Borderlands: Four the Win

Last night, during a very brief breathing period between spats of absurd firefighting, I explained to our Xbox Live party that this was the first time I’d played Borderlands with four people. To which one member replied, “Wow. I’m honored to be a part.” It was a quirky and seemingly grandiose reply, but hinted at a deeper truth: last night really was a unique and exhilarating experience for me, one I suppose many Vault Hunters take for granted that everyone has tried.

I hadn’t.

I caught onto the first Borderlands far too late to ride the hype wave, only a few months before number two launched. Though many of my friends had a similar idea — we wanted to get the sequel, so best play the original now — our schedules rarely aligned, and so I spent most of the first game soloing or playing with a single partner. I enjoyed it, but my main critique of the experience was that, sans a friend, the landscape was pretty barren, and to that end Borderlands 2 made soloing a far more enjoyable experience. But it wasn’t until last night’s session that I got a glimpse into what made people truly love the first game, and how much I’d been missing while meandering through Pandora alone.

Borderland‘s leveling system is extremely complex. Player level, enemy level, weapon level, Badass Rank, and other factors make straightforward encounters anything but. Whereas in other games the notion of a level 30 character tackling a level 32 enemy wouldn’t seem terribly intimidating, in Borderlands a single level usually determines whether the enemy drops or drops you. This makes even modest progression a challenge, particularly in the “True Vault Hunter Mode” that is Borderlands 2‘s New Game +, wherein enemies and loot scale to your level and entirely new enemies and AI tactics force a far greater tenacity and proactivity than the first run ever did.

Then you add co-op.

When a player joins your “struggle,” all the enemies in the game “become stronger.” Their level remains the same, but the invisible stats behind that number have changed. An enemy a few levels lower than you, which would have been a pushover were you playing alone, now becomes much stronger. The same pushover status applies only if both players are targeting him simultaneously; good luck if you’re trying to split the workload with your friend because this low-level enemy now greatly overpowers you.

And so on, as a third and fourth player are added. The result is a battlefield in which a slew of enemies, even enemies several levels beneath any individual player’s level, are now monstrously difficult to take down, and every other moment finds one or more comrades down for the count and fighting for their lives as they bleed out. It’s a rare moment indeed when at least one person isn’t calling out to be revived, baiting others to a similar fate as they, while trying to save a friend, are downed by the same ruthless enemy.

Our party tackled the “Wildlife Exploitation Preserve” area last night, and after a brutal encounter in the loading docks with a barrage of Hyperion bots, I grimly noted “this isn’t even supposed to be the hard part.” Indeed, with such difficult minor encounters, the thought of facing a boss becomes hysterical. You think back to how much trouble you had on your normal playthrough, alone, and wonder what new attacks Gearbox saved just for TVHM, and how much worse they’ll be when buffed by the four-player multiplier.

Yet despite the absurd difficulty and the countless, costly deaths I incurred over the course of several hours’ plodding, I was enjoying Borderlands 2 last night more than ever before. Perhaps it was because of the mayhem, the ridiculousness of so many explosions coming from everywhere at once. Maybe it was the thrill of seeing Zer0 cloak and initiate a surprise attack on an enemy who, before he could counter, was hurled into the air by Maya’s phaselock and became target practice for Gaige’s devastatingly strong DT.

Or perhaps it was simply the camaraderie, the shared experience of facing a challenge and overcoming it. For that’s what last night felt like: an accomplishment, complete with the face-flushed breath-catching moment in which someone says “Guys, guys, that just happened. We survived that” and, without words, you all marvel at how awesomely true that is.

Borderlands 2: No Rest for the Wicked

Ah, Pandora. A world of wonder, of beauty, of majesty and riches beyond your imagination. And also, just a little bit, a world of midgets and murder.

The first Borderlands introduced players to this crazy, dangerous world through the eyes of one of four Vault Hunters — mercenaries cut from the same cloth but dyed different colors, united (or alone) in their quest to open the fabled Vault and bask in its glorious booty. And as anyone who finished the game knows, that didn’t exactly end as planned.

Borderlands 2 picks up several years after the events of the first game. The Hyperion organization — whose “Angel” served as guide, friend, and sometimes seeming turncoat in the last game — has taken over Pandora under the iron grip and masked watch of a man named “Handsome Jack,” who in his path to the annals of ostentatious heroic history has killed anyone he considered “savage” and driven those lucky enough to escape him to take refuge in a shielded city appropriately called Sanctuary. This bastion is the player’s first destination, as he or she steps into the shoes of a new generation of Vault Hunters, in search of a new (and hopefully less lethal) Vault.

Knowledge of the first Borderlands is hardly a prerequisite for play, though certainly not a hindrance either. Most important NPCs are holdovers from the prequel, including its four Vault Hunters — Lilith, Roland, Mordecai, and Brick — whose liberation from player control and interpretation affords a wonderful (and mostly realized) opportunity for truly fleshing their personalities and skill sets out. All the people you love (or love to hate) are back, including Scooter, Dr. Zed, Marcus, Moxxi, and of course your good friend Claptrap (whose newfound affinity for dubstep is forgivable in the wake of a nigh constant supply of hilarity).

Thankfully, Borderlands 2 is far more than a rehash. In addition to the smattering of familiar faces we meet a very colorful and memorable new cast, with noteworthy standouts like Scooter’s sister Ellie, the rambunctious but lethal Tiny Tina, and the hilariously evil Handsome Jack himself. The new Vault Hunters, too, are far more compelling, due both to a wider variety of callouts (things said when reloading, sorting inventory, getting kills, etc.) and to the inclusion of in-game audio diaries which give insight into the histories of each character and what led them to Pandora.

These four (five, if you preordered or have since purchased Gaige, the Mechromancer) avatars are far more than the husks you occupied in the first game. Hundreds of customization options can be won, earned, or found throughout the game and then applied to your character (namely color schemes and face/hair/head modifications), allowing a far deeper level of visual expression than before.

More importantly, the leveling system has been vastly improved, and each character has three distinct skill trees to be explored. Each tree provides very specific advantages which promote specialization in play style and guide the player in deciding where best to spend the precious points they earn over the course of the game; for example, Zer0, the robotic ninja assassin, has one skill tree which emphasizes stealth and close-quarters combat and another which emphasizes sniping and long-distance attacks. The sparseness of points requires the player to choose one route or the other to avoid having a character with mediocre abilities, as the most beneficial skills must be accessed by pouring points into the specific skill tree of which they are a part.

The result of this set-up is that the path you choose feels far more important, and you must play to your chosen skill-set. Thus two people may play through the game as Zer0 and have radically different experiences, for one may be constantly weaving in and out of enemies on the battlefield while the other remains completely out of the danger zone. Situations which prove challenging for one may be a pushover for the other.

Moreover, in a stroke of brilliance, Gearbox offers players the chance (at a negligible in-game fee) to reset their skill points at will and redistribute them elsewhere, meaning that a player who regrets going the sniping route halfway through the game can instantly become a melee powerhouse and, in a word, begin playing as an entirely different character. To that end there are more like 12 Vault Hunters than 4, and the desire to experience all those permutations keeps the game feeling fresh regardless of how many times you revisit a storyline or begin a new game.

As such, reviewing a game like Borderlands 2 is a bit of a fool’s errand. It’s a vast, sprawling experience with so many avenues for deviance that hundreds of hours of play leave you feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface. That proves to be the game’s only real problem: you’ll never have enough time to play it all the ways in which you’d like. It seems there really is no rest for the wicked.

A life in games. In music. Part Two.

I’ve played many games over the last eighteen years. Some were evanescent, forgotten even as I met them. Others, like childhood friends, are fondly remembered but vaguely; time has dissolved their features, erased the details. Ask about them and I’ll say “ah, yes,” and smile, but my brow will furrow if you press for much more than a name.

But another group remains: the indelible. The ones that have, for decades, stayed with me on my journey. The ones that changed that journey’s course. These are the games I seek to share with you, but sharing is impossible. Games are special because they’re interactive, and that means our fondness for them cannot be taught or shared. To love a game is to catch a fever and burn with it, perhaps for a season or perhaps forever, but always alone. Two discussing their love for one game may be at accord on many of its traits but never all of them; in a way, no two people ever play the same game.

Still, we try. You know the games I never played; here, then, are the ones I have. My words are mere formalities, meant to amuse but then, who knows, right? My hope is that by the time you reach the end of this you’ll understand me better, and where my words fail perhaps the music I’ve chosen will speak more clearly. So take a walk with me through my life. Remember these games if they’re part of you, and explore them if they’re not. These are the games that shaped my life; perhaps you’ll meet one here that changes yours.

This is a continuation of my musical journey, begun here.