Borderlands – The Almost MMO

Welcome to another exercise in the futility of defining an MMO.  It’s one thing in the MMO ‘sphere that we just cannot seem to stop doing.  My whole job is based on the power of words (the difference between “a” and “the” can destroy companies), and that just makes this whole conundrum worse.  Anyway, forewarned and caveated ye’ be.

Borderlands could be an MMO.  I am sure Gearbox is cringing right now, but the game came so close.  Borderlands came to the MMO meeting.  Sat down, drank coffee.  Listened to Habbo Hotel cry.  Ignored World of Warcraft.  Laughed at Darkfall’s jokes, and generally had a good time.  But, when it came for Borderlands to step up to the microphone and say “My name is Borderlands, and I am an MMO.”  It ran out of the conference room instead leaving all its good notes on MMOs and many on RPGs behind.

Gearbox Software make FPS games.  They make good and great FPS games.  I’ve been a fan of theirs ever since Half Life: Opposing Force.  Yet, there is no excuse for this.  They chose to dabble in the dark arts of RPGs and will be held accountable.  My bottom line in case you tl;dr redline on me is that Gearbox tried to create their FPS-RPG-[MMO] mashup like an American baseball fan trying to recreate cricket from watching just a few bowls.  (I’ve tried to understand cricket; I’ve tried so hard.)

The biggest problem Borderlands has is persistence.  I think that on some level an MMO needs persistence.  I am still undecided on the amount, but some is more than the bare minimum of a local single-player save game.  During co-op Borderlands’ persistence goes in to an unintuitive mode.  Players join a host player’s world.  Yay, some persistence achieved.  Two steps forward, I say. 

However, the joining players might as well be entering an in-game virtual construct.  There is no affect on the joining players’ own shard.  Sure, experience and guns are brought back, but completing things for the host is immaterial to the interloping players.  Three steps back.  This sort of host shard gameplay falls flat on its face.  It feels like the story department and the co-op department avoided some big issues, and the overlord just tried to keep things simple.  In the end, what was created was some really messy phasing that never quite gains a solid stride.

The situation gets worse, in my opinion, because the character’s persistence is saved locally.  There are save game editors already out there, and what’s worse is that a cheating player that joins another player’s game (or hosts one) can actually affect the non-cheating players.  I really don’t understand why they didn’t follow Diablo II’s exact formula.  I mean I do, but it really comes off as being cheap and destroys, again in my opinion, any chance of an actual MMO-esque community being created.

I have other small RPG issues (no shared storage) and this-was-a-port-to-PC issues (press Enter to start game), which I can overlook because at the end of the day I am having fun.  It just drives me crazy that when I can finally play co-op (which took awhile, shame on you Gearbox) we have to figure out which shard to play in, whether one player has played too far ahead, what quests to redo, etc. when all I want to do is shoot things dead.

This post makes Borderlands sound a lot worse than it is, but I am looking at the game through an MMO-player’s lens.  I am used to certain things which create commonality, collaboration, and community, which Borderlands came so close to getting.  It could have been arguably a 4-player-at-a-time MMO, but clearly it is not.  For a lighter review, I have already given my thoughts, and I am happy with my purchase.  I just feel like a decently good game could have become a timeless one with a little more MMO-mindedness.

ah, you mean you can’t very well take less

11 thoughts on “Borderlands – The Almost MMO”

  1. I definately think Gearbox missed a trick with Borderlands.

    All they had to do to get a serious edge on Left4Dead 2 (their biggest competitor) is include some basic character development and progression (Left4Dead is a great game, but it’s shallow by design.) Instead I feel they got carried away, and have pushed their game too far into the RPG and away from the shooter it should be.

    I remember the Gearbox CEO making the comment that Borderlands is like Fallout 3 but less boring. Frankly now that seems like an apples and oranges comparison. A more accurate assessment would be to say Borderlands is like Left4Dead but more boring.

    On the same note, I would have loved Valve to throw some basic character customisation into L4D. Add the ability to train with certain weapons or some kind of attribute system, just something that takes the edge off how shallow the gameplay is.

    Great write-up Rav.

    1. Thanks. Heck, I would take L4D hats at this point. I just can’t bring myself to play another round of L4D for the lolz. I am waiting for half-off for L4D2.

  2. I get what you’re saying Ravious but I think you’re trying to hold Borderlands to a standard it was never supposed to live up to. It was supposed to be an FPS with Diablo-esque features. It’s heavy on the FPS and dabbles in RPG elements and does so well, in my opinion.

    I don’t disagree with what you’ve mentioned here but I don’t think saying it’s “almost an MMO” holds too much water as a criticism, since that’s more than what it was held up to be anyways.

    Correct me if I’m wrong here. I jumped on the Borderlands bandwagon pretty late in the game.

    1. I don’t really disagree with you, and like I tried to disclaim in my post I am purposefully viewing it through an MMO lens on an MMO blog. And, like I further noted Gearbox will likely not appreciate my post for the reasons you said. Regardless, they made a game where playing multiplayer is the most fun (YMMV). They incorporated RPG-like elements. They incorporated world-phasing. And, it does not seem to be elegantly integrated together.

      I do think that Gearbox, by taking a few more minimal MMO elements, like server saved character, elegant phasing, etc. the game would have been miles higher better in terms of the multiplayer aspect.

      Obviously for those playing alone my post is irrelevant.

  3. Due to the fact that it has quests, RPG elements, and can be played online Borderlands has been getting a lot of attention in MMO circles. The problem is is that’s it’s not an MMO. It’s not even “sort of an MMO” like Phantasy Star Online or Guild Wars. It’s a FPS with roleplaying elements that has an online co-op mode. It really has a lot more in common with Halo than World of Warcraft. However, I agree that the implementation of the online elements is a bit clumsy, even given that.

    As an aside, doesn’t the “jump into some one else’s mission” system in Borderlands remind you of what has been described for Biowares SW:TOR game? I’ll be curious to see how they implement it.

  4. It does annoy me that everything is based on the host’s state of the game world (quests completed and in progress). But, that’s how Diablo II was done. In fact, Borderlands is pretty much a direct copy in this regard.

    My biggest problem is that, unlike Diablo II, there are significant problems with hosting games behind routers, especially for people like my brothers who are at the mercy of an Apple Airport. They can’t host because of it, which means I can’t help them complete quests that I’ve already completed.

    I have yet to play the game with strangers either, which is why I haven’t had any problems with cheaters.

  5. I think this sums up Borderlands “close, damn close”, whether you are referring to it being “close” to an MMO or “close” to a perfect game or “close” to a perfect RPG/FPS blend. With that said, a hand grenade only needs to be “close” to get the job done and that’s exactly what Borderlands does. But anyone that has played it probably realizes it could of been better (and then they get a new gun and forget about that thought for a bit).

    1. Yup, and like I tried to point out, I am having fun. Lots of fun. But it is not a timeless, uber-polished game it had potential to be.

  6. Hellgate: London was an MMO. Borderlands is Hellgate: London with a better launch, no hub towns, and locally saved characters (admittedly with simplified RPG elements).

  7. Borderlands MMO? No thanks. MMOs need a kick in the ass, and I keep saying that kick is going to come from the non-MMO side of the industry.

    Maybe Gearbox or someone could figure a way to pull off an actual MMO-FPS-RPG hybrid thing, but in the meantime, quite frankly — who needs an MMO? MMOs have yet to ever live up to their potential. They’re nothing but single- and multi-player games hosted on servers where hundreds or thousands of players are “logged in” but playing their own single- or multi-player game. With IRC-lite chat channels. That’s really all MMOs have managed to accomplish. Since we’re just running around with a few friends most of the time anyway (raids or large-scale PvP notwithstanding) why fool with MMO servers for that experience?

    As for routers, I hear it’s the problem of the Gamespy software and they have a list of ports to open for that hunk of crap to run, but sure, not all routers actually let the owner have any control.

    1. All MMOs do not equal the server technology of e.g., WoW. Many people, including myself, think Diablo II pretty much falls under the definition of an MMO because like you say “they’re nothing but single- and multi-player games hosted on servers where hundreds or thousands of players are “logged in” but playing their own single- or multi-player game. With IRC-lite chat channels.”

      So why didn’t Borderlands smooth out the times I want to play with my small multiplayer games with all the neat tricks MMOs have long come up with?

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