Game Pile: Borderlands

You can usually take the beginning tenor of any critical examination of a game as a deliberate misdirection to try and get all of the best or worst elements of a game out of the way so that the critic can change tack mid-stream and, in the simplest of narrative structures, twist the review around to show just how awful the product really is (or good, but it’s me, so who are we kidding). Often you’ll see reviewers pan a game that other reviewers are excitedly frothing about and trying to build steam for, and occasionally offer the stipulation that it’s opinion.

The rarest type of review you’ll encounter is where a reviewer will examine a game at length, consider it its positive points and negatives, rule it decent but still throw it over their shoulders with a sigh of patently obvious relief. Such is the case of Borderlands, a game which gets almost everything it’s trying to do right and yet I can barely stand.

Now, one of the most cost-effective ways for a poor person to partake in gaming at the top level is to play an MMO, of which there are many free to play options, some of which are really actually quite good, and some others of which lick public toilet floors, but with that in mind, a budget of fifteen bucks can be reasonably seen to be the investment for a month’s worth of fun. A game that costs ten bucks can afford to be basically a few weeks’ worth of post-work timekilling while a game that cost thirty bucks better have some new game plus to justify itself, amirite?

The game tells me I’ve played it for five hours, and yet that doesn’t sound right at all. It’s not that time has flown by – when I stand in the desert sands of Pandora, the horizon stretching out before me, I feel like I’ve sunk a great deal more time into this world than five hours. Yet when I step back and look at the game from a distance, I can’t imagine how the hell I was even able to fill five hours unless all I’ve done was the tutorial plods along like a heavily tranquilised tortoise.

It feels like an unpolished MMO, in that like many MMOs, its single-player experience is poorly balanced and lacking in polish. There are little troubles and big troubles throughout the game, and the game is designed to be repetitive. Anything little that bothers you is going to become something big that bothers you, because it will come up again and again and again.

I’m not a fan of the notion that a game is worth sticking with if it gets good ‘later on,’ when your skill trees are opened up, your budget’s spread out and you have some distinctly good gear to go with. That feels to me like an awkwardly designed leveling curve, like the game is badly paced, and I’ve tolerated some really bad pacing lately. Playing Borderlands as naturally as I can, I find myself running headlong into situations where stealthy cover-based sniping yields no results thanks to enemy design, but charging in for runny-gunny-circle-strafey grenadey fun doesn’t do much good either because no matter how you cut it, you need four reload cycles to kill your targets.

Still, unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Borderlands didn’t leave me with the impression that it’d done anything of its own wrong, barring for a few minor niggles. Everything Borderlands tries to do, it does quite well; the guns perform the way they do to both encourage a slower-paced, cover-based style of gameplay in the early game, then let you revel in the power you have as you progress. About the only things I’d argue that the game does badly is its non-combat interface, which betrays the long, stinky stain of unexpected console porting.

As a self-important asshole, I feel it’s not inappropriate for me to act like my personal experiences with computer interfaces are universal, and therefore I’d like to continue as if that were true. If you show us PC gamers something with an up and a down scroll, we will try to scroll it up and down. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try clicking on the up and down buttons. If that doesn’t work, usually, we’ll try the up and down, or, in some FPS cases, the W and S keys. If none of these work, PC gamers will scornfully disdain the whole procedure and decide whether or not it’s necessary to give a shit.

These scroll windows did finally come to heel, but the process involves selecting the window and while holding the mouse in that window, clicking the up and down on-screen buttons, but the process of getting them to behave was unintuitive, and whenever they come up, one of my two hands has to move out of my comfortable positions to simply interact with an interface that was supposedly designed to be worked with only two hands by the console players. Look, in default game position, I have twenty three keys under my left hand, and that’s just one hand. At my right hand, there’s actually a tiny little device that’s designed to handle scrolling windows, and it’s a piece of technology that’s older than the target audience for the game!

It’s something that you’d have to be remarkably unfamiliar with the PC to not consider, and I know that games aren’t being programmed or designed on iPhones. The guy who ported the game to the PC has to know how a scrollwheel works, and has to have noticed he had to do a scrolling mechanism in game, and therefore the only reason I can assume he – and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s probably a he – decided that it was too much work when he already had to map the functions to two buttons anyway, or he just doesn’t think we should be playing the game on the PC, resented the task he’d been assigned, and decided to be a really passive-aggressive twerp about it.

Other concerns I have are tempered only momentarily, such as noting that the vehicle sections control badly with a mouse (so does everything, it seems, assholes), the way the nonlinear levels feel sprawling while not really letting you get too far to get lost, the text-dump missions being too dull to read means they don’t slow you down as you run along killing things, or the way things hang around in your quest log even if you don’t care about them because fuck reading, amirite? The biggest problems Borderlands has, however, are things I can see are orchestrated very deliberately to work in a particular way. They’re not bad – they’re just designed for someone else.

The weapon system is awkward, with a huge plethora of weapons and types and ammunition dropping like flies and therefore bringing with it an equal need to stay fully stocked on a ton of ammunition. Weapons buck and spread as you fire them, which means you don’t want to move much or fire in a prolonged period, but they’re designed like World of Warcraft weapons, with white quality, green quality, blue quality and purple, and no doubt there are orange and black quality above that, as inevitable bloat sets in. You even level up skills as you progress, both skill with individual guns and special ‘skill point’ tree things, with the unlocked skillpoints being MMO-style 3-4-7% improvement to damage with bullet weapons, etc.

From a single-player’s perspective, that looks tedious and irritating, as you’ll be crud at every weapon you pick up until you use it for a good amount of time and you’ll upgrade from your pistol to a shotgun and suddenly you’re back to ballstown. Firearms, devices designed to make the task of killing people at distance much easier, aren’t really all that good at it, certainly compared to throwing rocks. All of this seems like it’ll make the experience flow like a bucket of wet gravel, but when you remember that Borderlands is a beast of cooperative play, things start to make more sense.

When you assume two to four players, a lot of things changed. Snipers aren’t popping the heads off badguys, Snipers are blowing through bad guy’s shields so they’re set up for other players’ hits on flesh. The cover-based turret that seems to have healing exhaust fumes is a way the soldier can dump cover for other people while he continues to charge in and soak damage with his bigger shield and ass. Players can pick their one or two types of gun and focus on them, and when a purple non-sniper-rifle drops, the player focused on sniper rifles can just disregard it. You’re not buried under things any more and for the truly great players, you can focus on having different reload cycles. While one reloads, another is popping heads, and so on. That?

That sounds really cool!

When you shoot an enemy in the head, unless you are significantly higher level than they are, you get a critical hit, which usually just means you have to shoot them in the head one time less before they die. It means a bad guy is not six or seven bullets to kill, but is five or six. In co-operative play, this means that bad guys are able to stand up to an actual bit of damage, and players should move together, pick the same targets, and try to gather them together. In single-player play, this makes the bad guys feel like they’re encased heavily in a swathe of soft foam, the first few barrages of bullets doing pretty much nothing, before suddenly they die with a head explosion.

That’s mechanical stuff, the stuff that it’s somehow more reasonable to spend your time whining about, and the story-character stuff is due its kicking later on in the conversation, so what about that other stuff? The Aesthetics? Well, to judge that as a critic, examining it in terms of visual language, storytelling through imagery, cohesion of style and engineering of atmosphere? It’s great. Hell, it’s brilliant. Borderlands seeks to make you feel like you’re on a seething hot, dusty, scary backwood full of people you can’t trust, people who are weird and creepy and freaky, because they are short or southern.

Now, I’m pretty inclined to point out things a game does that are racist, but isn’t it a bit of a dick move that this is a planet populated entirely by rednecks and Mexicans, the majority of whom are corpse-raping serial killers in hockey masks? I’m happy to talk about what a pile of bellends populate Mississippi’s backwoods, but isn’t it just a little bit hypocritical of me to complain about modern shooter games having a wholly illusionary expectation of Foreignania, then let by a planet full of racist stereotypes of Americans pass by without comment? It’s a bit weird. I have a handful of friends from these areas, and while they will often point out that, yes, some redneck stereotypes are embarrassingly true, the fact they can carry on a conversation with me indicates that they can’t all be!

Apparently, Borderlands 2 is under fire for more racism, which seems a bit weird to me, but anyway. The game doesn’t purport to make a point of it, and it seems everyone is an Arizonan pig-fucker, which isn’t even keeping to the right stereotypes. There’s other things? Like how it’s one thing to make a bad guy powerful by making him audibly dumb and enormously physical powerful, that I can handle, but I become uncomfortable when little people are given axes and shotguns and treated as cannon fodder. The (wonderfully atmospheric) opening casually ran over a wild-dog parallel, and that similarly made me uncomfortable. It’s something I don’t like, so it sets me on edge – but I can recognise that those concerns are more personal than any other criticism.

I’d talk about the female characters in this world, but so far, five hours in, there aren’t any. You have a voice in your head who may be female, or may be a robot, or may be your own dementia, and one of the protaganists may be a woman, but she also may just be a blow-up doll stuffed with grenades.

The other thing that dooms Borderlands as a budget purchase is that it’s not actually very cheap. It’s thirty bucks – fifteen if you split it four-way with friends. That right there is the sweet spot. If you have four friends, who haven’t played the game to death and who want to try it out, Borderlands should be a great experience with a lot of goofy, relaxed fun and fun shooting of a delightfully colourful world’s pack of weirdoes. The single player experience needs a lot of work. Clearly, my solution here is to put this review out there and see which of my friends have the game so we can try it out with a bit of casual murdering going on to get through the plot, but even that has me coldly predicting that at the end of the road we’ll find the vault is empty, or possesses only a lone computer with a pretty digital projection that I’ve mistaken for an angel, or has hope, or friendship, or a flask of water in it.

That’s okay. The game has lots of atmosphere and style, but lacks for balance and characterisation, two things that bringing friends should fix.

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