Borderlands 2 Kinda Sucks

While playing through a New Game Plus of Borderlands, I realized that despite the game’s deep flaws (lack of story, phoned-in sidequests, a horrendous PC port), I was actually thoroughly enjoying the game. I was caught in the grip of a neverending quest where the driving mechanic is the hunt for a better gun. I played both single-player and co-op found them equally fun (single-player because I could go at my own pace, co-op because I loved covering my buddy’s ass…uh, so to speak).

Despite Gearbox’s claims to the contrary, Borderlands 2 is almost the exact same game as its predecessor, so I was very surprised to come to the realization that I simply don’t enjoy the sequel as much as the original. Borderlands 2 benefits greatly from a much more engaging story, more fleshed-out NPCs (in Ellie’s case, piles and piles of flesh), and funnier jokes. The slag weapons are a great addition to co-op play and the steps they’ve taken to really differentiate the gun brands (both functionally and aesthetically) are admirable. But beyond these minor additions, Borderlands 2 is proof that Gearbox hasn’t learned from their mistakes and has actually managed to turn this sequel into a game that’s somehow less fun than its predecessor.

I’ll be clear: I actually like the juvenile writing of Borderlands 2, which seems to be a major point of contention among some highbrow review sites. It doesn’t always work, and when it fails, Dave Thier accurately likens it to that annoying friend we all have that tries too hard to be funny, fails to bridge the gap between “crude” and “humour,” and calls it a day. But I’ve smirked at enough of the game’s one-liners to judge the writing enjoyable. Not every game writer can be an Erik Wolpaw; there’s a place in the video game world for guys like Anthony Burch too.

No, my frustration stems not from Borderlands 2’s writing, but from its actual gameplay, enemy design, and mission structure. First of all, the game is much, much harder than its predecessor, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. The original Borderlands straddled the line between satisfying and difficult almost perfectly, while the sequel skews the balance heavily toward the latter. I died a lot in single-player, and playing co-op wasn’t much easier since the difficulty ramps up considerably with extra players. Like the original, checkpoints are few and far between, and quitting the game restarts you at the beginning of the area, not at your last checkpoint. Conserving ammo has become immensely difficult thanks to the fact that the more powerful weapons now consume 2 or more bullets per shot.

Part of the increased difficulty is due to some truly annoying enemy designs. Constructors (especially the first one you face) are nearly impossible to take down solo, with their bullet-deflecting shields, constant add spawns, heatseeking aerial missiles (making most cover useless unless there’s a roof over your head), tracking lasers, and nearly-unavoidable nukes. Suicide Psychos and EXP Loaders run way too fast and cause way too much damage when they explode. Buzzards are the “severely irritating flying enemies” of this game, and as anyone who’s ever tried to kill a fast-moving aerial enemy in an FPS using a console controller will tell you, it’s difficult to peg these guys with such an aggressive auto-aim mechanism. Even Spiderants, already supremely irritating enemies in the original, have become much harder to kill, with their armor and their daze resistance both getting upgrades. Of course, not all the new enemy designs are bad; repeatedly shooting a Goliath in the gut while desperately hoping the gun’s kick doesn’t accidentally walk the stream of fire up to his cranium is an incredibly tense feeling, and it’s a fantastic subversion of the FPS gamer’s natural tendency to always go for the headshot. Getting criticals on Hyperion robots by blowing their limbs off is also satisfying, even if the hitboxes are frustratingly small.

Borderlands 2 has received accolades for its open-world game design, but if there was ever a game that could’ve benefited from some linearity, it’s this one. The game is huge, much more expansive than the first in terms of areas to explore and environments to travel. Because the maps are so large and Fast Travel warp points are so few, getting anywhere is a huge pain, especially when sidequests are rarely ever located next to Fast Travel stations. Another problem is that quest markers usually indicate the endpoint of a quest rather than the entrance to the appropriate bandit camp or cave, which resulted in me pointlessly scanning cliff faces and following scaffolding to a potential entry staircase (only to have my hopes dashed and remain stumped as to how to progress the quest) on more than one occasion. The Dust and the area with the Firehawk cult quest are the two worst offenders so far, with the latter being one of the worst-designed quests I’ve ever come across in any game.

Proper quest marking should lead the player to the entrance of the quest area, then from point A to point B to point C until the endpoint is reached; it should not simply show the endpoint and assume the player will figure out how to get there unless it’s very obvious how to do so. The Firehawk cult quest places the quest marker on one side of the map, with several obvious paths to get there…until you go there, and discover they’re all blocked by impassable cliffs. I spent nearly an hour looking for alternate routes before I found one that wraps all the way around the entire map before looping back to lead to the quest marker. This is open-world design done wrong; if you’re going to design a horribly convoluted method of proceeding to a quest marker, you need a linear method of leading the player through the intended path.

Once you actually get to the quest marker, it’s a crapshoot as to whether you’ll actually find the fetch quest item you’re looking for. Most items are so small that they’re nearly impossible to find in an area saturated with bandit corpses, ammo cartridges, and hyper-detailed background elements. Gearbox shows the player what to look for using one of two methods: by highlighting the item in glowing dark green (which blends into the background too well to be useful) or by bathing the item in a white pillar of light (which is the same colour and visual effect used to indicate a bottom-tier weapon or ammo drop, thereby wrongfully prompting the player to ignore the item). And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a quest indicator that precisely shows you where items are located; some missions inexplicably require you to search a large area for the required items, and the only indication of where they might be found is a “big-ass circle” on your map, as Claptrap accurately puts it. This makes sense for quest items looted from enemy mobs, but not for items sitting on shelves in bandit camps.

The original Borderlands was pretty long if you were planning on hitting all the sidequests, but I found the length within my comfort zone for an RPG, and I didn’t mind doing the sidequests because each one brought me to a new area of the map. By comparison, the sidequests in Borderlands 2 are the worst kind of padding. Several of them require you to trek back through story areas you just completed, respawned enemies and all. When I complete an area of the map, I’m done with it; I don’t want to see that section of the game again for a long time, if ever, and I certainly don’t want to immediately go back through it to complete a sidequest that should’ve been given to me before I ever set foot in that area. Stuff like this artificially inflates the game’s running time without applying a proportional increase in enjoyment level.

It’s not difficult to see why these design choices were made. Recent Nintendo games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land were criticized by hardcore gamers for their handholding measures, while Final Fantasy XIII was criticized for its linearity, and the single-player campaigns most modern FPSes continue to be criticized for their short length. Conversely, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were praised for their high level of difficulty, while Red Dead Redemption received many accolades for its open-world design, and Skyrim received GOTY honours for its impressively long campaign. Gearbox is more in tune with the hardcore gamer community than many other developers, so they likely took these criticisms to heart and made a game that would undoubtedly give the hardcore gamers little to complain about. The problem is that those complaints weren’t directed at Borderlands per se, and the game was already incredibly well-balanced in the categories of difficulty, linearity, and length; they essentially fixed what wasn’t broken. Gearbox may have made a game better aligned with the values of “hardcore gamers,” but in doing so, I fear they’ve turned Borderlands into a game I can no longer enjoy.

Neverwinter Nights 2: Glitchy As Hell, But Fun

WARNING: SPOILAZ.

I recently began playing Neverwinter Nights 2, a game that I knew virtually nothing about when I picked it up in a Steam Sale two years ago. I bought it because it was cheap and because I had heard it was similar to Knights of the Old Republic, but I never got around to actually playing. A few weeks back, I was considering either Guild Wars 2, KotOR II, or The Old Republic, but then chose not to decide and went with NWN 2 for no apparent reason other than curiosity.

I told this story to my D&D-loving friend (he’s a huge fan of Baldur’s Gate) after I realized that the game uses the 3.5e ruleset, and he asked who made the game. I decided to string him along a bit and told him it was a company that seems doomed to release buggy, much-maligned sequels to some of the best games ever made by BioWare and Bethesda.

“Ah,” said he, with a sagely nod and a narrowing of the eyes. “Obsidian.”

I actually like Obsidian a lot. Despite all the flack KotOR II gets for being a buggy, unfinished mess, the game was a huge improvement over its predecessor in terms of both writing and combat. Chris Avellone’s story was phenomenal, and Kreia has the distinction of being one of the few NPCs in any game that I think truly encourages the player character to follow the path of careful neutrality rather than being an overly generous saint or a bloodthirsty psychopath. The minute tweaks that Obsidian made to BioWare’s already great combat system were all for the better, too. I recently purchased Fallout: New Vegas after reading an interview where Avellone described the game’s moral choices as “grey and more grey,” so I’m pumped to start playing what the community largely regards as “a buggier, but better written Fallout 3.”

So far, NWN 2 hasn’t disappointed me much. It plays similarly enough to KotOR that I can understand when DEX is required over STR (never played D&D), and I love the fact that you get a fuckton of party members (party building is one of my favourite aspects of RPGs). However, somewhat uncharacteristically for Obsidian, the writing is kinda subpar (perhaps on a BioWare level…so, maybe slightly above average video game fare, but not by much). My party members are all irritating as hell, from the self-righteous do-gooders Elanee and Casavir, to the horribly voice-acted Neeshka and Grobnar, to the impossibly rude Qara and Bishop. And of course, there’s Zhjaeve, the typical religious zealot who speaks in hushed tones of your importance to her people. Gawd.

…And then there’s the bugs. I know most Obsidian games are buggy (had to soft-reset a few times in KotOR II where certain quests wouldn’t activate), but NWN 2 is truly something else. Before I bought the game, I had no idea that horribly broken upon its release in 2006 and took nearly 2 years of community-driven modding to render it playable. Here’s a list of some of the more entertaining glitches I’ve come across so far:

  • In the first battle of the game, your childhood friend Amie is fated to bite the dust. However, the cutscene in which she dies never triggered for me, and I continued killing githyanki while assuming nothing was wrong. However, at the end of the battle, Daeghun informed me that now was not the time to mourn Amie (even though she was standing right behind him). Then she dropped dead and disappeared, although her icon indicated she was still in my party. So I went off to the swamp with Bevil to avenge Amie and got destroyed because I did not know there was a “Rest” key (didn’t figure that out until almost halfway through the game…needless to say, I wasted a lot of money in potions and a lot of time trekking back to the monastery). When I respawned, Amie was, uh, back from the dead, casting spells to help Bevil and I out while he whined about how she was dead. Needless to say, that made the swamp ruins incredibly easy, but when I got back to West Harbor, Amie was still in my party. I eventually got her to leave my party by entering and exiting a house, but she remained in West Harbor, where she’s still standing outside a barn to this day, just chillin’.
  • At one point, my entire inventory turned into shortswords. All of it. Hundreds of shortswords.
  • After looting a very nice dagger, I went into my inventory to give it to Neeshka only to discover that I actually had two of them. Assuming I had come across some kind of dupe glitch (it’s an Obsidian game, so I took it for granted), I gave one to Neeshka and kept the other for myself. I equipped it on her and returned to adventuring. A few battles later, I noticed she was running up to enemies and punching them while not wearing any clothes. Turns out the “dagger” was actually a piece of armor that had somehow transformed itself into a weapon, and when it turned back into armor (which isn’t unprecedented; my hundreds of shortswords eventually fixed themselves in a similar fashion), it found itself in an unequippable slot and decided to just go ahead and unequip the rest of her equipment, too. Man.

Wii U Thoughts

Six years ago, I froze my ass off waiting in front of Future Shop all night for the Wii to come out. EB Games was about the only store in town that was doing preorders, and once those sold out, the rest of us peons had to brave the harsh Canadian November for a full night. But we watched Robot Chicken on a projector some kind soul had brought, some dudes played WoW, and we chased some hooligans with baseball bats when they decided to egg us. It was a pretty fun experience, and when I finally brought my console home, Twilight Princess was in every way the game I had been waiting for for years. Maybe I’m just too old and jaded for stuff like that now (I went to the Borderlands 2 midnight launch, then immediately turned the car around once I saw the long line outside EB Games), but I won’t be braving the wilds to get a Wii U on launch day this time, and here’s why.

Price – The $300 package, with no games and only 8 GB of memory, is a ripoff, and given that the deluxe package sold out far earlier than the basic version, it seems people understand that. But the original Wii SKU included a minigame collection and console stand for $250, whereas the Wii U version that includes both of those (and a bunch of other crap to drive up the price) is $350. I think it’s about $100 more than I’d pay for it, so I’ll definitely be waiting for a price cut. Nintendo had a humbling lesson about pricing with the $250 3DS, but given the influx of Wii U preorders right now, they’ll unfortunately probably get off easier this time.

Memory – 8 GB? 32 GB? Memory’s cheap these days, so why pack in some little of it? This limits their ability to allow game installs, the size of games on eShop/WiiWare (remember the Super Meat Boy debacle?), and the size of quality DLC. For $350, I would’ve expected a hell of a lot more than 32 GB, given that my 360 can currently handle 250 GB, while my computer can handle quadruple that (and it was a little more than double the price of the Wii U).

Launch library – The 3DS’ biggest problem rears its ugly head once more. In 2011, Nintendo learned that it’s difficult to sell a system without hardware, and as a result, the 3DS had to take a massive price cut. The launch library for the Wii U is very weak, with no hardcore killer apps in sight, just another 2D Mario game (which are apparently so easy to make that they developed two of them simultaneously this year). The only game I’m excited for is Pikmin 3, and it’s unclear when that’s even slated for release (“launch window” is pretty vague). I don’t buy Nintendo consoles for the hordes of shovelware clogging the Wii U’s launch window; I buy it for the amazing first-party games. The Wii U needs system sellers like a 3D Mario or Super Smash Bros. at launch, not a year or two down the road.

Console power – I’m actually pretty comfortable with the Wii U’s graphical power; just having it in HD alone is a huge plus. Excellent games like Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn and Xenoblade Chronicles were difficult to look at because of the piss-poor character models, or in Radiant Dawn‘s case, everything. In a year or two, the Durango and Orbis will blow the Wii U out of the water, but until then, Xbox 360-quality graphics on my Nintendo console is just fine by me.

Online – Why is online such a hassle for Nintendo? I just want a nice, clean interface like Xbox Live, devoid of cumbersome Friend Codes and rarely-used Mii hangout spots. This Miiverse thing looks like a social media playground more than a means by which you can play games with your friends, which isn’t surprising given Nintendo’s recent obsession with social media. I don’t want a video-calling service to ask for game help from octogenarians; I want to be able to easily join my friends’ games of Smash Bros.

Controller – I’ve endured Nintendo’s obsession with alternate control styles for eight years now, and I’ve come to the following conclusions: some games are indeed improved by touch interfaces, but no game is improved by motion control. It’s a harsh blanket statement, but I feel it’s true. Skyward Sword was utterly ruined by the MotionPlus controls, and as I look at my Wii library across the room, I see a ton of games – Excite Truck and Okami spring to mind – that I would’ve much rather played with a traditional controller. Nintendo’s finally giving us a sleek traditional option in the Wii U Pro controller, and I hope many games take advantage of that rather than continuing to shoehorn in unnecessary and flighty motion controls (seeing as the MotionPlus is still the Wii U’s default controller, and the GameCube controller option has been eliminated).

A Few Games I’m Looking Forward To

Short and simple today. I could’ve ranted about Gawker or torn apart Jason Schreier’s latest travesty of an article, but for now, I just want to talk about a few games that I’m looking forward to this fall, as well as a few summer releases that I missed. I finished Pokémon Diamond Version about a week ago, and right now I’m on the last leg of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, with FEZ up next. After that, though, I’ve got a bunch of possible games to play.

Borderlands 2 – Got this one preordered already, so it’s likely my next game after FEZ. I’ve beaten the original game three times since I first booted it up in February 2011: once as a solo vanilla playthrough, once as a solo New Game+ with all DLC, and once with a friend, and each playthrough was better than the last. Having never played Diablo or World of Warcraft, Borderlands was the game that introduced me to lootfest RPGs and, naturally, got me addicted to them. Something about the shooting mechanics just felt satisfying, too; sniping midget heads has never been so therapeutic. Since the original is already one of my favourite games, I would only want a sequel to make minor improvements and up the story content, and judging by the trailers, it seems like that’s exactly what Gearbox has done. Can’t wait to blast through this one with my buddy.

Pokémon Black Version 2 – This is an odd type of Pokemon game: a direct sequel without new game mechanics or additional Pokemon. It’s more of a new game than Platinum is to Diamond and Pearl, but hardly a leap equivalent to a new gen, like Ruby to Diamond. Black 2 is a game for people who enjoyed the story of Black enough to purchase a full-game continuation of that story, and will willingly pay full price despite not seeing any new Pokes or major gameplay tweaks. I guess that’s me; I thought Black‘s story was a huge step up from previous games, and I actually like starting these games over and building my team from whatever Pokes are available. Black 2 may have all the same Pokes as Black, but since much of the setting is brand-new, their regional availability will be quite different, forcing me to probably build an entirely different team.

Guild Wars 2 – I actually know jack shit about this game, but everyone’s talking about it, and given my recent lust for shiny loot, I might give it a try. I went on the game’s site and found some tree people who look fly as fuck, so…in due time.

Star Wars: The Old Republic – I already own this game, but my subscription expired way back in June, after I levelled to 50 with my Chiss Sniper and prepared my Human Jedi Guardian to level with my friend once he got his new computer. Well, my friend never did get his new Lenovo thanks to a greedy UPS worker somewhere, and long story short, our SWTOR plans fell through. I really did enjoy this game though, despite all the hate it’s received, and I can probably attribute my love for it to a couple things: 1. It’s Star Wars and I love Star Wars. 2. It was my first MMO, so I have no idea how well it compared to WoW or TERA. All I know is that it worked well for me. 3. The story was fantastic, and the grouped story options really made it feel like you were playing a game of KOTOR where all of your party members are player-controlled. Anyway, I’d like to get back into it and keep gearing my Guardian, but the game goes Free To Play in November, so I might wait before shelling out another $30 on a two-month subscription.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – Late last year, I began replaying my Xbox copy of KOTOR II, and finished about 85% of the game before I got a disc read error. Disc repair kits did nothing, and eBay copies were an unbelievable $90. Eventually I got SWTOR and forgot about it, but this summer, I saw a KOTOR PC collection at EB Games for $20. I figured it was a little high considering I only wanted KOTOR II and I’d have to start all over again…but about two weeks ago, KOTOR II was released on Steam for $10. Unghh. I’d probably get either SWTOR or KOTOR II, but not both. If I was smart, I’d wait until late November, when KOTOR II will drop to $2.50 in Steam’s Black Friday sale and SWTOR will drop to $0 in EA’s “We Failed” Sale. Or I could be stupid and buy them both now for $40.

Pokémon ConquestPokémon Tactics! Was definitely going to pick this one up until I upgraded to an iPhone 4S and bought the slightly overpriced Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. It sated my appetite for SRPGs, so I decided to pass on Pokémon Tactics until it got cheaper. Although, I could’ve traded in my Mom’s copy of Just Dance 3 at Future Shop and gotten Pokémon Tactics for free…just kidding, Mom.

Steam Greenlight’s $100 Fee Is A Good (But Not Perfect) Solution To An Annoying Problem

I’ve been pumped for Steam Greenlight ever since Valve announced it, mainly because I wanted to take an active hand in helping out some indie devs without actually having to pay them (natch). However, the Greenlight interface is a mess, and when I last checked it out, it was inundated with joke listings and lawsuits-in-waiting. One guy even tried to upload Minecraft (the only screenshot provided was one of a poorly-built penis tower, which technically counts I guess, considering it was an in-game shot). I managed to upvote a few deserving games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Slender: Source, and La-Mulana, but that was it before I got frustrated by all the crap I was wading through and decided to ignore Greenlight from then on.

A few days ago, Steam announced that Greenlight users would have to pay $100 in order to upload any future games to Steam. They admitted it was only to keep out the riff-raff and they had no need to profit from these fees, so they promised all of the money would go to Child’s Play. Given Valve’s already godlike reputation amongst the gaming community, they could’ve easily absorbed the slight PR hit of “Megacorp Charges Indies For Game Submissions,” but they preempted any of that talk with the Child’s Play move, which was a shrewd one on their part. Because everybody loves charity, right?

Ben Kuchera over at the Penny Arcade Report feels like the $100 fee is not a good answer to the Greenlight spam problem, but he’s wrong. The response from the gaming community has been overwhelmingly positive (which says a lot considering how quick hardcore gamers are to jump to the indies’ defenses these days), and for good reason. The $100 fee is a one-time payment that allows the user to upload as many Greenlight games as he or she desires, and it’s sufficiently steep enough to keep the trolls and other less-serious folks away. Kuchera seems to think that any fee would keep the trolls away, but even $5 is sufficiently low enough for some jackass to think, “yeah, this’ll be worth it,” throw away a fiver, and go and upload DICKS: THE GAME. No, the fee has to be steep enough that only serious devs would consider paying it. It’s a good solution, and it’s achieved its desired effect by essentially making me interested in the platform once more.

However, it’s not a perfect solution, in my opinion. $100 is prohibitively expensive for some urchin who wants to cover Steam in cock pics, and while I don’t think it will send any indie devs crashing into poverty, it still seems like it could be safely dropped by a few tenners. I think $50 could achieve the same spam-filtering effect while letting indie devs keep more of their cash, too. Perhaps it could even function like a deposit system, where the $100 is returned to the dev if their game makes it onto Steam?