Borderlands Retrospective

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Students of game psychology will tell you that RPG elements exist in videogames basically to turn you into a slavering addict. It has been well-documented that epic online time vampires like World of Warcraft use role-playing game mechanics to hook you, and this is why, for example, it is always incredibly easy to level up at the beginning of a role playing game. The human mind is a sucker for being told it’s done a great job, so when you start an RPG usually all you have to do is wave hello to a stranger and you get bumped up to the next level, accompanied with some delirious fanfare congratulating you on your incredible achievement. Nice one! the game exclaims at you, perhaps in a patronisingly congratulatory manner, You’re so awesome you made it to the next level! The game pats you on the head, and then sends you on your merry way, you loveable scamp. Normally, most people would recognise this for the flagrant and shameless ego-stroking it so obviously is, but frame it as a mechanic in a game and it actually works on people. Players soon become slaves to the dizzying high of levelling up, and as new levels become increasingly harder or labour-intensive to reach, the more your brain craves that psychological hit. How easily human brain is seduced with flashing lights and meaningless rewards. Most RPGs use your insatiable levelling-up compulsion to make you trudge through endless hours of grind, instantly adding hours of extra gameplay because you have to collect fifty dolphin eyes or raven’s tears or AAA batteries or whatever arbitrary MacGuffin it happens to be to level up. In a game like World or Warcraft, where you pay a monthly subscription fee to play, this has obvious benefits for Blizzard.

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This has always been one of the things that has turned me off traditional RPG games – I just can’t be bothered with all the grind. I hate all the long hours of punching kittens in the face just so I can earn the experience necessary to take on a badger, mainly because I’m already wise to the fact that this is a nakedly cynical attempt to pad out the game. There’s a reason why most RPGs take about seven-hundred hours to finish, and that’s because you spend about ninety per cent of that time looking for randomly-occurring kitten battles to help you level up to realms of badger-dominating mastery. Depending on which RPG you’re playing, substitute the words “kitten” and “badger” for “gremlin” and “orc” or “wizard” and “slightly tougher wizard.” The formula remains one of tedious repetition.

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Fearsome opponents.

Which is why dusty dystopian treasure hunt Borderlands is probably the best non-RPG RPG you’ll ever play, because all of the grind and meticulous levelling-up is replaced with shooting dudes in the face. In this way, Borderlands is the most successful experiment we’ve seen so far in combining the first-person shooter with the role-playing game, and the game is far more compelling an experience than the dreary apocalyptic statistics epic Fallout 3, which basically took everything that was fun about the shooter and turned it into number-crunching. Here’s my position – if you must have grind in your game, then at the very least make it fun grind. Fallout 3’s combat never had any flow because nothing kills the pace of an action sequence like pausing the game to work out the probability of being able to shoot your enemy. All the shooting in Fallout 3 was essentially turn-based, because every time you encountered an assailant you would have to pause the game, select whichever option was most likely to score a hit, carry out your turn, and then scramble backwards avoiding his returning fire until you could have your next go.

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+5 gratuitous cleavage

Borderlands, on the other hand, skilfully integrates its role-playing elements with  really robust and fun shooting gameplay, so that whenever you’re battling a group of bandits or skags for experience it never feels dull. You still get the familiar psychological mindgasm of levelling-up, but without all the mindless drudgery. The shooting is made exponentially more enjoyable by the sheer number and variety of weapons available; there are with literally thousands of weapon variations throughout the game, and many weapons can deal elemental damage in the form of electrical, corrosive, incendiary or explosive bullets. This makes Borderlands a game where you spend as much time scavenging as you do shooting, and after every hairy battle comes the customary looting of money and new guns. As you level-up your character, more and more gun types become available to you, and rifling through the gun caches of a recently-cleared bandit outpost for better weapons becomes addictive.

The great success of Borderlands as an RPG/shooter hybrid freak baby is that it compels you to play all of it. Many RPGs will flood you with side quests and extraneous missions, the completion of which is usually optional, and in many sprawling RPGs the exhaustive number of them sometimes  means you can get through the game without seeing a large amount of content. But because the difficulty level of Borderlands is so precisely calibrated, you often have to complete all the sidequests available to you before you’re appropriately badass enough to advance with the story missions. As a player you don’t even resent this aspect of the game, because the shooting is so fun that all these side missions are usually an absolute blast, and also because it means you get to see all of the alien world Pandora that the game has to offer. No game in recent memory has so successfully made all of its gameplay elements enjoyable.

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The game is pervaded throughout by  a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, and it’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously without having to resort to infantile dick jokes to get laughs. It’s also encouraging to see this anarchic sensibility present in the recent trailer for the game’s imminent sequel, which has to be the best trailer for a game that I’ve seen in a while. I mentioned last week that videogame trailers featuring dubstep soundtracks are becoming a little tiresome, but kudos to the Borderlands 2 trailer for taking the piss out of that whilst simultaneously pulling it off. Laugh out loud funny and wisely made up of actual gameplay footage, if my slobbering appreciation for Borderlands hasn’t made you excited for the sequel, then the trailer probably will.

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