Welcome to The Suck

Once upon a time…

Two decades ago dawned the golden age of some of the greatest titles in the genre that would later influence all later games. Doom, Diablo, Starcraft, et cetera: these are just a few names one can name off the top of their head and probably agree that they impacted the industry in some way. Other developers saw this success too and it dawned upon them that perhaps the key to success was copying the success of others. So you saw your Doom clones go on for some time, and some of them became successful, but eventually the market for recycling the same game over again with a fresh coat of paint didn’t fool people that they were looking at the same wall. This practice isn’t as common today as it once was–or, at least, developers are doing a better job of trying to differentiate their selves from having their games labeled as clones. Gearbox made no such attempt here with Borderlands. What’s worse, however, is that they cloned a game that was ten years old.

A beautiful day for opportunity

Borderlands was developed by Gearbox Software, a company of small stature before Borderlands released, whose only original work included the Brothers in Arms series. For the most part, however, they were better known for developing console-to-PC ports (Namely Halo: Combat Evolved and James Bond 007: Nightfire) as well as the slew of Half-Life expansion packs (Blue Shift, Opposing Force, Decay) and the subsequent ports to the PlayStation. For the most part they had a small community out from the work they did for Halo PC, which included a devkit to create maps and what not. They were largely a small company that was rather reserved and kept to their selves. That is, until Randy Pitchford and the guys decided that maybe they needed to “step up” their tone in the industry. The answer was Borderlands, self-dubbed as an “RPS.” The game sold well, it received decent reviews, and Gearbox finally received some national attention. Of course, Pitchford might’ve later abused said attention to rag on Valve, but in that case I can at least understand, especially if you were working on PlayStation ports for the guys. I digress however.

Borderlands takes place on a planet aptly named Pandora (No, there are no Na’vi on this planet) in a future setting in time where corporations dominate mining operations in the galaxy. Pandora was one such planet that was rumored to have some sort of resources that could prove to be a cash mine, but it largely proved to be false. Instead the workers that were brought to the planet were abandoned and it soon became a trash planet a la Soldier. In addition to its inhabitants and its designation, the planet itself is an arid badlands, with nothing but sand and dirt covering most of the planet (with the exception of some bodies of water). The lure behind the planet, however, is known only as the Vault, a treasure hunter’s wet dream that, when opened, would contain riches beyond anyone’s imagination. And this is where your character enters the game–on the pretense to find the Vault.

I don’t know about you, but all of this talk about a vault and the setting made me think of some other game that recently came out not too long ago. I know Gearbox used to get a working paycheck for taking other developer’s ideas and making sequels out of them, but to make an entire game out of a plot from another game is a little eyebrow-raising. Although the plot may be one thing, the art, style, and characters is another, however. And last we come to the defining element of Borderlands itself: the game play. The zone-type battlefield, “town” safe zones, the same enemies respawning in the same place on a day/night schedule, and all at the behest of a boasting over 17 million weapons. Except we’ve played this before as well. In short, if there’s anything original in Borderlands, it may be only in theory. Either way, Gearbox did a good job at cashing in on the success of others.

I’m sure we’ll do this again soon enough

Now with the history and creativity covered behind the game, we can get on with the meat and potatoes portion of the meal. The story that I fed you earlier is never found within the game–you need to actually read it in the manual to figure it out. Your four characters you can choose from? They were originally going to have fleshed-out backgrounds, perhaps even quest-related within the game. Gearbox scrapped the idea though, so they’re four faceless “vault hunters” now. Regardless of which you choose, the game plays out in the exact same way. You are contacted by a “Guardian Angel,” a sort of guide that will help you find the vault. She pretty much tells you what to do. However, time is apparently of the essence here, because the Vault only opens up once every 200 years.

So this then begs the question: why the hell am I helping people out in a town before I can progress? Take into consideration any other game today that has a main plot and then side missions. The side missions usually can be skipped if you just want to play it out for the main plot. There is no such path in Borderlands: you HAVE to do ALL of the side missions, because apparently that is the main plot. So after you kill Blood Raven Nine Toes, after you rescue Cain obtain the mine key, after you kill Andariel Sledge, you can move on to the next Act zone just so you can do it all over again.

And it’s not like there’s any real given reason why this happens. What exactly is stopping you from going to the next zone? A door. And why can’t you go past that door? Who knows. There’s no given reason why. What is known, however, is that, until that time, you’re stuck in a walled-off area of the game that gives the impression that it’s expansive (as Gearbox was claiming it was going to be), but, in reality, is quite small. All the while you are helping people for no reason at all until you finally get to a part in the game where you start gathering pieces for the Vault key. In order to do so, however, you must help out some forgetful NPC and then bring back the pieces to her. Eventually she sends you off to meet the leader of all the raiders on Pandora, who supposedly has the last piece to the Vault key. Except he doesn’t. It was a ruse to try and get you killed. The chick was actually working for a corporation, and all of this is revealed within the last two hours of the game.

Then the wall banger of an ending finally comes through. Your Guardian Angel now starts to reveal to you that the Vault cannot be opened by the bad guys. Wait, what? I thought this whole time you were leading me to the Vault so I could get my riches. Nope. That was also a lie as well. You find this out when the big bad chick puts the key in into the lock for the Vault (which all of you conveniently find just before times runs out) and it opens a portal to another dimension. Out comes a Cthulhu-wannabe, kills the chick, and then you have to kill it. Of course, once you’ve “killed it,” it rescinds back through the portal and it closes. Your Guardian Angel thanks you for a job well done and remarks how the Vault now won’t be opened for another 200 years. The game ends panning out from the planet to a satellite with the name “Guardian Angel” in leet speak written on the side of it, belonging to another faceless corporation in the game.

This is REALLY starting to sound familiar, and I certainly don’t mean that in a good way. Why in the HELL was the thing even trying to get me to open the Vault in the first place if the stuff of nightmares comes out from it? And if the damn Vault is supposed to be some kind of dimensional prison, then why the HELL can it be opened at a chance opportunity once every 200 years? Why not just, oh, I don’t know, space the damn parts of the key to ensure the portal is never opened? All the while there are these “aliens” or robots called “Guardians” (also never explained what or who they are) are attempting to stop everyone from trying to get to the Vault. I mean, they kept throwing one cliche after the other into a pot roast of ambiguity here.

The plot in Borderlands is such a mess that you literally cannot follow it because crucial elements to the story don’t even reveal their selves until the game is almost over. Questions cannot be asked, lore cannot be collected, and essentially the game makes no attempt to hide the fact that the plot was only put in there for an excuse to shoot people in the face for some odd 25 hours. To criticize Borderlands storyline would mean I would first have to recognize it, but since its on the bottom of a barrel of waste contaminant, stored in raw sewage, I don’t think I’m even going to bother wading through that crap just to show you a can of turd polish.

Fresh meat

Of course many people will say that the story doesn’t matter in Borderlands, and that where the game truly shines is within its game play. Of course people sometimes get confused and believe that “I can shoot people’s heads off” equates to “This is good game play.” No, sorry, a game needs to swim to the deep end of the pool and float if you truly want to claim it has good game play. Borderlands, on the other hand, is in the kiddie pool with the water wings, and it’s weighed down by so much suck that it’s drowning in two feet of water. The only trouble is that the game didn’t fill out the do not resuscitate form, so Gearbox insists on piling crap on top of crap and believes this is an equation for success.

Consider the bad guys in the game. They’re faceless, mask-wearing violent individuals. All of them try and kill you, no matter what. It could be one guy with a pistol and he’ll come running at you with your rocket launcher vehicle. All the while the variety in this behavior does not change, nor does the type of enemies you can kill. You’ve got your raiders, your heavy-armored guys, and then the alien dudes, and there’s about three different types of bad guys within those three groups. Then you have your animal life on Pandora, which includes skags, cliff racers rakks, spiderants, and those exploding worm things. They don’t get much more complex in individual types either (only skags and spiderants actually have different types that attack differently). This is then topped off by a “bad ass” system, as in a “mini boss” type of random that can spawn with the rest of them. Those don’t differentiate from one another as well, other than they have more health and hit harder.

Then you have this environment on Pandora. It’s a self-described wasteland of nothing. There’s barely any friendly people. But there sure is a hell of a lot of sand, rocks, and junk. For miles and miles. In every area. Where ever you go. Throughout the entire game. The full 25 hours. All on a color scheme of brown and shades of brown. Want to know what else is brown in color?

You can see where I’m probably going with this. Repetitiveness is thy name in Borderlands. Of course, in most grindfest games, developers understand that the single quality to keeping the attention of the gamer is offering variety. That never comes in Borderlands. You may get a cave mission here and there, and the finale has you romping through the snow, but that’s about it. You will be facing the same bad guys all the time, from LV1 to LV50. Does this sound fun to you? Gearbox thought so, so to pass the time (and levels), they have you run a second play through to reach level cap. Except the second time through the bad guys are harder to kill and the “bad ass” types show up more frequently. The only thing that is missing is a third play through, but I don’t think anyone is that masochistic. Either way, after you finish Borderlands, you’re unlikely to be able to stay awake for any play through after that.

Size doesn’t matter

Alright, so now you’re probably saying, “but the loot, the loot!” Yes, as Gearbox has boasted, Borderlands contains over 17 million weapons for you to find and collect. This statistic is usually thrown around when people doubt the quality in the game. There are seven types of weapons in Borderlands, including the shotgun, the SMG, the assault rifle, the repeater pistol, the revolver, the rocket launcher, and the sniper rifle. With each weapon comes six different part modifiers (these parts modify the rate of fire, the clip size, the accuracy, the number of bullets it shoots, etc). Then there are also four elemental damage types that can be included with a weapon. Then you also include the level variety of weapon possibilities (1 through 50). This is then topped off by 11 different manufacturer-types, which usually signify the general type of weapon it will be (Jakobs type is high damage, low fire rate, Vladof is high rate of fire, etc). When these variables are then put onto a randomization table to spit out loot, then yes, you are looking at over 17 million different combination possibilities.

In reality there are seven different types of weapons, not including throwing grenades or those stupid alien weapons (alien weapons rarely drop). Three of them are useless. Two of them you will use 90% of the time. After this narrowing down of reality, Borderlands doesn’t boast much at all other than fooling the player into believing they are getting a different experience with each weapon. Essentially you will find yourself always going for the weapon with a high rate of fire and good accuracy, because the way to press the “I win” button in this game is to score criticals after criticals (which means headshots for the most part).

The two main weapons you will be running with the most in 90% of any situation will be the assault rifle and the SMG. The assault rifle has the benefit of having a modifier that turns it into a burst rifle, which means firing three shots within one burst, ensuring accuracy for the weapon. Couple this with the fact that the assault rifle usually has the second best accuracy amongst all of the weapons (as well as zoom), and you’re now cooking with the Crisco. However, when you need to shoot a lot of bullets in a short amount of time, then it’s time to switch over to the SMG. Finding one that has a high rate of fire with great accuracy also makes it another deadly weapon (with zoom, just aim at the head, left click, and the enemy will go down in a second or two). And that’s basically it. The only time you will choose the revolver or the sniper rifle over those two weapons will be when a) you have run out of ammo for those weapons or b) you make an opening shot from far away on unsuspecting enemies (in that case it’ll just be the sniper rifle).

The shotgun, the repeater pistol, and the rocket launcher are your terribad weapons. Trash them, sell them, what ever, just get rid of them. The shotgun, as you can imagine, has low accuracy no matter what, so you need to get up close and personal with your enemies to do any sort of damage. Even then if the first shot doesn’t kill them then they’ll be unloading a barrage of fire into your face, and if you don’t run for cover they’ll take you down because you’re essentially holding a vacuum cleaner in your hands. They have low rates of fire, slow reloads, and small clips. Overall another example how practicality of a weapon does not find balance within a fictitious universe. The repeater pistol and the rocket launcher need less of an explanation as to why they suck. Repeater pistols are like your daggers in video games–you’re using it because that’s what they give you at LV1. But no matter what kind of rare dagger you may find later in the game, it will always suck compared to any other weapon. The rocket launcher, on the other hand, is the most disappointing weapon in a game that prides itself as all about explosions. Extremely slow rate of fire, slow rate of reload, and, worst of all, just one shot of damage. For the ammo capacity for this weapon, I expect “one shot, one kill” to come into effect here. Instead you spend most of your time just waiting to be able to fire again while everyone is content with continuing to shoot you in the face.

Despite all of this, the mechanics behind the weapons are interesting to an effect, and it can certainly “feel” different when using an assault rifle that has an “automatic” modifier applied to it, but there’s really not much difference between them other than aesthetics and usefulness. Essentially any weapon with accuracy and rate of fire is a must-need in Borderlands, considering it includes the ridiculous mechanic in most FPS games where bullets travel at the speed of a turtle. Hilariously enough you will probably find yourself using the sniper rifle less and less when the enemy you are shooting at reacts to the sound of the gunshot and is able to dodge a bullet. With the rate of fire on that thing, I also expect the aptly-named quote to come into effect for it, not for bad guys to dodge bullets. This becomes frustrating when you start to realize where you point your gun and shoot doesn’t necessarily mean the object won’t be able to magically outmaneuver a “speeding” bullet. But even before you’ve fired every bullet ever made in this game, you will come to the sad realization that shooting things doesn’t solve the problem of the repetitive game play.

Circuits ain’t the only thing on the fritz

Despite the horror of how much of a fiasco bore-fest this game is, Gearbox has made no attempts to fix the issue. They have, however, been quite keen on the whole DLC scene. You see, I hate DLC. I don’t mean that in the sense of, “I hate getting new content.” Oh no, I love new content. What I hate is having what was probably stuff in development before launch being finalized and then sold to me at a later date. That’s a bit like buying the case to a computer for the price of a working computer and then having to pay the price for the parts of the computer later on. When your game sucks to begin with, you don’t add more suck to it, you fix it first. Anyone remember the lost art of patching? What ever happened to that? Or did the dollar bills over DLC just make everyone forget when developers actually attempted to patch their imbalanced games so people could enjoy them as-is?

First you had the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, which was a three-hour grind-fest of shooting things in the face. That was $10. What did it include? One new area and one new enemy type. Then we had Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot. That too was $10. And what did that include? Yet another grind mechanic of spending time in a ring through rounds as you fought waves of enemies. Lets not forget the addition of a storage system (we got that for free here; what suckers, they could’ve sold it for $10!). Yet again another $10. And what’s coming up next? The Secret Armory of General Knoxx. At least this one looks to include a substantial amount of content, apparently boasting “12 hours” of game play, as well as new areas, new levels, and new vehicles. That’ll also probably be $10. And it’ll be a continuation after the game is over.

So you essentially have one total crap DLC, one not-so-crappy DLC, and then you have what looks like a mini-expansion. And yet…they’re all priced the same. Which brings me to a point I always like to bring up; the concept of money in video games. Why exactly are we paying the same price when the amount of content continues to become greater with each DLC? Not that I am complaining a potential mini-expansion may be priced at $10, but why in the hell did we have to pay $10 for a three-hour grind that added virtually nothing? At this point Borderlands has increased its monetary value spent from $50 of the box price to $70 (soon to possibly be $80).  $80 for a video game. $80 for a video game that is still repetitive as hell, still boring, and still doesn’t add any new mechanics or aspects to a game that is plagued by a flaw that will have you tossing it aside no matter how much DLC you throw at it. If the problem remains, then the problem remains. EA has trouble understanding that for Spore too. What this game needs less of is more crap piled onto a mountain of crap.

Don’t catch a ride

It’s a Diablo II clone, without the Diablo II equation for success. What Gearbox seemed most on copying straight from Diablo II, however, is the era it came out in, which, if any of you remember, meant a time before server browsers, item stashes, and when people couldn’t read. The only way you can tell that Borderlands isn’t a game in quality from the 1990s as a clone is its graphics, which is its only redeeming quality, but certainly not enough to spend $50 (or more) on just to enjoy the visualizations. If you’re into shooters then this will satisfy your thirst, but only on the first playthrough. But please, do not even attempt to buy into the idea that there are any sort of RPG elements in this game. There is no dialogue, no role to be had, and no choices to be made. It’s a railroad through the Territories of Linearity and there are no stops on the way. Sorry, but character statistics and a level up system does not make a game into an RPG. It’s a shooter through-and-through with one of the biggest senses of repetitiveness I haven’t seen since the fiasco of Hellgate: London. In fact, both games are so alike in nature (one color swatch environment, plot makes no sense whatsoever) that if you told me this game was secretly developed by a skeleton crew of Flagship Studios, I would believe you. If this is what Gearbox has to offer in their new series, I say go back to Brothers In Arms and do what you know, not regurgitate all over what you don’t.

About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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