Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Impressions: Borderlands and Torchlight

Posted by deckard47 on October 28, 2009

That’s an awfully boring, simple post title. I bet you’re all so put out.

Torchlight deserves a lot more time here, a lot more thought, but right now I’m busy playing it, and busy playing Borderlands. And today is a day for writing about Borderlands.

It is an excessively pretty game. It bypasses the ugly, plastic look of Unreal 3, the one that has turned so many action games and Japanese RPGs into hideous gobs of gray and “amazing” architecture. The people who designed the art for this game are fucking brilliant. Rocks are pretty. Remember Crysis? Go look at a rock in that game. It looks like it stepped out of Trespasser. Rocks in Borderlands are pretty, varied, and really a joy to look at. The same can be said for the characters, enemies, and environments. None of them are brilliant or super “new,” but they really convey the feel of what they are. The skags are dirty and dog-like and horribly pointy, like the monster from Pacte des Loups. In fact, the character design is like a dirty, Mirror Universe version of Team Fortress 2‘s art. The colors are strong, the lines are stronger, and each character conveys who and what it is perfectly.

The weapons are something else entirely. Every new gun is a wonder to look at, let alone fire. Picking up new guns, even bad ones, can be exciting. Guns have tons of odd protuberances and parts, parts that get switched out and added in, so your shotgun looks like an MP5 and your assault rifle looks like a green Stormtrooper carbine. It’s endlessly entertaining, much like the shooting. Note to all FPS/RPG designers. This is how you do it! This is how you design a game with guns, that you spend time shooting. Don’t make gunfire a boring animation or cinematic or something that has no tangible relation to the playing of the actual game (hey Fallout 3!). Make it integral to the game in a physical, enjoyable, inescapable way.

The missions are all fetch/assassinations, and the main story is instantly and advisably forgettable. The little robot guys sings way too much, and he sings whenever he sees you! Strangely and wonderfully, there are audio diaries that are often the subject of non-critical, smaller side quests. I say wonderfully because they are really quite well written and acted. Unlike the silly floaty computer woman who whispers in your ear, these audio diaries tell small, unconnected stories that are fun to listen to. I’ve only listened to the first set (about a scientist acclimating to Pandora’s barren landscape) in its entirety, but the writing (and the woman voicing the part) were very convincing and interesting. This is how you do audio diaries, people. You don’t pretend that they can stand in for real, ingame storytelling and character interaction or environmental narrative. You use them to add “unnecessary,” fun, interesting stories to the world.

Finally, you probably will want to make sure your friends are interested in this game before you buy it. As a single player experience it is a long, boring slog. In 2 player co-op it is pretty fun. In 3 player co-op it is completely and entirely fun. There is nothing else I can compare it to. Not Diablo (and that’s a bad comparison, in many ways), and not one of the tens of other 4 player co-op games out there. The dungeons alone are worth the price of the game. Believe me, I was surprised at this. I hate dungeons. They signal the arrival of bad design, bad AI, bad stories, and bad gameplay experiences, in everything but Diablo (and maybe Dungeon Siege). In Borderlands, they force you to play the game in a different way. It is more immediate, more deadly, and wonderfully hectic. You will die much more, and revive yourself and others much more, and it will be extraordinarily fun and exhilarating.

Owen, Henry (that is his spy name) and I played a lot of it yesterday, and then Owen and I played a ton of our own campaign. I have three level 11ish characters now. A Siren, a Brick, and a Soldier. The soldier is my SP guy, and is thus less fun. The Siren is really a lot of fun, although I’m worried I broke her build-wise. Luckily, you can re-roll for a fee (also, developers, always let me re-roll in this kind of game). My 3P character, Brick, is interesting. I don’t like Berserk. It is kind of boring. On the other hand, I love rocket launchers. Can a I make a rocket launcher build, with supporting powers, and no berserker powers whatsoever? We’ll see.

I’m trying to figure out how to explain my excitement and delight here. This game, like Torchlight, taps into the part of me that loves to collect, hord, spend, and upgrade. It also taps into the part of me that loves shooters, colorful worlds, and playing great multiplayer games (for now, it outstrips Torchlight in that area). I’m going to discuss (briefly) the game’s absolutely atrocious PC launch. Aside from the people angry with the differing US and foreign release dates (ha!), the game started with almost completely broken multiplayer. To even host a game online (LAN is pretty bug-free), you have to forward a bunch of ports and fiddle with your router and computer. It’s not too hard, but it is extremely dumb, especially when you take into account the fact that the Borderlands readme has the info for the port forwarding. So basically, they broke their multiplayer for everyone, and then expect us to fix it. That’s utterly incomprehensible to me.

So I love this game, and even the first 24 hours of deep rage it inspired in me cannot quell my love. I’m willing to forgive their unskippable opening movies (about 2 minutes worth), horrible mouse/keyboard menu navigation, and its bad in-game voice chat.  The second point there especially enrages me. If you start a process, like buying something, with the mouse, you must complete it with the mouse. You cannot use keys to complete it. Like the Enter key. You can often only navigate menus and the like using page down, and it is really difficult to select, drop, or compare items. This is so strange, coming from a company that grew up on PC games. When all of my menu options still have the console word associations (Really? Enter=select, and Esc=back? No shit), I know that someone couldn’t decide whether to completely redesign the UI for the PC and mouse. Even worse, what if they did decide, and picked this UI? What if this is their half-assed, increasingly confusing and cluttered idea of a good way to use the mouse and keyboard together?

Again, when I play the game with three people, all is forgiven. The game is so good that I forgive its many egregious sins, and enjoy myself anyway.

I’m done for now, but think about this: Torchlight, a game made on a much smaller budget than Borderlands, plays flawlessly. There isn’t a bad, unintuitive, incomprehensible bone in its body. It plops you into its world and then gives you the tools to enjoy that world, without a hiccup or mistake along the way. It is a joy to play, in every sense of the word. Borderlands may be a better multiplayer game, but Torchlight makes it look like a high school science project, from a design/comprehensibility standpoint, and that’s not because of Borderlands super-duper complexity. It’s because somewhere along the way, the Gearbox people decided to break their game in multiple ways, in multiple places. And then they told us to fix it.

I can only imagine that when Runic ships the free-to-play MMO Torchlight in a year, it is going to be an incredibly well-designed game, and it will put a lot of other games to shame, including Borderlands.

The moral to this story is: Tom is a really mean guy, but he totally loves Borderlands and Torchlight, and so should you!

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