Borderlands: The Presequel

So, it’s Borderlands 2.5 time!  I’m about 16 hours in, taking my time.

How is it?  It’s very Borderlandsy. That’s a relief, since it’s made by a different studio, and we’ve seen that not work so well. But 2K Australia has got the basic elements: the gorgeous visuals, the shooting and looting, the over-the-top characters, the redneck humor.

More things to accidentally drive into!
More things to accidentally drive into!

In terms of gameplay, the big things are the reduced gravity, allowing you to jump up and deal down death from above, and the oxygen mechanic. The O2 is done just about right: it’s rarely onerous (there are frequent O2 fields, and enemies drop canisters), but it provides a light constraint that will sometimes affect your decisionmaking. The jumps are fun; you can also slam down onto the ground, which I haven’t mastered yet. You can also use the oxygen to glide, which takes some getting used to.

There’s also a hovercraft, not like the skimmers from the BL2 DLC, but one that can actually go up in the air, which adds to the theme of verticality. There’s also lasers and guns that freeze your enemies solid.  Oh, and what are basically Portal 2 aerial faith plates (complete with a similar sound effect)

The story this time is set on that big Hyperion space station, and then on the moon, Elpis– which turns out to be populated by Australians. The accents are adorable. More cheekily, they’ve made Handsome Jack from BL2 into a good guy, more or less. Mostly less. He’s a mid-level Hyperion guy, who you have to rescue from an attack on the space station, and who then helps you save Elpis from the pirates who took it over and, for some reason, want to destroy the moon with a giant laser. And you play what were minor villains in BL2: Nisha the sheriff, Wilhelm the cyborg, Athena the assassin. Or a more than usually crazy Claptrap.

So far they’ve handled this very well, principally by keeping Jack’s basic character: he’s a total asshole. The arrogance, the sadism, the amorality, the fratboy pleasure in exercising power, are all there– they just haven’t focused yet into complete psychopathy. They didn’t Anikinize him into an actual nice guy.

I’ve been playing as Nisha, whose skill is a few seconds of auto-aim and high damage– not quite as fun as the Siren powers, but not bad. (It’s not entirely skill-less– she won’t fire at enemies behind you or otherwise out of sight.) I’m eager to try Claptrap, too.

(sound of Western music)
(sound of Western music)

The PCs talk more than in any previous BL. I think all you got in BL1/2 was a few grunts, plus comments when they leveled up or got a critical hit. Nisha talks back to Jack and to quest givers, and I think this makes everybody seem more human. It turns out that a silent protagonist really isn’t more immersive.

The level design is notable for not holding your hand too much. There are multiple routes through any one installation, and buildings you can choose to explore or not. You can get a little lost sometimes, but I like the move away from railroading.

I only have some minor complaints. They took away the “junk” icon– you can still sell all your junk at once, but you do this by marking “favorites”, which seems backwards to me. Some of the vehicle jumps don’t work well. I’d also have to say that Nina, who replaces Dr. Zed, is rather a clumsy stereotype.

Oh, and I still resent the price… $60 is steep, though I’d’ve happily paid $50. But Borderlands is about the only game on my must-buy-now list. Arkham Knight comes close, but there I can wait for a sale.

One more thing… again based on the first 16 hours, the game seems easier than BL2. The boss fights haven’t been as hard, and though you can face a bunch of bandits at once, it’s also rarely hard to find some cover to recover your shield.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

Eh? What’s that, sonny?

My ears have been itching and hurting, and this weekend it was affecting my hearing. So today I went to a nurse.  I thought it might be an ear infection, but it was impacted cerumen, or in English, a whole ton of wax.  If you’re curious, what they do is spritz water with water and peroxide into your ear… kind of hosing it out.

Which is hardly blogworthy, but I thought the perceptual effect was. It was like having the volume knob turned up on the world. But not uniformly– certain sounds jumped out, like my car keys jangling, or water running, or the refrigerator.  I’m guessing a range of high-frequency sounds had been suppressed, and now they were back.  It was like having a Foley artist a few steps behind me.

My wife must’ve thought I sounded crazy– “Does our refrigerator always sound like that?”  I’m sure I won’t even notice all this by tomorrow, but it was kind of weird.

Torchlight II

Let’s start with the positive: this is an enchanting game for about the first 20 hours. The art style has a distinctive, toylike blockiness; the environments are big and varied; and as in Borderlands, there’s an endless stream of weapons and skills to try.

Are you a friendly steampunk monster?  No, huh?
Are you a friendly steampunk monster? No, huh?

It’s really a lot like Torchlight, except that rather than one near-endless dungeon (35 levels!), there’s a wide world, itself full of monsters, plus a number of smaller dungeons.  So, you still have several playable classes, a mixture of magic, swords, and guns, a pet who’ll fight alongside you and who will sell your loot back in town, fish to change the pet temporarily into another creature, portal scrolls to go back to town.  And the game consists of bundling through the rooms, blowing away a wide range of enemies, collecting gold, and evaluating loot.

Also as in Borderlands, the player characters from the first game have become NPCs in the sequel. Indeed, one of them has gone evil, and is the penultimate boss.

Your basic attacks (LMB) are supplemented by skills and magic– i.e., some of these use mana and some don’t. You can assign any of these to RMB, as well as to 0-9. I played as an Outlander– essentially a rogue, specializing in ranged weapons– and didn’t have much trouble anywhere in the game. If you like a skill, you can improve it by adding skill points; you won’t have enough points to try everything, much less max them all out.

A hint for the last two bosses: have plenty of health potions on hand. I had 71 going into the final dungeon, and used about 30. It’s really easy to run down your health bar quickly. (However, the boss doesn’t regenerate HP, so if you die you don’t have to replay the whole fight.) Mana potions are a little less important, as you can always just get out of range for a few seconds, but grab a few extra.

On the negative side… well, the last 15 hours or so were a chore. I never finished the first Torchlight: all the levels started to feel the same. And though the environments are more varied here, it’s pretty repetitive. It’s never terribly hard– even the final bosses go down quickly under a barrage of skill-spam– just remember to watch your health bar.

Also, it seemed that after a certain point, I only rarely got any loot worth keeping. Part of this is because you can add enchantments, and gems with their own enchantments. So I was making a lot of comparisons like this:


That’s a final boss item, and it only does 2/3 of the damage of the bow I’d had for many levels. The whole slots and enchantments thing is expensive and makes it hard to switch weapons– which in turn erodes most of the fun of finding loot. It’s OK if most loot is trash, but this kind of game really needs the feeling that the next chest might contain a really insane weapon.

The other problem is that the game is nearly characterless. There’s a plot– evil guy is gonna destroy the world– booring. No characters are memorable, no quests are quirky, there’s very little to care about. Plus, no jokes. Torchlight had its moments (check out the Sword of Adam in the link above), but Torchlight II, for all the cartoonishness of the art, is deadly serious. Maybe they figured they couldn’t top Dungeons of Dredmor.

Now, there’s also co-op, and maybe that changes everything. A lot of games really shine only when you’re messing around with friends. I have a good gaming group, and yet the only thing we play consistently is TF2, so I rarely get the change to try multiplayer in games.

When you finish, you can either replay it at a higher difficulty level, or play a bunch of random dungeons. I tried one, which was not hard, and also built up my distressingly low gold resources.  But I don’t see myself playing through the whole set.

Computers for 94-year-olds

We finally got a new computer for my Dad.  His old one, which was more than 10 years old, was slow and generally horrible, and I decided it was finally a quality of life issue: it was just too painful to check e-mail; plus it would randomly turn itself off…

The new one is an “All-in-one”, which turns out to mean the computer itself is part of the monitor. Technology, it’s amazing.  It was about $310… there was a $330 one too, and the sales guy won some honesty points for admitting that there was no difference between them.

What he needs, basically

Dad is struggling manfully to adapt to the new system.  You don’t fully recognize, till you set up a system for a 94-year-old, how much computers do to confuse 94-year-olds.  Such as:

  • Changing everything for no apparent reason. You can drive a car from 2004 with no difficulty, but developers think that everything must be done differently. I got him a copy of Word, and it’s like Martian Alien Word all of a sudden. The File menu goes to a completely different screen… whose idea was that? The basic needs for editing a document hasn’t changed, but they’ve messed around horribly with the interface.
  • Pop-ups from virus checkers and the computer manufacturer; required updates from Windows. All things that make the computer do unexpected things he doesn’t know how to respond to. Some of them show (shudder) the Metro screen.
  • Windows is better at keeping programs working than the Mac, but still, his old photo software doesn’t work on the new machine. Fortunately Windows itself is able to get pictures off his camera. (I will probably have to do this for him, but that’s OK– I wasn’t sure it’d work at all.)
  • Not enough options for large type. I switched to a larger Windows font, but it’s still pretty small for him.

This probably makes him sound worse off than he is. He’s a smart guy; in his ’80s, when he got the old computer, he read up on it and figured it out. But it takes him extra time to learn new things, even seemingly simple things like “the favorites menu now lives on the right side of the window.”  We recently got him watching DVDs on the computer, and he’s figured it out except that he never remembers that space bar will start/stop the show.

I’m aware that there are “old-people computers” that supposedly simplify the main tasks old folks want to do. But even those would be basically a new operating system he’d have to learn, plus I don’t know if he could open his old Word documents. Plus they’re kind of expensive.

Anyway, my point is, if you’re young enough, this amount of learning new things is not bad, and can even be fun and exciting. When you’re my Dad’s age, novelty for the sake of novelty is just baffling; it’d be better if things just worked as they always did, only faster.

Why Fallout 3 rules

I’ve written a lot about Fallout 3/NV, but not in a consolidated way. So here’s some thoughts on why Fallout 3 is the best open world game.

more like Nuka-Cola Futurity, 'cos you're dead
more like Nuka-Cola Futurity, ‘cos you’re dead
  • It’s got a killer theme: the devastation of nuclear war. Fallout tells us that war never changes, but it’s wrong. Before 1800, the European great powers engaged in near-constant wars, not least because they were rarely fought to the complete destruction of one side. From Napoleon on, great power war is played for much higher stakes, and is thus rarer. And nuclear war, which can destroy civilization, is so terrifying that even politicians can see they’re a bad idea.

    Fallout uses it as a background for a game, of course, and it embraces the ’50s-sf-movie style of radiation as a form of magic, giving us mutated giant animals and maybe superpowers. But it also viscerally communicates the horror of devastation in a way no impassioned editorial could. It gives everything a little punch and pathos that you’ll never get in Tamriel.

  • It’s gorgeous. There’s nothing quite like that opening reveal, when the vault opens, you’re blinded by the sun you’ve never seen before, and you look over the destroyed, strangely beautiful, enticingly new landscape.

    (I’m sorry, I don’t like the bird’s-eye-view-of-tiny-little-characters genre, so Fallout 1/2 don’t appeal to me.)

  • Bethesda creates the best first ten levels in video games. You want to progress and unlock the good guns and get your skills above 20 and not cave like a Radroach when the nearest bandit plugs you– but savor it, because you’re in the maximum fun zone. You’ll enjoy those bigger guns, but there’s nothing quite like the tension of facing a ruinful of bandits with rapidly dwindling ammo and not enough Stimpaks. Plus everything is still new and a short walk in any direction can give you three new quests.
  • Many games have beautiful level design, but it’s just set design for you to look at as you blitz past. Not here. Few other games create such a interactable, livable world.
    A knife is a good way to interact with bandits
    A knife is a good way to interact with bandits

    You can talk to anyone, at least anyone who’s not trying to kill you. There’s lore to find in every computer terminal and recording tape. Almost all the junk strewn about the map can be picked up, and even the lowliest bits can be used for something: people will pay you for scrap metal, cola bottles, holotags, pre-war books, and certain body parts, while everyday junk can be recycled into weapons. You’ll eventually get the opportunity to own your own house, which you can decorate it as you like. And it really will feel like your own little place in the Wasteland.

  • You can do as you like. The game booklet– I got F3 as a physical package, so there was a game booklet– tells you that you can follow Liam Neeson’s trail, or you can strike off on your own. And you can! There’s a huge world to explore, and people to meet, and other people to shoot. And your choices accumulate, and affect the world.
  • F3 has a quirky underbelly. The main quest includes the Twilight Zone weirdness of Tranquility Lane as well as a talkative Super-Mutant. And President Eden, with the mellifluous voice and delusions of still running the country.
    Now playing at the Museum of History.
    Now playing at the Museum of History.

    Then there’s things like the Republic of Dave, the vampires, the lesbian ghoul couple, Three Dog (because two dogs aren’t enough), Little Lamplight, the Mysterious Stranger perk, Tinker Joe and his robot companions, homages to classic comic books and Lovecraft, and Bethesda’s own studios.

  • It respects your choices. It’s illuminating to read the Fallout wiki on, say, the initial mission. There are a lot of branching paths– many of them involving things it would never occur to me to do. You can be the Wasteland’s greatest monster, or its savior.
  • The world is rich enough that you can make your own story. I did a whole playthrough concentrating on collecting bobbleheads.
    Got the intact garden gnome too
    Got the intact garden gnome too

    You could make it your mission to eradicate those annoying Talon ops, or blowing up slavers.

  • It has one of gaming’s cleverest tutorials. It starts with your birth– a natural time to choose your sex and appearance. You appear as an infant– perhaps the only game where the character is learning WASD at the same time you are. I wouldn’t want every game to do this, but it gets you through the basics while respecting immersion, and setting up the main story.

I greatly enjoyed Oblivion, but F3 is a far superior game: looks better, quests are deeper, theme is more involving. And though Skyrim is even prettier, it’s hard for me to get past the bland medievalness.

What about Fallout New Vegas? Well, overall, it’s more Fallout, and it has improved game mechanics (and a little more openness about sex), so that’s great. But I prefer F3, though that’s probably a minority opinion. It has poor voice acting, it’s more railroaded, and the middle of the game bogs down in endless gabbing. New Vegas itself, though initially impressive, is unconvincing: it seems dead and dull, not a hive of activity and depravity. Also, its plot deals with how you reestablish things after an apocalypse. That’s a great theme but it’s not explored in any interesting way (Caesar’s Legion is a boring answer to the question).

But FNV redeems itself in DLC. The four DLCs tell much more compelling stories than the main game. By contrast, F3’s DLCs are a bit meh, except for the refreshingly amoral Point Lookout.

Steam Curation

I created a Steam curation page which consolidates just about all the game reviews from this blog. You can get the same effect by using the Games link over on the right, but in case Steam Curating is the next big thing, I want in on it.