Borderlands 2: On Gun-Play

Whenever I play a game heaps, I feel bad if I don’t get a post out of it – you know, I’m sinking all this time into a game and I feel like it shouldn’t just be time that’s spent just enjoying the game. I want to come away with something intelligent to talk about, something that provides a reason for playing beyond just the pure process of gaming. Anyway in unrelated news I’ve played 91.6 hours of Borderlands 2 in the past fortnight and – I mean what the fuck, that’s a fucking 40 hour working week plus overtime. That’s insane. Let’s talk about Borderlands 2 I guess.

The big thing I’m trying to figure out is why the fuck Borderlands 2 can hold that amount of playtime. Partly it’s that I’m unemployed and I’m bouncing between cleaning the house, writing a couple journal articles, and Borderlands. Partly – oh, I guess also we’re planning a wedding and stuff, and that’s quite stressful, so I tend to game until quite late because I don’t really have to get up in the morning, because see point A. Gaming is a good way to just bring the stress levels down.

Well, okay, that’s the motivation for gaming, but it doesn’t explain the choice of game. Why Borderlands? What makes it playable to the tune of 40+ hours a week? I only gave it one playthrough in that time – and actually, this is something that I’m still a little confused by. My original playthrough was like 30 hours, tops. So I’m not sure how I’ve stretched a second playthrough into 90 hours. I’ve got a little bit of a third playthrough going with some friends, and there’s a fair bit of idling involved there while everyone is trying to get their tech sorted, but it’s not that much time.

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Anyway – point is, it’s more or less one single playthrough. I’m not repeatedly grinding through a four hour campaign or something. That’s got to be part of the appeal – it’s just a big game. At the same time, I put 90 hours into a single Skyrim playthrough and never finished it – I just got bored with the whole thing. Having a big game doesn’t guarantee that people will play it all or find it all compelling.

There’s probably a bunch of fun things about Borderlands 2, and at the same time I’m aware it’s all pretty subjective. I like the humour and the characters, and I like all the dumb pop culture references. I like that they have you kill the Borderlands equivalent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Timon and Pumbaa. But beyond those more surface level tonal details, I think the gunplay is really interesting.

So if you’ve never played Borderlands before, the idea is that you’re always switching up your guns. You don’t have set weapons – you get loot from baddies or from crates or whatever, and the loot is all guns and grenades and other equippable items – just like in Witcher 3 or something, if that’s a game you know. You also have a leveling system – you kill baddies, get loot and XP, and gain levels for new character skills. It all scales too, so at level 5 you’re getting guns that do 20 damage, and at level 30 you’re getting guns that do 2000 damage. So obviously then, you spend a lot of time switching up your guns. You get a couple levels, find a new gun in a crate somewhere, and it’s heaps better than the one you’re currently using – so you swap it into your roster and sell the old one.

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What’s interesting, then, is that every gun is basically randomly generated. You’re never going to get two guns the same – there’s way too many variables. You’ve got the size of the clip, the rate of fire, the reload speed, and, yeah, accuracy too. So when you’re swapping in a new gun, you’re not just introducing a stronger version. You’re actually changing the speed and rhythm of your gun-play. Maybe you’re getting a bigger clip but a longer reload time – so you know you can run and gun for longer, but you’ll need to have solid cover at the end of each clip so you can reload without getting blown away. That changes the way you move around the field. Arguably damage is kinda less relevant in this system – more damage means your enemies die quicker, sure, but their health is going to scale at about the same rate. It’s probably less of a factor than some of these other ones like reload speed.

From that perspective, Borderlands is interesting because you’re never playing the same game for long. You develop a rhythm and hone your gun-play, and then you change some of your loadout and start learning a new cycle. Consider as well that you can have as many as four guns in your roster, once they’re all unlocked, so now you’re considering the interrelations between each weapon as well as things like the time it takes to switch weapons.

Of course most games will stagger your progression, so you’re getting new enemies and new weapons introduced at regular intervals. It’s supposed to keep the game fresh. You have new environments that you’re exploring, new spatial configurations for combat – and Borderlands has all of that too. The difference between Borderlands and Wolfenstein, say, is that on top of all those variations, Borderlands also has this radically changing gunplay that makes everything feel a lot more fresh and diverse.

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Here’s a way to think about it. Wolfenstein 2 has you play through a bunch of story missions, and then between those you can go and kill Nazi captains, who basically just exist in the levels you’ve already played. Those Nazi-captain-killing missions are easily the worst part of the game, because you’re just grinding through areas you’ve already fought through, but they’ve lost all of their story relevance and narrative force. Borderlands actually has a really similar process – you have a main story mission in a given area, and then once you’ve finished it, you’ll get some further missions that will send you back into that space. So for example in the Bloodshot Stronghold your main story mission is to go and save Roland. Once you’ve done that and returned to Sanctuary, Tannis gives you a mission to go kill the TMNT, who are hiding out in the Stronghold. So you head on back and find them and kill them, playing again through the same space that you’ve already been through. And it’s fine. It’s still interesting and fun, in a way that Wolfenstein 2 could never manage.

In some ways the comparison isn’t totally fair – Wolfenstein is so heavily story-driven that when it’s not being story-driven it’s really really weak. It’s already fucked independently of any issues of replaying through a given space – note for instance that you replay through the Ausmerzer, Engel’s ship, at the end of the game, and that’s not quite as boring because it’s still story-driven. Plus I don’t think that the gunplay in Borderlands is the only thing that makes replaying through certain areas interesting. That’s too simple. But at the very least, I think the changing gunplay is a facet of what’s going on. It opens up the possibility of a diverse replay, in a way that – again – Wolfenstein 2 simply isn’t able to manage. More on W2 soon – next week, I found a post in my drafts that I’ve just completely ignored for over a year, so I guess I’ll post that.

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