Borderlands

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This image is no indication of how you’ll feel when playing the game. Really.

I’m really late to the party with writing this blog post. In fact, I haven’t played this game in weeks and I was starting to talk myself out of writing about Borderlands. Truth be told, there are more reasons than just the passage of time and forgetting minor details that should be mentioned. I rushed through a lot of this game so I could play the second one (in the middle of doing so, co-op with Steve-O). Also… I’m not really good at FPS games, and therefore not good and reviewing them. But, I’m going to give it a shot!

In Borderlands, you’ve got four playable classes to choose from. I chose to play as a Siren. Not for the talent trees or special ability or gun specialty. No, nothing sensible like that. The Siren is the only female character, so therefore I was going to be her. Borderlands lacks in character customization, by the way. You can’t change your character’s sex or eyebrow thickness or anything like that. All you do is pick which of the four classes you want to be. Not a game changer for me in a first person style game when I never get to see what my character looks like anyway.

When released, Borderlands was hailed as a FPS/RPG hybrid. Reason being are the leveling up system and class trees. Actually, the three specialization choices per character gave it a bit of an old WoW feel for me. Except your options are a bit more straightforward. In one playthrough you’ll probably work your way down one skill tree with a few leftover points to play with. I also didn’t discover until near the end of the game that you can actually recycle your skill points at New-U Stations.

Really, I think my main beef with this game is the UI. It is SO non-intuitive. From browsing your inventory (sucks in splitscreen, and still sucks in the sequel) from shopping to equipping. I really don’t like the layout. I definitely got the impression this was a bad PC port.

Okay, back to my Siren. The Siren’s special ability is called Phaseshift. It allows you to go into an alternate dimension where enemies cannot see you. And you get to run faster! Basically, it is a good runaway button, or “position yourself in front of the enemy’s weakspot” opportunity. Unfortunately, all you can do is run. Shooting or meleeing will take you out of phaseshift which is a wicked bummer. No free potshots for bad shooters like me. As boring as this ability is, I have to admit it came in pretty handy. Especially in single player mode. Gaining access to an enemy’s weak spot is literally a pain in the ass, because that is almost always where their weak spot is! Spider ants are the main culprit. And, like most other enemies in the game, they come at you in droves until you never want to see another one of them ever again. Hard to shoot something in its bulbous butt when it is always coming straight at you.

And then there’s skags. Who, in a shooter game, have bulletproof FACES. So these hyena-esque creatures are running at you full speed and your only hope of doing substantial damage is to shoot them in their pie-hole when they open it to take a chunk outta you! Or get lucky with a grenade, and stuff like that never happens for me. Most of the time I used phaseshift to position myself behind a badass or alpha and pound away at its fleshy hindquarters.

Phaseshift as a runaway button was super helpful to me. Enemies have ridiculously fast respawn timers. And, as I mentioned, they come at you by the dozens. Most of my time was spent clearing an area, looting, moving forward to do plot quest, then backtracking less than half an hour later to have to spend another 15-20 minutes killing the bandits and psychos all over again. Instead of wasting all that time on low level enemies that don’t level with you (an RPG pet peeve of mine) I’d phaseshift and run through them as best I could. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.

As there are a decent variety of enemies that all manage to get on your nerves (I haven’t even mentioned the flying rakks >.>), to shake things up there are elemental damage types. Different enemy types have different weaknesses, naturally. I was hoping for a Dead Island sort of customization option to add desired elements to my favorite gun types. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. You have to rely on the random loot chests, drops, and shop options. And, as Murphy’s Law guarantees, you won’t ever get the weapon you want when you want it. At least the shops cycle through inventory, but I’m sure you can guess I didn’t have the time or patience to quit and reload the game while crossing my fingers for a desirable weapon. Also, there is no personal stash to tuck away weapons you like but aren’t currently useful, you have limited inventory space, and at maximum you get four weapon slots which are unlocked over time.  Not an ideal system, IMO.

Personally, I had a hard time using anything besides a sniper rifle and a shotgun. I’m bad at shooters, so I have a hard time dealing with 20 psychos on fire running toward me simultaneously. So I would snipe as many enemies from far away, giving me time to hopefully pick off the crazies storming me. The rest of the bandits and such would be standing behind and shooting at me, which I prefer. Then I’d pick them off from a safe distance. Or, if I got frustrated with their dancey dance routines, I’d recklessly storm them with a shotgun. With shotguns I don’t have to worry so much about aiming as I do pulling the trigger in something’s gut. Then, just when you think you’ve killed everything, MORE enemies come out of the woodwork. Usually from right behind you.

This is how I spent hours of my life. Some of it was fun, some of it not.

Borderlands is all about hunting down and opening a legendary Vault. Everyone who comes to Pandora (most overused word EVER) in search of said Vault is referred to as a “Vault Hunter.” AKA- The Player. Your quest for the Vault will lead you through a large desert world with its fair share of mines, dungeons, and bandit encampments to raid. The world didn’t particularly stand out to me one way or the other. At some points it is exciting and fresh, other times it is drab and boring. What really brought the world to life were the outlandish characters (who get even more over-the-top in the second installment!). You’ve got incestuous rednecks and blind old men making inappropriate jokes at every opportunity. Most of the characters exist to give you fetch and/or kill side quests for leveling. But I kept going back for the bad humor!

About plot; it’s there but not there. Basically, you spend the whole game acquiring keys to open the Vault and *SPOILER* you open the Vault and… well, I was pretty disappointed with the ending. In fact, while playing Borderlands 2 I got the impression they were writing backwards to make up for the lack of depth, explanation and satisfaction people like me who actually play games for story got from Borderlands. No, the only satisfaction you’ll get is from the silly side missions and wanton murdering of basically everything as there are few civilized humans to speak of. Assuming you’re the one performing the wanton murdering. Which is hard when you’re playing single player against 20 psychos who kamikaze when they approach you, or a boss with hundreds of adds running around.

General rule of thumb: Borderlands bosses will have adds. Lots of them. I suspect they *might* exist to assist the player with taking advantage of the Second Wind feature: when your HP is deleted, you’ll enter a last chance mode. If you manage to kill something (without being able to swap weapons or use your scope) you’ll escape death! However, the adds were usually the reason I was dying so much. Therefore, I’m leaning more towards the developers not having more creative ways of making the boss fights difficult.

There are a lot of little annoying things about this game that have mostly been fixed in the sequel. Steve-O doesn’t know it yet, but I am charging him with writing a comparison piece between the two games as he has played with multiple characters and spent much more time in the universe than I have. From what I’ve seen of Borderlands 2, I strongly suggest you opt out of the first one if you haven’t already played it and delve into the superior experience that is the sequel. Unless you’re way more into FPS games than I am, or really like open world exploration games (and play with friends or online) I don’t recommend you take the time to play Borderlands.

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A Gaming Gaffe!

I know that in the last year or so I’ve done some venting in my blog posts about a lot of sparkly, fancy additions to video games that I’m quite content doing without. But something happened today that made me realize there is one beneficial addition to many current games that I have yet to complain about. In fact, it’s something I take for granted.

Auto-saving.

Never would this gaming geezer (at the ripe old age of 27) have predicted in my NES days that games would automatically save my progress in case I died, had a system glitch, or power failure. Now I have a hard time living without it.

Here’s the scenario of what happened to me today: I opened up my 3DS, ready to pick up where I left off in the old-school classic The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. (In the off-chance that you care, we obtained it as a FREE download when pre-ordering the new Zelda from GameStop.) So anyway, I’m ready to continue trekking through dungeon number 8, only to find that my system battery died. No biggie, right? Well I charge it up and come to find out I never saved (?!?!) after finishing dungeon 7, collecting some stuff off the world map, and beginning dungeon 8! Now I don’t even have the Roc’s Cape item I received so I’ve got like, half that dungeon to re-do!

Noob error? Hard to say, as many of the games I play now almost never require manual saves. And even if they do, they still auto-save your progress at certain landmarks. This is more of a negligent-3DS-owner-who-forgot-the-good-old-days-of-saving-every-five-minutes error. Or, spoiled by new features incorporated in new games laziness. You’d think after all the times I heckled Steve-O about not saving and redoing all kinds of crap in Silent Hill games I would’ve known better.

Sure, if I use a walkthrough it might take me maybe an hour to retrace my steps and return to where I last left off. But a solitary hour of gaming with my 3DS is sacred time to me. Any lost/wasted gaming time in my life instigates either frothing rage or unmitigated depression. And LoZ games are puzzle games, for crying out loud!

With all that being said, I vow to never take auto-saving and checkpoints for granted ever, ever again.

The Walking Dead: Episodes 1-5

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Clementine, don’t turn around!

I haven’t seen the television series yet. Don’t hurt me. Or read the comics. Again, don’t hurt me. But when I went on a BOGO spree at Gamestop months ago I picked up this collection. I heard the video game series based on the popular comic books and television show was episodic, tailored to the decisions the player made, and, ya know, has zombies. Zombies are always a selling point for me.

Luckily, I waited to play this until the entire first season was released on one disc. After completing each episode I greedily fired up the next, eager to learn the fates of Lee, Clementine, and the rest of the ragtag zombie apocalypse survivors. The player controls Lee; a former professor who begins the game getting a ride to the police station due to murder charges. This game definitely follows the worn-down, over-used “Fallen from grace man who redeems himself by being a sweet little girl’s guardian angel” routine. But the beauty of a game with conversations and decisions designed like Walking Dead is in the player’s freedom to choose how they carry out the theme.  I could have decided never to utter a word about the past Lee is (or isn’t) seeking redemption from. Or I could have brought it up at every opportunity to learn more about him. I bottled most if it up until the very end, which made for a very emotional standoff with the “antagonist” of season 1. You can also being a bit of a jerk to Clementine, the girl whom you basically vow to protect, but let’s face it… you can’t.

I gotta say, being giving life-or-death decisions based on a timer was a great mechanic for building suspense in a game with no traditional battle system or health bars. You CAN die by making incorrect choices at times, but all this does is load the game a moment or so before you screwed up. The real suspense is seeing your choices unfold before you and the character deaths that follow. There were a couple of deaths that absolutely shocked me and made me instantly backtrack through all the decisions I’d made, wondering how things could have played out differently.

I think it was somewhere around episode 4 where I started to get jaded with the experience. If you played Fable 2, the situation is akin to doing everything in your power to make your spouse happy, only to find s/he is suddenly enraged at you f0r no discernible reason whatsoever. They leave you after all the time and money you spent on them, so naturally you stop caring and bring home a dirty prostitute who actually appreciates the things you do.  If you haven’t played Fable 2 or another game with bad AI relationship building, I’ll give a *little* spoiler here… I was basically kissing southern-hick Kenny’s pale white butt the entire game. Or so I thought. But then when I needed him the most he was like, “No way Lee, I’m not convinced you’d be there for me if I needed you.” WHAT. The rage. Oh, the rage. I wish he was a real person because I would have slapped him in the face. Or kicked him between the legs.

So how do I know I wasn’t the best friend I could have been, you ask? What if he was just programmed to be a jerk, you ask? Well, Telltale Games was kind enough to add a neat little feature at the end of each episode that shows a list of “stats” displaying how you compared to other players in decision making and subsequent AI decisions. When I saw “Kenny went with xx% of players,” I thought I would punch the screen.

Anyway, after my supposed zombie apocalypse bestie dumped me, I became a complete jerk and told everyone exactly how I felt. Well, out of the four options I was given, anyway. It is tough if you actually care if a certain character likes you or not. The conversation options and some of the decision-making choices are ambiguous. Which is good. It isn’t the stupidly-obvious choices from, say, Mass Effect. Nearly all of the character interactions feel organic and realistic. Not a black and white, “Oh this is the good-guy thing to do,” feeling. Okay, well some stuff is downright obvious but usually that’s because it can’t help but be. However, even then you usually have the option to “…” which means remain silent and not commit to any one idea or phrase that the character will not doubt hold against you until their untimely end.

I feel like I’ve played a lot of games with cel-shaded graphics lately, but it feels really at home in Walking Dead. The design keeps Walking Dead close to its comic book roots. It also doesn’t hesitate to deliver the gory, shock-value violence I come to expect in these kinds of games. The violence is appropriate, and while not scarce, it still manages to have an emotional impact. That’s saying a lot, considering the amount of pixels I’ve slain over the years. Everything that happens has a purpose. Again, a big compliment considering the plethora of paths one playthrough can take.

I feel like this next complaint should be tagged by default to every blog post I write about a video game because it is the new norm: technical problems!! In WD, the problem is slow down. Such terrible, terrible lag for a game that isn’t very technical. I really can’t imagine this cel-shaded episodic game is very taxing on my PS3, but the lag is distracting and inexcusable. And yes, it even happens during timed events. Everything else about this game is so good I sucked it up, but I want to write Telltale Games and have a wicked complain-fest about the necessities of having quality testers.

After completing every episode I thought to myself, “I really want to play this one again to see how (insert event) changes.” Up until the ending. Don’t get me wrong– I liked the ending. A lot. But that can’t be changed. Kind of like in Heavy Rain, how the serial killer is always the same person in the end. For some reason that is always a buzz kill for me. If I were a gamer with more time on my hands (and not a mile-long list of games gifted to me at Christmas) that probably wouldn’t be the case. Also, keep in mind the decisions made in Episode 1 and the DLC carry over to season 2.

No second playthroughs not withstanding, I am hooked on this video game series. I purchased the DLC as soon as I completed season 1 and I downloaded the first episode of season 2 as soon as possible. If you like narrative-driven video games, the Walking Dead, or just plain zombie stuff, you should give yourself the pleasure of playing Walking Dead.