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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Borderlands series review

Cowboy cat by Infomastern from flickr (CC-SA)

As you might have noticed I enjoy video games and cats a lot, so today I'd like to review Borderlands series in one go - some time ago I played Borderlands 2 (as Zero and then halfway through as Geige), and then replayed Borderlands 1 with all the DLCs.

The games have far more similarities than differences so it makes more sense to review them together.

The good

First of all, Handsome Jack - Borderlands 2 managed to pull off one of the most memorable antagonists in the history of gaming, even though you only actually meet him in a brief (and fairly easy) fight. In most games villains are totally replaceable, and you could switch any Mr Doom with Doctor Destruction or Big Bad Alien and nobody would even notice - you just go forward because quests tell you to, not because you care about the ending all that much. In Borderlands 2 Handsome Jack contacts you every now and then to taunt you and otherwise acts as a total douche and throughout the game he manages to build a lot of personality this way. I'd give some examples, but I don't want to be spoilerific about something so awesome.

The next great thing is cartoonish style. Yes it's a postapocalyptic wasteland kind of environment, but it manages to be really happy and colorful! Just as Simpsons (in the old days), South Park and Family Guy (more recently) have shown - you can get away with a lot more if you look silly and cartoonish. I don't really see any "serious" series being able to pull off things like Tiny Tina.

That's one thing I really disliked about Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim - they try too hard to keep this awful brown/grey/different shade of grey (plus some snow white in case of Skyrim) color palette popularized by "serious business" modern shooters, and it really doesn't suit them.

I really liked how various playable characters from Borderlands 1 become major NPCs in Borderlands 2 - that's the best storyline transition to the sequel I've seen in any game.

I absolutely loved how you can respec your characters for a small fee. In far too many games you need to make your spec choices before you have any idea what you're doing, and there's no way out of them other than by restarting the game. The idea is either that it's "serious business" or that it adds to replay value, but it's bullshit either way - every game should have some way to respec your character, no exceptions.

Another thing I quite liked contrary to many other reviews is how vehicles worked. In most games they are pretty awful. In particular Bandit Technical with barrel catapult was a lot of fun to drive.

Aww cowboy cat by roboppy from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

The bad

The worst thing about Borderlands is levelling system - it's almost as bad as Oblivion. It forces you to do all the side quests in the right order, since if you delay any for a few levels it will be laughably easy.

The first time I played Borderlands 1 before any DLCs came out, it was a reasonable game. The second time I played it with all the DLCs at about the level I was supposed to - and because I got a bunch of levels fighting DLC zombies the entire main story line (and all the side quests since their level is linked with story line level) were just laughably easy.

Levelling systems for open-ended games are always a problem, but in Borderlands the difference even 1 or 2 level difference makes is so ridiculously big even minor problems completely screw the game the way they wouldn't usually.

Borderlands 2 figured this out and at least moved all DLCs to after the main campaign, except for Geige one which provides a new character without any new missions.

A fairly annoying thing is that enemies respawn too fast. I'm not terribly fond of respawn mechanics in general, even though I realize they're essential, but it's one thing for enemies to respawn after you leave the map and come back a few days later, not respawning 5 minutes after you kill them like routinely happens here.

Just like with every other game I really hated max item limit. It was especially horrible in Borderlands 1, so on my second playthrough I just edited the save game to make it 99 before I even started playing. Dear games, stop doing this bullshit. It's tedious and doesn't provide any value whatsoever. In Borderlands 2 at least it was possible to increase it by spending some eridium, so it ended up being less annoying, but I'd still much rather not have any limits.

I'm not a big fan of the random item looting mechanic. It's pretty much inevitable that 99% of random items will be worse than your current item, and it's just unnecessarily tedious to sort them out. What's worse - 99% of quest reward items tend to be total crap, or 100% if you do quests out of level order. This by the way annoyed me far more in Skyrim where unique Daedric artifacts were a lot worse than random crap you could make with medium-level blacksmithing. Why can't games simply increase power level of unique items across the board to make this at least somewhat less annoying? 

While I really loved Borderlands 2's primary antagonist and he together with many other memorable characters drove the storyline well, Borderlands 1's storyline was of simply "go there, shoot some bandits" variety. 

The rest

Borderlands 1 and 2 are very similar games in most ways. Some people have irrational dislike for sequels being too similar mechanically to the originals, but I don't mind - I'd much rather see the sequel keep parts that worked and improve what didn't (like Borderlands 2 with the storyline and various minor enhancements) than completely screw everything that was good about the original, like:
  • Witcher 2
  • FarCry 2
  • Crysis 2
  • Doom 3
  • and other such total crap (OK, Witcher 2 wasn't as crappy as the other examples, but drop in quality from awesomeness of Witcher 1 was huge, and only partly explained by pandering to the dirty console-playing peasants and their shitty controllers)
I totally don't care for multiplayer nonsense Borderlands is full of. Multiplayer coop is just a stupid idea every time, and the only proper kind of multiplayer is pure PvP.

Anyway, I recommend both games very highly despite all their issues.

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