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Played Lately: “Magicka’s Mutually Assured Destruction” or “Borderlands Badass Co-Op”

July 15, 2011 4 comments

I am playing no MMO these days, which is odd because I started this blog as an MMO player. There are a number of reasons for why I am not playing any existing MMOs, but suffice it to say, I am just tired of the endless cycle. I am tired of never being able to “properly” impact the world for the better. I am tired of killing the same old ten rats, albeit with a new look and mechanic. I am tired of grinding. I am tired of farming. I am tired of competing for gear because having gained 85 goddamn levels means absolutely nothing in this day and age of the perpetual endgame gear grind. I am tired of all this.

I am not saying MMO’s haven’t evolved, the latest cross-realm raid pugging and Real ID grouping features from Blizzard are ground-breaking features. Eve Online set the bar for player-defined market economies and territory control very high, but suffers from its inherent complexity and that the oldest players are over 100 million skill points ahead of the competition, which, to say the least, is ridiculous. This is but two of many example.

I am looking for the second wave of MMO ingenuity. I am looking for the world-impacting mechanics of Guild Wars 2. I am looking for the level-less scope of the Secret World. I am waiting for light-sabers. And in the meantime, I am, keeping myself busy with a host of other quality multiplayer games, that are just not as massive.

Magicka’s Mutually Assured Destruction

I am playing Magicka these days with three of my friends, and it is a treat to play. There are no levels, no skill points, no game-breaking gear (there is gear), no additional spells or abilities to learn. Everyone starts off on the same foot and finds their preferred way to play. There are eight spells in the game, and five spell slots. You can mix and match the skills in Magicka in those five slots (or less, if you are pressed for time) to create unique spell-combinations. You can cast Fire with Healing to simultaneously heal and dry yourself. You can cast frost to freeze a water surface to walk across. You can sling earthen boulders, or add a dash of Fire to hurl fireballs. You are only held back by your imagination for how you decide to take on an obstacle.

Then you add three more players, and it gets a lot more fun.

There is friendly fire in Magicka. This means that if you are casting a death ray of Arcane energy, an ally who walks across that beam will also be instantly zapped. Given that all spells are both area effect, conical directional, and focused, the possibility of getting hit by an ally’s firepower gets multiplied astronomically. Battles are careful strategic endeavors, because your enemies will come at you from all directions and shooting any combinations of magical energies at them imply you have to ensure your allies are not caught in the spells’ wake. This adds incredible depth and scale to an already exciting game, and results in some of the funniest, and at times frustrating moments in my recent gaming history.

Borderlands Badass Co-Op

I played Borderlands a while back with a friend on the Xbox, but we got bored after about 15 levels. Partially because the vertically split-screen was headache inducing, and partly because I am not used to playing shooters on an Xbox controller. Two years later, Steam decides to have a massive sale on a Borderlands 4-pack. Two of my friends purchase it, and off we go, into the world of Pandora, in search of the 17+ million weapons the game has to offer.

It occurred to me very shortly after playing it with two other players that Borderlands’ Pandora is a cruel, gruesome and tough world. Enemies got tougher, tougher enemies got impossible and we learned what it was like to play a cooperative shooter where your combined abilities can result in the difference between life and death. It is not as intense, nor as teamwork dependent as Left 4 Dead but it does require skill, and planning and watching each others’ backs through the tougher moments.

The bottomline is that Borderlands, even two years after release, has turned out to be one hell of a game, especially when played with several players cooperatively.

Next post: The single-player games that are keeping me busy till a better MMO comes out.

Categories: Borderlands

“Se7en Favorite Games of 2010” or “Sheppard Plants Assassins Northrend Explosions Protoss Bada-Bing-Bada-Boom!”

January 3, 2011 3 comments

Note: Sorry this is a day late, I got caught up in some work stuff / my cat swallowed a hairball / my dog ate my blog post.

2010, much like everything else in life, had it’s ups and downs. The gaming industry continues to grow, and with growth comes more variety and better quality games. On the flip-side terrible games also stick out like sore thumbs when juxtaposed against lauded AAA titles. All in all, I had a blast in 2010 playing video games, and despite some fairly horrid titles, botched reboot attempts, and sub-par production values in some otherwise solid titles, I was quite pleased with what the industry had to offer.

I didn’t play as many MMOs in 2010 as I did in the years prior. I quit Eve Online. I finally said goodbye to World of Warcrft, despite a stellar new expansion (I was in the beta). I started dabbling into LOTRO and realized it was a completionist’s wet-dream, and I have been having a blast on my novice Elf Hunter (yes, I know that race/class combo is real original). I tried out Perpetuum and was turned off by how similar it was to Eve Online in terms of systems, UI and looks, and how much it paled in comparison in actual execution. I also tried my hands at World of Tanks, a game that really took a lot to get used to, and so far it hasn’t been entirely disappointing. SynCaine’s ramblings finally made me cave in to Darkfall and I have been getting my ass kicked ever since. But all things considered, I spent the least amount of time with MMOs in 2010, especially when you contrast that against 2-6 hour daily sessions with World of Warcraft and EvE Online in prior years.

At any rate, the following are my favorite games of 2010, in no particular order:

Mass Effect 2

What a stellar experience this game was. I found myself thinking of the game weeks after I finished it, always intrigued by what could have happened if I had played a particular fight with another set of allies using different tactics. Mass Effect 2, of all the games I have played in 2010, had the most powerful ending I have experienced in a video game, despite a terrible “final boss” fight and holes in the story regarding the final set pieces. Mass Effect 2 gave me goosebumps, and I am ever thankful to BioWare for making such a fantastic title. It speaks volume for a title that has quite a few flaws, but those flaws completely pale in comparison to the rest of the package.

Related posts:

Starcraft II

This game is the primary reason my MMO habits suffered so greatly in 2010. (The other reason being a lack of interesting MMOs to play in 2010 – just my opinion, disagree all you want). Twelve years in the making, this title had the kind of hype that eventually leads to inflated expectations, which, inevitably deflate with rancid disappointment because no title can live up to such high hopes. Starcraft 2, however, shocked fans and critics alike when it launched, not only meeting, but in some cases exceeding expectations. Couple this with the fact that the title shipped with no LAN support despite resounding disagreement from the core fan base, and that this is only a third of a trilogy that will be released over several years, and still the title did so well both commercially and critically. The single player campaign was phenomenal, and there was a hardly a mission where I felt like I was playing an RTS. It was immersive, innovative, the missions were varied and featured a plethora of objectives for you to accomplish and the production values were incredible. It took me nearly 40 hours to get through the single-player portion of the game. But the multiplayer is where I find myself losing hours on a daily basis: 386 hours to be exact (that’s over 16 days in real-time – sheesh!). I love the 1v1 match-ups and a friend and I have been tearing through the 2v2 rankings for several weeks now. This is a game I will be surely playing well into 2010.

Related posts:

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

Talking about completionists’ wet-dreams, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood hit the (digital) shelves in November. I have already shared my thoughts on the title, so I will spare you the re-iteration, but suffice it to say AC:B was hours upon hours of fun, featuring huge improvements over the previous titles, and kept me happily occupied for days.

Related posts:

Split/Second

A racing game? Yes, I was surprised as well. A colleague at work first recommended this title and then demanded that I play it. I have never been a big racing sim fan, so I was a little skeptic. But then I lost a bet the following week to the same colleague and my “punishment” was playing this title. God I wish all punishments could be like this. Expecting a racing sim with questionable production values and a botched, convoluted “career mode”, I was completely blown away (pun-intended) by what I saw. One of the most satisfying games I have ever played, Split/Second is a fictional reality TV show in the ‘near future’, where drivers compete on tracks laden with explosives and traps. These obstacles can be triggered by any of the drivers as long as they have power, which is earned through air time, drafting and drifting. There was no major car customization, no excessively ‘real-time’ mode, just the directional pad, an accelerator, a brake and two buttons for small and large explosions respectively. It is deceptively simple and shockingly involved and deep. You can win/lose in the final few moments, and the music is so well done, it actually gets your adrenaline pumping for those final precious few seconds of a hard-fought race. Check it out if you haven’t yet, and look on YouTube for some of the soundtrack.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

My love-hate relationship with WoW continued to grow/dwindle in 2010, but finally fizzled out towards the end. Despite the fact that I am no longer playing it, I had a lot of fun playing WoW casually in 2010. I learned what it was like not to raid for 4 hours a night, 4-5 days a week. I learned the fun in creating and pursuing your own little goals, such as going after a particularly elusive reputation, or earning the Chef’s Hat. I ran heroics with strangers and 10-mans with old friends and guildies, and I had a blast. I was also in the Cataclysm Beta from quite early on and played it for nearly three months. I experienced most of the new content and enough of the revamped world to know what Cataclysm had to offer. Eventually I realized it wasn’t enough to keep me around, but I had a great time nonetheless. And who knows, maybe I will find a reason to go back at some point in the future.

Related Posts:

Plants vs. Zombies

PopCap hit gold with this title. This game seems so simple on the surface, but as the levels progress and the various types of zombies and plants unlock, it turns into one of the most complex, strategic and exhilirating titles I have had the pleasure of playing in recent memory. I was initially skeptic of the title, Bejeweled and Peggle (the other smash hits from the developer) aren’t exactly what you would call my cup of tea. So imagine my surprise when I played the game and realized what an incredible experience it was. Not that the title needed any additional critical acclaim, but it has now been immortalized in WoW as a series of quests in the Hillsbrad Foothils starting with Brazie the Botanist.

Mafia II

And finally, we have the crime drama. The game didn’t get very high reviews from most gaming authorities, getting an average rating around the mid-70s. I am not disagreeing, I don’t think it was as good as it could have been. But the original Mafia, a game I played start to end three times, holds a special place in my heart. And even though the characters didn’t have much cross-over between the two games, I loved every minute of Mafia II, even the abysmal driving controls and the long rides between mission points. Mafia II didn’t live up to its predecessor, but it was a hell of a ride, and I am glad for it.

Honorable Mentions

  • Metro 2033: Great game, supremely atmospheric. Horrendous AI that breaks the game in my opinion.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops: Excellent single-player campaign, especially when juxtaposed against MoH. Awful PC multiplayer ruined my experience.
  • Borderlands: Released in 2009, I kn0w, played it well into 2010, lots of good DLC content, had a blast.
  • Darkfall: SynCaine was right, it is difficult to go back to WoW after experiencing Darkfall in all it’s brutal, unforgiving glory, still learning, still trying to wrap my head around it.
  • Machinarium: Actually can I have eight favorites of 2010? Yes, it’s that good.

“Claptrappin’ to the Oscars!” or “Heyooooo!”

March 25, 2010 2 comments

Prior to the release of Borderlands, 2K Games released a series of videos (and I use the term ‘series’ liberally, since it entailed only two videos) of a tongue-in-cheek spoof videos about the making of Borderlands. If you haven’t seen them, here are the first and second videos.

They released a third video today, mocking the Oscars for not including Claptrap’s allegedly stellar performance in the year’s nominations. As Yahtzee of Zero punctuation points out, maybe that is because making something intentionally annoying is still annoying! At any rate, here is the third video, and worth a watch because it’s a decent laugh, if you can bear through all the way to the end! (Direct link here).

Categories: Borderlands

Borderlands Interview, Part II: “I’m Excited That You’re Excited!” or “MAINSTREAM’D!”

November 23, 2009 4 comments

A few weeks ago I contacted Randy Pitchford, co-founder and CEO of Gearbox Software, for an interview regarding Borderlands, the upcoming DLC and the possibility of a sequel. Randy was nice enough to make time in his busy schedule (i.e. playing and making video games for a living – lucky bastard!), to answer some of the questions.

This is part two of that interview and covers the possibility of a sequel, some technical questions, and other random tidbits.

You can find Part I here.

[Sidenote: Read my on-going review/in-character/commentary series on the game, ‘The Borderlands Chronicles’:

Enjoy!]


:: ON BORDERLANDS 2 ::

Bronte (B): Mike Neumann has all but directly confirmed a sequel to Borderlands. Can you comment further?

Randy Pitchford (RP): I think Mikey just said that he can confirm that there’s a “chance” for a Borderlands 2.  I think he was playing around with the journalist there… He also said, “Obviously, nothing so far is planned. We’re working on DLC.”

B: Come on! You know you want to!

RP: I don’t have anything to announce at this time, but I’m really excited that you’re excited. 🙂

:: ON TECHNICAL ISSUES ::

Thank you for not allowing PC to be a bastard-child, secondary-citizen to the console generation. Do you feel a game designed from the ground up on the PC has better cross-platform development? Or vice versa?

RP: I think PC development has become more complicated and tricky over the years. But I also think we can do even more there. We’re looking at sales and looking at forums and we’re prioritizing things in our support of the game and are going to take influence from the data and the experience to affect our future decisions.

B: Halflife, Brothers in Arms, and now Borderlands. Do you feel getting hit IP’s that demand expansions and sequels stagnate a studio’s creativity or enhance it?

RP: We just try to make video games that we think are fun, cool and those we want to play ourselves.  I think that it’s important for us to spend time on things we want to spend time on. Sometimes, that’s new things and sometimes, that’s caring more for things with which we’ve already spent time. I think if we had a magic wand, we could magically create more time for ourselves because there are so many things we want to make and so many things we can spend our time doing.

B: Borderlands, for a lot of people, was a painful experience because of the troubles with online play and LAN issues. What steps is Gearbox taking to ensure these issues are sorted out for the upcoming content?

RP: I think that is the thing I wished was most different… And we’re investing more support in those areas. There are some awesome people here that really care, even after the launch, in correcting the troubles.  We’ve already deployed some updates, for platforms, that have addressed some of these issues and we have more deploying as soon as we’re clear to do so.  I think the connectivity issues that some customers are having will be soon cleared up and I think the experience has taught us and our publishing partner a lot which in turn will make the connectivity experience in our future games much better.

:: MISCELLANEOUS ::

B: Are you aware that your name’s initials also stand for “Role Playing” or “Randomized Pew-pew?”

RP: I am now.  Thank you for pointing that out.

B: Was it really you that killed those play testers?

RP: That was some funny thing that IGN did.  I had no idea that they had even done that, but after the surprise, I was highly amused by it.  I even dressed up like the fake me for our costume party at the studio during Halloween because what else could I be?

B: Are there any plans to bring that madman to justice?!?

RP: MAINSTREAM’D!

Categories: Borderlands

“Coincidence?” or “Marcus = Roman”

November 22, 2009 2 comments

Marcus Kincaid in Borderlands, and Roman Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV.

I can’t be the only one who sees the resemblance…

Categories: Borderlands

Borderlands Interview, Part I: “Oh Lord, There Ain’t no Heaven” or “Zombies, Wereskags, Tankensteins, oh my!”

November 21, 2009 5 comments

Gearbox sign with some dude

If you have never heard of Gearbox Software, insert a witty variation of the crawl back under the rock pun. Halflife: Opposing Force, some obscure title, Counterstrike, I think it my have been, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, a little game called Halo, and more recently Brothers in Arms and Borderlands are just some of the titles Gearbox Software has produced over the years.

If you don’t know of Randy Pitchford, lift that rock you have been living under above your head… higher… a little higher… little higher still. Now let it drop. One of the four co-founders of the company, and the current President and CEO, his vision and leadership has made Gearbox Software a force to be reckoned with. With so many titles under his belt, one might say Randy is a magician. You’d be right, because prior to becoming a developer, he actually was a full-time magician in Hollywood!

I contacted Randy a few weeks ago for an interview regarding Borderlands, the upcoming DLC and the possibility of a sequel. Randy was nice enough to make time in his busy schedule (i.e. playing and making video games for a living – lucky bastard!), to answer some of the questions.

This is part one of that interview and covers Borderlands and the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned DLC. Part II will focus on Borderlands 2, technical issues, as well as some miscellaneous comments.

Enjoy!

:: ON BORDERLANDS ::

Bronte (B): Borderlands is a lonely place. Aside from a few plot advancers and quest givers, even the main ‘towns’ feel devoid of human life. The bandit towns, on the other hand, seem brimming to the rafters with goons. Given the post-apocalyptic feel of the game, and the setting of Pandora, was this an intentional design choice?

Randy Pitchford (RP):  From a story point of view, we did want the place to feel that the lawful side of things had completely degenerated. We wanted the towns to feel as if they once were much more relevant and populated, but when you finally arrive, few are left and their future is bleak.  From a design point of view, we wanted the game to focus on the action and not on reading text or following character plots around. The most fun to be had in Borderlands is through adventuring, taking down bad guys and taking their loot. This is where we wanted much of the focus to be. As far as we felt, we could safely push  that part of the experience so; we downplayed the NPC and dialogue which is often associated with role-playing games.

B: Gearbox has made shooters for a long time. In a prior interview with Xbox Magazine, you said that Diablo’s near-obsessive loot-collection mechanic was a heavy influence for the game. Yet it feels that even the loot that drops from bosses is scarce compared to the loot flood we experienced in Diablo. What was the rationale behind this decision?

RP: I don’t think scarce is the right word for describing the amount of loot that drops from bosses in Borderlands. A typical boss will spew a bunch of things and you will also typically find other valuables locked away in chests nearby. In Borderlands, however, we tried to be careful about finding that right balance; too much loot and you’re spending more time sifting through it and making decisions than you’d like; too little loot and you get bored and lose interest because you’re not having enough opportunities to find new and exciting things.   I’m really confident we achieved the balance between those end points, especially considering how much we iterated the design and how much we tested it with test subjects. Still – there’s always room for improvement 🙂

B: Aside from Diablo, Borderlands is compared to MMO’s on occasion. Creatures re-spawn (in a logical manner, not materializing out of thin air, kudos on that BTW). There are dungeon crawls. You can grind the same boss for the perfect loot. It is almost as if Borderlands was an experimental foray into the treacherous waters of the MMO genre. Hint, hint?

RP: Yes, there are some MMO influences in Borderlands.  While we’ve definitely done something in creating the first great shooter-looter, there are certainly things we can do even better through iteration. Expect some developments in the future updates and in add-ons in which we’re heavily invested.

B: ‘Shooter-looter’, I like that term. I also noticed you didn’t really answer the question! 🙂 Moving on! Borderlands had a very harsh, unwelcoming feel to it. The music especially added to the idea of isolation and the overall mystique. How elaborate was the sound design behind the game and how will you improve on it in the upcoming DLC?

RP: I’m really proud of what Raison and Mark accomplished with the audio design; those guys are incredible. Raison took tremendous responsibility for the music and most of the audio effects in the game. He did a great job capturing the feel of both desolation and wonder, and wrapping it all together which is a difficult task to accomplish.

B: One personal pet peeve: why does my vehicle (at least on the Xbox 360) have two steering wheels? You accelerate with one, and turn with the other. Was there a reason behind this counter-intuitive implementation?

RP: The vehicle control was modeled after Halo’s vehicle controls.  We made the assumption, for the Xbox 360 version, that most of our customers would’ve played Halo and would already be familiar with that method for driving cars. For those customers, who did NOT play Halo but are playing Borderlands, we figured they would be able to figure it out.  Maybe, in a future iteration we will support different methods for controlling the vehicles, however, control is so closely linked to camera and physics which is really difficult and risky to do when doing more than one thing.

B: I understand the game was built using UT3 technology. Some of the levels in the world felt cramped and small, especially given claims of Pandora being a massive planet. There are speculations that the aging technology may have forced the wraparound designs and dictated the size of locations. Your thoughts?

RP: Reading this question, I’m not sure if we’re playing the same game. 🙂    First, the version of Unreal Engine used for Borderlands is not aging.  In fact, the engine development team has been supporting the technology with amazing improvements well into the generation to ensure that it is the best engine in the world for this kind of game.  Furthermore, Gearbox built upon the technology with additional new features and lighting techniques that are as cutting edge as you can get; including, support for ambient occlusion on Xbox 360!   Secondly, the huge variety of spaces found on Pandora, from the most open and wide, to the most linear and cramped, are more about variety in the layout than they are about a technology limit.   The maximum size of the game spaces and the number of things within each game space are limited by the memory and performance of the platform.   We decided to break the world into chunks in order to support the cooperative game play so that we can be sure that cooperative players are likely to be playing in close enough proximity of one another.

B: Why can’t we shoot the shit out of Claptrap? He is annoying!

RP: Claptrap is a character, to be sure. Although, a ClapTrap shooting gallery could be fun. 🙂

:: ON THE ISLAND OF DR. NED DLC ::

B: Zombie filled DLC a week after Left 4 Dead 2. Ballsy!

RP: Hmm…  I didn’t really think about it like that. I think the DLC is for people who like Borderlands and want to see that experience improve and grow such as killing Zombies, Wereskags, Tankensteins and all kinds of crazy undead critters which have all been rendered like we’ve never seen before. Plus, you can play these 50+ new quests alone or with friends, all the while, collecting a ton of loot, leveling up and having a blast.

B: Dragon Age introduced launch day DLC’s that is only downloaded if you had a unique legitimate key. Would you experiment with something similar, at least for the PC, to ensure the rampant piracy on the platform is somewhat curbed?

RP: I don’t know. I’m not going to comment on what other people are doing, but I am happy to talk about what we’re doing. We released Borderlands worldwide in late October, but had to finish more than two months earlier than that in order to get through the certification, manufacturing and distribution process.  As we finished the game and started going towards certification, the developers at Gearbox had so many cool ideas that we just went all in and started working on DLC in order to add new experiences that could be launched as soon as we get them done.  Because of the passion, the motivation and the intense amount of effort the team has put in – between when the game was practically finished to now- we’re going to be able to launch the first DLC for Borderlands just a little more than a month after the first retail copy hit store shelves.  We think that’s really awesome and we hope that customers who love Borderlands support us and our motivation to make even more DLC.  The value is there! It’s an incredibly cool new campaign and is pretty large for what it costs.  I think people are going to love it. There are some concerns that despite being a great game, at times it felt like more of the same. What are some of the environmental and gameplay elements unique to the DLC?

B: There are some concerns that despite being a great game, at times it felt like more of the same. What are some of the environmental and gameplay elements unique to the DLC?

RP: Check out the screenshots – it’s like an entirely new game with new places that are totally different than the environments in the original game.  There are also new creatures and enemies that are really creepy, cool and just fun to fight and take down.   I love the Tankensteins, especially, the ones that carry loot chests on their backs.  Killing them and then looting the chest is really gratifying. 🙂

B: What about structure and storyline?

RP: You’re going to visit Dr. Ned’s Zombie Island, as the title suggests, but you’ll head out there and into the Jakob’s gun manufacturer’s facilities on the planet and get caught up in a cool and interesting adventure. There’s a nice set up for it that’ll kick off when you first fast travel to the area, so I’m not going to spoil anything for anyone. By the way, even if you haven’t unlocked the fast-travel network yet, we let you fast travel to the new area that comes with the DLC, right off the bat.  And, we’ve done some scaling of the content so that when you enter the area you  pretty much have a challenge, no matter what level you are in when you buy it.

B: Is Dr. Ned related to Dr. Zed? Neumann says no. I think he’s lying. That sneaky bastard.

RP: Nope, totally unrelated. They have nothing to do with each other.  It’s all just a big coincidence that their names sound alike. 🙂

B: We’ll make that two sneaky bastards then.

(Continued in Part II… coming soon)

 

Borderlands

1. Bronte: Borderlands is a lonely place. Aside from a few plot advancers and quest givers, even the main ‘towns’ feel devoid of human life. The bandit towns, on the other hand, seems brimming to the rafters with goons. Given the post-apocalyptic feel of the game, and the setting of Pandora, was this an intentional design choice?

Randy Pitchford: From a story point of view, we did want the place to feel that the lawful side of things had completely degenerated. We wanted the towns to feel as if they once were much more relevant and populated, but when you finally arrive, few are left and their future is bleak.   From a design point of view, we wanted the game to focus on the action and not on reading text or following character plots around.   The most fun to be had in Borderlands is through adventuring, taking down bad guys and taking their loot. This is where we wanted much of the focus to be. As far as we felt, we could safely push  that part of the experience so; we downplayed the NPC and dialogue which is often associated with role-playing games.

  1. Bronte: Gearbox has made shooters for a long time. In a prior interview with Xbox Magazine, you said that Diablo’s near-obsessive loot-collection mechanic was a heavy influence for the game. Yet it feels that even the loot that drops from bosses is scarce compared to the loot flood we experienced in Diablo. What was the rationale behind this decision?

Randy Pitchford: I don’t think scarce is the right word for describing the amount of loot that drops from bosses in Borderlands.  A typical boss will spew a bunch of things and you will also typically find other valuables locked away in chests nearby.   In Borderlands, however, we tried to be careful about finding that right balance; too much loot and you’re spending more time sifting through it and making decisions than you’d like; too little loot and you get bored and lose interest because you’re not having enough opportunities to find new and exciting things.   I’m really confident we achieved the balance between those end points, especially considering how much we iterated the design and how much we tested it with test subjects. Still – there’s always room for improvement 🙂

3. Bronte: Aside from Diablo, Borderlands is compared to MMO’s on occasion. Creatures re-spawn (in a logical manner, not materializing out of thin air, kudos on that BTW). There are dungeon crawls. You can grind the same boss for the perfect loot. It is almost as if Borderlands was an experimental foray into the treacherous waters of the MMO genre. Hint, hint?

Randy Pitchford: Yes, there are some MMO influences in Borderlands.  While we’ve definitely done something in creating the first great shooter-looter, there are certainly things we can do even better through iteration. Expect some developments in the future updates and in add-ons in which we’re heavily invested.

  1. Bronte: Borderlands had a very harsh, unwelcoming feel to it. The music especially added to the idea of isolation and the overall mystique. How elaborate was the sound design behind the game and how will you improve on it in the upcoming DLC?

Randy Pitchford: I’m really proud of what Raison and Mark accomplished with the audio design; those guys are incredible.  Raison took tremendous responsibility for the music and most of the audio effects in the game. He did a great job capturing the feel of both desolation and wonder wrapping it all together which is a difficult task to accomplish.

  1. Bronte: One personal pet peeve: why does my vehicle (at least on the Xbox 360) have two steering wheels? You accelerate with one, and turn with the other. Was there a reason behind this counter-intuitive implementation?

Randy Pitchford: The vehicle control was modeled after Halo’s vehicle controls.  We made the assumption, for the Xbox 360 version, that most of our customers would’ve played Halo and would already be familiar with that method for driving cars. For those customers, who did NOT play Halo but are playing Borderlands, we figured they would be able to figure it out.  Maybe, in a future iteration we will support different methods for controlling the vehicles, however, control is so closely linked to camera and physics which is really difficult and risky to do when doing more than one thing.

  1. Bronte: I understand the game was built using UT3 technology. Some of the levels in the world felt cramped and small, especially given claims of Pandora being a massive planet. There are speculations that the aging technology may have forced the wraparound designs and dictated the size of locations. Your thoughts?

Randy Pitchford: Reading this question, I’m not sure if we’re playing the same game. 🙂    First, the version of Unreal Engine used for Borderlands is not aging.  In fact, the engine development team has been supporting the technology with amazing improvements well into the generation to ensure that it is the best engine in the world for this kind of game.  Furthermore, Gearbox built upon the technology with additional new features and lighting techniques that are as cutting edge as you can get; including, support for ambient occlusion on Xbox 360!   Secondly, the huge variety of spaces found on Pandora, from the most open and wide, to the most linear and cramped, are more about variety in the layout than they are about a technology limit.   The maximum size of the game spaces and the number of things within each game space are limited by the memory and performance of the platform.   We decided to break the world into chunks in order to support the cooperative game play so that we can be sure that cooperative players are likely to be playing in close enough proximity of one another.

  1. Bronte: Why can’t we shoot the shit out of Claptrap? He is annoying!

Randy Pitchford: Claptrap is a character, to be sure. Although, a ClapTrap shooting gallery could be fun. 🙂

Borderlands DLC:

8. Bronte: Zombie filled DLC a week after Left 4 Dead 2. Ballsy!

Randy Pitchford: Hmm…  I didn’t really think about it like that. I think the DLC is for people who like Borderlands and want to see that experience improve and grow such as killing Zombies, Wereskags, Tankensteins and all kinds of crazy undead critters which have all been rendered like we’ve never seen before. Plus, you can play these 50+ new quests alone or with friends, all the while, collecting a ton of loot, leveling up and having a blast.

  1. Bronte: Dragon Age introduced launch day DLC’s that is only downloaded if you had a unique legitimate key. Would you experiment with something similar, at least for the PC, to ensure the rampant piracy on the platform is somewhat curbed?

Randy Pitchford: I don’t know.  I’m not going to comment on what other people are doing, but I am happy to talk about what we’re doing.  We released Borderlands worldwide in late October, but had to finish more than two months earlier than that in order to get through the certification, manufacturing and distribution process.  As we finished the game and started going towards certification, the developers at Gearbox had so many cool ideas that we just went all in and started working on DLC in order to add new experiences that could be launched as soon as we get them done.  Because of the passion, the motivation and the intense amount of effort the team has put in – between when the game was practically finished to now- we’re going to be able to launch the first DLC for Borderlands just a little more than a month after the first retail copy hit store shelves.  We think that’s really awesome and we hope that customers who love Borderlands support us and our motivation to make even more DLC.  The value is there! It’s an incredibly cool new campaign and is pretty large for what it costs.  I think people are going to love it. There are some concerns that despite being a great game, at times it felt like more of the same. What are some of the environmental and gameplay elements unique to the DLC?

  1. Bronte: There are some concerns that despite being a great game, at times it felt like more of the same. What are some of the environmental and gameplay elements unique to the DLC?

Randy Pitchford: Check out the screenshots – it’s like an entirely new game with new places that are totally different than the environments in the original game.  There are also new creatures and enemies that are really creepy, cool and just fun to fight and take down.   I love the Tankensteins, especially, the ones that carry loot chests on their backs.  Killing them and then looting the chest is really gratifying. 🙂

  1. Bronte: What about structure and storyline?

Randy Pitchford: You’re going to visit Dr. Ned’s Zombie Island, as the title suggests, but you’ll head out there and into the Jakob’s gun manufacturer’s facilities on the planet and get caught up in a cool and interesting adventure. There’s a nice set up for it that’ll kick off when you first fast travel to the area, so I’m not going to spoil anything for anyone. By the way, even if you haven’t unlocked the fast-travel network yet, we let you fast travel to the new area that comes with the DLC, right off the bat.  And, we’ve done some scaling of the content so that when you enter the area you  pretty much have a challenge, no matter what level you are in when you buy it.

  1. Bronte: Is Dr. Ned related to Dr. Zed? Neumann says no. I think he’s lying. That sneaky bastard.

Randy Pitchford: Nope, totally unrelated. They have nothing to do with each other.  It’s all just a big coincidence that their names sound alike. 🙂

Categories: Borderlands

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part III: “Vending Machine Tycoons” or “Give ’em Hell Bloodwing!”

November 20, 2009 4 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Links:

Sid Meier’s Vending Machine Tycoon

I am in the Arid Hills. It doesn’t look much different from the previous areas, just looks like more of the same: drab, dry, dead. But there is a certain comfort in familiarity, so I trudge on, boomstick in hand, looking for pieces of some legendary sniper rifle and a mine gate key.

There are vending machines to my left where I can get rid of any unwanted items in my impossibly large backpack. I don’t understand how Dr. Zed and Marcus can be such successful vending machine entrepreneurs on Pandora. They seem to have vending machines in literally every corner of this world. How do they get them there? Who keeps them maintained? Don’t they get attacked when they come to restock, pluck out sold items and collect cash? And how is it that no one ever breaks into these machines?

Skag Scars

A skag roars in the distance. Sounds big. I go through a drain pipe to the first cross-section. There are several caves about 50 paces ahead of me, and quite a few of the skags are already on patrol. They are all either my level or a level above. But unlike my first few encounters with the bastards, I am much better prepared this time around. My sniper rifle does a whopping 145 damage per shot, and Bloodwing is maxed out to do the most damage per flight.

I spot an Alpha Skag in the group. They are well-armored, and take the most amount of shots to kill. Using a sniper is out of the question if it starts charging. But I have my trusty sub-machine gun with me, and despite a sheer lack of skill with the weapon, I know it can dispatch foes if they get up close and personal. Aim and accuracy matter little if most of your vision is filled with a skag’s teeth. But patience is a virtue, and instead of firing at the first skag I can track through my scope, I wait patiently, and inch forward one tiny step at a time. In time the Alpha spots me. He roars, opening its mouth in all directions, letting out a terrifying howl. I smile. Big mistake.

A single shot down its pie-hole dispatches my first foe without much trouble. I hear multiple howls, without wasting a second, I turn around and sprint to the drainage pipe I just came from.

Choke point.

I dispatch them one at a time. Single-shot precision kills. At least two of them go down mid-air, as they leap at me, mouth wide open, in an attempt to bite off a piece. I laugh as one skag literally explodes into chunks of smoldering flesh. “What”,  I say, “you didn’t like that?” And I start laughing. It’s a triumphant moment. I feel superior to the creatures that died by my hands in every conceivable way. But this is just the beginning, and I had the advantage of the choke point. That is more of an exception than the rule. This world isn’t all that forgiving.

More skags at the next ridge. Not too much trouble. The previous area had several barrels that I lure them to. The blue ones explode with a large amount of electrical damage, green ones are corrosive, whereas red ones simply explode. Quite handy.

My momentary high is short-lived as I spot a poor soul impaled on a large pike. Subtle.

Separation Anxiety

There is a bandit camp around the ridge. Two of them patrol a sniper’s nest up top. A quick succession of head shots alleviates that problem. But the camp is another story. In the blink of an eye, my shield is gone, as well as half my health bar. I missed the grenades that had been lobbed at me by the one of the raiders because my field of vision was severely limited through the scope of my sniper. Cursing under my breath I fire back at the rifleman. He has already taken cover, and with all the bullets slamming into me, I cannot seem to get off a clean shot. A midget shot gunner, however, is not so lucky.

Bloodwing stirs, and I set him lose. “Give ’em hell, Bloodwing!” I yell. I tuck in to the right, out of the line of fire, my health nearly depleted. Bloodwing circles overhead once, then twice, and then continues the pattern. I am confused. Why isn’t he attacking? It isn’t clear to me then, but it appears Bloodwing is afraid of being too far apart from me, which limits him to a certain range. I am mildly irritated. Gonna have to train that damn bird better. He finally makes one last sweep overhead, and returns to me.

Keeping the rock outcropping between me and the barrage of endless bullets, I inch closer to my enemies, and then let Bloodwing loose a second time. This time he beelines to the crouching raider behind the barricade, ripping the poor bastard to shreds. Since I have focused on making Bloodwing a true agent of death, not only does he solve my problem with the raider, upon returning to me, he also restores a big portion of my health.

Revitalized, I switch to the SMG and come out of hiding guns blazing, lobbing two grenades at the remaining foes. It does not take too long, and within minutes they lie at my feet, fresh bullet-holes gaping like the unending depths of a dark, dreary abyss.

I hear something shriek overhead. Rokks. These guys have very little health, but in large groups they can swarm you, and rip your insides out in seconds. There is trouble ahead. I can feel it in the air. I better be careful.

Hugging Chemical Barrels is a Bad Idea

After clearing out another small camp, and inching close to the edges to keep my distance from the rokks overhead, I spot another sniper perch in the distance. I crouch, debating if I should send in my personal agent of death on wings, or dispatch him with a single bullet? Bloodwing would not be able to get him at that range. He has already established that any considerable length of distance between us causes him severe separation anxiety. And that is when I notice the corrosive acid barrel next to the lookout. A single shot explodes the barrel, showering him in acid. I watch his surprised expression through the scope, as the acid eats away at his body, literally devouring him whole. Good riddance.

The Fourth Piece of the Puzzle

My map tells me the four pieces of the legendary sniper rifle are in the next camp. I start shooting. Psychotic midgets, shotgunners, badass bruisers, they all succumb to the overwhelming firepower I pack, backed by the ferocious talons of my trusty companion. It’s a little odd they some of them come out of hiding only after the very last combatant on the field has been eliminated. I have a feeling if they all came at once, I would be swarmed, overwhelmed and killed. This all seems a little too… easy.

The sniper rifle has four parts I need to secure. I have found only three so far. I make several circuits of the camp, and my map indicator offers little help. I am a little frustrated, three other three pieces were essentially just lying about, why isn’t this one? It is then that I notice that only one of the buildings in the camp has an upward pointing arrow. And if that is not enough of a hint, there are three storage cabinets on the roof of the structure as added incentive. I jump above, and grab the last piece. But what truly annoys me is that this last piece was a good distance away from where my map marker suggested.

Sledge is a Cocky Bastard!

My map tells me the mine key is in Sledge’s Safehouse, which seems to be just up the hill from my present location. I take out my sniper rifle to scope out the area. The criminal hideout sits atop a small hill about 100 paces ahead of me. So ballsy are the inhabitants, that they have made no attempts to hide the entrance. In fact, upon closer inspection, the entry point prominently displays the words: “Sledge’s Safehouse.”

Cocky bastards! (See what I did there?)

Bloodwing stirs restlessly. He can sense the blood of the upcoming battle. I pet his head. I check my weapons, making one last round of the camp to pick up any additional ammunition. Satisfied that all my ordinance is in order, I start my short trek to the safe house.

Time to hunt!

Links:

“Novelty vs. Nostalgia ” or “Innovation vs. Stagnation”

November 6, 2009 1 comment

Micheal Denny heads Sony’s Worldwide Studios Europe (yes, a Worldwide studio for Europe). Speaking at Develop Liverpool yesterday, he says new intellectual properties (IPs) are necessary for the gaming business to thrive and to counter stagnation. He talked about a ot of other things as well, and you can read the full article here. But we will work with just the statement above.

Novelty

It sounds like a fairly generic, obvious statement. Novelty and innovation go hand-in-hand with memorable experiences and awe-inspiring moments that challenge the very norms that define us as gamers.

But the truth of the matter goes deeper than that.

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There are several new IPs in the last few years that have redefined genres, challenged existing modus operandi, and experimented with pre-existing formulas that both surprised and entertained. Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed are two examples that capitalized on the parkour phenomenon and introduced it, albiet with varying degrees of success, into the gaming arena. Assassin’s Creed’s repetitiveness aside, no other game allowed you to race parkour-style across rooftops, weaving, dodging, jumping, climbing through densely populated cityscapes with the same satisfying fluidity.

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Another example is Left 4 Dead. It capitalized on America’s necrotic (necro-erotic?) fascination with the undead, and elevated it to breathtaking heights. (Literally. Remember ‘No Mercy’?) At the most basic level, you find weapons, you shoot things, you heal, you get from point A to point B. But the whole experience was moulded in a way that fed our most primal instincts when faced with near-impossible odds, and structured to reward teamwork rather than the ever-present lone-wolf gameplay. In short, it was the first memorable and lasting IP to explore the zombie genre, and it did so with elegance and style.

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Then there are games which mix and match pre-defined and functionally distinct elements of the the gaming macrocosm, and produce something that is simultaneously fresh, yet oddly familiar. Borderlands, a first person role playing shooter game, is a great such example. Although I have some reservations with the game, it has challenged industry norms and brought to life interesting, deviating ways of combining age-old gameplay elements to create a fresh, unique experience.

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Innovation even applies to taking the same old concept and applying a fresh twist to it, be it story, gameplay, control or any other aspect that defines the game for what it is. Dragon Age: Origins released three days ago in the U.S. It unlocks for me today (about bloody time). Although I have not played the game yet myself (not that it stops me from shamelessly singing praises about the it), I rest assured because industry veterans, reviewers, bloggers and players are awash with praise. Although BioWare is weaving a tale that the fantasy RPG genre is over-saturated with, Dragon Age: Origins’ “story is rich and engaging, the characters are memorable, and the journey is one that pulls you in, captivates you and compels you to move forward toward the conclusion.” In other words, despite utilizing a familiar setting, the game is designed to surprise fanss of the genre and throw elements into the mix that are both unexpected and against the grain.

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Then there are games that innovate and surprise you in ways you never thought possible. Because prior to these games, the genre to which they belong simply didn’t exist. I am talking about Braid. There were moments where I just stopped, and stared at the screen in awe at how much love and energy and effort they had put into something so elementary and simple. A straight-forward platformer was transformed into a cerebral masterpiece that enthralled, amazed, and made you stop dead in your tracks.

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And for any fan of Valve, the cake always was, and always will be, a lie. Can you think of any other game that made you fall in love with an inanimate cube?

There are countless other examples, but the bottom line is that innovation is what drives the industry forward, gives us novel, unexpected, at times mind-bending IPs to play, and justifies Micheal Denny’s statement. Mr. Denny may be striving for the Captain Obvious title, but he certainly drives the point home. However, that is only part of the story.

Nostalgia

On the contrary, nostalgia plays a big factor in attracting an already dedicated fan base to a new iteration of an old IP. Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Metal Gear Solid, Diablo, Splinter Cell, Max Payne, Grand Theft Auto, Halo (and many, many more) are all examples of great games that relied on nostalgia and the success of the inaugural titles to attract additional revenue.

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Click to enlarge. Courtesy of Bad Pie Bakery.

World of Warcraft is a global phenomenon. With the entire population of Earth, Vulcan, Tattoine and Caprica (that hurt your head?) acquired as the player base of the ever-popular MMO, Blizzard has created a behemoth that is practically impossible to dethrone. ‘The next WoW’ has been applied to countless MMOs released since, and none have achieved the success (at least in numbers and subscriptions) that WoW enjoys to this very day. I can’t help but wonder if the game would have been this successful if prior Warcraft titles had not existed. Would it be laughed upon? Would it be degraded as a shameless clone (I am looking at you Alganon!)? Would it never take off the ground? Or would everything remain the same? Regardless of the level of success WoW would enjoy in this alternate reality, my patented sixth sense tells me it would be nowhere near the level of success WoW is today, had it not been for the millions of avid followers of the IP.

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The Call of Duty series is an interesting case study because it applies to both the novelty and the nostalgia sides of the argument. On the one hand, the series has capitalized on a massive base of rabid followers ever since the first Call of Duty hit the market. On the other hand, the series was redefined with Modern Warfare, a title that needs little introduction and speaks volumes about the level of innovation and effort that went into redefining this classic series on a whole new level.

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The third rendition Max Payne, for the lack of a better word, looks weird. Max is fat, balding, in South America, and a mercenary for hire. It is almost as if someone designed a new game, and someone else stamped it with the Max Payne IP and course-corrected everything accordingly. But as a fan of the original Max Payne and it’s fantastic sequel, I know for a fact I will buy and play this game. I will not care what the reviews say, or what the screenshots look like, or how far removed Max will be from the familiar New-York-world-weary-cop setting. I will play this game with all the enthusiasm and wonder that I played the first two games with. I will remain loyal to this IP regardless of the vicissitudes of passing years or changing studios.

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But the nostalgia factor isn’t limited to rehashing old game IPs in a new light. It also applies to leveraging a tried and true formula, rather than an IP. Consider Knights of the Old Republic. The game took the RPG formula BioWare has essentially and effectively perfected, and combined it with the nostalgic fan base of the Star Wars universe. Yes it was a pre-existing IP, but one that was not leveraged in the RPG gaming industry as such. The result was a product that won grand slam titles, scored high in every category, provided a fresh setting and gameplay, and secured its place as a classic for some time to come.

The most recent of these examples is Torchlight. The graphics looks cartoonish and severely dated. There are only three classes. And it ends too quickly. But it is an incredible experience, offers smooth gameplay and feeds on the far-reaching and widespread Diablo nostalgia that the gaming media has made no effort to hide.

Conclusion

One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back.

What started as a ‘Thought of the Day’ post has turned into a 1,500 word piece juxtaposing novelty against nostalgia in contemporary gaming. In the end, I suppose I agree with Mr. Denny, but only in that his statement paints just part of the picture. Nostalgic experiences and revisited IPs are just as important to the genre as novelty and innovation. And in select cases, they can work hand-in-hand to create an unforgettable masterpiece.

Do you guys agree? Which side of the fence are you on? Can you think of some other examples that apply to the two dismetric opposites above?

“Inconsequential Death” or “Maybe I got a Deathwish”

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Thought of the day: As I detailed in the second part of The Borderlands Chronicles, the death system is designed to ensure you never have to reload. But what if you wanted to relive a firefight you particulaly enjoyed?

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part II: “9+3=12” or “Why Don’t They Call Him 3-Balls?”

November 2, 2009 7 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Links:

Skag Gully

This place is trouble. Partly because the inhabitants include demonic dog-like creatures known as ‘Badass Skags‘, and partly because my opposition now seems to be around my level or a level above. I have a better sniper rifle now, but it’s not a massive improvement over the last one I’d held. I also have a new sidearm, it does more damage and reloads faster, but it fires a little slower than the last one.

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I have collected over 40 guns in the first two hours of gameplay. That is impressive considering most shoot ’em ups offer you around a meager 20 weapons by the end of the game. Contrary to my initial fear that so many weapons will become difficult to manage, the process is addictive and fun. Although my Hunter specializes in Snipers and Repeaters, I am also carrying a ‘Terrible Shotgun’ for when the blasted skags get up close and personal. Which they do. All the time. The problem is that I can cycle through only 2 of 4 unlockable weapons slots. So I constantly have to manually switch between the shotgun and the sniper.

Borderlands, in many ways, is unforgiving. Enemies come at you in packs. They are relentless and determined. Almost every fight with creatures your level or above is a challenge. That sounds frustrating, but it actually turns out to be an exhilarating experience. I am walking into fights confident that I can do a good job, but never certain that I will come out on top.

Fight for Your Second Wind

Then again, Borderlands is very forgiving in some other regards. The constant stream of unrelenting enemies finally takes its toll. I collapse. Instead of having to reload at a prior point, the game maintains the level of immersion and introduces me to the death mini-game.

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I am on my knees. A skag is tearing out chunks of flesh from my chest. The screen is getting darker. The world is fading out. This is the end. Or is it? I realize that I can still fire my weapon from this warped perspective. So I aim, and I fire. I unload two entire clips from my pistol, my screen is all but black, and I can barely see. Literally the very last bullet in the magazine kills the skag. It falls dead at my feet.

My vision kicks back in with a jarring suddenness. My shield is gone, my health is barely a sliver of the full amount. But I am alive and on my feet. And that counts for something. Killing my foe has given me second wind. So I patch myself up using healing packs I purchased earlier, and I push on.

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Objects and creatures drop ammo and money. The game smartly gives you the loot that you need the most. If you are low on sniper ammunition, it will drop with more frequency. If your health is low, your next kill will drop a small medi-vial. It is a smart system, and it works wonders. You never run out of ammo, but given the sheer volume of enemies thrown at you, you are almost never at full capacity. It’s a healthy balance.

Nine-toes

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See the guy in the screen shot to the right? I hate that guy. I have fought through an insane amount of skags, psychotic midgets, and armed goons to get to this guy. He is located in a subterrenean room accessible by a small elevator. He has a good weapon, better aim, and comes equipped with a fairly powerful shield.

(Spoilers ahead. Highlight text to make it visible.)

And then there are the pet skags. I don’t remember both their names, but one was called Pinky. They are either heavily armored or have an unrealistic amount of hit points because my bullets don’t seem to make any dents. They come charging out of the alcoves of Nine-Toes’ room and corner me in the little space at the entrance to the room. I try running around, but I am stuck, and the two bastards are tearing me from limb to limb.

I am barely halfway through the health bar of the first dog, I haven’t shot Nine-Toes once , and Pinky is kicking my ass from the side. The sheer volume of damage takes its toll, and I go down like a sack of potatoes. I shoot at the first skag almost blindly, no longer aiming carefully, just spraying and praying. It takes a while, and my vision turns almost completely black when I get my second wind.

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But that glory lasts only a few seconds. I still don’t have a shield and my health is practically non-existent. I go down a second time mere moments later, and no amount of random bullet sprays can save my life. There is a flash of light, I seem to be tumbling through a void of neon-lit tubes, and I materialize again at Skag Gully’s entry point cloning station.

Damn it!

Aside from a trek back to the fight, death seems to be almost inconsequential in Borderlands. If you go down, you can get second wind by killing anything nearby. If you die, you respawn with all your items, no durability loss, no experience loss and fully recharged to go at it again. Ammunition and health vending machines are also placed conveniently nearby for you to restock as needed. This trivializes the death system, and provides a stark, diametric opposite to an otherwise harsh and unforgiving world. On the other hand it helps with immersion and ensures that you never, ever have to reload.

No-Toes

I go back to the bastard’s hideout. Instead of taking the little elevator down, I perch myself atop the thing and take aim. Pinky is in my line of sight. She looks at me, her mandible(s) separate in three directions, exposing the soft fleshy interior. Animal instinct kicks in, and without giving it a moment’s thought, I fire a shot down her throat. She goes down in a single hit. I shake my head at my own stupidity. They are armored, but their face obviously isn’t. And it doesn’t help me that I figured this out after dispatching the two enemies to which this knowledge applies.

Nine-Toes himself puts up a decent fight, but in the end he is no match for my long-range-sniping and cover-taking abilities. The last shot takes his head off, and pixelated, cell-shaded blood sprays all over the floor. I triumphantly walk around the room, looting the various objects. I am disappointed by the mediocre and unimpressive ordinance his weapons cache has to offer.

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At least I survived my first boss encounter! Or did I?

Links:

“Badass Skag” or “I’m Scared Mommy!”

November 2, 2009 2 comments

I managed to squeeze in a few hours of Borderlands goodness this morning. The Borderlands Chronicles, Part II should be up by this evening.

During this session, I came across a skag that was much, much, larger than its whelp or spitting counterparts. I’ll let the screenshot do most of the talking. But any game that throws a “Badass Skag” that has lightening shooting out of its eyes, and actually looks badass, will be on my hard drive for some time to come.

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Click to enlarge.

Categories: Borderlands

“Sensible Spawns” or “WoW vs. Borderlands”

October 30, 2009 5 comments

Most modern MMOs like to define themselves as virtual worlds. What this implies is that even if the player logged off, the world would continue to exist regardless. Bears would roam the forests, wolves would chase down and kill rabbits, Frenzyheart would fight on against the Oracles, the Purple Gang would patrol the West Side Heights, and so on and so forth. This creates a sense of immersion, a sense of belonging in a living, breathing world teeming with its own life.

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The immersion factor is however shattered when you kill a boar, and another one pops up. It does not dig out of the surrounding mud, or come out of a farm enclosure of some kind. It simply… materializes out of thin air.  In no other genre of gaming, be it FPS, RTS or even RPG, do your enemies pop out of thin air and re-populate the area minutes after you cleared the menace. The person who gave you the task of clearing out said enemies is still in the same peril, asking adventurer after adventurer to fix the situation for him.

Syncaine made a great post about how to address this issue from quite a few different viewpoints.

My post is more about the way in which these enemies (re)spawn. It’s a pity to see Borderlands, which is not an MMO, come up with a viable and intelligent solution to the persistent respawn problem, without succumbing to the same old lazy formula. I recently started “The Borderlands Chronicles”, a series of posts that recounts my adventures as Bronte the Hunter in Borderlands, providing narrative, critique and commendations along the way. You can find Part I here.

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The skags spawn out of that cave on the right, NOT thin air.

The later section of this inaugural post covers my fight with some skags, the game’s version of demonic dog-like starter creatures. They too respawn over time. The difference is that they charge out of small caves built into the game world. You cannot enter these caves yourself, they are a little too small. But the overall effect undeniably feeds immersion.

You spot a skag, you snipe it from 50 feet out. Immediately two more skags come snarling, charging out of the adjacent caves. And even if you kill every skag in the area, the respawn process will involve more skags eventually walking out of the caves, instead of magically appearing out of thin air.

The system makes sense. It is intuitive, it allows for the beasts to be persistent in the world without breaking the tenous thread it has with the implied realism. Why can’t we have that in WoW? Or Champions Online? Or for that matter, any other MMO that uses the same respawn system?

The Borderlands Chronicles, Part I: “Zed’s Red Baby!” or “Skag Skirmish”

October 29, 2009 6 comments

Note: This is an ongoing series depicting the path of Bronte, a Hunter in the dark and cell-shaded world of Borderlands. It will attempt to paint a picture of what the game is like as well as provide commentary of some of the most spectacular moments from the game. Narrative is in black. Bugs and design flaws are in red. Memorable or ‘whoa!’ moments, and positive points are in blue. Enjoy!

Link:

Bearings

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I am outside the town of Fyrestone, accompanied by a chirpy, nerdy, attention-hungry robot, Claptrap. He is voiced to perfection as a cowardly creature who tries to act all professional and official, but can’t help being himself. Claptrap has just handed me a device that apparently plugs into my brain. The device shows me my health bar, experience bar, ammo counter and a compass. Over the course of the game, additional modules will come onlile such as the objectives tracker and the skills interface. I look around at the world I just got thrust into. I scroll through my two starter weapons: a rusty but powerful looking sniper rifle, and an odd-looking handgun.

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What can only be defined as the town’s main gate stands a few feet to the right, a vicious sun beats down on me, towering rock formations, sluggish windmills and structures  together with sheets of metal litter the landscape as far as the eye can see. Yet, somehow, everything seems cramped. The overall feeling is undeniable: this ain’t home, this is a bad place.

Here goes nothing.

Fyrestone Fyrefight

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Fyrestone is a shithole. Before we even enter the main gate, it has already come under attack by raiders. They jump into the town through a rock outcropping directly over my head in glorified dune buggies, and take off into the heart of the town. The robot finally manages to open the gate, and a mere four minutes into the game, and I am neck-deep in my first firefight.

Given that this is just the tutorial part of the game, I am willing to overlook the seemingly inept AI. They charge at me, guns blazing. When shot, they recoil realistically and shake their head trying to recover. But then they keep coming at full speed anyway. The sniper rifle kicks in my hands and fires with a satisfying boom. The second raider gets a well placed shot in his masked head, and I watch it explode in all its cell-shaded glory through the my rifle’s scope.

The town is dead. Or empty. Or both. I don’t come across a single soul as I make my way through the settlement. Doors are shut. Shutters are down. There isn’t any indication as to what happened to the inhabitants or where they went. Raiders attack me in groups of two or three. I settle into a comfortable pattern of taking out most of them from a distance with the sniper, and tearing hot lead into them with the quick-firing pistol up close.

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Scattered along the way is plenty of ammo and money stashed in conveniently placed boxes, safes, piles of junk, the bodies of my slain foes, and even a few toilets. I come across my first weapons crate. Inside is a ton of pistol ammo, and two brand new pistols. They offer differing recoil rates, damage, firing speeds and other modifications. The cool thing is that if you hover over a weapon, there is a hud element that pops up, comparing it against your equipped gun. Any stat improvements get an upward pointing green arrow, any loss in stats is denoted by a downward pointing red arrow. The only problem is that it is not intuitive. If you have the sniper equipped and you are looking at a pistol, it will compare the pistol’s stats against that of the sniper, and not against the pistol in your other equipped slot. So make sure you take out the weapon you want to compare against the new armament.

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One of these new pistols has a scope, allowing me to rapidly snipe my targets from a distance. They take less damage per shot, but the firing rate more than makes up for the loss of damage. The pistol handles well in my hands, each cracking shot reverbrating through the surrounding rock formations. Complete by accident, I shoot at a red barrel next to the last bandit, and he disintegrates in the resulting explosion.

Kill Ten Rats

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I meet Doctor Zed. He is an strange fellow, operating on a dead body, and claims that despite his medical practice, he does not hold a professional degree. The very first mission he gives me holds true to teaching RPG basics. I am asked to kill a few skags, vile looking malevolent dogs that attack anything on sight. I head out from Fyrestone in search of their hideout, only to find it just across the road.

The fight, although quick, is intense. I snipe the first skag from a distance, it buckles, making me think I nailed it in one shot. But then it shakes its head and starts charging. I take aim again and hit it square in the head. It goes down with a pitiful yelp. I hear more snarls, I whip my rifle around towards the series of small caves where I spotted the first skag. As my visions pans left to right, I spot one… no two… no wait, three skags charging at breakneck speed. I panic for the briefest moment. Then I aim and fire.

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The shot connects perfectly with the second skag’s head. It takes me a second to find the third skag through my zoomed perspective. I finally find it, it is merely 15 meters away. FPS shooter instincts kick in, and I pull the trigger without thinking. The first shot misses. 10 meters. I spot the fourth skag several meters behind the third one, running straight at me. I frantically click the left mouse button, willing the gun to shoot. The reload time, an otherwise negligible 2.6 seconds, lasts an eternity. The skag is just 5 meters away. Then the unexpected happens.

Just as I fire off the next shot, the beast leaps in the air, coming straight for my face, flying through 5 meters of empty air in a split second. Painful red marks fill the screen and my vision teeters. I get out of zoom mode and fire a shot at my feet, but the skag is already running away. Running away? That’s odd. Maybe it is a glitch or a bug. I’ll worry about that one later, there is a fourth one dangerously close. I zoom again, aim at the fourth one as the third one runs away, and fire.

*click*

The chamber is empty. How the hell did I use up all six bullets already. The first two shots killed the first skag. The third shot killed the second skag. The fourth shot missed. The fifth shot missed when the third skag lept. The last shot was wasted on the ground trying to kill the third skag up close.

Damn it!

No time to reload. I switch to my handgun. And that is when I see the third skag wasn’t actually running away. The third skag was trying to gain some distance on me so it could leap attack again. I see it turning around, realizing that both skags are more or less the same distance from me, closing in from two different directions.

The next few seconds are filled with panicked gunshots. The two skags go down, making teeth indentations somewhere on my thighs. My handgun has three bullets left. My rifle is empty.

I hear another skag snarl in the distance.

Time to reload!

Links:

“Twelve Days” or “Three Games”

October 22, 2009 5 comments

Werit’s post troubled me.

Life is busy. I am in the middle of a new launch at work, and it’s taking up 12-13 hours a day, at least 6 days a week. I am also writing extensively every day, something I enjoy immensely. I am playing Champions Online, World of Warcraft, EvE Online, and thanks to Syp, I may be starting a 14-day Fallen Earth trial as well. I would say I hate you Syp, but your kid is apparantly Yoda, and you just don’t mess with freakin’ Yoda.

nine-days-or-three-gamesThen there is Risen, Mass Effect (no I never played it before, yes I know that is gamer blasphemy) and an unhealthy obsession with the versus mode in Left 4 Dead to soak up my time.

That being said, I am getting increasingly and acutely aware of three RPG titles that are coming out in the coming nine days, and frankly, I have no idea as to when or how I will play them unless I learn to stay perpetually awake on Red Bull or the Chinese take over the world and enforce day cycles that are 96 hours long.

  • First and foremost, there is Borderlands releasing on October 26. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions are out already. There are more guns in the game than there are doves flying in slow-mo in a John Woo flick. And that, my friends, is an accomplishment. My infatuation with things that go boom aside, Borderlands looks slick, sly and full of attitude.
  • The very next day we get Torchlight. There are several reasons why this spiritual successor to Diablo may be the next best thing for the RPG genre. First, it’s cheap, just $18. You spend that at cheap dinner on a regular basis. I am sure this would produce more endorphins over the course of several hours instead of momentary relief from hunger pangs. (There is a fat joke in here somwhere, I know it.) Second, the game is randomly generated. Although you follow a pre-determined story arc, all the levels, monsters and even environmental puzzles are procedurally generated. Third, the game is single player, but an MMO will shortly follow. The MMO will also be available at the amazing low price of $0.00.
  • And last but most certainly not the least is the heavy-weight contender from Bioware, Dragon Age: Origins. Popular game outlets have been over-saturated with information, screenshots, concept art, origins videos, character bios, creature profiles, trailers and a breathtaking cinematic. Yet, incredibly, none of us can get enough of it. There is no doubt in my mind that all the bloggers and writers that write about RPGs and games in general will mysteriously disappear on November 3, 2009. That is the date Dragon Age: Origins gets released, and we relinquish our souls to the might and magic of Bioware yet again.

Imagine some sort of clever transition here.

Alec Meer is one of my favorite writers over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Most recently, he has been documenting his (mis)adventures in Risen. The Risen Report is now six episodes long, exquisitely detailed, annotated, and opinionated. His style of writing and the structure of The Risen Report has inspired me to document my own journey through one of these upcoming games.

Perhaps you can help me pick one?

“First Person Role Playing Shooter Game” or “Semi-Automatic Nuke Launcher”

October 21, 2009 Leave a comment

first-person-role-playing-shooter-game-or-semi-automatic-nuke-launcherBorderlands is still 5 days away on the PC, but the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 reviews and saturating the airwaves. The following is a quicklist of what some of the more authoritative gaming websites have to say about the hybrid:

So far so good. Keep the hits coming!

UPDATE: Apparently the game is selling out like hot potatoes on a cold winter night in New York. Here is the tweet that proves it:

Getting reports from everywhere that Borderlands is selling out. If you want a copy, grab one fast. Supply and Demand.”
Randy Pitchford, CEO, Gearbox

Categories: Borderlands, Review

“Borderlands Boasting” or “These Guys Talk a lot!”

October 20, 2009 2 comments

To say that I am excited about Borderlands is sort of like saying “the Atlantic Ocean is a bit damp”.

Let’s check the game against my industry-standard checklist.

  • Post-apocalyptic-esque setting? Check!
  • Cell-shaded graphics? Check!
  • Dynamically spawned enemies? Check!
  • 87 bajillion guns? Check!
  • 4-player co-op? Check!
  • Asshole robots? Check!

What’s not to like?!

The editorial team over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been around since 1873. They have posted a lengthy and… conversational review. The 4,000+ word article covers the guys over at RPS discussing the pros and cons of the game and passing verdict on what they feel makes the game stand out. It’s an interesting read, albeit a bit long. But with the release still six days away, this is the only piece of additional information I can find on the game, and I gobbled it up faster than a Chinese whore turns a trick on Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland.

Let’s give you a moment to digest that last sentence.

In summary, if Borderlands’ viral campaigning has had any effect on you, you will want to read the verdict. It’s a good way to pass the time as you wait for the RPG/FPS hybrid to ship.

Also, here is the trailer in HD. Enjoy!

Categories: Borderlands, Review