Quarantine has been tough, there’s no way around it. Games don’t exist in a bubble, and their appeal can endure across different scenarios and allow us the gift of communication, camaraderie, and of course, satisfaction. I’ve been desperately plumbing the depths of the Switch library for fun co-operative experiences, a quest that recently introduced me to the wacky world of Torchlight II, and some extended online playtime soon followed. I’ll be honest, however, Torchlight II did not grasp me as I think the loot-based RPG is supposed to do. I found the combat weightless and low effort, the lore overly dense for a co-op experience, and the loot gains themselves far too inflexible. But my lust for co-operative experiences has not been satiated, and the result has been the purchase of Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition. I was hesitant to buy the full collection, as loot-based RPGs often have multiple play styles and builds, and this version of the first Borderlands featured all content from the DLC expansions, adding even more content and playtime.
As it turns out, I quite like Borderlands. Though some of my opinions of this subgenre still hold fast, many of them being a direct result of co-operative gameplay, Borderlands scratches an interactive itch that is more substantial than Torchlight. I’m about halfway through the campaign of the first game, and I already find myself hungering for more, though I’m not certain what direction that will take me. If there’s an overall lesson to be learned, however, it’s that just about any combat system can be used to support a loot-based RPG, though it seems these games are more about choice in character build and equipment rather than character-based decisions.
Tangible Kick, Little Impact
One element of Torchlight that made the overall experience so bland was the relative lack of skill involved in combat. One can simply hold down the attack button and liberally apply their skills in order to tackle any and all combat scenarios, with some basic variety in environmental design that barely factors into skirmishes. In comparison, Borderlands features gunplay that not only appeals to a Western market, but also adds a few nuances to combat. Any game from a first-person perspective requires some approximation of proximity, and gunplay – especially that based on pre-existing models of weaponry – forces a player to factor in the build of their weapon in addition to the space between them and their target. The real “kick” of combat however is the literal kick of weaponry itself – each weapon’s fire rate, spread, and accuracy factoring into how you might use them in combat.
Accuracy has more than one definition, however, and there’s the need to keep your sights on an enemy as well as the overall rating of your equipped weapon. I have, on several occasions, been aiming directly at an enemy through a scoped weapon, only to pull the trigger, witness the jerk of my weapon, and… completely missed the target directly in my sights. This is a factor of a weapon’s optimal range, of course, but it can also be the effect of a sub-optimal accuracy rating. Though this might be a bit more forgivable with automatic weapons, it does feel like a bit of a bummer for the precision-based weapons I’ve been using.
Likewise, although your weapons and attacks do have some legitimate kick to them, Borderlands and many other loot-based games are more heavily reliant on status afflictions rather than raw damage as a means of “impacting” enemies. What this means is that the player and enemies alike don’t really react to taking damage, charging forward or ducking behind cover even when hit with massive or repeated numbers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps the pacing of combat fast and makes distance a rapidly diminishing resource. You can only stop an enemy if they’re dead – or inflicted with certain status ailments that are often class-reliant rather than weapon-based. Still, it hurts immersion when you loose a devastating sniper round into an enemy and they walk it off.
Intimate Scale, Uncomfortable Environments
Another matter introduced with a first-person perspective is the differences in world design that it can offer, both good and bad. There are times when Borderlands’ winding environment structure offers plenty of variety in terms of skirmish layout and enemy placement, but there are just as many moments where its corridors – even the outdoor sections – feel a bit too cramped. This is surprising, given the nature of its primarily range-focused combat. There are opportunities to take cover and shortcuts to wind around, but given the hectic nature of gunplay and the tendency for enemies to get up in your face, the entire experience can come across a bit claustrophobic. Even its wide-open ranges don’t really rectify this, with most of its vast space being a playground for vehicular battles rather than standard regular enemy encounters.
But it is more of a here-or-there issue, as the density of scenarios often rewards players with more moment-to-moment action. The opening hub has such a tightly focused design, it rarely takes more than a few minutes to get where you need to go, with hardly any screen transitions or loading times. There are sprawling, grand set pieces positioned smack-dab in the middle of an environment with multiple routes of access. The small vignettes tucked in the corners of the large vehicular plains have a great deal of variety and are paired well with certain kinds of missions. And sure, it might be stressful to have a bunch of enemies in your face, but that pushes the player to diversify their loadout and make sure they possess decent close-range options in order to handle pesky rushdown foes. But of course, there is a caveat in this design choice, as well.
Loot galore, but is less more?
Listen, I get it. The point of loot-based RPGs, and the reason they work so disgustingly well in the free-to-play and mobile markets, is because cracking open that chest and feasting your eyes on a new reward shoots dopamine straight into your brain and makes you keep playing. Diablo, Torchlight, Borderlands, and even roguelike/lite titles double and sometimes triple down on this concept and offer overwhelming amounts of loot to nab. If I might be honest, however…inventory management is hardly ever my favorite part of games like these, and in Borderlands, there’s an added element of concern – loadout considerations. Playing the Siren class means that I have an efficiency in utilizing elemental and status-based weaponry, which is a relative rarity in general due to the massive benefits these sorts of weapons offer even without class specialization. But what further complicates things are class weapon proficiencies, which often means certain players will focus on picking up specific weapon types due to their skill tree benefits. Atop this, you have an inherent weapon mastery mechanic going on in the background of combat, where a player unlocks higher proficiency and utility with a weapon as they use a single kind with greater frequency.
There are a sizable number of weapon types in Borderlands, which means if you’re trying to play efficiently, you might wait quite a while between drops and chests before finding a favorable weapon. With that in mind, you’ll also be dealing with the rarity system and randomized stats on just about any uncommon drop, meaning you’ll often get a gun that might be slightly less-powerful than what you’re currently running due to its fire rate or clip size, or worse, a weapon that’s only slightly more powerful than the one you were using. Because the game has such a high number of weapon types, you might end up switching out your current loadout with something that you’re less familiar with, and because the game trickles loadout slots to the player across the first act of the game, you might need to be swapping quite often. The game also trickles out inventory space, which is doubly frustrating due to the sheer number of guns you’ll find in the field that you just won’t have space for. Unlike Torchlight, there’s no plucky pet to send back to town with your excess resources, and though vending machines – the game’s merchant system – are scattered about the world, it doesn’t take very long for your inventory to fill up quickly.
Up until I finally gained access to four weapon loadout slots, I felt as if I were ping-ponging between options that I didn’t feel comfortable with, and even when I finally had four slots for four different weapon types, I found myself passing up new acquisitions just as much, if not more often, than I did previously, as the guarantee of improved gear and inventory space for it was uncertain, at best. I’ve heard many people say that, once you find “that perfect gun,” you can hold onto it for a sizable amount of time during your campaign, and my current loadout seems to reflect this. Does Borderlands want me to actively search for loot, or become desensitized to it? I’m not sure.
One thing is for certain, however: screw level-capped weapons and gear. This is often a tease at how much better your stats will be, and it also rarely pays off due to the gear you’ll have accrued by the time you reach said level. Just leave this sort of mechanic out of loot-based games, or come up with a better way to limit its use, please?
Get on with it, preferably in the background
I’ve said previously that lore dumps in loot-based RPGs are cumbersome at best, and Borderlands doesn’t solve the matter entirely. What the game does offer you is a nice running commentary from a mysterious beneficiary, an individual who remarks upon the progress you’ve made from major quests.
Companion commentary in video games is not a slight undertaking, and to be fair, the limited nature of Borderlands’ infrequent check-ins is hardly the perfect solution, let alone the perfect implementation. You’ll hear some voice clips from new NPCs you meet throughout your journey and the comments from your mysterious guide, but neither of these instances of dialogue offer all that much in the way of substantial lore or even rich world-building. The one major boon Borderlands has in the form of its in-game commentary is the ultimate goal of the main campaign: to uncover the secrets of the Vault, a legendary treasure trove sought after by nearly all adventurers on Pandora. This provides an easily identifiable endgame that might require a few twists and turns in order to access, but is straightforward in terms of a “reward.”
If you’re looking to sink into lore, however, co-op is simply not the right environment, unless you have a very patient partner. There’s still plenty to glean from the text shared by NPCs and the various minor and side quests you can take on, which is always appreciated given the sometimes-basic composition of the quest objectives themselves. If a perfectly blended story and gameplay loot-based RPG exists, I have yet to play it – but I am a relative newcomer to the subgenre, so maybe we can give that a pass?
I can say that I’ve taken to Borderlands much more than I did Torchlight II, though this might have more to do with the more visceral nature of moment-to-moment gameplay and a much more enjoyable variety of weapons. I’m not much of a fan of varying my character choices, unless I’m playing through a campaign multiple times with different partners. In terms of build variety, both Borderlands and Torchlight II have the same degree of customization with for main classes and three “schools” of trait expansion, so you’re getting the same degree of freedom in terms of customization. I’m not sure how many more loot-based RPGs will make their way to the Switch, and I’m also unsure if I’ll ever take the plunge into Diablo III in earnest. What I have seen are some traits inherent in the genre appearing across both entries, and while I’d love to see some of these issues addressed, I’m not sure if they can be avoided in a co-op experience. If you have any recommendations for loot-based RPGs, please list them below – I’d love to get more exposure to some of the best in this subgenre.