I feel like there should be a longer silence for mourning, but Ravious was also the guy who mixed a game review into his announcement that he had terminal cancer. Keeping the blog going seems like a better tribute than letting it die, too. On a related note, I still miss Jeff Freeman.
My most recent game has been Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, continuing my trend of bringing you the latest news on games from several years ago. This one comes from a development studio that does not even exist anymore. I am not yet to the halfway point of the game, but I wanted to talk about it because of convergent events. So far: if you liked Borderlands 1 or 2, you will probably like this. It is not going to be the strongest game in the series, and I may list a few likes and dislikes after I am done playing, but the basic gameplay is the same with a few minor variations. The bandits you have killed a thousand times have a totally new name and skin, bonus points for calling the psychos on the moon “lunatics.” If you wanted more of the same with a little variation, here you go.
What I am especially enjoying so far is the Australian-ness of it. The Pre-Sequel was made by 2K Australia. They are not hiding it. The NPCs have a range of Australian accents. They use Australian slang. I do not get all of the cultural references, and several that I do get, I recognize that I do not fully appreciate them. As an American gamer, having games not made for me (or Japan) is a nice bit of jarring. “Oh right, other cultures exist, including other English-speaking cultures.” I like seeing games that assume their home cultures in ways that likely inhibit their global appeal, like using myths from eastern Europe without trying to translate them into Greek gods or faux-Tolkien. I see more of that in indie games, so a very Australian AAA game is to be cherished.
The convergence I mentioned is the Humble Bundle. There are two game bundles going on right now. One is the Humble Down Under Bundle of games from Australian developers. The other is the Humble Endless RPG Lands Bundle, which includes all three Borderlands games, in case you were curious but never picked them up. $1 to try the first one, $10 for them all (and some other RPGs like the Guild of Dungeoneering). You too can experience yesteryear’s top games.
ETA: I can’t seem to get into the Pre-Sequel. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the annoying compulsory vehicle section, but I’m uninstalling and won’t have more to say.
I have many unplayed Steam games, largely due to buying packs of games where I am interested in a few of the ten. Then there is the Steam sale effect where you see a game you are kind of interested in playing at 75% off, so you pick it up now for potential play later.
I am thinking that Borderlands 2 has quite a bit of the latter. Looking at Steam achievements for Borderlands 2, 27% of people have not gotten as far as picking up the first gun. More than a quarter of people who own this game have not played it. 27% have completed the game’s storyline, which makes for nice symmetry. And 2.7% have been to all the named locations on the map.
I have no great insight here, just an observation. More than a quarter of sales of a AAA game did not lead to playing.
I am gradually playing through Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep in Borderlands 2, and I have come to wonder if the game was playtested solo and/or with the Mechromancer. I assume it must have been, so either the design team did not listen to those testers or they decided these were good design decisions. Part of the point of the DLC’s story is that Tiny Tina is a lousy GM with little concept of balance, fairness, or sanity, but that is not something you really want to inflict on your players.
For example, there are a fair number of enemies with one-shot (or nearly so) attacks. Borderlands 2 comes with one-shot protection, kind of like how City of Heroes prevented you from dying due to falling damage: you would be left at minimal hit points but not dead. This DLC keeps that rule, but has some of those heavy attacks be DoTs, have elemental effects with DoTs, or come as a multi-hit beam rather than a technical one-shot. It is a weird state of affairs when you build a mechanic into a game to prevent a problem, then design around that mechanic to make sure that problem still happens. This is mostly a problem for solo players, because in a multi-player game anyone can revive.
There are also several points at which Tina arbitrarily smites you because that’s how she wants the story to go. She usually gets talked out of it, but there are occasional scripted deaths where it is just a free trip to the rez point. (Not sure if some are whole-group and some just the mission owner/closest person, since I’m playing solo; if the latter, this works much better in group play.) As I have mentioned, this sort of thing is a major momentum breaker for the Mechromancer. When your class’s core mechanic is building up a buff over time, nothing ruins the play session quite like arbitrarily resetting that buff.
I’m amused by the metagamey story and the occasional rainbows and unicorns when Tina forgets she is telling a dark and brooding story. The gameplay mechanics of the DLC are shaky.
The loot system for Borderlands is both a selling point and a major problem with the franchise. I dislike Diablo-style loot in general, but Borderlands seems especially damaged by the way you break up your rampage with a stop to compare stats on equipment. Playing the Mechromancer, she comments on how much she loves reading numbers (granted, she’s an engineer and that might not be sarcasm). Games need some downtime, some lows and highs, but this is a poor method for inserting lots of pauses. Again as the Mechromancer, the pauses are especially annoying because a lot of her power comes from a time-limited robot who gets stronger as it racks up kills, so if you pause to read stats, you are wasting time on your robot and losing its extra power if you were on a roll.
The Mechromancer herself gets on a roll. I played through the whole base campaign without using Anarchy because I’m an accuracy-loving kind of gamer. Pet plus sniper rifle made me happy. Returning to New Game+, I have been going with Anarchy, which gives you a lot more of “shoot in this general direction.” But the massive damage is really nice, especially once you get to full stacks. Life is different at +700% damage.
Losing that momentum is basically a “I might as well stop playing” moment. If you die and lose 150 stacks of Anarchy, you now get to go back after whatever killed you while doing 1/8th the damage you were doing before. Good luck with that! Or maybe you didn’t die, just accidentally hit R. Oops, you threw away a lot of work because you pressed a key that is right there, often with the screen chanting at you to press it. Death is usually a break in the action. Reloading is often something you do during a break in the action. Having either potentially end your play session is undesirable.
I decided to play a bit of Borderlands 2 and see the quests I never did back in the day. I also stumbled into the Minecraft Easter egg, which was kind of neat.
I was playing as the Mechromancer. Her bullets bounce off surfaces to hit targets, and she has a pet that flies around to kill things. If you ever want to get in the worst possible FPS habits, play a character who negligently runs around and fires shotgun blasts in the general direction of enemies. And it works. It seems like that should not receive positive reinforcement.
Socializing costs and privatizing benefits is a lousy combination.
Many games allow you to increase your difficulty and your reward. This could be explicit in the form of a difficulty dial tied to rewards, but it is more often an opportunity cost. For example, you might equip an item that improves your loot, but doing so forgoes equipping an item that improves your damage. The fight is marginally harder and your rewards are marginally better. Kingdom of Loathing is an example of a game that does both: there are ways to increase monster level, and you can also equip items that have +monster level instead of (or in addition to) stat bonuses.
Kingdom of Loathing is also a single-player game. City of Heroes similarly gives you tools to adjust mission difficulty, and it gives the same difficulty increase and reward increase to everyone.
Multiplayer games that allow individuals to equip +loot items allow those individuals to increase their rewards at a cost of increased difficulty to everyone on the team. Alice is a tank using best-in-slot gear for damage resistance while Bob is a healer using best-in-slot gear for improved loot drops; Alice is working harder and incurring more repair costs for Bob’s benefits. Alice’s only way to avoid players like Bob is to stick with known companions or be That Guy and demand to see your equipment before letting you into the group. If everyone or no one is wearing +loot gear, the situation is fair and both risks and rewards are shared. Allowing individuals to unilaterally increase group difficulty for personal benefit is a solid example of anti-social design. Continue reading Loot Bonuses: Bad Multiplayer Mechanic
I find myself preferring new game plus models where you carry over a bonus to a new character rather than taking the same character through a new, higher-level version of the game.
Continue reading Resetting Characters and Worlds
The Borderlands 2 end boss fight is long rather than difficult once you find the perfectly safe spot on the map. Your only risk is leaving it to grab more ammo. To help you rally in case of catastrophic misadventure, the boss fight includes an endless swarm of rakk. If you get knocked down, shoot one, and you’re back. Your main threat there is falling down so often that you do not have enough “fight for your life” time to shoot a rakk.
Playing as the Mechromancer, her pet robot contributes to the fight oddly. With the talent tree I was using, the robot could one-shot rakk to add 5 seconds to its battery life. It did so every 3-4 seconds. Instead of fighting the boss, it sat there farming, and it did so endlessly unless the boss accidentally AEed it out of existence. Free xp and money, scattered loot and ammo, auto-rez: everything you want except a meaningful contribution to the fight. That’s okay, I had it under control.
That endless rakk swarm does not stop spawning with the boss’s death. The rakk only occasionally hit the robot, so it just kept farming them as they flew by. I watched for a while, amused. I wandered around and picked up loot. I explored the area. Once it got around 200 kills, I activated the game’s ending. The robot was still farming rakk in the background of the cut scene. I watched the credits. When they ended, the robot was still farming rakk, and it had been doing so the entire time the credits were rolling. I leveled. I watched for a while, amused. I threw away less valuable loot and picked up better drops. I went to the bathroom, considered making a sandwich. The robot had 500 kills and was still at half health. I quit because I wanted my computer back, but I’m guessing you could get to the level cap just by leaving it running with a macro to hit F occasionally in case the robot dies.
Of course, at that point, just edit your save file.
An exciting mechanic I do not see in enough games is a state between fully capable and dead. Some games weaken the player as injuries accumulate, but most follow the trope codifier in letting you (and your enemies) operate at full power with 1 hit point and instantly die to the next falling leaf. For this post, I am less interested in gradual weakening than a transitional dying state. This is variously known as dying, downed, unconscious, “fight for your life,” bleeding out, second wind, etc.
Continue reading Rally!
Would Borderlands (2) be as much fun without the voice acting? I love both the lines and the delivery on Patricia Tannis, but I’m not sure how well the lines work without the delivery. There are some other performances I cannot cite without mild spoilers (feel free in the comments), so let me add that she was also great as the Firehawk, and I may need to go back and play Lilith in BL1 to hear what she does there. Marcus Mauldin also gives great delivery as the Slab King, and I may need to play Brick in BL1 to hear his performance there. Which is funny, because those two were the melee characters and so of less interest to me.
Colleen Clinkenbeard is the sorceress in the Orcs Must Die! games, also great work. Hey, the OMD warmage is also the voice of Axton? Hmm, I may need to try the BL2 Commando.