The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Borderlands Review

Borderlands combines a potent mix of FPS action and RPG style looting and character development. The game puts you behind the guns of one of four mercenary “Vault Hunters”, searching for a hidden cache of alien technology on the desolate planet of Pandora. Story isn’t really Borderlands strongest feature, but it gets the job done.

First Person Looter

On its most basic level Borderlands plays like a First Person Shooter. Quick reflexes and accurate aim will serve you in good stead.  Beneath the FPS shell there’s a strong RPG backbone that draws its lineage from classic Diablo and World of Warcraft design philosophy.

Each of the four characters has access to a unique action skill that adds some useful tactical twist. The Soldier can deploy a turret for support, the Berserker can (as you would expect) go berserk for a massive boost to melee damage and health regeneration, and so on. Each class also has access to three skill trees that you put points into as you level up. 

The skill trees are lean but powerful

There aren’t as many skills as you might find in a meatier RPG, but almost all of them are interesting or useful in some fashion. Some augment a character’s action skill, like making the Soldier’s turret spit out ammo-packs, while others buff basic stats or add some specific bonus, like making shots pass through enemy shields.  Any character can use any weapon, although each class has skills that improve and modify their abilities with select types. The Soldier, for example, favors the combat rifle. You can re-spend your points at any time for a modest fee, so there’s plenty of fun to be had trying different builds and you’re never punished for experimenting.

Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns

The meat of the game is loot. Guns, as you've likely picked up by now. You can’t move on Pandora without tripping over a firearm, and almost every single one is completely randomized. One shotgun might have a chance to set enemies on fire, another might add a bonus to your melee attack, and a third might have a sniper scope. A high end model might feature all three. A few unique firearms do truly crazy things, like regenerate ammo or fire a bouncing wave of energy. These are not realistic weapons and the rule of cool is in full affect.

Loot, loot, loot. And more loot.
The crazy combinations don’t end with your guns. You might find grenades that steal enemy health to heal you or a personal shield unit that sprays a ring of acid when it’s depleted. Obviously not every combination is useful, or even makes sense, but it’s hard to resist searching for the perfect shooter.

You’re continuously replacing your load-out. There’s no way to tweak, upgrade, or augment any item, so you need to take or leave each gun as you find them. You do earn XP and gain bonuses with general weapon categories, but since you’ve never invested anything in any particular weapon there’s no reason not to swap it out when you find something better or just want to experiment. Items have Diablo/Warcraft style level requirements and rarity color coding, and finding purple or above loot is always a rewarding moment.

Gun on Man Violence

Seeking out and sorting through heaps of guns is a big part of Borderlands appeal, but the game also provides worthwhile enemies to use those weapons on. While not trying to be realistic combat is fast paced and fun. Cover is useful, but the low accuracy of most weapons at long range and your regenerating shields encourage you to get in there and mix it up. There’s a decent variety of enemy species and behaviors on display, though you’ll kill a LOT of very similar bandits before the credits roll. The AI gets the job done but can have trouble dealing with snipers and players it lacks a clear path too.
One of Pandora's countless endearingly crazy bandits, moments before perishing of mysterious severe cranial trauma.

If you do take too many bullets to the face Borderlands has neat mechanic. When your health drops to zero you drop to the ground and are given a last chance to kill any nearby enemy for a second wind. This can make for some very cool and dramatic last stands, and actually encourages you to keep a lot of enemies around. Co-Op allies can also scrape you off the ground if they reach you in time.

No matter your class or play style you’ll want to keep a spread of weapon and damage types to exploit enemy weaknesses and tactics. Almost every creature has weak points that can be targeted for an automatic critical hit, (like the head for humans, obviously) so finding and nailing these spots keeps battles interesting and encourages good aim. The over-the-top death animations and shower of loot that accompanies every slain foe are an entertaining payoff.
I'll give you a hint. The shield isn't his weak point.

Like Pulling a Trigger

While Borderlands does have some depth, such as the skill trees and the interplay between different enemy and damage types, it’s an easy game to pick up and start playing. If you understand the basics of FPS movement and combat then there’s very little barrier to entry. The tutorial takes great care to ease you into the game, going out of its way to introduce and explain even fairly intuitive concepts like using grenades and buying stuff from vending machines.

It’s always better to give the player too much support rather than too little, but the first hour or two of play doesn’t have a lot to interest experienced players, especially given that the game encourages you to try all the character types. The characters don’t begin to play any differently till you unlock their special skills at level five. I’d have put in an option to skip straight to level five and bypass the first few tutorial quests if the player has already completed the campaign once or has a character past level 30.

There are more exotic critters than bandits roaming the wastes.
Outdoor areas tend to be dominated by vehicular travel. Borderlands cars handle nicely enough and give you a formidable level of speed, durability, and firepower. If you manage to trash your ride the stations that spawn them are never too far away, and getting a new set of wheels is free. Running over enemies is a blast and you can just roll past most fights if you’re not interested. You’ll need to disembark to collect loot, and most major encounters are designed so they need to be completed on foot, but tearing across the wastes making road kill is a nice change of pace from fighting on foot. Having a co-op buddy man the turret is also a good time.

It’s hard to get annoyed at a game that’s this aggressively convenient and fun to play. Managing your inventory and accessing your various bits of info is intuitive and painless. Inventory space can get a bit tight although one of the downloadable content packs adds a storage bank. Realistically you’re always finding so many new toys that anything you store will be obsolete by the time you see it again. Loading screens are present but not excessive. I suspect they’re a necessary evil left over from the game’s console heritage. Borderlands simply doesn’t believe in punishing the player or even making them stop having fun for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Bullet Points

The quest structure pulls what narrative Borderlands needs forward, and ensures you always have something productive to do. The quests themselves are mostly standard fetch-this kill-that fare, but the chunk of cash and XP awarded for completing each makes them worthwhile. Enemies respawn quickly, so ticking off objectives and then heading back to turn them in goes a long way towards preventing a feeling of grinding or repetition. You still end up needing to shoot your way back through already cleared areas, but the fast travel system helps.
A fine red mist. Of jam. A Jaist?

There’s not much of a central narrative. The plot takes a while to get going, and doesn’t move very far or fast once it does. You’re mostly just moving from place to place dealing with a string of local bandit lords. There are a few twists late game that introduce some welcome new enemy types. The ending is weak, but Borderlands strength is very much in its gameplay rather than its story.

The world of Pandora is vivid although not a place where most people would want to live. There’s a strong “western-punk” theme in the art and characters. The piles of junk, ramshackle shanty towns, and dusty, hostile wastes would be at home in the Fallout series. The cell shading lends everything a slightly cartoony, stylized mood. The thumping soundtrack serves as an excellent accompaniment to the action, and the opening cutscene and closing credits songs are catchy enough to deserve special mention.

The voice acting is top notch, and frequently genuinely funny. It has a dark and sardonic sense of humor that fits the desolate world. The series of voice-records left by an archeologist as she slowly loses her mind are a standout.

No rest for the wicked

Ultimately Borderlands is an easy game to love and enjoy. It successfully taps into the “just one more” allure that keeps people playing its spiritual predecessors and brethren, like Diablo and Torchlight. Every action, from running someone over to killing them with a headshot, contributes to achievements with juicy XP rewards. Vending machines regularly carry powerful items and change inventory every twenty minutes, so you’re tempted to stop at everyone you pass, just in case.
Some of the Vistas are quite impressive.
While some sort of option to help players of different levels productively team up would have been nice, Borderlands is still a blast to play with friends and working voice chat. Even a total party wipe isn’t excessively punishing, and you’re never out of action long. Enemies scale up with the number of players and loot goes to whoever grabs it first, so you will definitely want to play with people with whom you share a degree of trust and basic communication.

Once you finish the main campaign there’s a number of Downloadable Content packs to extend the life of the game. I’ve only had the chance to play two, but I can definitely recommend “The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned.” which offers an entertainingly creepy setting, some top notch humor, and (as advertised) loads of zombies. “Mad Moxies Underdome Riot” is less an adventure and more of an endless arena-style battle, plus a bank to store stuff. It’s best played with a team of friends, but is still repetitive and surprisingly unrewarding compared to most of Borderlands gameplay. I’d start with the zombies.

Reasons to play: Addictive mix of FPS and RPG gameplay. Scads of randomized loot. Genuinely funny humor. Great soundtrack. Awesome co-op play.

Reasons to pass: You fight a lot of the same bandits, and they don’t get any smarter. Weak story.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Daniel Erickson Interview

Daniel Erickson is the lead writing director at Bioware, perhaps best known for his work on Dragon Age: Origins, and the highly anticipated upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. Mr. Erickson has also worked as a game critic for the now defunct Daily Radar website, and has production and design credit for the NBA Street and SSX series from EA sports.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us today

1. What’s the job of lead writer like? Do you mostly co-ordinate other writers and their work? Do you get to do much writing yourself?

Erickson: It varies from game to game. On Dragon Age and Mass Effect, for instance, the lead writers are critical path writers, contributing huge amounts of actual hands-on content to the game. With a writing staff the size of the one on The Old Republic I get to do a little writing here and there but most of the time I’m more of the guiding force behind the fiction content for the game. As a former lead designer, I’m also more involved in the senior design structure than I think is usual for a lead writer so my duties are a bit more eclectic.

2. How do you feel about working with a pre-existing Intellectual Property (Like Star Wars) as opposed to one that you’ve been able to build from the ground up? (Like Dragon Age) Do you have a preference?

Erickson: They both have advantages and disadvantages. I loved working on Dragon Age: Origins and being able to come up with a world the team owns is extremely rewarding. It’s also a ton of work and means you have to educate players on all the rules, expectations, etc. You can’t assume any familiarity with the content. With something like Star Wars you’ve got built in fan appeal and a huge amount of content to draw from so you can just jump in and get started which can save months or even years of time. That said, there are a huge amount of Star Wars experts out there so you better know you stuff and you don’t have the flexibility to change the way the world’s mythology works to get around a sticky design decision like you can with your own IP.

3. Have you found writing for games has challenges you didn’t expect?

Erickson: It can be difficult to work in an aspect of game design that’s so much in its infancy that many people still don’t understand why you’re there or see it as a necessary evil. I doubt programmers and artists have to justify their existence as much as writers do. Also, like design, it’s something everyone thinks they understand and can do/comment on.

4. You’ve been quoted as saying: “You can teach a writer to be a junior game designer. You cannot teach a junior game designer to be a writer.” Do you think the two disciplines should be taught and implemented together, rather than as separate aspects of game development?

Erickson: What I was saying there is that writing is a specialty discipline like anything else in games. You’re either a writer or you’re not and if you’re not, you’ll never be anything more than mediocre at it. If mediocre is fine for your game and nobody much cares about the writing than sure, give the writing tasks to a random designer who enjoys it and move on. In the same way I wouldn’t bring in a screenwriter, train them to do basic design and then ask them to balance my combat system! And yes, cross training is crucial so that all designers learn about the complexities of and respect each other’s specialties.

5. Do you have a favorite bit of Bioware writing? A particular conversation or narrative thread that you thought was exceptionally funny or epic or spot on in characterization?

Erickson: I don’t know about a specific line, but I’m proud of the city-elf origin in Dragon Age. I did a ton of research for that one; made sure I really understood the subject matter and tackled some issues rarely seen in videogames. And I tried to do it in a way that I felt was adult and mature in the actual sense of the words, not an excuse for juvenile titillation.

6. Any brief words of advice for the next generation of game writers/designers?

Erickson: Writers write. That’s how you know you are one. Run pen and paper RPGs. You’ll learn a ton about player agency and writing your stories for the audience instead of yourselves. Designers design. Make board games, make card games, learn to do basic programming and make web apps. Anything and everything you can do to test your ideas of what makes fun.

Thank you very much for your time!

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.