Friday, January 4, 2013

Borderlands 2

One interesting and sharp contrast between the video games industry and the film industry is that game sequels often surpass the originals. In the movie industry sequels are often obvious cash grabs but in the games industry it is more common for a sequel to raise rather high expectations. The reason for this is relatively straightforward to see: the first game is a risky gamble with a certain budget. Within the confines of a budget and a production time it is not possible to gather the sheer amount of player feedback that is gotten after the game's release. Furthermore if the original sells, the sequel is guaranteed to have a solid budget. Additionally since the concept has been proven, the sequel only needs to enhance it. It almost seems like a lot of games need that second iteration to really shine. Sometimes the second iteration is called "enhanced edition" but in the current market situation, more often than not it is called a "2".

Such is the case with Borderlands, a conceptually very sound and mostly importantly fun game that nevertheless had a bunch of gaping flaws. Uninteresting plot, repetitive scenery/quests and rather colorless character abilities were the three primary complaints about the game. Being a long game, even though it had four different characters, its replay value was quite low. At least for us single player types. Thankfully the game got a load of attention and a sequel was guaranteed. It was indeed one of those games where you could instantly see how much better it can become. Not least because of the DLC quality: 3 out of 4 DLC adventures were significantly better written than the game itself!

1. Goodbye generic side quests

For me this improvement is perhaps the one with the most impact. In the first game, side quests were dull. Your run-of-the-mill MMO stuff: farm or kill things with a an entirely irrelevant text description of why exactly this should be done. Almost none of the side quests in Borderlands 2 are collected from bounty boards and even the ones that are still involve NPC communication throughout the quest. Moreover, side quest assignments range from mildly weird to absurd. This combined with the well-written humorous dialogue during the quests makes most of them just as memorable as the main quest itself - if not more so! On the first play through the game side quests are not done just to obtain rewards - you actually want to experience them in all their wackiness.

The importance of meaningful side quests is often overlooked by game developers. The rationale probably goes something like "people who do side quests do them anyway" which to some extent is likely to be true. Quality does trump quantity here. Advertising that your game contains a thousand quests is a clear signal that these quests are going to be generated and repetitive in nature, done only for the sole purpose of obtaining the reward. Granted, sometimes there is the element of challenge involved too but that seems to be the rare exception. At worst, such games are mere skinner boxes where the player is pressing the lever repeatedly in hope of a reward. I highly prefer the Borderlands 2 way where some quests are rather lenghty and they are fewer in number, but they all form an experience that can actually be called content without feeling cheap.

Of course it takes resources to write quality quests. Each quest in Borderlands 2 has most likely required some effort from an actual writer, and of course from the quest designer. They didn't come out of a spreadsheet. The tough truth about resources and effort in regard to side quests is that if you don't have what it takes to do good ones, how about not doing them at all? Why spend any effort at all into making some ridiculous attempts to make the game longer when you could spend all your limited resources on the core game? Each quest should provide something to the player: real gameplay and/or content. By real gameplay I mean gameplay that is unique to this quest, something that makes the player feel they are actually doing something meaningful or challenging.

Borderlands 2 mostly provides meaning through dialogue content and that is fine. The actions that are taken during side quests are more or less the same stuff that the player keeps doing throughout the game: shoot and loot. That is what we came here for anyway. Another approach that I wholeheartedly approve is the opposite: no dialogue content, just challenge. Post-game dungeons and bosses fall under this category. The connecting factor is that both of these approaches provide meaning to the player. In the Borderlands 2 approach the meaning to the player is to enjoy the more or less insane ramblings of the eccentric NPC cast of the game. Although we may look at this additional story content as a reward for completing the side quest,  I would argue that it is more meaningful to the player to do the side quest because it grants the quest giver more personality.

I care a whole lot about NPC personality. Whether they are believable or not is of no particular consequence as long as it is entertaining to listen to their banter. Because I care, it is also more meaningful for me to complete an assignment for a character. Although them liking me for it is just a piece of code inside the game's logic, the effect persists. Even research shows that humans project a personality on products even when one is not desgined into it, so it is no wonder that products that do have built-in personality can affect emotions. Since the interpersonal context has been made meaningful, there is more motivation to complete the given quest. I could go on about the personality of video game characters for another blog post or two, but we've gotten quite sidetracked already. The conclusion of this rambling is that the side quests in Borderlands 2 are successful because they are written in a way that enhances the quest giver's personality.

2. Dem skill trees

A big issue in the first Borderlands was the inability of skill choices to affect gameplay. Most skills were merely simple buffs that gave a bonus percentage to something - usually damage with one weapon type or another.While this does have some consequence (primarly, which weapons to use) it doesn't really create different styles to play. The fact that skill tree choices do not have a huge effect on gameplay might be seen as positive in more action-oriented genres, but Borderlands has strong RPG roots. And in an RPG, the way you build your character is supposed to have a large impact on how you play the game. It is about creating a character that suits your own play style. If it is not possible to emphasize play style through skill selection, the character is bound to lack identity.

This is actually of particular consequence in more action-oriented games like Borderlands because player skill is a significant factor in choosing a play style. A player who is a great sniper is likely to be more successful with a skill build that emphasizes high, single shot, long range damage even if strictly mathematically a short range assault build would be better. Because the choice of optimal play style is affected by game-independent factors (player ability), there is less inclination towards the infamous cookie-cutter builds that are plaguing a lot of MMOs. Since there is an opportunity to create interesting skill choices even without a completely balanced skill tree, the developers of Borderlands should have felt obligated to do so. It is not a surprise then than one of the most anticipated changes promised for Borderlands 2 was an improved skill system.

On the surface the skill system looks alarmingly similar to its predecessor. Each character has one active special ability and three specialized skill trees which modify stats and the special ability. Again a lot of these skills are numerical increases to some aspect or another. Skill trees are divided into levels, and taking a total of 5 assignments in a tree opens up the next level. There are definitely more skills to choose from though. While there are no additional active skills, there are a whole lot of conditional skills, some of which stack. The important difference is that a lot of skills now do clearly affect play style and that they combo with each other. Another interesting aspect is that since the game is so action-heavy, skills often work differently in use than what they look like on paper. This would be horrible without respecs, so fortunately the game offers an inexpensive way to do so. Now it is actually interesting to experiment with different builds.

Dividing each character's skills into three specific trees is a good solution in at least one sense: for players who do not want to bother with experimenting, it is easy to see which tree to build for a certain play style. At the same time, a more adventurous gamer may find that their build can be improved by taking skills from two separate trees or even all of them. The only limitation is that such a diverse skill build cannot involve any skills very deep in the trees. This might be good for reducing the possibility of overpowered comboes, although during my playthroughs with two different characters I didn't really come up with any. Regardless, one tree is likely to by any build's primary tree which defines the core play style. There are basically 3 hard play styles for each character, creating a total of 12 options (15 with the DLC character). Most importantly, builds now really feel different to play.

3. Apply polish - lots of

The improvements are not huge but together they make for a much stronger game. However it doesn't stop there. Borderlands 2 also has its share of smaller improvements, most of which are tied to giving the game more distinguished character. One of the best ideas is to give different equipment manufacturers their own identity and manufacturer ability. This guarantees that weapons in the game behave in a wider variety of ways than they would with just randomly generated stats. It is different from unique special abilities because after trying one weapon from a manufacturer the player can project how different guns from that manufacturer would be like.Ultimately it is still the hard numbers that define which weapons to use but in case of somewhat equal stats, weapon manufacturer can be a large factor in decision-making.

Another thing I liked is that there is now a lot more variation for what special abilities shields can have. The decision of which shield to choose now has more factors then its sheer stopping power. Many shields have offensive qualities which can be used to counterbalance their weaker protection. The addition of more variation also extends to enemies. On a less game mechanical note, environments are also way more varied. No more endless wasteland; we have snow fields, grass, industrial complexes and towns. Finally, the game has been finished with a lot of care paid to the details. Everything is consistent with the game's slightly disturbed character. This shows in more or less everything, loading screen tips included. Simply put, the entire package is very charming.

The game also has increased challenge built into it in the form of a new game+ and a "raid boss" which I have yet to defeat. The first DLC brought another similar challenge. I'm looking forward to killing them all at some point. Another strong point is the improved co-op play that has been made quite effortless and better supports players who are at different stages of the game.


Borderlands 2 is a prime example of a second iteration that really brings an already functional concept to blossom. It addresses all the flaws of its predecessor in an agreeable manner. It also goes beyond, with more effort put into writing in particular. While predictable, the main plot is enjoyable to follow and, as noted, the side quests have been superbly written. All the strengths of the original have been retained and really the only thing I missed was Lilith's phasewalk ability. Another "problem" with the game is that getting to know all characters does take a lot of time. I have yet to manage this feat but I got a strong feeling that I am not yet done with this game.

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