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.

Review: Gears of War 3 Season Pass

The fourth Gears of War 3 DLC package (and final one for Season Pass holders like me), “Forces of Nature,” has been out for a little over 24 hours, and as I’ve never written on Gears specifically despite it being my most-played game since September, I thought I’d take a few moments and evaluate the Season Pass as a whole. Was it worth it for me? Is it worth it for you, Mr. Holdout? Let’s see.

Prior to Gears 3‘s release the Season Pass (hereafter SP) was announced as a way for players to save money on inevitable DLC that would roll out for the six or so months following the game’s release. For $30 SP owners would get $45 worth of content — a 33% savings for those who would ultimately buy all four. As of today, those four packages are Horde Command Pack, Raam’s Shadow, Fenix Rising, and the aforementioned Forces of Nature.

If you’re really impatient or just short on time (in which case, you should know better than to read something of mine, so shame on you), click here for my overall thoughts on the season pass. Note: most of these packs also offer new weapon skins. I don’t consider those make or break aspects of the DLC and have thus ignored them.

On to DLC 1: Horde Command Pack

The Guide

If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “ultimate weapons.” The holy grail of offense for each member of your party, acquiring an ultimate weapon often entails as much effort as getting through the game, if not more. These weapons are never so much as mentioned within the world of the game; the components necessary for producing them are often random and isolated, seemingly trivial. If no one told you they were there, you’d never even think to seek them out; certainly you’d never succeed in finding them.

Simply put, if you want the ultimate weapon, you’re going to need the strategy guide.

In recent years, buying a strategy guide has acquired a sort of taboo. Though publishers have added incentives (heloooo artbook) to justify the actual expense, most “real” gamers still look down on those who “need a guide” to beat a game. The theory is that if you had the skills you could get through a game without hand-holding, and having used a guide dramatically undermines street cred for your achievements. On top of that, you could have just used GameFAQs. For free. So you really suck.

Well, haters gonna hate. But I imagine if you look at the necessary steps for acquiring the ultimate weapons in, say, Final Fantasy X, you’d agree that, sans guide, it ain’t happening.

See, gamers value autonomy. Shoehorn them down a corridor with only one possible means of progress and they will damn you with words like “linear” and “boring.” Give them open country and they’ll relish the chance for discovery; “open world” and “player choice” ship a lot of product. Nevermind how this is the pure inverse of the punishingly straightforward platformers that gaming calls its progenitors (here’s looking at you, Mario); the modern gamer refuses to be told what to do.

But freedom comes with a cost; if you’re not forced into making the right choices, you will inevitably make a few wrong ones. Whether the game responds by punishing you (LA Noire), by adjusting (Mass Effect), or doesn’t react at all (read: “optional” sidequests), the fact remains that liberty guarantees that you will miss out on at least some of the experiences the game-maker intended you to enjoy.

If you don’t follow a very specific path through the game, you’re going to miss out on something. Sometimes, this is trivial. Other times you won’t realize until hours, days, even years later that you made a really big mistake way back when.

Strategy guides preclude that epiphany at the cost of true freedom. When followed verbatim, they deteriorate the very act of playing; no longer is your experience your own — it is merely a guided tour of someone else’s. For those who choose to follow along anyway, this is an acceptable loss. Playing by the creator’s intended path is ultimately more rewarding than the independence it denies.

Some, of course, treat strategy guides like user’s manuals, consulting them only when they are in a jam and have exhausted all personal knowledge to no avail. They come hoping for someone to point out the obvious mistake in their thinking, the quick fix solution to their momentary trial. As soon as the boss is beaten, the guide goes back on the shelf.

Of course, sometimes the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps the solution is the use of a weapon or power-up that, while wallowing in your sovereignty, you failed to acquire. And most guides, as they assume you’ve been following their advice all along, don’t bother providing alternative solutions. If you’ve dug yourself a hole and forgot to bring a ladder, it’s up to you to improvise an exit plan.

Oftentimes progress for those who’ve ignored the guide can only be achieved by arduous backtracking to meet the standards prescribed for success. Some will do the bare minimum, others will permanently shift their play-style in an attempt to avoid future pitfalls like this one. In this way the guide is versatile: it portrays the ideal solution and allows the player to choose how closely he or she will follow it. Advancement does not always require complete adherence.

And sometimes, consulting the guide as user manual results in a very simple truth: sorry, dude. You’re screwed.

Many people, Christians and non, have this awful tendency of treating the Bible like a user’s manual. When life is going well, when they’re getting what they want, the Bible stays on a shelf collecting dust, a collector’s item purchased primarily for its aesthetic value. But when hardship hits — job loss, death in the family, stock market crash — people snatch it up and scan it desperately to find out how to get out of jail free. A few Our Fathers and Hail Marys later and, if life brightens up, the manual goes away.

Backsliding or apathetic believers accept that following scripture is the ideal means of living, but they’re too lazy or stubborn to actually do as it says. They cut corners, ignore what’s inconvenient, and try to figure out how little of the Word they have to obey while still, technically, making it from one stage to the next.

But the Bible was not written as a self-help book, a twelve-step (or, for that matter, a ten-step) program to a better life. Cute bumper stickers aside, it was not written as a user’s manual for the human soul. The Bible is a strategy guide, and it’s meant to be followed at all times, in all stages of life. It provides advice on every aspect of this game we call life. The best armor, the most dangerous dungeons, the spiritual bestiary and, yes, the ultimate weapons are all there. In the ultimate meta-statement, the sword of the spirit is also the very book that describes it.

Like dedicated players, we recognize that sacrificing our own control to follow the Creator’s chosen path for our lives is the only way to guarantee the best possible experience. And yeah, haters still gonna hate. But I’ll stick with The Guide anyway.