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Archive for November, 2012

Borderlands 2

I want to talk about Borderlands 2, but first, for the sake of not feeling sleazy, I have to offer a disclaimer.

Earlier this year, I interned at Gearbox Software.

It wasn’t a long internship; I was only there for a week. I’d tell you about what things I did or what my experience was like, but I’m legally obligated not to.

I’m telling you this just in case of the possibility that working for Gearbox has made me biased with regard to their game. I don’t really think it has, since I can wholeheartedly say that I’m not looking forward to Aliens: Colonial Marines, that I don’t care even slightly about the Brothers in Arms series, and that the dev team unofficially calling an easy-to-use skill tree in Borderlands 2 “girlfriend mode” is nothing short of disgraceful.

But you’re free to conclude for yourself whether or not I’m “biased,” I suppose.

Anyway, now to talk about Borderlands 2.

Actually, no; first let’s get everyone up to speed. As I’ve said before, Borderlands was a game I both loved and hated. The most novel aspect of the game was easily the gun variety. There were so many guns ranging in varying aesthetic styles, from the old-fashioned Jakobs six-shooters to the sci-fi themed Maliwan elemental blasters to the military-esque Dahl weaponry. And more importantly, all these guns had different attributes that really affected gameplay in meaningful ways.

Gearbox took the old dungeon crawler template of providing a bazillion different weapon drops of varying stats, but instead of the usual “critical hit chance,” “arcane resist,” “dexterity” and whatever other small numbers that mean nothing to me in terms of running around and hitting bad guys with a sword, these weapons affect things like reload speed, weapon capacity, and accuracy. Yes, both of these hunks of metal are shotguns, but while that shotgun deals more damage and reloads more quickly, that shotgun has far more accuracy so you can deal more damage from a distance.

What this means is that different weapons will appeal to different people based on their own individual playstyles. As you’re looting all these guns, you have to look at them not in terms of which has the highest damage per second, but in terms of how you would use it. This made weapon choice feel more important and more interesting than many of the Diablo-style murder-a-thons that Borderlands took inspiration from.

Unfortunately, while constantly looting guns and swapping them out to find the one that was just your style was a blast, the rest of the game felt rather stale. The environments were samey, the interface was messy, it was plagued by a multitude of bugs, and worst of all, the narrative felt like a total afterthought. The plot was so simplistic it was practically nonexistant, and the NPCs never moved or did anything interesting while on screen, so the game never felt like much more than an endless cycle of shooting dudes, looting corpses and trying out guns.

If you got some friends to play with you, the social experience combined with the gun variety made it just enough fun to overlook all that. I played through the game four times, but I never really felt satisfied with it.

Now that I’ve finished Borderlands 2, I can say that I’m still feeling the love, but I no longer feel the hate. Unlike its predecessor, I feel it’s safe to say that Borderlands 2 is unqualifyingly really damn good, even in single player. And I’ll tell you why:

This man is why.

Anthony Burch, the guy behind Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? He’s who they got to handle the writing for Borderlands 2, and he did a brilliant job.

I think the best example of how well he handled the material  is with Claptrap. Like many others, I hated Claptrap in the first Borderlands. They tried to sell him as a cute, helpful little robot friend, but he didn’t fit that role. He was so irritating, noisy and intrusive that he’s become infamous among gamers. Even fans of the game generally found him detestable.

Having said that: I love Claptrap in Borderlands 2. And he wasn’t replaced with a different character who also happened to be named Claptrap, like Shaundi was in Saints Row 3; all they had to change was the way he’s perceived by the rest of the world. In this game, Claptrap isn’t presented as a cute robot friend; he’s treated as the annoying friend that nobody else in the group really wants to deal with. Nobody is outright cruel to him, but they don’t respect him either. They treat him like what he is; a necessary nuisance. He has good intentions, but he’s irritating as hell, and this time, everybody knows it.

He’s still the same character, but this time he’s endearing and funny. He managed to make me genuinely laugh more than once, and he’s not the only character who did so. This is the biggest improvement upon the original: the writing, and more specifically, the characters. The people in this game are varied, charming and funny, and they interact with one another in great, memorable ways. This is because Gearbox went out of their way to get an actual talented writer (Anthony Burch) who knows how to write solid characters for a comedy.

The most memorable character in the game has to be Handsome Jack, the antagonist. He’s a completely caricatured Saturday morning cartoon villain who goes out of his way to tell you that you suck and he’s totally going to kill you. He’s rich, he’s smug, and he wants to rule the world through ruthlessness, imperialism and money. Here’s a few lines of dialogue near the beginning of the game…

Stuff like this is all over the game. It’s great.

What surprised me, though, is that there’s actually a character underneath the humor. Without spoiling anything, he actually does have cares besides money; there actually is a human being underneath the evil. He is an undoubtedly evil character, but he’s fairly three-dimensional. And that goes for a lot of the main cast. The attention to detail with the characters and dialogue is impressive. And I think part of why the main supporting cast members are appealing is because they actually join you in a few missions, which makes them seem far more real than the MMO-style Borderlands 1 NPCs. It makes you feel like they’re actual people who care about what’s happening in the world.

The story is also a lot more involved and a lot more detailed than that of Borderlands 1, though I suppose the bar wasn’t set that high. It isn’t extremely complicated or profound, but it’s certainly competent. Your goal is established effectively at the start — Handsome Jack took control of Pandora using the riches of the Vault from the first game, and you want to stop him from being an evil jerk. The good guys are introduced, and you’re given adequate motivation to want to protect them.

Unlike Borderlands 1, the story has various twists and turns that make the journey more compelling, and unlike Borderlands 1, you actually know what the hell is going on. The first game’s story is so simplistic and yet there was so much left unanswered; most notably, who was that “guardian angel” character, and what was her motivation to help you reach the Vault? Again, without spoiling anything, those questions are thankfully answered in the sequel.

Most of the other problems with Borderlands 1 have also been fixed. The environments are hugely varied; you start off in a snowy, icy region, and throughout the game you travel through grassy plains, swamps, deserts, caves, industrial complexes, and an urban city. This makes progressing through the game much more engaging. There’s also more enemy variety, which makes the combat feel less samey. The weapon proficiency system has now been replaced by a “Badass Rank” system that works entirely differently, so you don’t feel compelled to restrict yourself to one weapon type anymore. The interface has been cleaned up a fair bit, so you won’t have quite as much clicking in the menus.

And to top it off, the PC version doesn’t feel like a sloppy port this time around. A great deal of effort was put into making it feel like an actual, you know, PC game. Matchmaking is integrated through Steam instead of Gamespy, you can skip the stupid splash screens at the start, and it gives you all the options you’d expect. Hell, it lets you adjust your field of view. How many PC games give you that option these days?

When the game first came out I was shocked by how many reviewers called it “Borderlands 1.5” and claimed it just felt like “more Borderlands.” I can only see that attitude applying if you pay absolutely no attention to the narrative, and even then, there’s a great deal of environment variety and enemy variety we didn’t see last time around. Borderlands 2 isn’t Borderlands 1.5; it’s Borderlands 2: The Awesome One. It’s what Borderlands 1 should have been, and I’m glad to see Gearbox learn from their mistakes.

If you really, really disliked Borderlands 1 down to its very core, then I guess you won’t like this one either. Like Borderlands 1, you spend a lot of time gunning down bandits and monsters, looting their corpses and picking which guns to use in the next fight. Like Borderlands 1, the game’s fairly buggy. And like Borderlands 1, the ending is an anticlimactic cliffhanger. (Though it’s considerably better this time because you actually understand what the hell happened.) But if you thought Borderlands 1 was a neat concept with a lot of rough edges like I did, then I think you’re gonna love Borderlands 2, and I’m pretty sure I don’t just think that because my name is in the credits.

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Ninja Blues – Castle Crashers ep. 2.1: So Much Poo

After a long delay, here’s episode 2, part 1.

As you may gather from watching the first five seconds, this episode was recorded immediately after our first one. (It took so long because my upload speed sucks and it takes something like five hours to upload a bad-quality ten minute long video, and because I’m lazy and don’t want to do that.)

In this video and the ones preceding it, my voice is picked up before Jarenth’s. This is because my voice is picked up directly through Fraps, while Jarenth’s is delayed because internet. This is why it sounds like I’m constantly interrupting him. I figure this has to do with us communicating through the Castle Crashers built-in voice chat, because I don’t think Ventrilo has the same delay to it. We would just disable Castle Crashers voice chat and use Vent, if the game would let us do that, but it doesn’t, so for now I think we’re stuck with this.

Also, like the stupid that I am, I wrote in my previous post about how this game could be interpreted as sexist, and forgot that I brought that up in the very next video. Whoops.

Also, how about them buttfaces, huh?

As usual, insert hyperlink to Jarenth’s post here.


XCOM: No Medkits For You

Several days ago, a kind soul who goes by the name of Duneyrr gifted me XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s half turn-based strategy, half management sim, and all-around a really good game. I’m impressed by how absorbing and challenging it is while also being very accommodating to newcomers. Maybe someday I’ll sing its praises, but right now I want to talk about a serious problem I have with it, a problem that’s made me rage-quit more than once.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did name her Felicia Day. And she ended up being my first Colonel, and my first Psychic. I think the game is trying to tell me something.

In XCOM you get a lot of soldiers. There are four classes (Support, Heavy, Sniper, Assault) and each soldier’s class is determined at random. Each soldier can equip one item for each battle. (Well, except for high-level Support troops who can carry two, but I digress.) “Items” include things like scopes that improve critical hit chance, grenades, protective vests, and importantly, medkits.

When a soldier is shot down in the field, he has a chance to become critically wounded instead of immediately dead. A critically wounded soldier is disabled and in three turns, he will die. In that time you can save him by either eliminating all hostiles and completing the mission, or having another soldier reach him and use a medkit to stabilize him.

So what happens if a character holding a medkit is critically wounded? “Surely,” I hear you wondering, “it would be logical for another soldier to reach her, take her medkit from her disabled body and use it to stabilize her?”

“Well,” I bitterly reply, “I guess Firaxis thought that would be too easy, because instead the answer is that you can’t do anything about it. If you don’t have someone else with a medkit, you’re pretty much fucked.”

“But there’s a logical explanation for this, right?” you inquire.

“Nope.”

The metagame reason for this is because items cannot be exchanged in the middle of battle. A soldier’s item(s) is/are glued to her. From a design standpoint, this makes things a lot simpler to program, and for the most part it’s never a big deal since you always give each soldier the item that best suits her role. (Scope for the sniper, medkit for the support, etc.) But in this particular situation, there’s obviously a very valid reason for why you would want one soldier to take a medkit from another.

You can argue that this is the designers’ way of providing an added challenge for the player. You can say that this forces you to be more careful about who you give the medkits to and how you use your medkit-carrier on the field. (I’d say that there’s already so much challenge for you if you play on the higher difficulties that it doesn’t really need this layered on top, but whatever.) But this is sidestepping the real problem, which is that there’s no explanation for why you can’t do it in the logic of the game world.

If they weren’t being lazy and actually intended for this to be a deliberate feature, they could have acknowledged it somewhere. They could have had an NPC explain that the medkits aren’t handheld objects and are actually attached to the armor of the user. Or something. It’s not that far-fetched, since some of the items clearly are things you can’t easily pick up and give or take, like the protective vests. As it stands, there’s just a black void where the answer should be.

See, this isn’t necessarily a problem with regard to game balance; this is a problem with immersion and cohesion.

Allow me to get off-track for a moment. There’s this show called Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, where a guy talks about in-depth concepts in video game storytelling and world-building. Here’s my favorite episode:

In the episode he talks about how a multimedia experience like a video game can become something much greater than the sum of its parts when all those parts work together to create a cohesive, effective whole. You see, XCOM isn’t just a turn-based combat sim. The combat is part of something much greater. XCOM creates a big, organic, adaptable story about you trying to save the world from an alien invasion. For the most part, all the different parts of the game (the research, the engineering, the recruiting, the fleet commanding, etc.) all fit effectively as part of this.

The combat is probably the most important piece of the puzzle, since it’s what you spend a huge amount of time interacting in and how you handle the combat greatly affects how well you succeed or how horribly you fail in your overarching mission. And while turn-based combat is obviously not meant to accurately portray how a real combat scenario would look, it symbolizes real combat, and it’s important that the metaphor is consistent with itself.

And in this case, that metaphor falls apart. I can see what the medkit item looks like. It looks like a handheld object. And every soldier knows how to handle medkits; this is a fact established by the game. But for no apparent reason, one soldier can’t take a medkit from another incapacitated soldier. This breaks the illusion of the combat, which breaks the illusion of the game. You might call this a nitpick, but it comes to slap you in the face whenever one or more of your support troops goes down. (And if you play XCOM, you’ll know that this sort of thing happens a lot, whether you want it to or not.)

So, there’s my gripe. An unfortunate flaw in an otherwise (mostly) great game.