Sunday, September 23, 2012

Borderlands 2 (2012) Gearbox Software - 20 hour review

I have a tendency to be a marathon gamer, especially with games I like.  I'm not a power gamer during these marathons.  There's no sprinting for level cap or the end of the game.  I'm not compelled to have the big shiny game-breaker from the get-go.  Sometimes I just happen to settle in for the long haul (sometimes unintentionally).  Borderlands 2 caught me from around four a.m. Saturday morning until about two Sunday morning.  I had received the game in the mail Friday afternoon and I biked over to the Haven to let them have first look at it that evening.  Ended up drinking a bit so when I came home around midnight I crashed out.  Woke up a few hours later feeling refreshed and decided to give Gearbox's much anticipated title a quick test run before heading back to bed.  So much for that idea.

Out of the four current class choices I decided to go with Commando.  I figured it would be a good tester as a starter.  Normally I would have gone with the assassin/sniper but I had good luck with the Soldier in Borderlands and I do like being able to launch autoturrets.  

The intro to Borderlands 2 seems to sum up the game neatly.  It starts off familiar and then just kind of goes epic.  I have this strange feeling that this is the game they wanted to make in the first place but didn't know if Borderlands would draw in an audience.  The scope has increased significantly, not in a Skyrim kind of sprawling vastness where any feature could lead to adventure, think more along the lines of Arkham City versus Arkham Asylum.   Gearbox has expanded and built upon a great foundation while making a massive number of changes (many of which aren't apparent at first glance).

Level design is one of the first things I noticed, enemy design close second.  Some of the landscape areas have been deceptively large but chock full of things to explore and explode.  Before access to a vehicle (which happens fairly early on) you're in for a bit of a trek.  In this way it is similar to its predecessor.  However, in a number of areas I've been in, the instances have the quality and length of the later missions in Borderlands.  What could be a rail shooter is anything but.  One section I'm particularly fond of is a combo platter of claustrophobic and large scale combat that boasts cut throughs, over and under passageways, vast amounts of cover, choke points, and things that go boom.

This leads me to enemy design (and AI performance).  The rogues gallery from the first game are out in force but they are backed by a slew (and by slew I mean metric shit ton) of new baddies.  I don't know how many people Gearbox had working on creature and enemy design but they knocked it out of the park in style and AI.  The AI wants to kill you.  Correction, the AI wants to curbstomp your daddy bag into paste and then kill you.  I've been pinned down and flanked and charged and swarmed (on several occasions all at the same time).  In some areas I've been able to bug out and sprint, hellbent for leather, from combat and out of immediate danger.  In other areas, particularly open levels with enemies spawning and chasing (or flying) after me that's not so much of an option.  In one section I was charged by swarmers while the big bad tanked at me.  No big.  Downside was, there were numerous ranged attackers who were more than happy to pin me down at range and from different sections of the map.  Most of these mobs also feature a mixed bag of resistances and weaknesses making what could be a simple run and gun into a desperate fire fight.  One enemy, I won't tell you which, is particularly vicious and isn't all that rare.  Their appearance in combat reminds me of Boromir's, "They have a cave troll."  

Fortunately, to counter the screaming hordes, we have a number of elements at our disposal.  Yes, lots and lots of guns but Gearbox has ramped up the RPG elements and level of customization for your character.  By completing challenges you are awarded "Badass" tokens.  These tokens can be exchanged for boosts to skills of your choosing.  It's really quite a brilliant system that encourages experimentation in gameplay.  Moving away from the (now) familiar, "the more you use a skill the more proficient you are" - which I strongly enjoy but know how to game the system with - the badass tokens rewards aren't always the same choices.  You can't hoard tokens and then dump them all into one skill since that skill might not show up every time you use a token.  What's really awesome, and I think shows a kind of mad genius, the bonuses you get are shared with all of your characters.  I'm happy about this because I know that I am going to play each character class.  Another interesting factor in these challenges is the simple fact that you can't rely on one type of weapon (e.g. sniper rifles) because there's just not enough ammo.  Some instances are so long you'll be forced to switch out weapons simply because you ain't got no bullets.  I'm currently using SMG and pistols as my primaries (I have yet to find an assault rifle worth a shit) and I tote at least one of every type of weapon class available.  Shotgun?  Check.  Two different weapon classes of assault rifle?  Check.  Missile Launcher?  Check.  Three different classes of SMG, pistol, and sniper rifle each?  Check.  Pointy stick?  Check.  I'm sure this load out will change as skills and equipment limitations increase but for now?  Hell, sometimes I'll limp out of mission with about a dozen random rounds of ammo.

B2 has also done something that I found myself going, "Huh, that's pretty cool."  For ammo capacity, bank, and backpack upgrades - you can't just out and out buy them with cash.  They cost units of a rare mineral drop.  Fortunately since I'm a loot hound who will grab anything not nailed down I've been able to expand my carrying capabilities significantly (except for ammo).  I like this change in purchasing since it limits my ability to simply throw money into juicing my character.

The Commando is a lot like the Solider in Borderlands - on the surface.  At level 16/17 I'm doing okay for myself.  I've put most of my tokens into weapon skills (reduced recoil, increased reload time, accuracy, and  elemental damage) and shield recharge times.  I dumped all of my skill points into prolonging longevity - I just put a point or two in damage output.  I have yet to sit down and really give the skill trees a look but Borderlands 2 allows you to respec (for a cost).  Back when I was playing Borderlands I would respec depending on whether or not I was playing with other people or not.  I'm pleased with the build so far but really I'm just waiting for the Mechromancer.

And then we have the guns.  There are kajillions of variations and you never know what you're going to get.  Gearbox expanded on their Wild World of Firearms from the first game and now it's just insane.  To make life easier each weapon manufacturer has it's own style - nothing new - but Gearbox decided to tweak some of the weapon handling that I'm not sure if I'm a fan of.  Dahl only burst fires when using iron sights/scope (not to terrible but I've not found a Dahl worth keeping), Hyperion increases accuracy the longer the bursts (which fucking sucks), and Jacobs fire as fast as you pull the trigger but with a serious detriment to accuracy (realistic but sucks).  Maliwan are the weapons of choice since you're gonna want to be dishing out elemental damage as soon as you can.  What I'm unhappy about (and is one of my holy grails in the game) are the changes to the assault rifle and pistol/revolver classes.  This is nit picky and lord knows with so many variants in the game I'm bound to find something I like soon.  However, at this point in time, assault rifles have been "expanded" under a weird umbrella of carbines, machine guns, grenade launchers, and rocket launchers.  Okay, the grenade launchers are cool and useful.  Rocket launchers, meh.  Machine guns I never really use anyway.  Carbines are another story.  In almost all shooters I lean towards the carbine assault rifle.  Even at a low level, with entry level skills I can do solid work.  In B2 thus far they are crappy von Poopenstein.  Yes, I haven't found one I love, I know.  Dahl assault rifles used to be excellent weapons but with the burst shot with iron sights, meh.  Not a fan.  That being said, SMGs and pistols (not revolvers) fucking rock in B2, even at a range I would normally use an assault rifle for.  I have three Maliwan (corrosive, fire, and electro) which bring the noise.  While I'm not a fan of the Hyperion brand I do have an emergency Hyperion street sweeper with a sixteen round drum that is a beast when taking down overgrown Psychos.

I should mention the story.  B2 actually has one I'm paying attention to.  They dovetail a crap ending (sorry Borderlands had a crummy ending) with a solid intro and engaging characters.  You don't need to finish the first to play the second but really, you're not going to get a good chunk of the inside humor and the pathos in B2.  It's actually kind of impressive and unexpected.

I should also mention the humor.  It ranges from dick and fart jokes to non sequiturs and double-entendres to really fucking dark to goofy puns (one of my favorites is "I have Turrets Syndrome!" to the surprisingly clever.  Sometimes in rapid succession.  Normally, I'm not a huge fan  of humor in my games (except Double Fine) but Gearbox's writers did some solid work.  I also haven't heard a great deal of repetition in the lines so that's kind of impressive too.

Hell of an overlong first impressions post but I realize that I tend to goob out for the first few posts before my inner Zero Punctuation kicks in.  Gearbox has put out a solid game, despite a few quibbles, and more importantly brought something to my game experience that I don't normally have - fun.  Oh I have fun gaming (EVE isn't terribly fun anymore) but most games I've played lately seem to be either serious or I seem more to appreciate them for the craft (Limbo, Bastion, Amnesia, Stacking).  Not to imply that Borderlands 2 isn't a well-crafted game but damn I'm having fun.  Visceral crazy-person fun.  Like headshotting a charging suicide bomber psycho in the midst of his friends.  Driving over and backing over (repeatedly) a pack of skags while whistling the Love Connection theme song.  Shooting the limbs off an attack drone and letting it crawl while acid melts it.  Punching a flaming psycho midget to death.  Getting into a batshit crazy firefight while low on ammo and singing Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler".  Tagging a Marauder with a Longbow grenade.  Yelling "Clean up, aisle twelve!" when an explosion turns something into a red smear.  

Jeez, and people thought Grand Theft Auto was fucked up.  

Multiplayer review coming up.  Holy shit, we can split-screen this time?                      

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