On Borderlands…

The other day, I was discussing my favorite comedians with a fellow who shares the same thrill for colorful dick jokes as I do, when he asked me about the unfortunate falling out between comedians Dane Cook and Louis C.K. Having heard of no such debacle (but damn eager to know more, as I hope to live long enough to see Mr. Cook fall to a tragic yet equally hilarious demise), he explained that the two had a mudslinging session claiming the other comic had been stealing jokes from the other and profiting off of the success. Now, while I agree there are instances in which comedic bits are so unique and altogether revolutionary that they are forever known to be from a single source, I thought it was common knowledge that 95% of all jokes are recycled material that has floated through the mental nether longer than anyone can recount.  When one watches enough HBO specials and stand-up routines on Comedy Central, it becomes apparent that all comedians basically tell the same jokes—the only difference being their choice of words and style of delivery. So why make plagiarism such a big deal when it has been occurring for generations? Shouldn’t we just appreciate the rhythmic resurrection of classic bits and appreciate whatever form they take?

I’m not saying Borderlands is just a smattering of stolen parts from other classic games and hastily put together to make a cash cow. Far from it, Borderlands is actually a visually cunning online experience that just happens to take several narrative and mechanical parts from other sources. Yes, it’s not hard to tell where these parts came from, as Gearbox Software did not deviate from the formula almost at all, but does that tarnish the experience any? Did I get any less fun out of Borderlands by knowing the story has not-so-subtle hints of another post-apocalyptic franchise of greater stature? Or that the loot system borrows heavily from another acclaimed online loot-fest? On both counts, I can happily say my money was well spent, and the overall result of Borderlands should be enjoyed, regardless of how little it originates on it’s own. While keeping the summary concise, see if you can count the similarities: Recently arriving on planet Pandora (1), you choose from one of four different classes (2) to explore the planet in search of a mythical vault (3) that allegedly opens once every 2oo years (4**). As you advance in level, you will spend skill points along three separate skill trees (5) and collect countless weapons, each of them slightly tweaked in terms of rarity, type, and one of many variables that factor into the weapon itself, such as elemental or melee damage (6).

( ** while still a similarity, this one is a tiny similarity with Fallout 3 in which Vault 101 opens for the first time after 200 years… or so Ron Pearlman said. He’s grizzled, so I won’t argue with him.)

Now the story isn’t grand nor original by any stretch of the imagination, and it doesn’t serve to keep the player motivated to finish the game (that’s where the loot system comes in), but in the case of the FPS genre, that’s easily overlooked. Gamers of late seem to have come to terms with the fact that most FPS take a creative hit when it comes to the story department, but considering the biggest pull of a FPS is the gameplay, we’re generally ok with it, so long as the action is hot and the guns are even hotter. What Borderlands does originate in, however, is in the graphical arena. Cel-shaded games are few and far in-between, and the decision to incorporate them in a FPS game is a bold one indeed. Borderlands is a fascinating scenario in that without the cel-shaded look, I doubt the game would have been nearly as fun, nor as memorable. Many people have trouble with cel-shading as it tends to lean more toward a cartoonish blend of color that prevents gamers from fully immersing themselves in the world. But here, the decision to use cel-shading seems to bring Pandora to life and gives meaning to its many barren canyons and rocky crevices. There is a certain sharpness in the look and feel of Borderlands that could only be captured through cel-shading, and it helps the game to stand out among several other visually stunning FPS games of recent years. Moreover, the graphical presentation caters to the edgy, sensational and wildly humorous personality the game brings with it. It helped me to quickly realize, “oh, I should breathe a little and have some fun with this one”—a realization I happily went along with.

The game’s biggest pull amidst the many other titles that came out around this holiday season (and coincidentally the biggest similarity to another very well-known game) is it’s loot system, which is to say you’ll have collected so many guns, grenades, shields and modifications you’ll begin to question the pack-rat tendencies you never knew you had. Since the weapons have several different numerical factors that all play a part in dealing damage to your enemy, you quickly begin to understand how many guns you’ll go through in the game’s 14-16 hour campaign. Whether you’re a fan of rocket launchers, sniper rifles or machine guns, time and again you’ll find yourself deliberating between two or three guns of the same type and criticize absolutely every trade off they have: dmg vs. accuracy, corrosive vs. explosion, recoil vs. fire rate, and so on. Though it sounds repetitious and redundant on paper, this turns out to be the most addictive part of the entire game. More often than not, the only reason you’ll have for going through the various instances  over and over again is to simply try and see if you can get a better version of the gun you already have, or a better gun altogether. Many of the quests also reward you with higher qualities of guns, though most of them never compare to what you’ll randomly come across as you trek through the wastelands. By the end of my first play through, I had a legendary-ranked sniper rifle that turned most of my unfortunate victims into a pool of fire with a single shot. The satisfaction one gets from melting your adversary from a thousand yards away is a rare one indeed.

The online component of Borderlands must not be overlooked either, as it allows for a more socially enjoyed experience either with friends or just anyone who happens to be playing at the same time. With up to four players working together in a single game, the AI also increases in difficulty with the addition of each member. As the difficulty increases, so too do the rewards, adding incentive to playing online with others. Phat Lewts aside, the controlled-chaos is not fully appreciated until you play through some of the games harder sections with three other players of different class. When a rhythm is achieved and coordination is set, the end result is a cooperative multiplayer experience that is quite unrivaled in both challenge and satisfaction.

True creativity—that is, a product that comes to us as absolutely unique and original—is hard to find. While we praise these rare occasions with high scores and millions of dollars, there is an under-appreciated side effect: The admiration of regenerating dated mechanics and making them enjoyable again. It had been a long time since I felt the loot craze take me over like in the days of Diablo, but Borderlands allowed me to relive those days while adding their own little tweak of personality to keep it fresh. And is that really so bad? I wasn’t looking for Borderlands to reinvent anything I have come to be familiar with; I just wanted to get a couple friends together, laugh, and have a good time. Sure, the jokes were ones we’ve all heard many times before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them every now and then.

See you in the next level,

Gray

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