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

Why no test drive?

January 10, 2010 at 01:09 | Posted in demo, dlc, download, games, GOG.com, Good Old Games, Steam | Leave a comment

Some games I can spend waiting for years to come, the expectation of some sweet deliverance of exuberant proportions digital joy being part of the appeal. Other games I merely stumble upon and for some reason decide to buy.

Fortunately I seem to have a lucky track record of buying games I know little of with only one of them being a disappointment. A few of the games I bought on a whim are Super Smash Bros. and Banjo Kazooie for the Nintendo 64, as well as a small game called Fallout, the latter of which I recently re-bought soundtrack alone. More on that later.

Then there’s the middle child of these categories. The games I kinda know of but isn’t sure if it’s something for me. I’ve read some reviews and seen some footage, but is still not convince. Usually a great demo will be enough to sway me to buy it, but unfortunately that kind of software becoming something of a rarity these days. If I’m lucky I will be able to try them out some other way, maybe trying it on a platform at a friends or something of the like. There are still titles where I feel I’m flinging myself into them, not really sure if I’ll like the game or not. Again, I’m usually in luck here as Prototype, a game which I had tons of fun with, and Borderlands are both fairly recent purchases which I’ve enjoyed. I plan on writing a bit more about Borderlands a bit later.

But it’s strange, isn’t it? I remember people shipping out the demo months before the game was even available. It gave you a hint of what was to come, it was the sales pitch. Back then you could buy expensive magazines with portable media (floppies, CDs or DVDs depending on the era) which were filled to the brim with these goodies. I especially remember one game that PC Gamer in Sweden had two different demos of in different issues. One of them was so big it practically had it’s own separate disc. The latter one was indeed a big section of the game, and the only limit you had was that it stopped working after playing for an hour.

The game in question was called Outcast, a game I will forever hold dear to my heart. Okay, how many of you just thought I meant Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast? Well, if you did, you were wrong! Which proves how overseen this game was. Despite critical acclaim and great, epic gameplay with a fantastic soundscore, it didn’t become as big as it deserved to. My guess is that it’s partially due to the bugs (I’ve yet to make it run properly on another computer). But I digress.

SteamLately there seems to have been an influx of cheaper titles, often indie, or a way of getting older titles for a cheaper price. This is all thanks to the wonders of internet. My two current favourites would be the humongous Steam and the fan-friendly GOG.com. Steam is great for newer titles and sometimes they have some insane weekend deals, such as the Christmas holiday sale (from which I bought over ten games from). The added achievements and ease to join friends in multiplayer in certain games is also a nice bonus.

GOG.com, or Good Old Games as they’re also known as, is a entirely different beast. The most recent titles will probably be at least a year old, and many stretches back more than five, or even ten years of age. There are some real jewels in there for comparatively cheap prices. What makes this all so great though is the fact that they not only sell you the game, they make sure it runs on the latest version of Windows! (Sorry Mac, but we already knew games weren’t your thing.) So now you don’t have to worry if Vista will harass your copy of that old DOS-age game you have lying around. To make a great deal even sweeter you’re often given some extra material for the product you’ve bought such as soundtracks, concept art and wallpapers. Come on, give them a look. If you’ve been playing games the last decade I’m sure you’ll find something interesting in there. Oh, and did I mention there’s no DRM?

I wonder how hard it would be to arrange more demos to come out for platforms such as Steam. It would be a nice addendum to the vast catalogues of games to be able to try them before buying them. Heck, I’d even spend a buck or two on a short stand-alone DLC that could be played without the full copy if it was tailored so that it didn’t feel useless if you bought the game later on. With all the DLC craze going on lately, maybe that’s something appealing for the publishers out there?

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.

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