Blog 377: Through the Borderlands

I got Borderlands with crimbo money. I bumped into Jack in Waterstone’s, then we picked up the last two copies from the Game in the Buchannan Galleries. For ten pounds apiece less than the Game on Sauchiehall Street, for some reason.

I have to say, it is a thoroughly enjoyable game. It is a breath of fresh air in a world of serious business. It’s so lovable.

I was initially skeptical because of its comedic nature, though. I read a preview that said it was hilarious fun, but only really if you’re playing cooperatively — and that’s quite a serious downer for me, a dedicated loner. Then I discovered it was all very stylised, with huge comic-book black borders around things, and I somewhat switched off (because I do tend to be into the whole serious business jig). Kilbirnie decided to get it, so I waited on his opinion (because we all know how well he can be trusted, right?). He said it was good. People on the internet said it was good. Since at least a few people I knew had it for the PC, that meant that I had good backup for cooperative play as a last resort.

Assuming one of us could get it port forwarded.

The Game

In terms of movement, it reminds me a lot of Unreal Tournament 2004. Movement speed is pretty slow, though you can dash when you’re not shooting; but you can jump pretty damn high. Jumping is very floaty, and the game seems to have little concept of falling damage (except the obligatory instant-death cliffs at some map edges). Maybe I just never found anywhere tall enough to jump off (not for want of trying).

In terms of atmosphere, it’s a bit Fallout 3; the planet of Pandora is half brown wasteland, half junkyard. Complete with toilets and old washing machines that contain ammunition. The wilderness is full of bandits and psychos — unfortunately, disturbing a party of one or two tends to summon twelve more from nearby huts (spawn-points are very slick, hidden inside huts or caves covered by a sheet of blackness from whence the new enemies appear… That is, until you find a broken one or two that you can actually get inside (garages in the Dahl Headlands most consistently… Unless patches)).  Which means you frequently get swamped.

Luckily I chose the Solider class (“Critical hit, biatch!”), which allowed me to summon a turret with little blockades around it. I even upgraded it to regenerate my health, which saved my bacon a considerable number of times — since backpack space is at a premium (especially if, like me, you harvest every single piece of loot that isn’t strapped down), you can’t load up too much on health-packs. They’re of the slow-regenerating variety anyway, so they’re actually not much use in a fight. If you’re lucky, an enemy will drop an instant-health vial during a fight.

The game adopts an infinite respawn with cash penalty system. Luckily, death will reset the hit-points on all the enemies too (if not revive old ones), so there’s no cheap way out like Bioshock (and the final boss doesn’t have to get totally nerfed to compensate for disabling revival either). I never found out what dying with no money left did, but I suspect they’d find some way to bring you back. By the end of my run, I had more money than sense anyway (as with all games… At least it’s not like Mass Effect where reaching 9,999,999 is not only achievable, but hard not to get).

Shops were a bit annoying, since they never actually sold any weapon that was point-blank better than the one I had — except when that weapon was unusable due to having a level requirement several in advance of my current. Needless to say, these were “items of the day” that disappeared by the time I’d got to the required level. As noted, backpack space was at a premium so there’s no room to cart around stuff for the future. The inventory system is a bit messy anyway. Why won’t people go back to the simple drag and drop of Baldur’s Gate?

Dealing with characters was rather refreshing. In order to obtain quests, you go to either people or Bounty Boards. Either way, you get a screen where you can choose to accept missions… Or leave them there. I don’t know why you’d want to leave any missions, because the worst consequence I ever got was pissing off One-Eye Jack to make him hate on New Haven — which resulted in another quest for me, meaning more reward etc etc etc. I actually ran him over, since there were no bollards to stop me getting into his little enclave.

Anyway, you just immediately accept all missions. That’s what’s cool about this game — it’s almost like Morrowind. People will say things as you wander around them, (like Helena Pierce will be really friendly in her voice-acted lines, but the mission-text makes her all “fffff stop ruining my town”) but actual “dialogue” is all text-based. I think they could have expanded this a bit, maybe with a “conversation system” a bit more like that of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, where you advance through dialogue rather than just reading an arbitrary passage of text. People don’t lip-synch anyway (Helena opened and closed her mouth slowly, a bit like a fish, as I read her comments). Nice touch is that quest-giver peeps say something as you walk away from them.

It’s not a difficult game, as long as you don’t mind doing a little grinding in between missions. There’s an assault on a small town full of heavily-armed mercenaries (some of them have impenetrable shields, so damage went like: 0, 0, 0, 0, Critical! Critical! 0, 0, 0, Critical! “Critical, biatch!”), which I found extremely tough until I’d gained a couple of levels on it (even though Helena told me it was a “normal” difficulty mission and recommended me be the level I was). Yes, when you accept a mission it gives you a recommended level and a difficulty, so you can tell immediately (nine times out of ten) whether or not you’re ready for something. And if you aren’t, there are probably plenty of other missions you are ready for. Or ones you can abuse from inside a car.

I Drive Better When I’m Drunk

Yes, driving in Borderlands is absolutely terrible. Instead of adopting the same control scheme as, say, every other PC FPS with vehicles ever, they have a bizarre setup whereby the car goes in the direction the mouse is pointing. Instead of, you know, forwards for forwards and left and right to steer, leaving you free to turret while you drive without steering accidentally into a bollard (not to mention tight manouevres while under attack are impossible). The cars also look like they have really springy suspension, but I managed to get stuck on top of the slightest little lumps — most often, the little half-tyres on the edge of the road outside Fyrestone. I’m not the most responsible driver, but since it’s Unreal Engine 3 I kind of expected to be able to rock my way through tighter spots than the brick suspension allowed.

Then again, it could be an issue with collision geometry. There are a few “scavenger” quests, which require you to find gun parts in a small area. These tend to be hidden in places that require a bit of climbing and acrobatics, which is great. Unfortunately, sometimes there are invisible walls stopping you from jumping where it looks like you should be able to jump. On the flip-side, dead bodies quite often fell into the ground. Even a couple of quest items did once, making them annoyingly unrecoverable.

Another control issue was with the “use” key — when you weren’t using an actual object, it also seemed to become the reload key. So you’re trying to grab that instant-health vial in the middle of a fight? I’ll just take your gun off you for five minutes too, since you’re too cack-handed to actually hit on the item on the ground in the first place. Grumble.

Should Have Had An Editor

Borderlands doesn’t include an editor. I think this is a shame, because I believe that due to the structure of the game, it would be quite easy to build additional levels that fitted in with the rest of the game.

Okay, you wouldn’t get the pre-rendered loading screens (unless they gave you whatever scripts they used to create them… But though the imagery is surely in-engine, the editing probably isn’t), but there is the generic one you get when starting a new game and you could abuse the tips part to introduce level name text.

Hijack the in-game character models and soundsets and the rest is bounty board stuff — pure text. Loot is generated on demand as you open a lootable container, and tends towards what you’ve just used up in the last fight. Weaponry is also procedurally generated, or so I’m told, so the burden wouldn’t even be on the modder to handle the real nitty-gritty of creating and balancing content. You’d just plop down a level, a quest giver or two, some objectives and some containers — and the game would do the rest itself.

Okay, custom artwork would probably be a bitch because of the distinctive style of the game. But this is the Unreal Engine 3 here, there’s probably a wealth of cheap recolours you can pull out of your buttocks just by looking a the material editor in a funny way. Not to mention they probably didn’t have to make that much in the way of additional editor tools, if any at all.

Oh wait, it’s available on PS3 and Xbox 360, so you’re not allowed user mods. Bah.

Co-operative Play

For a game apparently designed completely around co-operative play, its online matchmaking system is absolutely dreadful. No text-chat, nobody telling you the set of ports you need to forward to get through your router, no ability to kick players, no way to see their pings… Basically just “host” and “join”. Seriously. Patch dat, please.

Kilbirnie and I gave it a test-run t’other day. Every website seemed to agree on a suite of ports which the BTHomeHub accepted and so allowed people to join… But only public games. Every time he tried to get into my private game, the connection was refused.

We thought, bah, we’ll just host it public — but then loads of randoms join in with level 20+ characters (to our shiny new level 1 characters). So I returned to the internets, and it turns out a further one port was required to allow play through private games. Yes, the Unreal Engine 3’s netcode seems to be completely batshit. I think it should be standard practice now to publish in a game’s manual what ports it requires to be forwarded to get through a router, considering how ubiquitous routers are these days in the household. Rather than forcing people to scry it out through deep magic, which results in them missing one. I still haven’t found a complete set of ports that makes UT3 let me host, years after its release.

No firewall bypassing was apparently needed, though,buto I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Unless that’s a side-effect of Windows 7; maybe it has finally actually realised that when I run a game, I tend to want to let it go online.

Co-op play seems fairly imbalanced. Every time Kilbirnie had to revive me (when you’re down, allies can now revive you to get you your Second Wind as well), he got some experience points and ended up racing ahead of me for a while. But then I completed some achievements, and pushed ahead again.

Click latency was unnoticeable, but that could be from only two of us and both in the same country. His character did judder about a bit.

Another funny thing is that all the cinematics play to both of you, and the Guardian Angel acts as if it’s only you she’s talking to — the same cinematics and dialogue play as in singleplayer. For a game apparently built around co-op, again, it seems awfully like it wasn’t really designed for it. Which is probably a bonus in my book, but there you go.

I suspect the only true bonus that co-op adds is the banter between you as you all act like fools.

The Verdict

I thoroughly enjoyed Borderlands. It’s a big, wide-open world — but it’s not too big, and once the fast-travel network comes online you can hop all over the place with nary a care in the world. Fast-travel-able places aren’t everywhere, though, so unlike The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion where you can travel to any landmark on your map, you don’t suddenly edit out vast tracts of landscape. Then again, Rust Commons West was a bit frustrating due to the copious explosive/toxic barrels strewn about one particular road leading away from one of the stations. What with car control being so terrible, I crashed into those same barrels far too many times.

But it’s good fun, and it’s good banter. Clap-trap will stay with me forever.

Play it alone or with a friend or four… Just don’t host a public game.

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2 thoughts on “Blog 377: Through the Borderlands

    • Because the scoring setup has been considerably altered for version Gamma. Old score-sheets will not be valid.

      The rdznet.com domain will not be active beyond another 95 days, so any data left there will be inaccessible. I took the decision to close the site because it served no purpose; I do not need a forum, deviantART provides a gallery and this blog provides everything else.

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