[BL2] Getting the Tone

The Slab King is probably the single best character for exemplifying the setting of Borderlands 2. He is needlessly violent, friendly and silly, occasionally profane, psychopathic, and devoid of introspection. He has cheerful stories about people he has killed with his bare hands. He shouts rants against Jack. He fails to understand worldviews beyond his own amusements. His plans involve punching people in the face, blowing things up, or ideally both at once. He will call you during missions with advice on how to look like more of a badass. He seems to view existence as an action movie, and the world supports him; after you follow his advice, someone immediately recognizes how badass that move was. He happily reminisces, “I’ve killed a lotta people.” He is brutal, petty, helpful, and loves dogs. He is too bloodthirsty for what passes for polite society in a bandit-infested wasteland, someone who thinks nothing of the deaths of his closest allies, one of your loyal allies, and one of the last hopes for the world.

It’s that kind of world.

: Zubon

You could expect some spoilers in the comments, except that we do not get comments on the non-MMO posts. I seem to write these for my own amusement.

[BL2] Dark and Wacky

Borderlands 2 is silly but also darker than the first one. Most things are, upon a moment’s reflection, at least creepy and sometimes horrifying. There is lots of comedic sociopathy and black comedy that usually works best when it crosses the line twice. You may be distressed if you pause halfway or reach one of the moments when the game looks back.

For example, Tiny Tina wants to have a tea party. It involves luring a psycho into a trap and torturing him to death … while having a tea party with some dolls. The psychos are goofy insane, and we have a little girl who talks like the internet going over the top, so it’s funny. Did you notice the little name cards at the table, indicating that this psycho got her parents killed? How about that sidequest later on where you get recordings of their deaths when they were captured as test subjects for medical experiments? Or the other recordings from that quest?

On the creepy side, there are Moxxi posters in one (?) of the bandit bathrooms.

The tone is usually pretty light, and the game rarely dwells on these moments. Keep it moving, before the players dwell upon what happened there. Did you notice at the start of the game that all the Vault Hunters were on that train? All the survivors are in your group. Based on my Steam friends, it looks like most people are playing BL2 solo. You may have noticed the similar fate of all but one of the Claptrap units on the planet. Okay, next joke and/or explosion, go!

: Zubon

To-Hit Rolls

To-hit rolls are an RPG mechanic inherited from pen-and-paper systems. They represent an obvious intuition (attacks can miss) and use a binomial mechanic with a random chance. Many non-RPG computer games use a different mechanic: did the sword, shot, spell, or whatever hit the target?

One of the City of Heroes developers remarked that, had he to do it over again, he would not have included a to-hit roll or an accuracy stat. Every attack would hit unless some defense caused it to miss, and then you would have an indicator of why you missed. Continue reading To-Hit Rolls

Blast from the Past: Tome of Knowledge and Sets

I am still waiting for games to pick up this idea from 2009. Achievement systems have proliferated, tracking all kinds of things, but most games want to give you cosmetic items instead of unlocks. One specific item in that last post has been addressed by many games: a mount tab instead of making you carry mounts around. City of Heroes has always rewarded players by unlocking costume pieces, and Borderlands 2 lets you find/win/buy customization options.

With the upswing in F2P, however, life moves in the opposite direction. Storage space and cosmetic customization are ways they make money, so of course they charge you per item per change in appearance.

: Zubon

[BL2] Badass Rank

Borderlands 2 uses the usual achievements, but it has its own in-game achievement system in the form of challenges. Challenges award you 1-100 points of “badass rank.” Increasing your badass rank awards you badass tokens. Badass tokens can be redeemed for a diminishing bonus to a stat such as accuracy or gun damage. Badass rank and its bonuses are account-based, but challenges are character-based. If you play the game again, you may notice it to be marginally easier with +5% to everything, but then you thousands of badass rank to approach “+5% to everything.”

Pretty much everything you do contributes to several challenges, with the note that “everything you do” almost invariably involves shooting people in the face. One shot could potentially add a tick to getting criticals with submachine guns, killing enemies with submachine guns, killing enemies with criticals from submachine guns, getting a second wind with submachine guns, getting a second wind from killing badass enemies, killing midgets, dealing corrosive damage, and maybe a few more. That lucky bullet, of course, would need to be from a corrosive submachine gun, killing a badass midget while downed. There are also exploration, loot, and boss challenges, and the inevitable meta-challenge.

The math becomes interesting at times. Few enemies survive multiple headshots from a good sniper rifle, so you will probably complete kills with sniper rifle criticals before you complete sniper rifle criticals (which demands higher numbers), unlike other weapons. As Zer0, kills while using his special ability come slowly because you get one attack per special ability use, while the Mechromancer can hit F and go AFK while psychos die. Level does not matter, so you could round out your challenges by going back to a lower-level area and picking off enemies that cannot hurt you. Of course, that is putting in a lot of effort to get a few points that will eventually contribute to 0.5% bonus, but you are MMO players who grind fiercely for best-in-slot. Also, I accidentally earned quite a few points by putting on a spike shield (thorns aura) and walking through a spiderant nest (tiny enemies that pounce on you). It is enormously satisfying to watch the tiny, annoying enemies immolate themselves for having the audacity to threaten you.

Also, when you complete a challenge as the Mechromancer, she sometimes exclaims, “The completionist in me is like, ‘YEEAAAH!'”

: Zubon

[BL2] Morally Ambivalent

Moral ambiguity is a given in Borderlands 2. Vault Hunters come to Pandora to kill people and take their stuff while massacring the local wildlife. They will kill anyone for anyone with an exclamation point … which is pretty much every adventurer, even if they have good reason not to. This is acceptable because (1) you don’t care and (2) the people you’re shooting in the face are even worse, and Handsome Jack calls you constantly to remind you of this.

“Morally ambivalent” comes from characters occasionally stopping to wonder whether they are bad people and should they care about it. Claptrap gives you the first one of those for a few seconds early on. When [spoiler] has a cult in her honor, she spends the entire quest line vacillating about the acceptability of it, flipping between “flattered” and “creeped out,” and saying, “I am a bad person.”

The setting is insufficiently serious to have moral substance. Your archenemy calls you up to talk about Butt Stallion, the horse he named in your honor. It’s dead baby humor all the way down. Zer0 is taking this himself way too seriously. The Mechromancer, however, seems more in tune with the setting, shooting people in the face while shouting, “n00b!”

: Zubon

[BL2] Stupidity Is the Only Option

Borderlands 2 is very fond of sending you into obvious traps. I keep running into sidequests where you are clearly going to be betrayed, to the point where the quest text makes sarcastic comments about it. The main storyline requires you to take orders from someone while she is betraying you. It goes beyond stupid to suicidal.

Also under the heading of traps, playing a sniper character is increasingly unsatisfying as fewer and fewer areas spawn the enemies before you are in aggro range. Maybe this will reverse at some point, but all the bandits are in their huts, the skags are in the holes, and the rakk are over the horizon until red dots appear on your screen. Robots fly in from orbit and enemies burrow up literally beneath your feet. If I could blast those huts with my rocket launcher, that would change things, but the enemies just don’t exist until they are within pistol range. I need to play multiplayer and send someone else in as bait first. I’m sure the enemies will spawn into that obvious trap.

: Zubon

Defying the Sophomore Slump

Our blogging world has adopted Guild Wars 2 en masse. Orcs Must Die! 2 was an unexpected treat earlier this summer. Torchlight 2 will be out later this month, and I preferred waiting for Torchlight 2 to playing Diablo 3. Borderlands 2 is coming. Team Fortress 2 remains my go-to FPS, and it added PvE content earlier this year.

Like TF2, some games reached their defining points only in their sequels: Master of Orion 2, Diablo 2, Street Fighter 2, WarCraft 2. Second try’s a charm?

: Zubon

One Shot

Raid bosses are slot machines, and every goblin is to a lesser extent. You pull the level and hope for good loot. Quite a few games take this further, in what I still think of as Diablo-style loot, with lots and lots of drops with lots and lots of randomization. 95+% of it is vendor trash, but that’s not always immediately apparent. If you want to avoid throwing away your prize, you need to dig and see if there is a pony somewhere in that room full of horse poo.

Dungeon Defenders helpfully points out the items that would be upgrades. You can even see green dots on the map and highlighting through the walls. “Come check this out.” Of course, whether it really is an upgrade depends on many things, such as whether your character wants to trade +40 to towers for +20 to towers and +21 to hero stats. So maybe you should still be looking at everything, because that armor may say it’s a downgrade, but you are trading 8 points of something you don’t want for +25% base damage. And then you have prizes like this one. 1 shot 0 kill The value algorithm says this is an upgrade for me. For those of you who do not know the stats involved, those are pretty good hero stats, decent base damage (with no bonus), a very nice firing rate, and an excellent reload rate. It needs that reload rate because this is a gatling gun with a one round clip. It could fire seven times per second, except that you need to reload this muzzle-loader after every shot.

The loot drops so quickly in Dungeon Defenders that it is automatically deleted (not looted, deleted) as you play. There is an item cap that protects game performance and encourages you to run around collecting mana and items. This somewhat counters the pro-social mechanic of dividing up the cash from loot left on the ground at the end of each round, because if you try to leave the loot, a lot of it will go away before the end of the round (past the first few waves). The item cap feels like it was designed for 100-200 enemies, and Survival maps quickly get to thousands of enemies. This discourages AFKing but gives you the choice between adding DPS to beat the level or trying to claim your prizes before they *poof.* The latest patch changed it so that the lowest quality loot gets deleted first, not the oldest; the opposite was a very strange design decision that led to your potential upgrades disappearing as you ran over to pick them up.

Mana is both the currency of the game and what you use to build towers, upgrade them, and power your abilities in the level. It also has a cap for how much can be on the ground (I’m not clear if that’s shared with loot), without the “lowest quality disappears first” provision, so your shiny teal 500-mana gem might disappear when the next 1-mana gem drops.

With so much vendor trash that it throws itself away, Dungeon Defenders may be approaching the reductio ad absurdum of Diablo-style loot.

: Zubon

Scaling Content

I played through most of the Borderlands DLC this weekend. Most of it scales to level. This is both really great and really awful.

It is really great to have everything as endgame content. There is always tension in development between working on the leveling game and the endgame, and scaling content lets you create one dungeon that is available at many level ranges. Success! Are you really going to buy DLC that adds level 20 action for a game where your character is level 50? This isn’t an MMO where you are likely to have a stable of alts.

It is really awful in that it highlights the problems inherent in the game. If you stopped playing Borderlands because it felt like you just kept fighting the same guys over and over again, making them level along with you so that everything is an at-level encounter really drives home that you have yet another edition of the same guys, this time with a new number by the name. You don’t even get the MMO scheme of making this goblin blue with a flaming sword; you are still fighting exactly the same bandits and psychos, sometimes with a different name but exactly the same model and abilities. When you get new enemies, the zone structure will make you repeat many fights unless you complete the whole thing in one setting, and the fight is exactly the same because the enemies leveled along with you (or it might have gotten harder if you did not find better equipment, so you are fighting the same fight only you are relatively weaker). It’s great that you can have a Playthrough 2 where everything is even-con to make it a potentially meaningful challenge, but it really drives home that you put levels in a FPS where they add so little that you built mechanics to get around having levels in your FPS.

: Zubon

At this point, I’m open to the argument that “do the same thing 10 times a day for as long as you’re willing to subscribe” is the point of the current MMO genre rather than a defect in it.