Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On back doors and mad loot.

Apparently this week my workplace specifically blocks my blog, Bad Caverns, but not the general Blogger site, the dashboard, or the new post screens.  If I don't get steamrolled by Joe this week in the playoffs I might even resume some baseball commentary.  But for now, I want to talk Borderlands, because it's what I've been doing every night for two weeks.

Borderlands is a RPG-FPS hybrid.  Mechanically and spiritually it shares the same airspace as Fallout 3 (minus VATS) in that you have a character who has statistics informed by class choice, selective stat upgrades, and equipment, running around a kind of wasteland in real time shooting everything that moves, navigating painfully brief dialogues to complete multiple collect-and-kill quests in order to find the thing you were told to find at character creation.

RPGs have two main facets that define them, in a traditional gaming sense:  1) Progressive numeric character improvement, and 2) an unfolding narrative story that frequently involves player input.  Regaring the first, Borderlands has a traditional level and XP system, accruing experience on every kill and quest, but with diminishing returns until you venture onto tougher enemies.  These levels give you access to improved weaponry (gated via level restrictions), improved health, and points for the equivalent of WoW's talent trees, or D&D 4E's feats.  Each of the four starting classes has three specialization trees, requiring X points in a given tier before the next tier is unlocked.  You also gain weapon proficiency experience, the more you use a particular weapon group, which improves various weapon-specific statistics (accuracy, reload speed, firing rate, etc).  The equipment system is complex enough to permit something like 14 million different permutations of gun with dozens of different available modifiers and special abilities, and that's before getting into ancillary equipment like shields and class mods which themselves are randomly generated from component parts that affect the overal ratings and effects.  This is all pretty standard RPG fare, though; stuff Blizzard has been doing for a decade.

The storytelling is the interesting bit.  Whereas Fallout 3's writing is hollow and empty and humorless, Borderlands somehow manages to instill personality and fun into is admittedly light plot and setting without any dialogue trees.  Vast amounts of humor and humours references are delievered through truly minimal amounts of voice acting and the 5-sentence summaries on the quest screens.  Even innocuous signs posted at crossroads (there's a great pair in the starter zone at a Y fork, left arrow "either", right arrow "or", understated and marvelous) are generally good for a laugh.

There is a plot.  You are a "Vault Hunter" (innocent reference or jab at Fallout?) lured to this remote mining planet by the prospects of fame and fortune for finding the ancient Vault and hauling out its alien treasures.  As you chase down evidence of the vault's existence, then location, you slay your way through bandit colonies and assorted baddies and just about every awful redneck and criminal stereotype in the book.  Great!  But the plot isn't really the driving force behind the game or my continuing to play it.  It's the richness of the setting and the unyielding subtle comedy that keep me interested.

Unlike Fallout 3's sandbox nature, where everything on the map is open from level 1, and 99% of enemies scale with your level to provide a consistent level of difficulty, Borderlands is split into distinct zones, where advancement to the next zone is generally blocked by gates until completing quest X to convince the local authority to let you through.  Within the zones are variably leveled subsections where enemies can spawn within a particular level range.  Progressing through the quests as you receive them will typically make you explore 80% of a given zone, in an order appropriate for your level progression.  The remaining 20% is for pure exploration, and there's plenty of treasure chests to find in the nooks and crannies of the world.

It is an FPS.  And I normally hate FPS games, but this particular one works for me.  The various weapon types, classes, and talent trees enable almost every kind of gameplay you could squeeze from a FPS.  So for example I prefer to stay in relative safety and snipe dudes from across the map, which I can do with my hunter and his crazy sniper rifle skills.  Somebody who prefers more crazy-paced action could play a brute, berserk his way into melee and punch heads off, then bust out a shotgun for killing blows.  Someone who likes the sound of bullets and the look of ludicrous streams of numbers could play a soldier with an assault rifle.  Or you can play a stealthy chick with a rocket launcher.  The complexities of the character customizations and weapon generation mechanic make sure that every tactic can work, though better or worse against specific foe types.  My sniper eats bandits for breakfast because they stand back and try to fire SMGs, but has huge problems with spiderants, who are heavily armored, spawn in large numbers, and spawn right in melee range.  Or, had problems until I figured out that fire weapons ignore their armor, and found a good fire pistol after 30 levels.  Anyway, the point is that it's not twitch-gaming like most modern FPS games, or repetitive like cover-based FPS and TPS games.  Each class has different strengths and weaknesses, each talent tree focuses on one major advantage, each weapon group has its place against different enemies (who within their own subtypes are also varied into melee, snipers, brutes, quick skirmishers, etc), and they all play better or worse in whatever physical setting you happen to be fighting in and against whom.  This is a long way of saying that combat is more strategic than twitch-based reflexive.

As a veteran of World of Warcraft, I can personally attest to the addictive powers of randomly generated and incrementally improving equipment.  Getting loot is fun.  Agonizing over whether your green 120 damage revolver x3 explosive with recoil reduction and a 6-bullet chamber is better or worse than that shiny blue 245 damage revolver with +10% accuracy, bonus reload speed, a 2.4x scope and a 2-bullet chamber is just the right kind of math metagame for an RPG nerd.  Having tiny little rewards thrown at you randomly, and of variable quality, keeps you hunting for the perfect gun, which (by the time you get it) will be 10 levels out of date.  It's like seeing those random spawns in BG2 and IWD, stopping you in your tracks after each combat to measure your haul and compare it against your existing gear.  And every item has a different quality level, determined by a hidden rarity value and represented by the color text of the item:  White for common, then green, blue, purple, yellow, light orange, dark orange, cyan.  In my 25-30ish hours of playing this game, I've seen one light orange, two yellow, eight purple, probably 25 blue, and hundreds of green and white, to give you a sense of the rarity scale. 

Chris mentioned to me, regarding WoW's handling of rewards, a Wil Wheaton reference to the BF Skinner box and experiments with schedules of reinforcement.  In a nutshell, Skinner determined that the optimal strategy for making a subject perform some action the most number of times is to grant a reward on a variable ratio.  So for example, a dog gets a treat whenever a pedal is pessed.  The method to make the dog press the pedal the most times in a given time interval is to give a treat only after a random number of presses.  So you can apply this mentality to the Borderlands reward system and see why I would spend three hours on a Sunay night doing nothing but farming treasure chests, or why after my 1000th bandit headshot it doesn't get old.  For the record, I put 200 days played into Warcraft. That's not calendar days, that's total minutes of my life dedicated hitting the lever, killing bosses, hoping for that item level 253 purple upgrade in one of my fifteen gear slots.  Thankfully Borderlands only has eight gear slots.

It has co-op multiplayer.  That essentially means up to four players can band together in somebody's solo game and play it as usual, do quests, advance the story.  Or they can just fuck around with dune buggies with mounted rocket launchers in the desert (or the abandoned racetrack, or the many bandit-constructed jump ramps in the dahl headlands, or spectate from a lawn chair atop a nearby roof and try to snipe their cars, or whatever).  The difficulty automatically scales to the number of players, so the quantity and toughness of enemies multiplies as you invite more friends.  I haven't experimented too much with multiplayer yet; Mike and Ryan have more free time than I do, and everyone seemed to want to finish off their first playthrough solo.  I'm bringing up the rear, and I have two DLCs worth of content I'd like to finish up before joining them for a playthrough 2 romp, so it may be a while.

Anyway, that's the gist of Borderlands.  To anybody reading this who doesn't already own it, speaking as someone who desperately hates the FPS genre and favors strong storytelling and complex-dialogue RPGs, who hated Fallout 3 so much he stopped playing halfway through, I highly recommend this lightweight shooter.

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