Dusting off Pandora – Borderlands Review

January 19, 2010 at 14:29 | Posted in FPS, games, postapocalyptic, review, RPG, Steam | Leave a comment

The scorching sun shines over the arid landscape. The great cliffs in the background stands defiantly against the elements and on a weathered road sign the text “Welcome to Pandora!”is shown. From behind it an alien dog-like creature hops out and lets out a ferocious shriek. It runs away onto the road and looks back just in time to see the bus running it over. Welcome to Gearbox’s Borderlands.

Borderlands is a RPG/FPS in a postapocalyptic sci-fi setting that in many way are reminiscent of Mad Max. But less serious and with more aliens and robots. The type called “Claptrap” will especially leave no one without an opinion about them, as most will either love or hate these spunky little bit characters.

You play as one out of four different treasure hunters in search of riches on the next to abandoned planet Pandora, each of them with their own class set of abilities. There’s the hunter, a sniper based class with the ability to send out a bird of prey to attack it’s enemies, and the soldier, a class centered around assault rifles and shotguns with a portable turret. Then there’s also Brick which is the big beefy guy you want to pick if you want to pound someone to dust with your knuckles or use big explosions, and the more lithe class the siren who can temporarily make themselves invisible and specialises in elemental damage.

All of the classes can use all types of weapons, but what makes them more specialised is the way you allocate your skill points. Much like talents in WoW or skills in Diablo, there’s three types of trees for all classes and after level 10 you get to spend one point per level. There’s a good variety in the trees and with a maximum level of 50 you’re able to get the top talent of two different trees in the end which lends itself to some interesting builds. You may make your Brick into a tank or cause your soldier’s bullets to heal people. Most skills feels useful although they’re not all very intuitive, and there’s always the option to respec for a paltry sum of money.

The main gist of the game won’t take place looming over where to put your skills though, but more in the thick of action. As a shooter you’re actually required to aim, unlike other first person RPGs where there where “dice rolls” in the background determines if you hit or miss. Different parts of enemies (such as heads) guarantees critical hits, so it actually feels much more like a shooter.

While there is an overarching story throughout the game and several optional side quests, it server more as a backdrop and excuse for you to kill countless of enemies. The characters you meet are rather shallow but nearly all of them have rather interesting or funny personalities and quirks. It shows that the developers wanted to make something less serious and the jokes and pop culture references are spread throughout the course of the game.

Much like Diablo and Torchligh, loot is the main interest when killing enemies, especially guns. And there are a lot of them. Through a system similar to the ones in the games mentioned above there are “a bazillion guns” as Gearbox themselves put it, and due to the way in how they differ it can be a lot of fun trying to find that better gun. A few of the weapon varieties I’ve found so far was are shotguns that fire rockets, sniper rifles that creates and explosion of fire when they hit and SMGs that shoot electrical shocking bullets.

The first thing you will notice after starting up the game though is the distinct choice of graphics. The developers have went with a hand drawn art style which makes it look like a fluid comic, but without the overly stylized sense that a cell shaded game can give you. The enemies looks good and are well animated and in the beginning there will be a good variety. Unfortunately you will have encountered the majority types of enemies within the first 30 minutes of the game, and it’s not until the end that things start getting spiced up again. This in itself isn’t that much of a problem since the enemy groups can be mixed in different ways, but since all enemies of the same type look exactly the same it gets a little stale. Some more enemy models would be nice.

The engine does a good job at scaling the textures as well, making sure that you receive a higher performance without any apparent visual degradation. It does not however take zooming through scopes into account, so if you have a powerful zoom the textures on objects far way will look very blurred. Unfortunately many of the textures doesn’t hold up when under close scrutiny, but you’ll be spending most of the game on the run anyway and probably won’t notice this.

While Borderlands is a rather enjoyable to play by yourself it is even more so when playing co-operatively with up two three other people. Enemies and loot scales to the amount of players and there are many tactics that only works if there’s someone fighting with you. You and your “party” will always be in the same area as a zone change will induce this on everyone in the game, and it works well to keep everyone together. If you so wish you can make it so that anyone can join your game at anytime, and when they do they’ll pop up right next to you. The looting is very much free for all though, so make sure you play with friends and people you trust if you want to make sure you get a chance to get that really sweet gun.

One of the biggest problems with Borderlands though are the technical aspects. There are several basic options that can be bothersome to adjust on a PC, such as turning if the in game voice communication so you don’t broadcast as soon as the microphone picks up a sound. Same thing goes for FOV, mouse smoothing and even using your mouse scroll button. The menus can feel a bit clunky, often needing a keyboard input to work correctly, and they often feel sluggish when using a mouse. It’s very apparent that this game was made for consoles in mind and then ported to PC.

Nowhere is the porting more obvious than the multiplayer matchmaking system. Borderlands innately uses Gamespy for it’s multiplayer purposes, a system that was all the rage about ten years back. After you’ve created a login (or remember an old Gamespy account you might have had) you get to choose to either host or join a game. Whenever I tried to join an online game through the in-game system I was either denied since the server was now full or in a game with a slow connection. I’ve heard Gearbox has been working on a fix for it however to improve the matchmaking, but it could also just have been me who was unlucky.

The main annoyance with Borderlands in multiplayer is how hard it can be to join a friends game. Many people have had trouble with the game being blocked by firewalls and being unable to join or even see games. I never actually managed to get it working properly to play with friends using the standard system as I quite like having a firewall on my network. Fortunately however there’s a free third party service called GameRanger available with support for Borderlands which makes the process as simple as it ought to be. Do note however that if it doesn’t join the game automaticly when using it, go to the “join LAN” part of the menu and look for the game there. Having this feature work straight out of the box would have been much preferred though, especially if it could be integrated with Steam.

For those who don’t get enough from the main game (as well as it’s “playthough 2” and “playthrough 3” options) there’s also some DLC to purchase. At the moment I has of yet to purchase or try out any of the two who have been released, but indications points to more coming out soon.

In conclusion Borderlands is a fun shooting game for people who likes postapocalyptic worlds, loot and don’t mind the technical hiccup to getting multiplayer working. While it may not be the top of the class it is certainly a game worth your time if you fall into the category above.

Pros:

  • Good looking “hand drawn” graphics
  • Well optimized graphics engiene
  • Good weapon variety
  • Great co-op
  • Entertaining gun fights
  • Good humor
  • Claptraps

Cons:

  • Poorly optimized PC customization
  • Troublesome multiplayer without third party addons
  • Lack of diversity in enemies
  • Claptraps
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Torchlight shining light over a neglected genre

December 27, 2009 at 08:52 | Posted in games, indie, RPG, software, Steam | Leave a comment

Since everyone and their dog seems to have been talking about Torchlight at some point or another, I finally caved in to the peer pressure and managed to snag it when Steam put it up on their holiday sale.

If this game’s attention somehow has eluded you, let me give you a short introduction: Torchlight is a point-and-click RPG action game where you explore endless dungeons, kill monsters and get loot. Make no mistake, this is about as close to Diablo you can get without getting sued for copyright infringement. It’s quite understandable, seeing how several of the senior staff from said Blizzard franchise have moved over to Runic Games to create this.

I’m not going into too detail about this game as many already have already put up various reviews and thoughts on this game and how it plays, so I’ll just post some thoughts that have struck me personally as I’ve played through the game.

Kill Streak
Killing streak

The first one is of course how easy on the eyes the game is. The vibrant colour doesn’t exactly instil the gloomy setting Diablo is known for if that’s your thing, but it does make the hacking and slashing more light-hearted and fun. Fun in the way only gratuitous amounts of vibrantly coloured blood after destroying several of your weaker enemies can imbue.

There’s no real plot to speak of though. There’s the mention of ember several time, the mysterious material known both for it harmful energies as well as it’s potent properties, and the very reason for building a small mining village on top of the dungeon. But this game doesn’t really need a story other than to give you a reason to slay a ridiculous amount of monsters.

One of my favourite parts about this game is how easy it is to pick up, play for a short while and then put down again. When you log back on to your character you’ll be exactly where you left, making this game ideal for when you need a quick fix. The streamlined experience of the game also makes sure that you’ll feel as if you’ve accomplished something during this short while, and not just spent 10 minutes trekking to the place where you can find all the monsters.

The game’s netbook mode looks interesting as well, even though I’ve yet to do any deeper studies or tests of it. It’s basicly a single option that seems configured to preserve power for your laptop of choice. It’s a handy feature for those who wants to get mobile with the game but doesn’t have the resources to pay for a top-of-the-line computer.

One of my favourite parts of the game is also it’s moddability. There’s at least two different modding sites out there dedicated for the game, and being a huge fan of game customization I’ve been delving through the archives and found a few gems. What I found interesting is the fact that not only does the game ship with an editor, but there’s also achievements tied to installing and using mods on the Steam version. An interesting way to put people’s attention on the mod community.

On a final note I’ll mention the plans for Torchlight to become something bigger. The idea with this game is to get the brand name out there as well as finance making a MMO later on. So seeing how well recieved this game has been I wouldn’t be surprised to find a Torchlight MMO within next two coming years.

Dragon Age, The Second Coming of CRPGs

November 18, 2009 at 13:00 | Posted in games, RPG, software | Leave a comment

After many years of waiting the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate finally arrives.

I’ve now had my hands on Dragon Age: Origins for almost two weeks. This is a game I had been waiting for since Bioware first announced it several years back. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of when this was, but it was somewhat soon after the release of Neverwinter Nights. All in all a long times waiting, and so far it’s been totally worth it.

I’ll begin with saying that this game is made first and foremost for the PC. One could argue that a lot of games are better looking and have more choices than you average console port, but some games, especially action and platform games, plays better on a console. In Dragon Age, it’s clearly a computer game ported to consoles and not the other way around as in say Mass Effect. If you’ve ever played Baldur’s Gate and WoW, you’ll immediately feel right at home with the controls.

While the various stats and options might seem a bit disorienting at the start of the game, you’ll soon learn what abilities are useful for what. If you’re not the stat savy type there’s always the option of “auto level up” which helped me out a lot in the beginning with some of the NPCs. What makes the system intriguing is that all classes gains the same amount of differing abilities. No longer are mages the only versatile characters available to you as warriors and rogues alike have just as many tricks up their sleeve. That being said however, several of the non-magical abilities are “turn-on-and-forget” modes, but even they give you a tactical choice.

And you’ll need those tactical choices. So far I’ve only been playing on normal difficulty, but whenever you meet a boss it really pays off knowing your abilities and how to use them. After the difficulty nerf in the last patch to easy and normal however I’ve been thinking of upping the difficulty to hard to get closer to the sometimes soulcrushing encounters you would find in Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2. It’s less about luck than it is about sound strategic planning, and finishing of a particular hard fight leaves a great sense of accomplishment.

The story so far has also been good. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it suffuses the world and gives a great immersion factor. It works off the vibes of a gritty low-fantasy setting where there is no tangible sense of wrong or right. One of the ways this plays out is the fact that there’s no arbitrary alignment meter that is so common these days in RPGs. Instead you, the player, gets to choose what course to take, and they’re often far from the “Satan vs. Jesus” type of choice and more in the realms of grey, although often less gloomy than The Witcher. It follows in the footsteps of the latter though in how your choices actually do alter the course of the game in a tangible way and aren’t just concentrated to that particular bit of the story.

Suffice to say, this game is all that I wanted, even if I didn’t know what it was I wanted when I got it.

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