel style, with 2 identical propane tanks (big ones–the kind that you only need one of to be right exactly on a balcony next to a hut), 3 barrels filled with various volatile liquids, and some electrical exploding thing. If a grenade landed within 40 yards of this asshole, he’d be inside out, on fire, and dissolving. Or maybe that’s the combination that gives him super powers. In any case, you’ll be wandering around after a firefight, and the game will keep enticing you with sexy red crosshairs saying ‘shoot this’. The game hates you. It wants you to die. But at the same time, it can’t help but let you succeed.
It fights you with the tools it has–an endless assortment of weapons that nobody would ever want (and take 2-3 crucial seconds to decide that you Definitely Don’t Want That)–bad guys that kind of hang out behind a box for a real long time while you wait for them to pop their heads up OR are teleported/flown directly next to you, to guarantee that you have no room to do anything but backpedal and fire into their face repeatedly.
And then there’s the quirks that don’t just have to do with design, they have to do with being an RPG before a shooter.
Sometimes bullets go right through guys.
Not in the good ‘Bro, did you see that?’ way. In the bad ‘what the fuck, why didn’t he take any damage’ way. In a game where giant numbers weren’t popping up constantly to show you YOU DID THIS DAMAGE, that would be forgivable, possibly unnoticeable. After all, who knows why that happens. Have you seen how many decimal places there are in the bits these days? Lots. Like tons of them. The floating point calculations are practically in orbit (that’s not just a half assed pun, it’s also a commentary on how even the simplest games could probably pilot the Curiosity Rover safely to Mars while they render your shaders or whatever). I don’t know how to keep track of all those bits. I’m not going to claim every engine has to always do it either. Maybe a frame of animation played a certain way or maybe a bullet didn’t really go where I thought I saw it go.
But there’s those damn numbers. I want those numbers to appear every time I shoot a guy who’s 2 inches from my face yelling the same bullshit that was cute once and is getting gradually more upsetting. I deserve it. Instead I get nothing.
Then there’s how those numbers feel versus a shooter in any other game. Instead of this kind of crucial uncertainty that makes each hit going home feel exciting, it kind of ruins the moment. You hit a guy, and see a ‘32’. Well you can see his red bar is half gone. So he has, like, 60 hitpoints or whatever. You don’t need to hit him in the head. You could just shoot him in the foot. At this point, why keep trying to ‘crit’ him with a head shot (or a butt shot, or whatever this enemy’s vulnerable spot is).
Crits are another thing. What the fuck is that. Let me just say this. When, in Unreal Tournament, you shot a guy in the head, and his head disappeared with some weapons, but with other weapons it just did some ambiguous damage, that was a great feeling mechanic. It said that these are all dudes with real heads. If you cut a head off, that’s way different than hitting someone in the eye with green goo. Not that the goo isn’t disturbing too. I wish that when I hit someone in the face with green goo in Unreal Tournament, their screen would temporarily get covered in a gooey effect of some kind, so that they couldn’t see. Most people hated the disc shooter gun. It shot these flat blades that would decapitate a guy. Plus, they bounced off walls. When someone much better than you ran in the room and you had that gun, you could feel a moment of pure chewing satisfaction as you murmured ‘let’s dance’ and held that fire button down. Somebody was going to get their head cut the fuck off. It might be both of you. Or somebody around the corner who didn’t know what the fuck. This was an incredible gun. That’s a gun like the gun that explodes when you reload it.
So. Speaking of that gun. The 2 and a half star gun. This is kind of where the rest of the game fights you the most.
When you get one of these things, you’re going to want to experiment and fling it places and really enjoy what it does. You’ll probably run out of ammo. When that happens you’ll switch to something else. Here’s the thing.
Later, you’ll be at some kiosk after having gathered ammo. You’ll notice you’re still using your backup gun, and you’ll switch to your reloading-exploding gun.
Like a robot programmed by a learning disabled engineer, you will immediately pull out your dangerous, volatile explosive sidearm, fling it at the wall 2 feet from your face, and get a new one. The game automatically reloads an empty gun when you switch back to it.
I kind of lost interest in that mechanic at that point.
Not that it wasn’t a hilarious what the fuck moment full of personality and charm. Just that I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on purpose, and I kind of need ‘on purpose’ to enjoy things like that. Not because ‘on purpose’ is magic and makes things better–more because, if any of this were on purpose, I’d notice how it all flowed together seemlessly.
For the record, I was on one of those death-balconies of no escape when this occurred the first time.
It’s not just about that. It’s about how, when you shoot a guy in the face, tomato sauce pops out, and then the guy either does nothing or clutches his face in an agonized death like you shot out his eye with broken glass. It’s because he’s got hitpoints, right? He’s not some dude with a head that he needs to do thoughtthinks with. He’s like any of the monsters or robots (spoiler: there are robots). He’s just a hitpoint bag with an area designated ‘vulnerable’ where shots do extra or ‘critical’ damage. In the case of the Humongous army, those vulnerable spots are the heads of human beings. But since some humans are like elephants with helmets, the feeling of shooting a guy at any moment can never be predicted; it’s either no big deal, or a really *big* big deal, so the engine doesn’t have a way to give any of those shots any weight. In a way, it’s like playing paintball. You’re spraying stuff with colors more than shooting some alien dude.
While there’s at least one type of gun that has this really great exploding thing, there’s a half dozen that change the color of the paint. The grenades feel bad. Not least because they are unpredictable RPG objects just like everything else. You might get used to the heft of a single grenade, but pretty soon you will be firing a bouncing, homing, flaming slag grenade, and it will feel like you just kind of let this wind-up toy go without having any idea where it’ll end up or what damage it might do. Borderlands 2 makes grenades no fun anymore. They’re not tools, they’re volatile, expendable rare items. You simultaneously want to conserve them and fear they’ll be worse than useless.
Finally, there’s the monster closets. I went through a town. There was some badass I needed to kill. First I carefully killed everyone in the town. Then I found the room at the top of the tallest shanty where the badass was hiding. When he ran out, and I started shooting at him, more henchmen began appearing spontaneously from every dark inaccessible doorway and aperature, as if it were time to do the whole thing over again. I holed up in a room behind a bar-like crate, and while I was shooting someone at the entrance, another guy appeared behind me from a hole in the wall that was, apparently, a valid spawn point. What kind of game is this?
I don’t know what kind of game this is. If this were a an old fashioned shooter, I’d say ‘ok, fine, shoot anything from anywhere–I don’t mind’. In the good old days nothing made sense; you just shot it. Kids these days with their Halo Zones and Modern Duties have these tight mechanics like cover or sprinting, special skills, and limited weapon selections to make their experiences have more tightness. Modern shooters are like, so tight.
I really like Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. It has classes. It has an interesting variety of enemies which work together and aren’t quite the same without quite being different enough to bother you who has to get shot. There’s virtually nothing left to chance in the game part of the game. Furthermore, the enemies in a Mass Effect 3 multiplayer match will, absolutely, appear somewhere at random. Their algorithm, more or less, is Be where the players Aren’t. That’s a pretty good one. I like it. They can still be, like, in the next room. They can still be down the hall and a minute from now, right after the announcement that the next wave is coming, they could be right there in the room with you. But they came through the same door you did.
Finally, Mass Effect 3 has random drops, and leveling up. Their method is pretty similar to most, but I think it’s either good enough to stand as exemplar, or else just that extra little bit good to make the point. Mass Effect 3 random drops are always good and always useful. It’s a little weird, because there’s a lot of guns in Mass Effect 3, and you’re likely to not enjoy using them all. Some are better than others. But you never get one that just simply will not do. You get guns, character classes, races, mods, and extra levels for your guns, classes, races, and mods. You also get temporary buffs you can use for the span of a single match. I don’t know what to make of that last one exactly. But it’s a power up. The real kind. The kind you want to use.
It’s not an object.