Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 succeeds at being what a game sequel should be. It retains the familiar gameplay but refines it to a better experience. Old features were improved and new ones were added. Maybe there could have been more additions, though, and maybe some features could have used more work -- like the skill trees not being again filled with somewhat dull passives. But overall BL2 is simply a better experience than the first one in every aspect.

The first improvement I noticed was the annoying gun arming animation after every action being gone. That alone made such a big difference to the gameplay. Another nice small thing -- and a standard feature in action RPGs these days -- was having the game pick up gold and ammo by just walking over it. I had hoped BL2 would have it. I think they could have also reduced the amount of chest opening by making at least all the smaller ones breakable so that area effects could open them instead of requiring you to open every single one of them manually.

The interaction key also no longer reloads your gun, which is even more important in BL2 as there are guns that are thrown as grenades (using up the ammo in them) when reloaded. It is a cool little distinctive feature but it is hard to get used to if you are constantly switching between guns that do not all have it. You easily end up depleting all of your ammunition by throwing it at nothing.

I would have liked to see the vehicle controls changed to something more standard but for some mysterious reason they decided to keep the mouse steering. But apparently enemies getting instantly splattered by your car was not good and in BL2 you instead often actually stop on your tracks when colliding with an enemy. I did not like that change. Enemy chain respawning is also more egregious. They just keep coming out of buildings one-by-one everywhere and it is very difficult to estimate when the fight is going to be over.

Scenery was hugely enhanced from the first game. Gearbox Software's artists seriously put some effort into making BL2 to not have same boring deserts everywhere. Locations have incredible variation and the game looks absolutely gorgeous in its vivid colors. And I like how the Hyperion space station (or is it a ship?) can always be found on the sky, looming over Pandora.

GeForce Experience has support for BL2 and it suggested using super-sampling for a change. This time it had no effect on performance like in Far Cry 3 -- BL2 being an Unreal Engine 3 game I guess -- but I wonder why the "optimized" settings also want to use anti-aliasing with super-sampling. I guess it makes for better screenshots since they don't have AA due to being of the actual rendering size. But in-game, having both DSR and FXAA is just useless. (I also ponder why GFE does not suggest DSR for Mass Effect 3 that also uses UE3. It is definitely less taxing to run than BL2 or Thief.)

I did have some performance problems, however, as I was experiencing frequent drops to 30 FPS, especially in combat. That turned out to be caused by PhysX. Setting it to low from high almost completely wiped out all drops, and I could not tell if anything changed in the visuals at all. Maybe particles were bouncing less off stuff or something. Otherwise I had the game running at maximum settings.

Borderlands 2 has a new set of characters to choose from. I picked the siren again, who in this game is called Maya. Instead of phasewalk, she has phaselock that lifts an enemy into the air for a duration. Many of the passives improve it in different ways and it became a rather nice active skill. I definitely liked it more than phasewalk.

The first game's siren, Lilith, is also in the game as an NPC. In fact all the four PCs from BL are there. And they play important support roles in the story that is way beyond the mere framework of a plot the first game had. Writing in BL2 is superb and personal, and there is a large number of likable characters. My favorites were probably (the already-mentioned) Lilith, Mad Moxxi, Tiny Tina, and Handsome Jack who makes an amazing antagonist. He is amusing and constantly made me guess if he had a more humane side or was he just trying to trick me again. Like in the side quest where you visit his grandma's house.

A minor complaint I have about the game's dialogue is that it does not refer to your character always in a sensible manner. Sometimes your female character is a he, and sometimes it is as if there were more than one vault hunter present when you are just by yourself. It would not be an impossible task to have multiple dialogue lines to have the game correctly adapt to any situation but I guess it still would be too much work for such a small thing. But it did bother me sometimes. Like in Jedi Academy where they re-used enemy combat yells referring to the always-male protagonist from Jedi Outcast.

A slight problem was also how Jack seemed to ignore my character being a siren when he captured Lilith. The audio logs I had found earlier let me understand that he knows of Maya. But then when needing a new siren, he did not even seem to consider trying to take Maya instead even if Lilith is more powerful (according to Jack). I bet that if this were a game by Obsidian, there would have been special dialogue.

Also, on the matter of audio, I think they should have suppressed sound effects and other combat audio while someone is talking to you via the voice comm and providing quest information or other stuff. It is quite hard to make what they are saying while there are dozens of guns blazing and bandits yelling their random crap. One cannot really focus on reading the subtitles either in the thick of things.

Borderlands 2 is a long game. It took me over 64 hours to play through it and all its DLC. Luckily it did not get tedious like its predecessor. There always seemed to be a new pretty area to see. Though I got to say that the game also unnecessarily increases the playtime by giving many side missions to areas only after you have already been there to complete a story mission, causing you to backtrack.

While the gameplay DLCs in BL2 are certainly of higher quality than in BL1, I would say they mostly were not as good as the main game or at least not very relevant to it. The bigger ones were all right with the exception of Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep that actually was quite amusing in how it makes fun of tropes. It also has a more serious side in how the characters deal with Roland's death. It was a good place to finish the game.

The five Headhunter DLCs are quite brief -- like an hour worth each -- but they have their own unique areas. One of my favorite moments in BL2 was in fact the end boss of How Marcus Saved Mercenary Day. I was totally not expecting the neat, rather Trans-Siberian Orchestra-esque, version of God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen the boss fight had. It is too bad BL2's music is not generally as memorable, the main menu theme being an exception. (The music is not the only reason to appreciate the main menu -- being able to turn the camera in it to view the scenery is pretty damn cool.)

The DLC create a balance problem as the campaign will not scale to your levels gained in them. But the DLC too will stop scaling after some point on normal mode even if you do them after the main game. I have kind of had enough of the Diablo-type multiple playthroughs for greater difficulty systems. Thus starting a new run for a more balanced experience does not exactly fill me with excitement. And there still were occasional moments of real challenge even if I was bit overleveled.

The SHiFT code system also is, if not balance-breaking at least a really odd thing to have. I assume the purpose of it was to keep the game relevant but it is almost like the real money auction house Diablo 3 had -- instead of trying to find the best loot in-game, people just use their golden keys for gear. Evidently one cannot get the rarest quality items from the chest but for leveling, having the system completely defeats half the game's idea. Just copy-paste some codes into the game and you can use few keys every couple levels to keep you in purples. (One of the codes gave 50 golden keys, which equals to 100 epic+ quality items of your current level.)

There is also a bunch of cosmetic (head models and skins) DLC available for the characters. The bunch did not come in the humble bundle package. While many of the head and skins seem fancy (you can preview them in-game) and they are not too costly (€1 per head + skin), I thought it would not be worth it to buy any. The value of character skins seem questionable in a game you mostly view in first person.

Me finishing Borderlands 2 coincided with a franchise sale of the series on Steam. The triple pack's cost was greatly reduced (to under 5 euros) for already owning the first two games and I decided to buy it. I thought might as well play The Pre-Sequel, too since BL2 was so fun. I skipped on buying the DLC for it, though. Maybe if they go on a steeper sale I might get them later, but for now I think the base game will do.

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