Why Borderlands 2 is more exciting than Diablo 3

Every year at every convention, seemingly every member of the press reminds his small percentage of the community that this has been a great year for gaming, with many anticipated titles on the horizon.

They're not lying. But that's because the video game industry is a great one that pumps out certifiable masterpieces with all the regularity of other mediums. Sure, it's rare that any of them are actually new ideas, but now with Kickstarter crowdfunding the fifth Broken Sword and the possibility of tax relief looking slightly more feasible, it seems that we're in no danger of not hearing about how swimmingly everything's going in the world of games development (apart from the continued existence of Electronic Arts and paid downloadable content) for some time.

But something, somewhere in the dark recesses of my caffeine-soaked mind, has clicked, and now I don't care … not about Assassin's Creed 3, the bulked up PC port of Dark Souls, nor even the concept of The World Ends With You coming to iOS (and I've wanted that game since I realized everything about Japan is awesome and/or clinically batshit).

I can't seem to care. Because I am entranced by the prospect of Gunzerkin' Super Badass Skags and backstabbing PWR Loaders.


When Epic Games designer Cliff Bleszinski inadvertently stired an industry buzzphrase in "bigger, better and more badass" back when Gears of War 2 was in development, I'm sure he had no idea just how much Gearbox Software would outdo him.

Feeling pretty stupid now, I bet.

Borderlands 2 is absolutely crammed with things that, even with all my access to the, I can't describe as anything other than "stonkingly cool ideas." Not just in the visuals or gameplay but every strata of the design.

Case in point: Robots don't spawn out of holes or mysterious doorways that don't lead anywhere — they are fired at you from a moonbase in orbit. I don't need to get semantically fancy with that because it's just cool.

Even the original game's overall design philosophy, first-person shooting mashed with looting, managed to surprise everyone in 2007 — if only to think that no one else had thought to do that before. And setting Borderlands on a world with both sci-fi and western elements made it immediately recognizable as a mainstream game that was just kooky enough to be innovative without being shamelessly weird for the sake of being shamelessly weird. 

Its progeny follows four new characters (with plans for a fifth) as they team up with the original four vault hunters to knock the smart-mouthed autocrat of the Hyperion Corporation, Handsome Jack, off his perch. It's a vaguely alluring premise largely because Jack is such a likeable villain who fires obnoxious threats at your ear at every opportunity over a seemingly planet-wide intercom system. I'm frankly amazed he isn't British. Being witty villains is our only marketable skill.

But he's just the tip of the chemically imbalanced iceberg that is the Borderlands cast — the way to really get to know Pandora's population of maniacs is pursuing side quests. Mark my words, that will be where the meat of the game's contextual story is. And that is such a good thing.

However uncynical you might be about the concept of side quests, they are usually filler in most games. They so rarely match the scope and scale of main missions that it has become one of the key marks of a great role-plahying game when you can't tell the difference.

This leads me, in a roundabout way, to my point: As exciting as the prospect of Diablo 3 was, it was always clear that it would only be half of a game.

Played purely for the purpose of advancement with no regard for the consequences of your actions, Diablo 3 feels like a theme park where the only attraction is punching zombies out of their skins and scooping up all their possessions.

What plot there is feels wasted and broken, an excuse for all the carnage that once you've seen. You will forever skip through, and the brief monster zoology soundbites and randomized terrain do little to alleviate the very strong feeling that the world you're in is fabricated.

For a game designed to be played through multiple times by multiple characters, that's weak. If, like me, you held some naive hope that playing as a different character would yield a different perspective on the events, you deserved that disappointment.

Diablo's founding backbone has always been the loot, but in such a shallow setting, it just can't maintain my motivation. It's like going over the same patch of beach twenty times with a metal detector. You're bound to find boatloads of worthless crap, and when you do come across something of value, the satisfaction is always marred by the promise that in a few more wearisome days, you'll find something better.

Materialism is so great.

I knew all this weeks before Diablo 3 finally materialized, and, don't get me wrong, I was excited. But Borderlands 2 promises so much more: Tons of loot is fantastic, but tons of loot that's just guns is better. It promises balletic gameplay, elite monsters to tear down, cutting robots in half, throwing two grenades for the price of one, chaining critical hits with a sniper rifle, and actual visual customization for characters all in a colourful and criminal world where everyone's three days late on their medication and willing to pay you to collect the guests for their tea parties at gunpoint.

Yes, it's more of a first-person shooter, with each character getting at most five or six active skills dependent on the situation. One of Axton's (the Commando) is just being able throw 'nades while bleeding out.

This won't be like playing Mass Effect as an Adept; you will be squeezing the trigger more often than not. And yet, there are multiple builds for each character. The Assassin's signature skill, throwing out a decoy to cloak himself for a few seconds, can be specced to favor picking out weak spots and clipping them from range or dealing obscene melee damage with his electric-blue katana.

And Gearbox were kind enough to make resetting your skill point allocations just cheap enough to warrant trying out every approach without the hassle of playing the whole game over again.

Choices, choices.

And all these skill combinations cohere so elegantly. This was something D3 also did astoundingly well, but it lacked a little visual punch. There's certainly nothing so dramatic as seeing Maya suspend some god-awful creature in mid-air while everyone else in the team unloads on it.

D3's skills were more like slight alterations of each other: The Barbarian's Ancient Spear, for example, is functionally identical to the Monk's Dashing Strike. Gearbox's approach, was to give each character radically different ways of dealing with one specific situation and dozens of combo opportunities. One of Pandora's denizens can cloak itself. When Zero has his decoy out, his vision is enhanced so he can just see the foe, Axton's turret can lock on to the invisible enemy, and Salvadore can just fill the air with bullets when he's Gunzerkin'.

Even playing alone, there's enough scope for tinkering with skillsets to allow real choice in how battles play out. Throw in elemental effects, vehicle combat, tweaks to certain weapon groups, and the sheer number of guns available (which I haven't made much of a deal of, unlike some), and you have the promise of a richly complex gameplay design that rewards experimentation as well as persistence. And, you know, toilet humor.

How can I say no to that?   

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