July 3, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 

Borderlands

This lavishly-produced, big-budget game is reasonable fun. The writing is sometimes not bad, and the art direction is superb and, if you ignore some silly gore and toilet humor, reasonably sophisticated. At times, the Borderlands world shows glimpses of history and depth — not nearly enough to bear the weight of the game, but it’s better than I’ve come to expect.

Most of the fun is tactical — dodging and vanquishing lots of bad guys. These can be both interesting and challenging. The computer’s tactics are much better, for example, than they were in City of Heroes. Unfortunately, nobody on the development team seems to have heard of flanking fire, so patience and keeping your head down are recipes for success.

There’s lots of good voice acting. Unfortunately, the developers don’t understand that we don’t need to hear the same taunts a thousand times. Why not diminish the frequency of these interjections gradually over time? The same goes for local color: the car vendor Scooter is amusing the first dozen times, but after that he’s just a boring vending machine. (The “stores” are actually rendered as old-fashioned coke machines that dispense game gear, a clever bit of self-deprecation.)

The game offers thousands of guns. OK: it’s about shopping. But there are too many varieties, all pretty much alike. Enough is too much. I’m a pretty analytic fellow, but I’ve given up on the stats: I pick up a gun, try it, and if it doesn’t impress me right away I sell the thing.

The developers have marshaled a huge array of narrative resources — corrupt corporations, ecological disaster, frontier violence, alien archaeology — but manage to extract almost no plot. There are hints of depth here — Russian gangsters in ante-bellum Texas? Evil industrial cartels? — but few seem to be pursued and everything tends to peter out. In the end, it’s just another boss battle.