Borderlands 2 Gets So Much Right, But Gets One Thing Very Wrong

Borderlands 2 is funny, smart and gorgeous. The controls are tight, hooking up with other players is a dream, and the PC port is one of the best I've ever seen. The Torgue campaign is hilarious and memorable, just like previous campaigns. It seems like the game's hitting all the right buttons.

My cursor hovers over the Borderlands 2 launcher, the word "Play" enticing me, but, for some reason, I glance at my desktop computer, wishing the hard drive hadn't started death-clicking on me. My Xbox 360, sitting on the shelf above, stares at me forlornly, begging me to return to Assassin's Creed's Constantinople.

I've got to play this, right? Most of my games are sitting on a hard drive I can't afford to replace, and I'm always in the mood for a shooter, so what's stopping me? Why do I feel like I'm obligated to play Gearbox's latest endeavour when I should be looking forward to the experience?

I've been struggling with Borderlands 2 for weeks.

At first, I thought that I might be in some sort of gaming funk. The past few weeks have been extraordinarily stressful for numerous reasons, and I haven't been able to take a break to deal with outstanding health concerns, which is generally the recipe for this kind of malaise. However, if that were true, and this was a funk, I wouldn't have spent two hours the other day playing Assassin's Creed Revelations, nor a few hours earlier in the week playing FTL. I'm enjoying games just fine — it's Borderlands 2 that seems to be the issue.

Humor isn't doing it for me today, and it hasn't been for a few weeks now, though the jokes themselves are often hilarious. Even a month ago, when I was nearing the end of Borderlands 2's Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty DLC, the humour wasn't doing it for me. I'd sigh at yet another hilarious quest prompt, roll my eyes at the latest joke, no matter how funny, and dutifully head off to shoot more pirates.

Actually, I think that might be where the problem lies.

Ask anyone what a Borderlands game is about, and they'll tell you "guns". They'd be wrong. A Borderlands game is no more about the weapons it uses than any other game in its genre. See, while the two main games in the series are played in a first-person perspective, they borrow as much, if not more, from games like Diablo and Torchlight.

Borderlands isn't about guns, it's about loot. And that's a big problem. As I expressed earlier, in Stephen Totilo's wonderful piece on why we like to shoot, the first person perspective can be an incredible one if the game uses it to its strengths. If a shooter treats the game space like as if it's real, players are in for a diverse, intelligent experience.

Borderlands doesn't really do that.

Borderlands isn't about guns, it's about loot. And that's a big problem.

If anything, the game's quite simplistic. The enemy will see you, enter a combat state, and shoot or melee the user. Sometimes, they will take cover, but that's about as far as their intelligence goes. With Borderlands, you don't do much more than point at guys and make the red bars get smaller, which means, to paraphrase the classic GamePro advice, shooting them until they die. Most good shooters go beyond that. In FEAR, they call in reinforcements, flip over tables to create cover, distract you to allow their friends to flank, and it all feels right. In Halo, an Elite will make use of his grunts, turning them into meat shields when his shields pop. In Far Cry 2, putting a sniper round through a mercenary's kneecap will inevitably result in his allies coming to check on him.

These games treat their world as real and their inhabitants more so. They make use of the first-person perspective, of that idea of immersing the player within a world, and they take it as far as they can. Borderlands 2, on the other hand, treats its enemies in distinctly different terms. Its enemies are mobs to be aggroed while you blast them with AOE attacks and whatnot. They're not treated like people inhabiting a space; they're treated like concepts with legs, bipedal ideas given malicious form.

Shoot shoot, bang bang, visual effects. On to the next guy.

A good shooter should feel like a stew of sensory data, feedback, use of space, and artificial intelligence. Everything should fit together in a way that feels right — in a way that somewhat emulates actually being in a space, because that's really what first-person games are all about. It's not just a camera perspective, it's a way of creating a mindset. When a game's too gamified to matter, players feel a disconnect between purpose and place.

Of course, Gearbox could improve the AI, feedback, and level design, but that might not fix everything. The guns, for instance, are random. With any melee game, particularly an isometric title, like Diablo III, varying stats don't really matter all that much. They tend to determine how many numbers pop up when you click on a guy, and little more. With shooters, things are a bit more complex.

The best shooters not only treat space like it's real, but encourage players to explore that game space, thinking about where cover is, where enemies are, where gunfire is going, where their gunfire is going, how to game enemies into different space, and so on and so forth. Any first-person game is at its best when its focusing on movement just as much, if not more so, than combat. That games like Halo, Dishonored, and Mirror's Edge have an appeal is ample evidence of the importance of motion.

In a shooter, one of the best ways to facilitate and vary player movement is to arm the player in different ways. A combination of Halo's Needler and Shotgun will facilitate a distinctly different kind of movement through the game space than a loadout with the DMR and plasma rifle. With a Needler, players can utilise the age-old tactic of "spray and pray," focusing more on movement rather than accuracy, allowing the player to dodge enemy fire and get up close, finishing off stragglers with the shotgun. A player carrying a DMR and plasma rifle might use the latter to pop an Elite's shields, then swap to the DMR and finish it off with a headshot. Other factors, like AI, use of grenades, and line of sight will affect motion as well, but the guns, above everything else, affects the way the player navigates the game's space.

Generally, there's very little intelligence required of the player.

Borderlands doesn't really pay much attention to its guns, because of its devotion to a Diabloesque combat system. It's too busy thinking about crits and elemental damage to focus on gunplay, so generally, there's very little intelligence required of the player. Just pick the right "build" of weapons (use acid weapons on just about everything), get into cover when your health bar is low, and just point at guys and click on them.

Nothing to it.

And that, I think, is the problem.

I want more out of a shooter, whether it's to toy with the AI and maps, as in Dishonored or Crysis, or to focus on the right weapon combinations and moment-to-moment movements, like Halo or FEAR. I want to have fun playing a shooter, and honestly, I think Borderlands is missing all the core details that make shooters good. The game's at its best when I'm playing with my friends, and given how hectic my schedule has been the past few weeks, that's been next to impossible.

So, here I am, sitting at my computer, finger ready, yet somehow restrained. Borderlands 2, as gorgeous, outrageously funny, and beautifully made as it is, just isn't doing it for me. I sigh, again, ready to click... when I realise I don't have to play it if I don't really want to. I'm not entirely out of love with Borderlands 2. It's pretty much the perfect online co-op game, after all. But for now, I think I'm done riding solo. So, instead, I grin, clicking FTL: Faster Than Light, and prepare to get killed by space pirates.


Rick Burford's childhood discovery that he could modify Microsoft Flight Simulator to allow behaviours the programmers hadn't intended spawned a life-long fascination with video games and their development. Now, he writes about video games and occasionally dabbles with making his own. His Twitter handle is @ForgetAmnesia.


Comments

    I managed to get one character through a single play through before getting bored. Yet I know people that have gotten each class at 50..

    Imagine if we all got to write articles every time we got bored of a game or its wasn't up to our way too high standards.

    And lets be honest, how many other FPS are worth a second play through of their single player campaign?

    Last edited 20/12/12 11:48 am

      This article kinda made me feel guilty for replaying both these games as often as I have.

        It made me go put a few more hours into BL2 today

    Doesnt this fall under "Don't like it, don't play it?
    Was there really a need for a longwinded story about how someone didnt like the game?

      +1 .... dont really see point of this article

        So hes gotten jaded with it.. that's cool, but trying to justify it as bad game design in a ranty article, nah man
        and as with the first borderlands co-op is where its at or you aren't getting the full experience.
        Still 100% playable but its the shared experience that makes this one sing..

      To someone that likes the game, sure, they'll get little value from this. Myself, I've been struggling to find a reason to pick it up and finish it, and have been wondering what it was about it that bored me so much (especially in the wake of its such widespread praise). This article pretty much nails it, and I feel a little less guilty for not going back to it.

        Well said, I loved the HELL out of this game for an entire week and then a really strong apathy set in for this game that I struggled to reconcile. I found myself thinking 'why do I find myself not wanting to play this game that seems excellent in every department'.

        This article was a great read for me.

      There's a LOT of these articles lately. It seems some journos can't understand why they don't feel like playing games for every second of every day.

      Cos y'know, that's what this one life is really for.

    I felt the same way, when I finish my single playthrough I can't get myself to continue to vault hunter mode. I bought season pass even before borderlands 2 is out and I didn't even finish Captain Scarlett. This might be the reason why I stopped. Just like Diablo 3 it's all about the loot.

    Maybe I will finish all the DLC when it is all out?

    Just started Far Cry 3 and hopefully it can give me a better story. Nothing beats Walking Dead in my GOTY list yet.

      Just started Far Cry 3 and hopefully it can give me a better story.

      Well, it'll give you a story. Not necessarily a better story. I know Borderlands 2 has essentially no story but, as Far Cry 3 proves, sometimes no story at all is better than a half-baked story.

    I've been playing FarCry 3 (haven't played BL2, did play BL1) and what a breath of fresh air. The whole 'sneaking through the jungle' aspect is just pitch perfect. Well done Ubisoft.

    Borderlands has always been Diablo with guns. It's all about shootin' and lootin'.

    That appeals to some people and doesn't appeal to others. Which is fine. The shooting element is less impressive than other FPS games but I have enjoyed the weapon variety (although once I settled on a preferred style of gun, it was almost irritating to find something that didn't shoot the way I liked but was better in almost every other way).

    That being said, I cannot play this game solo. It's just much more fun and chaotic with more people. Just like Diablo, really.

    I guess that's why I am enjoying BF3 so much and have left BL2 to gather dust.. the environments are 'real'.. the gameplay is 'real'.. everything is treated as 'real' (in a virtual way of course).. I don't know why I am surprised but I was turned off by the pvp shooter genre because of games like CoD and CS.. so not sure why BF3 is appealing to me now other than maybe what you've said in this article.. with CS for example, the gameplay comes across like you are in a very small rat-maze.. and it feels like that.. whereas with BF3, it is still very much the same gameplay except the environments and the players within the environment are treated as 'real'.. so it doesn't feel like a rat-maze..

    So wait... if you don't like what borderlands is and always has been about... why did you buy the sequel?

    I feel like this is something you probably should have addressed before going into a rant about how Borderlands isn't Halo and this is a bad thing.

    Different games bro, different games.

    I'd also argue that Borderlands 2 encourages you to use the space and explore alternate strategies for taking down combinations of enemies far more than the original ever did.

      As much as he has some fair points about what Borderlands is and is not, they're obvious and should inform whether anyone buys the game before they even start playing. I agree with you about the space and to be honest, I don't think he's paying much attention while playing because unlike Borderlands 1, it pays to use the appropriate weapons and not just acid everything.

    It sounds like he's expecting an FPS when technically, it's a RPS (Role-Playing Shooter).
    Gearbox pretty much summed this up in the trailer of the first game.
    This isn't a shooter like Halo or COD, it's closer to an RPG.
    You have quests to do, and rewards for them.
    It's just that you use guns and ammo instead of swords and magic.
    If you just go in with the mentality of a different genre, you're going to be disappointed.

      I agree, every npc in a shooter has a health pool, its always gonna be a shoot'em till they die. And from someone whos been in a gunfight, ur enemy are always trying to take a forward momentum. Hate to simplify reality but a real gunfight is a shootem till they die, and running for cover is a good way to get killed, instead u make the best cover out of what u got when u hit the deck. Now the npc could initiate every now and then. That would be nice. But borderlands is real enough for a GAME. If u dont like it dont play it, and dont try to ruin it for everyone else, and write this bitter diatribe to satisfy ur disapointment in yourself with having bought the game in the first place. Research first, play a demo, if u have any doubt. Talk to your gamestop employees. And know what u want in a game, most importantly. Stop hating, Gearbox did a awsome job with this title, and i expect it only to get better. I understand ur dislike for the game but this article could have been avoided with some forthought on your part.

    Borderlands 2 went on the shelf with the Badass rank issue. Planning to take it off the shelf shortly but I'm not looking forward to it as much as I thought. Got the same feeling when I booted up Diablo 3 last night. Just couldn't be bothered and flicked on Battlefield 3 instead.

    Maybe this isn't a case of B2 (and by extension D3) being wrong or broken - but more a case of I did my looting when I was younger through Diablo 2. I played D2 to it's conclusion multiple times with each class. But now can barely be bothered to do it once. Am I older, wiser, time poor or simply have my tastes changed.

    Intellectually I'd like to think I've progressed from games requiring loot grinding - but to be honest I just feel disappointed in myself - if I can no longer enjoy the simpler pleasures that games like D3 and B2 provide then it's me that is broken and not the games.

    I'm nearing the end of my true vault hunter run on Maya, I pretty much have to carry around a shock and caustic weapon, plus a high damage rocket launcher for ohcrapimdowned moments
    First run you never need a shock waepon, could probably do the whole game with a fire weapon and anything else of your choice, probably caustic for all the bots

    Damage to shields with and without a shock weapon is like night and day by this stage, it does take some thought process, I'd agree this applies to the first run though, it's a run, gun, be dumb playthrough but if you do the same thing on TVH, you'll be dying almost every fight

    Got the first one free on Playstation Plus, played it for half an hour, deleted it.

    It's not a fun shooter. At all.

    Like what people said about BL2 being an RPS, the author seems to have put the wrong coloured glasses on before touching this game.

    However, I do agree with the author that the AI can get rather simplistic. My major qualm is when enemies are in nice cover, have me pinned down, and yet they'll then run out into the open and take potshots at me! I can understand this tactic for the psychos and brutes (those big buggers), but for snipers, it's a bit annoying.

    I have to disagree with your take on the A.I. in Borderlands 2. I have watched one enemy drop back into cover and continue to fire at me while another was trying to outflank my position, I have seen enemy pull back when they have been hit and wait until their shields recharge, and best of all I have instigated fights between enemies by having one accidentally shoot another while aiming for me.

    The enemy in the DLC seems to be even more developed, with certain types sneaking up on you for a melee strike, and more enemies working together.

    Enemies will even take cover and hide from the turret you have deployed, knowing that it will disappear after a few seconds.

    Grab a sniper rifle, sit in one spot and watch their behaviour. I think you'll be surprised.

    Totally agree with the idea of BL2 not being an out-and-out shooter. It's, at the same time, much more than that, and much less than that. As a shooter it lacks a certain 'feel' - can't quite explain it, but I've always felt GoW2 had the best 'feel' to gun-fire. It had a certain weight to it. BL2 seems to be much lighter, less physical somehow. The game itself is, by and large, a lighter version (thanks to the outrageous humour and characters) of a much grittier shooter.

    The enemy AI leaves a lot to be desired, and even when I do see some intelligent movement from a group of bandits, something vaguely akin to teamwork, the moment is always ruined by them popping out of cover (as an author above mentioned) or a random spiderant attacking, thus smashing any illusion of this game being a 'shooter'.

    Personally I'm disappointed by this. It's true this game is more about looting, but even that is partially ruined by the Golden chest, and those darn Golden keys. I know I can just not use the chest, or input the key codes, but as much as the pokies at Moxxie's are addictive (until 3 bandit faces show up) so is the mysterious Golden chest.

    Don't get me wrong though, I do like this game. 60hrs and counting so far, and still only @ level 25. I do like trawling around, exploring every nook and cranny - but that's the problem. I take too long to 'get there'. I get so caught up in a games intricacies that I find it hard to complete a game without having done every little side mission first. Which is why I'll never finish Skyrim, and most likely RDR as well.

    But if you forget about labelling a game like BL2, and just focus on what's in front of you, you may see exactly what BL2 actually is. And that is truly what is great about it. It'll be different for everyone. Some see a shooter, others see an RPG, yet other will see a hybrid of the 2, or something else entirely. In the end, if you play it, and enjoy it, does it really matter?

    The whole time reading this i was thinking "well dude, maybe Borderlands doesn't have that one thing you really like..." My problem with the post is that he seems to be telling everyone why something is bad based on extremely narrow terms. I mean he uses comparisons to Diablo and 'loot' as almost dirty words that should never be associated with any modern game. As soon as i read "a good shooter should..." I nearly stopped reading. Maybe there isn't ONE thing to "good shooters" guy. I feel stupid asking but why do any of these things he list make a good shooter?

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