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Borderlands 2: my two cents

Originally posted at Mon 15-10-2012 22:32:08, in the gaming industry category.

Intro

Ever since I first played Borderlands 1 (BL1 from now on), I've been hooked on Pandora's world, its inhabitants, its places, its death, its wonder, its gore and its humour. The game was a blast to play, and had insane replay value: I think I played each character at least twice through both walkthroughs, including all DLC's, ending up with about 8 level 69 characters. So when I heard about the new Borderlands 2 (BL2 from now on) game, I got very excited along with the rest of the world!

So what are my two cents about BL2? I believe it to almost be the perfect game. Why almost? Because I think there's a few big (yet solvable!) issues with it, which I'll explain later in this blog entry. But since I fucking love this game, I'm going to write about all its extremely good things first. In no particular order, I'm just jotting down all the great aspects about this game as they come up in my head.

NOTE: I've worked with the Unreal Engine professionally for 3 years during my time at Khaeon, so I know what I'm talking about any time I address engine related aspects of the game.

The Good: Music

The music in BL2 is loads better than BL1's. Not that BL1 had bad music, on the contrary, after playing it for 528 hours (according to Steam), the music still wasn't bothering me at all, never switched it off, and that's an amazing feat. But BL2's is even better! Each region has its own musical style, and as you enter battle the music changes into a faster paced tune. It really gets you going, I've found myself humming along with it many many times. Absolutely amazing to see how Gearbox managed to add even more awesome music to their second installment!

The Good: Graphics

BL1 was a beautiful game, being based on the Unreal Engine. I say this as if it's an automatic thing, which it hardly isn't. Yet if you have a skilled set of artists, experienced with this particular engine, then you'll end up with a beautifully crafted world. Which BL1 was. The cartoony shaders that were added give it a fictional taste, yet it was still highly enjoyable. But BL2 is even better: amazingly large worlds were created (at some points in the various maps you can stand on high mountains and see very far over the entire map!), amazing effects were added. The liquid effects - while not yet 100% realistic - were a nice touch: walking through them makes them move. They slide off slopes, all very very cool. One thing I've also very much appreciated is the "sunshine effect". The models also live up to modern 2012 expectations (although when speaking, they do not reach Half-Life 2 like quality...), and are overall very great in design.

The Good: Maps

The world in BL2 has greatly improved over BL1. I cannot really explain why I think this is the case, I think it's just a matter of more detailed, more "realistic" looking worlds, less unexpected cut offs, or regions with machine guns to gun you down to mark the end of the world. I just love the job the level designers did. Believable worlds (within the BL2 context), none of them really stand out - either positive or negative - it's all of the same awesome quality.

The Good: Skill Three

BL1 characters had several skill trees, and while they worked well, they never felt as worked out as they are in BL2. The skills contain more humour (more on that in a minute), more diversity, and add more fun to the game than they do in BL1. Not that I disliked the skills in BL1, but the ones in BL2 are just better. There are however a lot more of them, which can be a bit daunting at first. But luckily you can still reset your skill points in Sanctuary, and start over, trying out different playing styles. I was surprised to see how much the gameplay changed when I switched my BL2 assassin character from a full Bloodshed character to a full Sniping character. It really influences how you play and interact with your enemies. Overall, great stuff!

The Good: More Control Over Your Appearance

I love how they added more control over your appearance. While this ofcourse isn't the most important aspect of a game (at least when you don't live Asia ;-)), it's fun to tinker with it anyway. You can now find (or be rewarded) character skin customizations in the world, which you can apply in Sanctuary. This I find slightly disappointing, I think you should be able to change your appearance anywhere. However, it's only a minor thing, overall the new face and skin customizations are a great addition. Hint to Gearbox: next stop, make the model more customizable! Add arms, legs, chest models, and so on. Would love it!

The Good: RIDICULOUS HUMOUR!

I've never laughed more in any game than in BL2. Its humour is top notch, almost(!) at the worlds best (British!) level. There's so much humour in this game, I almost wouldn't know where to start. I'll just write down some random things that cracked me up:
  • I just loved how they did Claptrap's birthday "party"
  • The "install A.I. core" mission where you have to install an AI core into multiple machines, before having to install it into a radio since it's "done killing" was hilarious.
  • the side mission at the end where you have to find 4 gun parts in skagg piles, where the initial echo recorder goes "wow I have a great gun here, I hope I'm not torn to shreds by skaggs now" [silence] "... ARRHGHJ#**U(*, THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT'S HAPPENING!!!" :D I mean, way to go at making fun at stereotypical movie elements :D
  • Tiny Tina, the World's Deadliest 13 Year Old, what amazing sick mind came up with THAT character? :-))
  • enemy death sounds: "I almost finished my collection", "I almost finished paying off the house!", and so on
  • the way Karima revenges herself on Dave is just fucking awesome :D (the Overlook shield mission)
  • there are various loaders, GUN loaders, ION loaders, HOT loaders, EXP loaders, etc. Really, it took me (and my friends, although they were too pussy to admit it) a while before we figured out the fun in that last one :-P
  • there are enemies called Bullymongs, at some point you have to help a scolar with his book, and he doesn't like the name Bullymong, so he has you kill a few of the beasts while he thinks up better names; the last one being Bonerfart :D And the game actually displays that name too!
  • I especially loved the challenges named "Say Watt Again" (subtle Pulp Fiction reference) which keeps track of the amount of electrical damage you've done :D
Again, this list doesn't do the game's humour any justice. But you'll just have to experience it yourself!!

The Good: More Gun Types

While BL1 already had a lot of different guns, BL2 takes it a step further. The new slag damage type is a great addition, allowing for tactical fighting styles where you switch between slag gungs - doing mild damages, but prepping enemies - and then switching to more heavy weapons to maximize your damage. Loving it!

The Good: More Grenade Types

I don't want to give away too much for players not yet too familiar with the game, but I love how they greatly expanded the grenade system. You can find outrageous grenade mods now, again allowing for brilliant new fighting styles. Also, grenades do a lot more damage than in BL1, which is good. In BL1 the only real use they had was for trying to apply special damage types, like corrosion or fire. I don't think I ever used explosive grenade mods more than once or twice, they just did nothing to your enemies. Gearbox must have listened to their players and amped up the grenade damages: throw one or two MIRV grenades in a group of enemies and just wait for the free XP points! :D

The Good: Improved Audio

They added a nice sound effect to BL2: far away fighting in the background sounds a lot better and more realistic. The sounds really sound like the fighting is taking place a long distance from you, as if the sound has almost died down echoing around. I really loved how this added the feeling of "realism" in BL2. Ofcourse realism is a relative thing in a comic-like world filled with hilarious and outrageous creatures, but still, very very nice touch.

The Good: Improved A.I.

BL1's enemies weren't the smartest. They simply use Unreal's graph node system to find the fastest path to your location, and attack without any wit. This changed in BL2. While enemies are not (yet?) trying to flank you, they do seem to understand the world in which they exist to a way larger degree than in BL1. Enemies will now seek cover for prolonged periods to regain shields, hide from your gunfire at useful places, jump large distances (and heights) to reach you faster, and so on. It really is an amazing improvement over BL1!

The Good: Tokens

The new token system is brilliant. At first my friends and I didn't realize they were there, and we scored large amounts of tokens before we started using them. With them, you can (selectively) amp various aspects of ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS! I love this idea of rewarding loyal and replaying players. In a way you get rewarded for all the hard work you've done in the past on older/other characters. Simply by completing predefined achievements like "Kill this many enemies of type A", or "Kill this many enemies with weapon type B", will award you tokens you can use to improve your aim a few percent points at a time. While this may not seem much, I do notice how weapons seem to slightly function better when replaying with new characters. Absolutely love this new addition to BL's gameplay!

The Good: Improved Monsters

Many old monster types return in BL2, like skaggs and rakks, and I especially love how they improved the latter. In BL1 they fly really slow, and will attack you in a easy-to-hit group. While somewhat fun, they weren't a real challenging type of enemy. In BL2 they often attack you alone, from all sides, and fly WAY faster! You really have to be a quick marksman to be able to shoot them all down in one shot at higher levels. They are now an emeny to at least fear a little bit, compared with BL1's pussy rakks!

The Good: Loading Times

While my new computer is a lot faster than my old one, I still perceive the loading times to have greatly decreased. Ofcourse my new SSD may help, but I haven't seen many dramatic loading time changes in other games. BL2 really loads FAASSTTT, which is superb! And also, a great feat of programming, since Unreal isn't the fastest or most efficient engine out there... ;-)

The Good: Better Driving

Cars in BL1 seemed to be made of paper maché. Any time an enemy even did as much as LOOKING at you, you seemed to lose three quarters of your car's health (obvious exaggeration added to make a point :-P). Not the case in BL2: cars are tougher, do more damage, and in general feel a little easier to drive than in BL1. Overall a great change, making cars a safe refuge now, which - again, as said often times before - allows for new game play tactics. I often find myself jumping out of my car, attacking monsters, and then running back to my car and finishing them off with its guns. Loving it!

The Good: Rocket Launchers

I first played this game with three of my friends. All of us, being experienced BL1 players, discarded any rocket launcher we found. In BL1 it's more use to shoot with level 1 guns at level 50 enemies, than firing a level 69 rocket launcher at it. Almost non existing splash damage, and for some reason any damage done by them seems to have been lowered deliberately. Total rubbish. But as with many things, this was greatly improved in BL2: at some point during the first hours of playing, I decided to give one cool looking rocket launcher a chance. And to my amazing surprise, it insta-killed the first (same level) enemy I shot at! Ever since I carry rocket launchers as safeguards: if I get shot down and are in need of a quick second wind, I select my rocket launcher and start blasting at the nearest enemy. 9 out of 10 times this gives me fast second winds. Loving it!

The Other Side

And now we come to the things I do not like about BL2, the things that keep me from saying it's the best game ever. I want to stress that in spite of my criticism below, I still absolutely love BL2 and adore the work Gearbox did, but the following things just annoyed me too much to omit them here.

The Very Bad: Not Balanced

Gearbox seems to have tried to make the game more difficult. Or something. It's the only explanation I can find for BL2's ridicilous out-of-balance-ness. The amount of damage you do to the enemies around you is reasonably well balanced. Depending on the enemy type it can be pretty hard to kill them if they have a higher level. Similarly, you do pretty high damage to enemies that are of lower level than you. However, the amount of damage you TAKE from your enemies seems very out of balance. Some actual real examples to make my point:
  • Running around as a level 33 assassin, I found myself facing level 29 so called Hyperion Hawks. Normally, in an RPG (which BL still is, I often like to call it an FPSRPG), this wouldn't be a problem: you are 4 levels higher than your enemy, as long as it's not an endboss you SHOULD be able to kill it without taking too much damage, or requiring too much effort. This is not the case in this particular example: the level 29 Hyperion Hawk was able to INSTA-KILL me with a single shot although I had full health and damage. WHAT. THE. BLEEP? And this happened more than once! I am a very experienced FPS player, yet failing to notice a 4 levels lower single enemy insta-killed me more often than I can remember. What the hack is up with that? Had it been a level 37 (4 levels higher) enemy, I would have understood, but this is just ridiculous and seriously killing the fun I have playing BL2...
  • I ran into a level 42 mutated badass varkid (with my level 41 assassin). For starters, it seems to have (for real) about 500.000 hitpoints (while I have about 28.000, and I even have a 42.8% increased health!) Ehm, excuse me? I have a buffed sniper, it does 5000 NON CRITICAL damage (!), and I hit the thing about 40 times, and it still only lost about 30% health? It hits me just twice, and i'm dead... And the worst thing is, I can't outrun it, because it's faster than I am! And then to really finish off, I have to kill four of these suckers to finish a mission, while the mission says it's for "level 40, normal difficulty" .... if that isn't "out of balance", I don't know what is...
  • I ran into a level 42 super bad ass pyro thresher, being level 45 myself. The thing pops out of the ground, and insta-kills me EVERY TIME while my health is 31000+ and my shield is 10000+ ..... it's 3 levels lower than I am, and it insta-kills me? Excuse me? And the worst thing is, it guards an echo device i have to find to complete a mission... I ended up fleeing to my car, racing away fast, and shooting it from an insane distance, being relatively protected in the car since it takes reduced damage... but this can't be the way Gearbox intended me to kill an enemy 3 levels lower..?

The Bad: Invisible Blocking Walls

Although I overall love the level design in BL2, there still are too many cases where it's not possible to reach certain areas. Not because they are blocked "physically" by say a very high wall, but because they are blocked by invisible blocking walls. While this might have been acceptable in the first FPS games in the early 90's it's not in 2012! Make areas impossible to reach by "real" "physical" means (i.e. add very high walls or add rubble blocking your way). Or just allow players to get there! These invisible blockers are just an insult to modern gamers. In every game I love to explore, trying to reach places most gamers never think to go to. In many games you are rewarded for this curiousity by means of unique items, or easter eggs added by the developers. The way BL2 prevents me from reaching those "special" areas is just appalling.

The Mildly Bad: Not Picking Up Money On Various Terrains

I know from personal experience that Unreal's "touching actors" arrays don't really work when the terrain is not flat. This aspect of the engine rears its ugly head when you see the "money and ammunition is now automatically picked up when you walk over them" feature failing miserably. I still find myself having to pick up about half of all money and ammo. As said, only on absolutely flat areas this works flawlessly, but as soon as the terrain has holes or crevices, it doesn't work anymore. This could probably be fixed in the engine but calculating the distances of ammo and money continuously as the player walks through the terrain, but Gearbox probably didn't do that because it's too heavy on the CPU for such a small feature. Still, doing these checks every few tens of a seconds could be a great way of improving this feature!

The Bad: Broken Missions

BL2 inherited an (at least to me) notorious bug from BL1: you can get missions in a state so that they can never be finished. For example:
  • The "Cordially invited" mission from Tiny Tina, where you have to protect the generator against a storm of enemies: first you turn on the generator, revealing Flesh-Stick (an enemy bound to a chair), which you then have to smack on the face in order for his friends (the aforementioned storm of enemies) to come running in. I happened to switch on the generator, and then decided I wanted to quit (for whatever reason is not relevant.) Coming back to the game, BL2 remembered I did the "turn generator on" mission step, so the switch is now disabled, but since Flesh-Stick is not revealed (THAT part the game forgot...) I cannot smack him on the face, leaving this mission impossible to finish for me.... luckily for me this is only a side mission, but had this been a story mission, I could have deleted the character!
  • In BL1 in the General Knoxx expansion, if you kill General Knoxx at the end, open the color-code protected door, but NOT proceed to the armory itself down the elevator, but quit - since, say, you want to visit that armory with a friend in a COOP game - you're also stuck forever: Knoxx will be gone (the game remembered you killed him), the colored door will be open (the game remebered you entered the correct color code to the door), but the second door that's supposed to open after you first step in is closed.... FOREVER... again, a serious bug in - this time - a story mission! Luckily it's the last one, but still...
I've seen more bugs I cannot remember.. but I must say that MOST missions work just fine if you decide to get back to them later (being partly finished). But the ones that are broken, are very annoying!

The Conclusion

BL2 is awesome. Period.

-- Foddex



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