Borderlands 2 – an extended engaigement
“Cool story bro.”
That’s pretty much the end of it – I don’t want to play as Axton any more. Somehow I’ve got up into the level 20s without hearing this line of dialogue properly before, but there it is. Nothing overwhelmingly offensive, just something I’d really rather not have heard at all, this crusty old internet line someone thought would be a good idea to put in the game. Not even as a reference or as part of a bigger joke, just shoved in there straight as a thing Axton says when he kills something.
And it wears away my already thinned connection with him. I have seen the option somewhere to turn off character quips entirely, but that’s not really the point – I want to play as a character I like, not press a piece of tape over their mouths and press on in silence. In any case, that one remark isn’t really the problem, it’s just the point at which my general dissatisfaction became a genuine dislike.
I’m not entirely sure why I chose him to begin with, against my usual instincts to play as a woman if I can, or a stealthy support type character (ideally both at once.) Axton is just kinda … some dude with a gun. I guess I liked sound of his action skill though – the ability to throw out a turret to help in battle. Then I was further swayed by the high-level skills which change things up a bit – he can eventually get two turrets to play with, or another turret on top of his first turret. And turrets are kind of like little robot friends that shoot bullets, so getting as many of them as possible sounded pretty good to me. Turrets.
What I forgot to check properly was every skill I would have to pick up before reaching level 31 when these final skills could first become available. Turns out, there’s not much there I find interesting at all. A lot of his skills are just quite boring – passive buffs that tweak stats in the background. Better shield recharging, faster reload speed, more health, that kind of thing. It’s all fine, it’s all helpful, but these aren’t things that make reaching a new level the exciting event it should be. These skills are more like balancers – they let players keep up with the increased challenge of combat as the game progresses, all of it figured out behind the scenes, behind the damage numbers popping up on screen.
Looking back, I wasn’t super in love with Mordecai in the original Borderlands for most of our journey together. It was a solid “like,” and that was good enough at the time. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded Axton so much back then, when I had endless free time and nothing else to play, when the game was all new to me and exciting enough just for that freshness. These days my spare hours are scarce, there’s an ever-growing stack of other games tempting me away, and the sequel feels immediately familiar. I need something else in there to keep me hooked, something a bit more interesting. Not just new, but different.
There was one moment from the first game that I still cherish, though. When that like for my character and his skills blossomed into pure love and childish glee. It was in the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned downloadable content, so by the time I got around to that I had already played a lot of the game and grown pretty strong. I put a lot of focus on my pet bat / bird Bloodwing so that he could fly out and strike a whole load of enemies before returning to me, then be ready to go again in a matter of seconds.
The one thing Dr. Ned’s island had above all else was a whole load of enemies. I’d faced groups before, but nothing quite like that – great crowds of zombies rising up and shamble-stumbling towards me. Most people would smile and start shooting, but I barely had to fire a bullet. Bloodwing did it all for me – released and screeching, he descends, a little glowing whirlwind amongst the dead. And they don’t just die, they tear up and bloom open, disintegrate like meaty fireworks before me, arms and legs and heads and unidentifiable red chunks flying everywhere.
It was fantastic, delightful the whole way through – a vicious slapstick, more exciting because it changed the action, gave me a break from the typical flow of a fight. It also made me like Mordecai and Bloodwing a lot more, because we had this moment together that no other characters could have experienced, a moment which remained unique even within our own adventure.
In Borderlands 2, with Axton, that kind of moment is just never going to happen. Even if I put in more hours with him, his skills and abilities aren’t going to change the action very much. I’ll always be shooting lots of things, sometimes with a turret friend, and later on the turret is a bit better at shooting the things and I guess I am too. That’s the core of my disappointment – I can’t really imagine things getting particularly more enjoyable at some later stage.
So I decide to start the game over, trying to find that hook that’ll keep me going. I wish Borderlands 2 allowed character swaps as easily as it did skill point reallocation, but there’s no other option besides starting right from the beginning again. I try Zero the assassin and then I try Maya the siren. I do not try Salvador because Salvador is the new Brick. With the help from a few friends I level up into the teens pretty quickly and get a taste of these character’s abilities and their personalities.
But … something is still not clicking right. I’m not in love with either of them. I’m not even sure I like them. The worst thing is perhaps that I know I’m being a bit grumpy, stuck in a little loop of dissatisfaction. Wanting to be pleased immediately. Probably if I just picked someone and ran with them for a while I’d start to enjoy myself, but the spark’s not there from the outset.
Maya’s phaselock just feels like a special grenade. Zero throws out a ‘you activated my trap card’ line and it’s like I’m right back where I started. Both of their action skills begin just by doing a lot of damage to one enemy, and that’s not something I’ve ever found massively helpful.
I’m stuck, with three characters to chose from and none of them really standing out. None of them beckoning me to play more, and really the core of the game itself not seeming enough to carry me on its own merits. The fourth option – to just not bother, to move onto something else – grows ever more tempting. Time to give up forever?
Then something comes along and makes it all okay. The first bit of new Borderlands 2 content arrives – a new character to play as, free for me. Gaige the Mechromancer. I say a game prayer, a little digital wish, and start over yet again.
It feels like someone is listening, because Gaige is awesome. I like her personality first of all. Her dialogue is still definitely something born from the internet like most of the game’s writing, but it’s not trying as hard as a lot of other characters, and she’s never as on-the-nose with it as that line of Axton’s. Everything somehow more acceptable coming from a young woman rather than some older dude anyway. Also she’s got at least one robot arm, which is rad as hell. You guys … I really like robots.
More importantly, I like her skill tree too. I really like her skill tree. Mainly because it’s full of actual skills instead of boring passive buffs. Active things, interconnected things. For example – a central skill, Anarchy, stacks up as she kills people or empties an entire magazine without reloading prematurely. As it builds, damage output goes up but accuracy goes down. It provides a pretty neat management game of risk and reward in its own right, and it is interesting to play around with, but there’s even more pieces to this puzzle.
Anarchy’s buddy is another skill that gives missed shots a chance to hit the target anyway, to make up for that accuracy penalty. Anarchy’s twin skill is activated by reloading on purpose in the middle of a magazine, for a big boost to fire rate and accuracy as well as giving health regeneration. That regen nicely mitigates another skill that restores shields but takes away some health with every kill.
Look, look, actual abilities that can be used when desired in combat, not just background stat bumps. Now there are systems to manage inside combat, stacks to keep track of and dispense. There’s simply more going on besides shooting a man, and this isn’t even the end of it. There’s three separate skills which cause explosions – one tied to reloading again, one for killing with a critical hit, and the best one which is triggered by shooting something while jumping. A skill which ricochets bullets, a skill that gives bonuses for not shooting anything.
Skills for all seasons, and it appeals to me deeply – I’m the person who prefers playing with mechanics instead of scoring a perfect headshot. Making numbers get bigger is always a joy, but that is really nothing if I can’t see – can’t feel – the results of my efforts. Anarchy is delightfully obvious, as the on-screen reticule gets wider and wider until shotgun pellets are jumping out at right-angles to each other, and damage numbers start to rocket. Twice as damaging, three times, and Gaige loves it too, growing more and more maniacal with her shouts as the stack of Anarchy grows. As we both have to get closer and closer to enemies just to hit them.
And this is all before even getting to Gaige’s action skill, Deathtrap, who is an actual robot friend with claws and laser eyes and everything. Including a wonderful audio bug which will ruin your entire life. But still, with the other characters their action skill seems like the whole reason for their existence, the only thing that makes them special. With Axton, a lot of the time I was just waiting behind a wall until I could use my turret again. With Gaige, it’s a helpful bonus now and then. Most of the time I’m too busy having fun to realise that Deathtrap is ready to go again.
Borderlands takes a lot from other RPGs. Loot, quests, levels, all that junk. Replacing the gameplay entirely with shooting was a cool idea, but with Gaige I can feel the hotbar action creeping back in again. It’s not exactly the Diablo dance, of fingers across numbers keys in little loops and patterns, but it’s something of that taste. All her skills gives the player more to do, more to keep track of during play rather than just what to shoot first and maybe where to shoot it. Build something up and let it go. The complexity is interesting, but the actions are key – tying powerful moves to mundane actions lends real power to a reload, to a hop. It’s something physical, a decision in movement and action, power in expression not just flying from a gun.
All together, playing Gaige feels like that moment with Mordecai and Bloodwing from Borderlands 1, over and over again. All the skills and the systems they build with their links aren’t just engaging but freeing, fun. Making this shooter less about shooting is somehow doing it for me. I am running around, chucking out as many bullets as I can, and it doesn’t really matter if they miss. I’m keeping an eye on my anarchy stacks, trying to force my finger from a reflex reload, and I am jumping, jumping, jumping forever to make everything explode around me. I’m a dancer, I’m in love.
New things are always good – new skills, new environments, new enemies. But eventually everything can start to feel new in a very familiar way. With Gaige it seems like Gearbox leant towards experimentation rather than iteration, and this little lean was enough to draw me back in when I was about ready to leave forever. New in a new way, new in a way that will ensure my memories of Borderlands 2 ones about fun and not the slow slide into disappointment.