GamesBeat

Threeview: Borderlands 2 reviewed by a critic, an analyst, and an academic

We’re trying something new here at GamesBeat. Alongside the normal reviews that we do, we’re asking analysts and teachers or professors of game design to share their thoughts on big new releases. We launch this new “Threeview” series — which we almost called “Three-way,” by the way — today with Borderlands 2 for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

The new cooperative first-person shooter (with “870 gajillion more guns” over its predecessors, according to its makers) is getting rave reviews from critics and gamers alike. But what does an analyst think of the game from a business perspective? Is publisher 2K Games managing the franchise well? Does it have long-term sales potential?

And what does an academic who studies and teaches game design think of what developer Gearbox Software did with Borderlands 2? Is it something his students should learn from, good or bad?

For our first “Threeview,” we give you three separate reviews of Borderlands 2: one from a game critic (our own Mike Minotti, a staff writer), one from an analyst (Michael Pachter, the managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities), and one from an academic (Josh McCoy, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Games and Playable Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz).


Mike MinottiBorderlands 2: The critic’s review

Borderlands 2 is everything fans of the original could have hoped for. No, it doesn’t mess with a formula that already proved itself. Instead it supports the framework for a great role-playing game with a bigger world, while offering more customization options for its players. It’s also one of the funnier games you’re likely to play this year.

It’s hard to imagine this kind of game getting much better. The few complaints I had were minor and easily overshadowed by the ridiculous scope of the experience Gearbox offers.

If you liked Borderlands, you’ll love Borderlands 2. If you missed out on the original, don’t make that same mistake twice.

Click here for the full GamesBeat review.

Final critic’s score: 92/100


Borderlands 2: The analyst’s review

Borderlands 2 should provide a much-needed shot in the arm for 2K’s parent company, Take-Two Interactive. The company had a series of successful launches over the past few years, with Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008, Borderlands in 2009, Red Dead Redemption in 2010, and L.A. Noire in 2011. Everyone expected Max Payne 3 to be their big hit of 2012, but that game just didn’t meet investor expectations, struggling to sell-through the 3 million units shipped. Take-Two shares hit a three-year low in August, as investors all but gave up on the stock. With solid Metacritic aggregate scores of around 90/100, it’s likely that Borderlands 2 sales will surpass the prior version’s sales of 3.5 million units, and Take-Two stock has rallied by around 50 percent since early August as buzz for the game built.

It’s not clear whether Gearbox owns the rights to the Borderlands franchise, but it appears that the series is real and that the developer can continue to produce sequels every few years that will be snapped up by eager fans. 2K tends to take a backseat to sister division Rockstar Games, but games such as Borderlands 2, NBA 2K, and BioShock Infinite are likely to establish the 2K division as a standout publisher in its own right. Anticipation for Borderlands 2 was high, and the company promoted the game extremely well, with very effective television and print ads.

One of the things that Take-Two does better than most of its peers is the delivery of downloadable content (DLC). Unlike many of its peers, Take-Two tends to drop DLC within the launch window of its games, keeping its hardcore gamer audience engaged and entertained. Gearbox plans four campaign add-ons by June 2013, with character downloads beginning on October 16, 2012. I think that the frequent drops of DLC beginning only weeks after the game launches is a brilliant strategy, keeping the hardest core players talking favorably about the game heading into holiday.

Great effort, far better than expected, and extra credit for being better than the last version.

Final analyst’s score: 95/100


Threeview - Josh McCoyBorderlands 2: The academic’s review

  • By Joshua Allen McCoy, Ph.D., Center for Games and Playable Media, U.C. Santa Cruz
  • Working on: IndieCade 2012 nominee Prom Week (lead developer)

In featuring a fusion of mechanics from the first-person shooter (FPS) and role-playing game (RPG) genres, Borderlands 2 continues the exploration of this hybrid and less-developed area of game design started by the likes of its predecessor, Borderlands, and Hellgate: London. Through this exploration, Gearbox ambitiously steps on potentially treacherous design ground where players have two different sets of expectations originating from two different game genres.

There are some cases where expectations naturally align, such as increasing players’ ability to deal and take more damage through leveling up and acquiring new gear. The design tasks are more difficult when expectations diverge. One notable case has to do with the accuracy with which players hit their targets. The FPS convention is “point and shoot” to hit a target, whereas in RPGs, hitting is determined by calculations based on game statistics.

Borderlands 2 avoids the player-maddening situation where in an RPG, a bullet is seen to hit its target onscreen but does no damage because a random roll in a combat table determined that the shot did not hit. Borderlands 2 deftly handles this divergence by having RPG statistics influence the FPS mechanics of aiming, such as weapon spread, recoil, and stability, which avoids breaching players’ expectations. If the bullet hits, it does damage.

The “bazillion” weapons that can be created procedurally in Borderlands 2 is core to player progression and enjoyment. Avoiding the trap of having weapons represent an abstract set of statistics that translate into damage, Gearbox has done an excellent job of making a large portion of the weapons feel distinct through a smart mapping of equipment attributes to game mechanics. Two weapons from a similar family, such as two shotguns, will play very differently from each other, and each has the potential to fit drastically different classes, playstyles, and skill-tree choices. However, players are still periodically subject to the upgrade dry spells that plague all games that have procedural item generation.

The game features standard but well-executed RPG storytelling, complete with the standard array of kill, fetch, and escort quests. Humorous writing is a strong point of Borderland 2’s style of storytelling (the naming of Handsome Jack’s, the story’s antagonist, diamond pony comes to mind). While the game does not push forward the frontiers of interactive narrative design, the storytelling is compelling in its self-parody.

Overall, Borderlands 2 is a cleverly implemented fusion of FPS and RPG combat systems backed up by many interesting variations in playstyle. The detail found in the procedurally generated equipment is evidence of strong gameplay design. In this ARPG, the emphasis is on “A” for “action,” while storytelling and role-playing design work is standard but well polished.

Final academic’s score: 90/100


Hope you enjoyed the first Threeview. Please leave us feedback in the comments below, and check back for future installments.


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