Nothing can prove to me more the power of the iterative sequel than Borderlands 2 has.
The original Borderlands was an awkward, grindy, oftentimes mundane experience out of the box. The atmosphere overwhelmingly reminded me of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, a bizarre mix between the stodgily serious and the exasperatingly zany. The gameplay itself was an interesting fusion of first-person shooter elements with concepts traditionally reserved for fantasy role-playing games, but in deviating from the traditional shooter formula of an 8-hour campaign, it lost part of that genre's draw, that of epic set pieces heightened by the blurring of the lines between player, character, and camera. Instead there were skags, skags as far as the eye could see.
For such a crucial character, the Skag did not exactly have stellar voice acting.
But I played a fair damn bit of Borderlands. I was in late high school, with time to burn and responsibilities to forget. My brother and I would have started the game at least 4 or 5 times together, and another 3 separately each. I can remember my tanking Brick, my right shoulder bumper Mordecai, a Lilith I used for my initial disappointing playthrough. I remember being inordinately delighted at achieving my first rank in Master Blaster, for an explosives-based Brick I nurtured in a solo playthrough.
I might have seen that container of tentacles and disappointment once. I never went through the game's Playthrough 2 mode. But Borderlands kept drawing me back in. Every lazy holiday, every dull weekend, and a fair few afternoons after a shitty day at school ended up with me listening to my iPod whilst jumping endlessly on Claptrap's head, waiting for the opening sequence to finish.
So what exactly was Claptrap built for? A portable talking stepladder? A wingman for midgets?
So I was excited to see a sequel take shape. It promised stranger creatures to kill, quirkier characters to play, more dynamic and intriguing loot, locales both lush and barren to truly take advantage of that unique aesthetic, and dialogue worth one hearing instead of none. I'm now in True Vault Hunter mode with my Ordered Chaos Mechromancer, and I can say with certainly that Gearbox delivered on every single one of the above.
But when you dissect Borderlands 2, is it a well-designed game?
Entering Dryanalysisville, Population: One boring asshole
Video games are obviously designed to actively engage a player, but the ways they go about this are obviously different.
Perfect harmony of idea and form. The opening to Bioshock is one of my favourite game experiences, so you'll all be seeing this picture again.
There are games like Bioshock, Journey, Uncharted, or Monkey Island: games about the journey, about the spectacle, the story, the world. Old media made interactive. The fantasy lands we imagined as kids realized, the novels we wish we could escape into with the doors thrown wide open.
Just looking at levels like this pushes me to come up with ways to defeat them.
There are games like Super Meat Boy, League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or Tetris: games about the tools we're given, and the ways we leverage them. They're puzzle boxes, or sports, and they represent what we can do with traditional game design principles when we have incredibly complex tools that allow us to make games with far more complex elements than anything that could have been done with mere human brain space. Now all that capacity is freed from having to understand specific rules, and the full force of the mind can be focused on strategy, on tactics, on ideas, on the game itself.
And then there are games like Borderlands, Diablo, or Farmville.
Gotta farm up to that Level 50 food pellet.
The primary goal in a game like Borderlands is a goal that is as widely maligned as it is popular; namely, the driving force of the game is to make your character more powerful essentially as an end in itself. Most people will have come across this philosophy through MMORPGs or ARPGs like WoW or Diablo, where the fundamental process is:
Defeat enemies via clicking or hotkeys > Get loot and/or XP > Defeat stronger enemies > Get better loot and/or more XP
Rinse, repeat, ad nauseam.
It relies entirely on human psychology, the need to improve one's situation, the need for accomplishment, the need for shiny. The game becomes less something to explore or something to solve, but an easy way of pushing that neural button.
I do a great Nixon too, guys. Topical political humour is my speciality.
OK, I'm done. Borderlands 2 is poorly designed. Please leave feedback on how I can improve my blogs, or subscribe to this for more articles by me!
But that's too simplistic a conclusion. That does a disservice to my ego as a writer and it does a disservice to Gearbox to say that Borderlands 2 is poorly designed because of the player development mechanic, because it ignores all the various elements Gearbox took from other schools of design to make Borderlands 2 the game it is.
The opening cinematic of Borderlands 2 is a damn spectacle, and it certainly sets the tone for the piece ahead. A melange of action, humour and some surprisingly dark and emotional moments comprises Borderlands 2's story. Handsome Jack's development from simply a murderous goof to a deceptive mastermind to the revelation of the full scope of atrocities he's inflicted upon the people of Pandora [and several outside of it] was a brilliant way to guide players normally turned off by the drip-feed of rewards all the way to the final conflict with The Warrior.
Anthony Burch may not have told the most original story with Borderlands: it's essentially the typical three-act journey story, with the Hero being told of their destiny, the Villain spurring them to action with some despicable act, and the ultimate triumph of the protagonist. But it's a very well-told story. It's the exact story a game like Borderlands 2 needs to keep you invested. Mad props to Gearbox for taking a risk by hiring an internet pundit/comedian to write for them. And the most shit-flingingly insane of props to Anthony Burch himself, for putting his money where his mouth is. Burch proved with Borderlands 2 that you absolutely can tell a very conventional story in the most unconventional of forms. And several missions play on Burch's ideas about how interactivity can be used to provoke genuine responses in players.
Borderlands 2 also is a massive leap from the previous game in how it deals with skill trees and enemies. In the first game, enemies were almost binary in how they differed from one another:
> Shoot in weak spot: head or tail
> Weak to element: fire, shock, corrosion
> Melee or ranged
Even the Thresher looks disappointed with those guns. In Borderlands 2, we have the Varkids, which evolve mid-combat, Loaders, robots that can be dismembered, Goliaths, hulking slabs of human meat that, if a stray crit removes their helmet, cease to discriminate between friend and foe, stealthy Stalkers, who can turn invisible if the player should fail to break their shields, and many variants on the human and animal model of the original.
Then there are the skill trees. In the original, skill trees were fairly conservative, representing staid increases to your base stats. They didn't define your playthrough any more than a personal decision to use a specific weapon would, really, mostly adding value to actions you were already taking.
With Borderlands 2, however, Gearbox has shown a genuine understanding of how you can lead the player to water and convince them they wanted a drink all along. Lilith's Sweet Release skill, granting health to all players when a Phaselocked enemy is shot, encourages teamwork, pushing players to focus the target Lilith has singled out for a Phaselock. Axton's Gunpowder skill tree is clearly designed to appeal to mainstream FPS players, offering both stat increases to CoDify the game as well as a focus on the typical alternative weapon of those shooters, the grenade. Best of all are the skills that add new dimensions to the game, such as Salvador's Auto-Load. Every kill reloads all guns Salvador isn't currently wielding, pushing the player to constantly swap weapons back and forth, as this becomes more efficient than actually reloading. Chaining swaps at the right time can thus mean that you can output substantially more damage than you would if breaking for reloads, but it forces different strategic decisions on a player. It's the sort of game design you want to hang in a museum.
Neither the ARPG genre or the shooter genre tend to inspire much awe in me, but Gearbox's fusion of design elements from them both is something artisanal. Bland shooter combat is spiced up with a variety of combat options woven cleverly into the game. In order to efficiently vanquish your enemies, you need to approach them differently based on their species, again changing the fabric of the core "shoot guys, preferably in the face" mechanic. And taking FPS combat into the loot-driven ARPG genre has relieved the latter of its greatest flaw:
The very pinnacle of engagement.
It's fucking boring.
Bringing a more active and visceral combat shell into the genre ends almost all of its flaws. The clickfest genre has, in my opinion, been completely superseded by the loot-em-up. It's faster-paced, it keeps one in the game and out of Microsoft Excel, and it makes the increasingly powerful enemies all the more imposing.
The first Borderlands was entirely carried by this shell. It was an ARPG in every sense but for the shooting mechanics. It had the ball-numbingly safe story, mobs that barely differed at all in the methods with which you dispatched them, and it had an utter superfluity of fetch quests and "kill X things".
Borderlands 2 is a substantial overhaul of all that. The story remains within the tried-and-true boundaries but feels far more Star Wars than The Expendables, the story being the driving force rather than a miserable excuse to get the action going. Every breed of enemy needs to be approached in a different way. And whilst fetch quests do still remain supreme, there are some genuinely interesting ideas in there, from what almost seems like a tower defence parody to missions that will genuinely make some players think about how to resolve them to a cluster of amusing references to 80s schlock. The Sir Hammerlock "Bonerfart" mission is a cool twist on the "Kill X", with the writing coming out swinging to make you laugh even whilst you accomplish what might be a pretty boring task.
The core of Borderlands 2 is pretty damn perfect, I think. In between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2, there's been a massive leap, from the strange hybrid game no-one thought was worth copying to a game I think people will struggle to make pale imitations of. It certainly has its flaws: one fetch quest is probably one too many, and there certainly are a few of them, it retains the absolutely bizarre platforming segments of the first, where you need to navigate an avatar designed for shooting through an environment you see in first-person to get to certain chests, and the Fight For Your Life interface is fucking infuriating, with shooting becoming almost impossible as you can no longer clearly make out foes and your character is drastically restricted in their combat options.
But the beating heart of Borderlands 2 is how it combines schools of design to create a game most hardcore gamers will be compelled to beat at least once. Though it keeps the Pavlovian core of the original game, the spectacle of the story and the way Gearbox uses enemy and Vault Hunter design to push players towards a game more actively involving and more varied than both most FPS' and most ARPGs. It's a game with such solid core design that I'm not even sure how a sequel will be much more than a big DLC packet unless some big damn changes go down.
Certainly a duality of meaning to this picture
Normally, I abhor games that focus on the primal responses. With an antic set of nerves, I loathe the humble jump scare. Mortal Kombat sometimes impresses me with the inventive brutality of its kills, but I've always seen it as subordinate to Street Fighter, so much that I believe the optimal way to consume [konsume?] Netherrealms' fighter is to watch the canned kills on YouTube and never really think about it again. And I find games like Dead or Alive Paradise absolutely baffling on a number of levels I can't even go into here.
But we're just animals with a few layers on top. And Borderlands 2 definitely speaks to that.