I’ve just wrapped up a first play-through of Borderlands, and enjoyed it so much I’ve jumped straight into a second. It’s a splendidly quick dive-in loot-spewing RPG/shooter of MOAR DAKKA, and thanks to the spiffy new Steam UI that’s in beta at the moment I can see I’ve played it for about 30 hours so far. I’m not sure if I’ll play through the whole thing again, but even if not I feel like I’ve got my fifteen quid’s worth.
It’s heavily reminiscent of Hellgate: London, the loot-spewing RPG/shooter/MMOG of MOAR DAKKA, especially in the rarity-coloured guns with random bonuses that provide much incentive in both for blasting through hordes of foes. Hellgate went rather badly wrong, though, turning out to be a somewhat prophetic title as it opened up a gate to financial hell and dragged Flagship Studios through (not quite as prophetic as Bankruptcygate: San Francisco might have been, but still).
It’s a shame, as I rather enjoyed playing through the story of Hellgate, and it had a great setting in post-demon invasion London with humanity hunkered down in fortified tube stations; Borderlands isn’t bad, and has some strong NPCs, but its world of Pandora feels slightly generically Mad Max-ish with roaming bandits and hostile wildlife. Could just be a bias for London on my part, though. Going by fairly dim Hellgate memories now, I seem to recall its combat being more RPG-influenced than pure shooter, possibly with to-hit rolls going on in the background; Borderlands is more FPS, headshots and all, but modifies damage based on the level difference between you and the target making the two systems feel pretty similar in the end. If Hellgate had been pitched as more of a straightforward single-player oriented game I think it could’ve done respectably, but it had a confused single player offline/free online/subscription model. Seems fairly obvious in hindsight, but if a game works both as a single player offline game and persistent online game either the former is distinctly lacking or the latter is tacked-on, and in the case of Hellgate there never did seem much point to the persistence. Add on a tsunami of hype, and premature and buggy release, and it was too much to recover from.
Borderlands, in contrast to the heavyweight hype of Hellgate, was pegged by one analyst as being “sent out to die” against Dragon Age and Modern Warfare 2, but was well received and had strong sales, along with three DLC packs so far. It doesn’t over-reach itself, it gives you a big pile o’ guns, loads of stuff to shoot with them, and lets you do so with a few friends if you want. Looking at Borderlands and Hellgate rams home that “complexity” or “depth” don’t inherently equal “good”, especially when ambition outstrips available time or resources. Hellgate had six character classes with sprawling skill trees that had to be heavily overhauled at least once, Borderlands has four playable characters with more straightforward skill trees, each character just having one active ability, that seem to be pretty well balanced. You got the feeling that chunks of Hellgate had been rushed in justified by “we’ll patch it to work properly later”, and though the 360 and PS3 do allow patching, you can’t get away so much there which must focus things a bit more when developing for consoles.
Out of the ashes of Flagship came Runic Games and Torchlight, the success of which seems to demonstrate the benefits of keeping focused on core gameplay rather than shooting for the moon (and hitting London, insert Werner von Braun gag here). It’ll be interesting to see if the team can build on that with an MMO version, certainly seems like a more sensible approach than trying to do it right off the bat, and in the meantime there’s always more Borderlands. DAKKADAKKADAKKADAKKA!