Of the many features Gearbox attempted with Borderlands, shooting takes prize for prettiest lass of the ball. Shooting guns is fun. And though the gun count may impress, it is the range of guns that leaves an impact. Tuned not on a single spectrum but to a menagerie of wavelengths, each gun feels and plays differently. And though not always effective, each gun feels correct in its emotional construction, as if it could feasibly exist. A certain heft in your hands; the muzzle flash properly intense or muted; the boom pitched just so; the recoil sometimes like the kick of a mule, sometimes weak or, by your shoulder, absorbed; and like a conductor orchestrating all other of the gun’s events, the tempo of the bullet-stream keeping pace.
Fortunately, much of the player’s time will be spent performing the task of shooting. And for many people, this simple pleasure will be enough to fuel and sustain their enjoyment of the game. However, the basic shooting mechanic fails to flourish throughout the game, the game’s other features not nourishing but stunting its potential.
Oddly, most of the game’s guns have no projectiles, no visible bullets flying through air. But this proves to be a forgettable concern, because visible or no, bullets in Borderlands do in fact travel through the air. There is nothing quite like that finite pause between the leading of one’s shot before a dashing enemy – the squeeze of the trigger precisely timed – and the stack of criticals mounted above the splattering enemy’s head.
Criticals, oh criticals: flashes of achievement wrought from a multitude of complimentary details: the red “critical” above the enemy’s head, the excessive swathes of life slashed from its health. But most impactful of all is the gulf of disparity between body shots and critical shots, a disparity of ridiculous proportions. This damage gap highlights Borderlands‘ premiere flaw: overcompensation.
Not as positive as an effect as one might think, the polar separation in damage proves to be a double-edged sword. Criticals aren’t just uber, they’re insanely, astronomically, challenge-diminishingly effective, allowing for enemies to be capped with a single burst. Conversely, the sheer, overt visibility of criticals cause body shots to feel slightly weak by contrast, a mere flash in the pan.
Working with randomly generated weapons cannot be easy, as testament to the evident design of Borderlands. Rather than working in concert, synergistically, with the randomized weapons, every facet of the game suffers from the feature’s fallout.
To offset the potential for offensive domination, character defense is perilously low. Enemies die in a shot or two, but so do players. The skills, likewise, are by and large stat boosts, methods of re-balancing the game’s mis-scaled variables: pluses to fire rate, pluses to health, pluses to crit damage. Though I bemoan the absence of tactically-creative skills, the statistic system is fun in its own right. My preferred soldier spec favors weapon damage and shield regeneration rate. The shield regeneration is a fun skill to have because it promotes an aggressive style of assault, your shield regeneration kicking in early only after you’ve downed an enemy.
Though criticals serve as the primary means of fun in Borderlands, they also serve as the only means of not only fun but also success. Left unspayed, criticals run amok throughout the play experience, hindering any allowance for diversity, change, or tactical thought. The enemies in Borderlands come in one variety: those who die via criticals. And of enemy types, by and large, there exist only three: humans, dogs, and spiders. At level twenty-eight, the thousandth Spiderant the player has encountered (this one huge and blue) will die easily, a one-trick pony, the same as the rest of its breed had died: with a shot to the head, and a shot to the abdomen. Every time. For the thousandth time.
Over spans of time, the slightest dash of variety will spice the events: “midget” bandits with shotguns, “brute” bandits that exist solely to soak damage, shielded guards literally requiring criticals. But each will fall the same way, and before too long, each repeated, repeated, repeated foe will rob your spirit of any anticipation for variety in future encounters.
The enemies are not alone in Pandora, as the environments fall fate to the same feeling of bland repetition. Environments have a unique and powerful potential for emotional affectation. I understand how a desert wasteland can evoke feelings of desolation, how god-forsaken trash heaps incite thoughts of desperation. And I did feel these things. At first, I did. But there is a balance to be had.
Considered in isolation, the modular construction of the environments is quite remarkable, I find. Seamlessly integrated and conceptually grandiose, the wastelands, salt flats, and canyons are beautiful to walk through. As well, the game offers a decent amount of environment types. But you can enter only so many wasteland inspired environments before you realize that, yes, you are still in a wasteland, and yes, this particular wasteland looks more or less the same as previous areas. If Gearbox were aiming for a provocative effect with their wasteland motif, I believe they’ve partially succeeded. But ultimately, the gameplay fails to match the environment’s emotional philosophy. Silhouetted against the action – fun, simple, and mindless – the environments in no way endorse or enliven the experience but, being dreary and brown, dull the gunplay, muddy backgrounds through which to traipse.
As a multiplayer game, Borderlands is an interesting study. Multiplayer is an opportunity to hang with friends ad hoc, and in this way, chilling and chatting is about as fun as in any other shared, distanced setting. But as far as it delivers effective, fun gameplay, multiplayer is lacking. Though the game makes attempts at creating truly co-operative gameplay, “co-op” rarely excels past shooting the same enemies at the same time. The exception to simplistic co-op is the soldier’s healing skill and turret support, gameplay akin to the medic in Team Fortress 2 and a spec I found to be very enjoyable when playing with friends.
Yet more debilitating to the multiplayer experience is pacing. While sorting through loot is a welcome option while gunning solo, online, friends grow restless and charge ahead (especially when lacking voice chat). The scaled enemies pose no difficulty to fewer players, those who do engage likely plenty savvy to sweep each enemy cluster. Even amidst the battle, three friends in tow, one’s own potency is brought to question, ill-compared to the power of allies: “How much of this damage is my own doing? How many of these kills are mine?” Personal contributions feel diminished. The sense of achievement is lost to the masses.
With more difficult enemies, the quality of loot is scaled as well. In multiplayer, finding better guns is likely, and enjoyable when it occurs. But disembark from the online world, and again venture solo through Pandora, you will quickly realize that your equipped guns are far and away superior to any threat you are liable to face. The math is simple: uber guns plus weaker enemies equals pwn. Like a domino chain, however, the effects worsen. Now wielding superior weaponry, newly dropped loot from inferior enemies is comparatively weak, useless, and utterly insignificant. The entire loot reward system collapses. All excitement for finding better loot dissipates as you trudge through pointless gun after pointless gun. Eventually, you stop looking altogether. I used no more than five combat rifles during my entire play-through of Borderlands, each gun lasting me six or so levels. If I have one suggestion for players who venture into Pandora, choose either single or multiplayer for a character, but never both.
“The devil is in the details,” my mother always said. It’s amazing how greatly the user interface can impact a play experience. And Borderlands for PC has interface issues in spades.
Let there be no question that Borderlands was designed for consoles primarily, and then ported to PC. I take no issue with developing for consoles first; I feel that games should be designed for whichever platform fits that game best. I also have no problem with ports that should seemingly fit, especially ports to the platform that founded the entire first-person-shooter genre. What does bother me are ports that are done just plain wrong.
Where to start? How about this: the use key reloads your gun. Every time your gun is missing a bullet, and you want to pick up some loot, you’ll manually reload your gun. Never mind that the manual reload is separately mapped to another key altogether; no, Borderlands apparently needs double-mapping of its reload command. Other issues: the game offers no anti-aliasing, meaning shadows and angles look jagged, not sharp. Much like Bioshock for PC, the mouse wheel scrolls through guns backwards, a decision I abhor. The options menu, for me, chose not to scroll at all, but required I push a little arrow at the bottom. When scrolling through any menu, if you move your mouse, the scroll will reset to where you’ve hovered. Voice chat cannot be turned off anywhere; you have to unplug your microphone if you want not to talk. One of the worst, most annoying glitches of all, every time you open a menu, your loaded bullet count will revert back to the gun’s native clip-size (plus class mod bonuses), subtracting the bullets gained from skills that improve magazine size. Every time you check your inventory, oh, what’s this, my gun isn’t fully loaded any more. It sounds trivial; trust me, its not.
Note to developers: next time you announce DLC before your game has even been released, perhaps you should spend that time fixing all of the terrible porting errors and glitches present in the original.
Lots of people like Borderlands. Maybe you could be one of these people. The fun of shooting things is really where Borderlands excels, and I congratulate the game for this achievement. Because of repetitive enemies, the shooting design never expands beyond aiming for criticals, and the other game’s calling card, procedurally generated loot, fails to perform as you rarely find loot better than what you’re already hauling. Borderlands stumbles throughout because it is constantly overcompensating for imbalanced features.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!