A Non-Fan Follow-Up: Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel

A game’s visuals cannot be separated into some separate category for evaluation. That’s the old logic of graphics/sound/fun factor. They are instead an integrated part of the entire game experience. Striking images and loving details can actually make a game worse if they draw you in and suggest a world that the rest of the game cannot support. A basic dissonance is created between hand and eye, and you feel more like a viewer than a player. The world calls to you, but you cannot respond.

– Tevis Thompson, On Videogame Reviews

It’s an all-too-common experience among those who play videogames to enjoy them on a mechanistic level (e.g. the gameplay or quality of the graphics) in spite of a vestigial plotline and one-dimensional cast. The opposite, where the game’s storytelling and characterization overshadow lackluster technical traits, is a far rarer experience.

Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV is not great as a game whatsoever — its sandbox, beautifully rendered as it is, lacks much in the way of side activities and travelling between areas feel like drudgery — but I nonetheless defend it based on some fantastically written dialogue (“Maybe we’re all hypocrites. All imbeciles.”) and for having a protagonist like Niko Bellic. Neither belonged in an open-world sandbox, especially one with chaotic criminal activity as a prominent feature, and it had some of the same problems as the other installments (the lazy gay jokes, casual misogyny, and half-baked satire specifically) but you could imagine it being better suited to a televised or streaming series featured on HBO or Netflix than other videogames. Including those previous entries that had been highly derivative of film and television than having a voice of their own — that’s why Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was basically Scarface meets Miami Vice.

The point I’m trying to make, with Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel (via “The Handsome Collection”), is that they both would’ve been better off as part of an animated series. The setting is full of colorful characters and enough wacky ideas that would make for entertaining material to watch. Instead we are given an incredibly unbalanced and heavily repetitive first-person shooter, with perplexing massive multiplayer online RPG elements attached, that only causes frustration and exasperation when played as a game.

Copy/Paste, Rinse, Repeat

Perhaps it was naïve of me to be incredulous towards Ben Croshaw’s criticism that the entirety of gameplay involved “go[ing] into a scrapyard and shoot[ing] Jason Voorhees” (or “shooting Jason Voorhees in a scrapyard…and also it’s been snowing a bit”). He’s prone to being hyperbolic for comedic purposes and the goodwill earned by Tales from the Borderlands was enough to make me take all that with a grain of salt, but I regret such leniency on my part now. Those statements, word for word, are so accurate that it’s fucking depressing.

If one were to be antagonistically (and irritatingly) pedantic, it could be argued there are more types of enemies than the signature Psychos — there are Nomads, Bandits, Bruisers, Tunnel Rats, various kinds of hostile fauna, the “Badass” versions of all those, etc. — but that’s ignoring the frequency in which you have deal with such opponents and how superficial their differences are in term of overall function.

Psychos and Skags, for example, may as well be the same enemy. They both rush at the player character to get up close for melee strikes but will occasionally use a fairly avoidable projectile attack at a certain range. The only significant departure being the latter’s projectile attack involves a temporary visual hindrance, but even that trait is shared with Spiderants — whose projectile attack also obscures the player’s view but with the added effect of briefly slowing them down. You’d think given they’re a mutated human, an alien canine, and a giant insect respectively that their behavior would be more distinct from each other but they will bombard you the same regardless. To paraphrase a common aphorism about the repetition of everyday life: same enemy, different skin.

My Picks: Daft Punk Ninja and Goth Indian Cowgirl

The level of recycled A.I. behavior on display is hard to ignore based on presentation alone when it makes all those encounters feel incredibly similar to each other after a while. Perhaps it’d be less of an issue were it not so central to the gameplay, if one could interact with the world of Pandora or Elpis in more ways than just shooting things, and sometimes done under the paper-thin pretense of doing something else. Even if a given mission will claim you need to collect items as part of some scientific research or to build a rocket— it will always involve having to plow through dozens of identical goons in post-apocalyptic chic or monster hordes to get them.

After attaining a body count comparable to the Black Plague, it makes you want to be challenged with anything else. Whether it is solving an environmental puzzle straight out of Prey (not to be confused with New Prey) or a rhythm-based mini-game reminiscent of PaRappa the Rapper. Just anything other than making a Mad Max reject’s head explode with a sniper shot for the billionth time.

The reason the cloned psychic stormtroopers in the first F.E.A.R. didn’t bother me, other than having an internally logical explanation for their uniform appearance, is because the programmed A.I. was complex and made those enemies act like a heavily organized group out to get you. They were a devilishly clever bunch and being able to defeat all of them effectively, without much harm done or dying numerous times, was satisfying. Even the demonic legions of New Doom were diverse enough in their roles to the point that one type of enemy could act as support for another type, where Imps distract with their projectiles and continuous movement while Pinkies pummel you up close or with a hard-hitting charge attack, that added some variety to the combat. The majority of enemies in Borderlands either run at you with utter abandon into gunfire or they’ll stand out in the open (they can’t even get behind cover properly) ineptly firing and waiting for you to pick them off. They may as well all be targets at a shooting range…

What’s worse is that, in an attempt to artificially ramp up the difficulty, the games challenge the player not by testing their skills but through enduring a disproportionate amount of attrition. The hardest sections involved an over-powered special enemy with an interminable health bar and nearly unavoidable attacks with a wide area-of-effect that could kill you in few hits. If these games encourage multiplayer as much as they do, it’s not because teamwork is integral (otherwise playing alone wouldn’t be an option at all)—but that those encounters are otherwise Sisyphean without assistance from others. It’s like the games are actively punishing you for trying to play by your lonesome. Thus the “Second Wind” ability, coming back from the brink of death upon killing a nearby enemy in an allotted time, comes off like a sick joke in such cases after making the standard and densely-grouped enemies feel as threatening as fish crammed in a barrel.

Too Spoiled For Choice

Also: adorable Australian accent.

I had previously brought up the “embarrassment of riches” issue but, unlike both Skyrim and Witcher III, neither of the Borderlands games bother to give you a large enough inventory space to carry the plethora of randomly generated guns, upgrade items, and character skin unlocks (…in a first-person shooter…?) disgorged at just about every turn. They even demand that you spend a rare form of currency to incrementally expand it as part of a time-wasting level-upgrading process. The fact all the firearms differ based on which weapons manufacturer created them — apparently every intergalactic corporation in the setting is some version of Zorg Industries from The Fifth Element — would’ve been amusing if they weren’t saddled with the added bonuses for what the hell ever and elemental effects that work better on some enemies than others ‘cause reasons. It’s such a pointlessly-layered, mind-numbing clusterfuck…

It ends up creating these instances where you get shotguns that fire three rounds at a time but have a four round clip or a submachine gun that needs to be reloaded constantly after firing a dozen single rounds. At one point, I found a pistol that added two extra rounds per clip…and which fired two shots at a time. Weapons not only have a level requirement attached but a color coded “rarity” status to indicate quality (white is the lowest and purple is the highest). Problem is that a purple rarity status doesn’t really matter when you come across higher level white rarity guns that do better damage and have a decent clip size. It sends you mixed signals that make you end up ignoring or selling off better weapons in order to hold onto a weaker and increasingly useless one because of suggested importance that isn’t always obvious.

When thinking about all this, I kept asking myself “isn’t this a first-person shooter?” The things I describe belong in a MMORPG with traditional turn-based combat. They compliment a system that determines each move made by one set of stats against another set of stats, with certain variables attached and outcomes based on a random number generator akin to 20-sided dice, but a first-person shooter almost entirely requires one’s mastery of the controls themselves to effectively aim and shoot hostiles as well as avoid (or hide from) damage. When you add an RPG element like hitpoints to a first-person shooter — you get bullet-sponge enemies and headshots that don’t always result in an instant kill, since they only count as critical hits.

I suppose if it weren’t for that system, the dim-witted A.I. would be less of a challenge than they already are and extend playtime far past the breaking point. Maybe that’s why your ammo reserves and clip sizes are so restrictive and force you to open identical chests for ammo, or scraps of money, or the health pick-ups that I rarely needed when they appeared yet never around when needed the most. It reminds me of playing that godawful Shadow Warrior reboot all over again and consider such a serious infraction in my rulebook. That, and using good ideas in the service of something shallow…

Rife With Wasted Potential

Back in May 31, 2013 Gearbox Software released this short film as promotional material for an add-on featuring a character named Krieg:

Though Tales from the Borderlands is the installment of the series that got me to open the door, this video is what got my foot in the door. It’s less than five minutes long and almost every second is amazing.

The fact Krieg is a demented, unsavory person haunted by an inner voice telling him to do normal, decent things — rather than vice-versa — is a fantastic premise in of itself and becomes oddly heartwarming by the end. His inner voice begs for him to tell Maya the Vault-Hunting Siren about working together in order to make him a better man once again, but ends up translating to “I POWDERED MY COCKATIEL FOR THE RIBCAGE SLAUGHTER!” when spoken. Maya, despite her initially repulsed impression of the man, smiles in response. His inner voice, after an amused chuckle, goes “Close enough…”

I wanted to see that journey. I wanted to see Krieg, with the love of his life (platonically anyway — she’s apparently asexual), go through many endeavors that gradually lead to fully recovering from his violent form of aphasia. I wanted to see the moment he could say all those romantic things he only once thought to Maya out loud.

Yet, you’ll get nothing resembling such. There are glimpses here and there— but never the kind of personal moments as seen in Tales from the Borderlands or “A Meat Bicycle Built For Two.” All these characters and the storytelling possibilities with them are window dressing in Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel.

Also: delightful Southern drawl. Just don’t ever mention it out loud…

Reducing the likes of Mad Moxxi, Handsome Jack, Patricia Tannis, or Tiny Tina as mission-giving NPCs and leaving player characters like Zer0 or Nisha Kadam either being largely silent (save for the occasional battle cry) or to only make brief, off-handed observations than partake in conversation limits the whole experience. There’s a part in Borderlands 2 where a prominent character dies and, rather than having a funeral in which close associates gather to lament that loss as one would expect, they’re stuck in place and waiting for the player character to tell them about it before instantly moving on. I’m not asking to press a button to pay respects but it’d be nice to have some kind of interaction between characters instead of being so disconnected from each other. The emotional weight of such an event is practically nonexistent, when everyone is going about their normal business instead of taking time out of their schedule to grieve.

The reason I had been willing to bother with any of this was Tales from the Borderlands, the same way Witcher III encouraged me to check out the short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Both portray a very lived-in environment, enticing one to become privy of the occurrences that shaped them and gain further context. As amusing an individual as Tellico Lunngrevink Letorte (a.k.a. Dudu Biberveldt) is within the game he’s featured, it’s even better reading “Eternal Flame” to know how he and Geralt first met. Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel, on the other hand, don’t give that kind of insight. You may as well just read a fan wiki instead. It has the same effect either way and that’s disappointing on an astronomical level.

Oh, there are moments — but they are too far and few inbetween. Moreso in The Pre-Sequel than Borderlands 2 because (much like Big Boss’ storyline compared to Solid Snake’s in the Metal Gear Solid series) it’s way more intriguing to see the origin of villains, whose (supposedly) good intentions metamorphose into outright tyranny and sadism. That game also provides a couple of obvious connections to Tales from the Borderlands, like assisting Professor Nakayama in creating the embryonic version of a digitalized Handsome Jack. Then there is this visual reference, cementing both the young Handsome Jack and Rhys as two sides of the same Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro coin, as their introductions involve getting embarrassingly hit in the face:

I wouldn’t accuse Gearbox Software of not caring about their work. If they did not, there would not be Handome Jack’s in-character Ask Me Anything reddit nor would they give CL4P-TP their own Twitter page were that the case. They obviously love these characters and the world in which they live, thus it’s baffling so little is done with them in the gameplay itself.

Despite series creator Matt Armstrong’s departure from Gearbox Studios, CEO Randy Pitchford has shown off a tech demo earlier this year that indicates another may be in the works. Unless it ends up significantly different from the previous titles and streamlines several elements — I can’t say I’m eagerly awaiting it. I’d rather see further collaboration with Telltale Games for a sequel of Tales from the Borderlands (even if that means less Batman and I always want more of that!) or just something completely different.

Given it’s been featured as side content in the main games already, a full-on car combat title would make perfect sense. Maybe they can even add in elements from lost (flawed) gems like Rogue Trip, what with the presence of mercenaries, and Critical Depth, ‘cause sci-fi McGuffin, with the visual flair and light-hearted approach as seen in the Vigilante 8 games as well as the challenging difficulty of Twisted Metal: Black. The very idea alone makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside, which neither Borderlands 2 or The Pre-Sequel were able to do — certainly not in the way that Tales from the Borderlands managed so well and unexpectedly…

[Originally posted on 10/9/17 @ Medium.com]

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