Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Over the past few days, I've been gaming hard. I'm leaving very shortly to go to basic training, where I will remain for four weeks (or so I hope); few things bother me more than to leave a story unfinished, so I was intent on completing Borderlands before my departure.

At first, I wasn't sure what to think. The effort put into the game's intro sequence alone was pretty impressive; however once I embarked upon my journey, it began to feel a lot like I imagine Fallout 3 would have if Bethesda had left out a lot of the extraneous bullshit. Don't get me wrong, I like the sheer amount of features in that game; VATS makes up for the awful manual aiming (although I would rather they fixed that instead), and I wasted no time in setting about rescuing every teddy I could find from the horrors of the Capital Wasteland. The ability to just mess about doing things like this was kind of entertaining, but at the same time it diverted me away from the main story time and time again; I'd take on one side mission and end up trying to complete ten all at once. While Borderlands presented me with a lot of the same issues - particularly the one where I would have a small nervous breakdown trying to work out which areas to explore, for fear of forgetting to look somewhere else - it did it a lot less often and the side quests were generally fairly short, which was nice.

The game started out at a rather leisurely pace; in fact, it remained that way for most of its duration, again echoing the things about Fallout 3 which irritated me. Forgive me for comparing the two almost exclusively, but it's for reasons of simplicity, not a belief that Borderlands is any attempt at a copy of that game. Fallout 3 is the most recent game I've played which I can really compare Borderlands to at all. To get back on track, the reasons for this were twofold: slow-paced missions, or plenty of missions. As the game progressed, the number of quests available skyrocketed and it took me about two days to get through the New Haven phase of the game alone. That said, I was enjoying myself. While a lot of the side objectives tended to repeat themselves - searching for objects scattered either locally or over an entire map segment being the worst offenders, followed by elimination challenges - they usually coincided fairly nicely with my more important tasks or even each other, allowing me to wrap up anything from two to six all at once. I'm not entirely sure how, but Gearbox have somehow managed to stop this from boring me to death, like it would in most games. Gearbox have also managed to reference a variety of absolutely brilliant movies without making things seem cheesy, and I got a good laugh out of spotting these. At times things became a little tedious, but never enough for me to quit the game for days, weeks or months on end like I generally do; I took breaks every few hours, but then I was right back into the game.

I think that the sheer uniqueness of the game's art style played a large part in appealing to me. It's something I haven't seen for a long time, and it's always nice when a dev decides to fly completely in the face of the current trends, even when there's no real guarantee that the gamble will pay off. Originally, Borderlands subscribed to the same gritty over-realistic, Hollywood-esque style that many recent titles have used; although it still featured far more colour than most of those games, there wasn't much else to distinguish it visually. In changing to a completely unrealistic, almost cartoony art style, Gearbox not only managed to make it stand out from the crowd, but they also proved that you don't have to follow everyone else's lead to produce a popular game. Even in the absence of the usual long cinematic sequences or rooted-to-the-spot exposition dialogues, I found it relatively easy to lose myself in the world of Pandora; I developed an almost parental over-protectiveness of Claptraps, and took great glee in mowing down any who I found near a hurt one. I developed something of a 'feel' for the characters' personalities, usually spotting a betrayal or a helping gesture before it came. Most importantly, I felt the kind of drive to reach the Vault while keeping Lilith as safe as possible that I needed to finish the game (despite there being no real penalty for dying). Even though no real backstory was provided for the characters ingame and scant details were all I had seen elsewhere, it was fairly easy to work out what made Lilith (who is an absolute force to be reckoned with in good hands) tick. That said, I would've liked the chance to actually learn more about each character at some point in the game; like L4D, vague details and subjective guesswork are all that are available.

Returning to the gameplay itself, once again, the Fallout 3 comparison rears its ugly, desolate head. Both games featured a slow lead-up to a tipping point after which no amount of willing the game to slow down would help. That's it, really; the story just hit its climax and ran away wildly, like a kid tyre-rolling down a hill. In the case of Fallout 3, I actually went back and loaded an earlier save before buggering off and setting out to explore the remaining two-thirds of the game world, abandoning the final quest as it neared its close. I genuinely hadn't expected things to take off so fast, and as I'd finished the game, I knew how I would end it. To this day, Fallout 3 appears confused as to whether I've finished the main quest or not, evidenced by the mixed news updates on GNR. This is essentially the same problem I had with Borderlands; I had a few side quests I was partway through, and whole areas of the game world I had only given a cursory glance to. In particular, the latter areas of the game were all but unexplored to me, as I'd been so single-mindedly intent on reaching the Vault. I'm trying to keep this relatively spoiler-free, so I won't go into specifics; however, Thor was the tipping point, and from there on I didn't stop for hell nor high water. I did stop for hurt Claptraps, but I digress.

Once the inevitable had happened, and I had finished the game - the ending of which, by the way, felt like a bit of a slap in the face - I sat and watched the credits roll, and began the inevitable comedown that follows a long binge on a game which has managed to really draw me in. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the credits stopped rolling and I found myself standing alone in the snow, a single objective marked on my HUD.

Borderlands isn't quite done with me yet, and in a way, I'm kind of glad. While the actual main story was incredibly short and wonkily paced, much like Fallout 3's, I wasn't ready to just leave Pandora, or Lilith, to gather proverbial dust. In conclusion - because I have to end this barely-coherent mess of thoughts somewhere - Borderlands is something like a donut to me: thoroughly enjoyable, but leaving you wanting more. Gearbox is already working on DLC which will add new areas, enemies, and quests, but in this gamer's mind, a more filled-out main story would be worth more than all the DLC in the world. Borderlands will probably suffer somewhat upon my return as I'll no doubt binge on MW2 and L4D2, but it can certainly rest assured that I won't be able to leave it alone for any longer than necessary.

Like a hurt Claptrap, really.

Edit - and this does contain something of a spoiler - I should probably make one final note, which is that my disappointment with regards to the ending was due to the speed at which it arrived, not what it entailed. A lot of people seem upset that they couldn't do what they expected to do; well, you can't always get what you want. If anything, it's nice to see a game which leaves the player feeling well and truly stitched up and wondering if anything they'd experienced was what it seemed to be. Nearly every game I've ever played ended well for the player; this is a welcome change.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Brown Brown Brown (Red Blue Green)

Over the past few days, I've been playing two games in particular: Mirror's Edge and Borderlands. Here, though, we have two very different ways of avoiding the 'brown problem'.

Let's start with the former. Mirror's Edge makes use of white like most games make use of brown. The buildings, streets, drainage canals, walkways, AC units... virtually everything in the city is pure, eye-burningly stark white, right down to the cardboard boxes and benches and other detritus that you encounter during the course of the game. Obviously, this is as much a device to tell the player they're in a sterile, utopian society as it is a design choice; accents of orange, green, blue, pink, and various other vivid colours are used to draw the player's attention to where they're meant to go, or to detail an area. In places, even the lighting and shade are coloured. This is the all-out, dead-opposite approach to what we're becoming used to, as brown usually represents something dirty or old.

Perhaps the credit for the more interesting of the two approaches, though, goes to Borderlands. While the game itself is largely brown by necessity (Pandora, of course, being one giant wasteland), the player's weapons - the things they will see every second they are playing the game, in the bottom right corner of their screen - are so vividly coloured they put even the Halo series to shame. Kill a lot of enemies in one area, and you will find a veritable rainbow of weapons lying on the dusty ground. The fact that Gearbox found a way to add some colour to a game which takes place on a dustbowl planet is impressive; the fact that they did so without hurting the atmosphere is even more so. If only more developers would try to inject some variety into the sea of brown... as even deserts have colour.