Item Build Paradigms

As you may recall, I have been having a rough time in Borderlands 2. I bought the Season Pass back when I bought the original game, but sort of let things slide somewhere around 95 hours /played, about the time the Hammerlock campaign was released. My main issue, aside from general burnout, was that my character is Zer0, the melee-based ninja/sniper character. Simply put, I was having a hard time surviving in the extended difficulties as someone either in the middle of the action (where mistakes kill you quickly) or trying to snipe when 10 people are shooting at you (whom are extremely accurate with their assault weapons).

Now, I can already hear those of you in the audience: “But, Az, Zer0 is like one of the strongest characters in the game! He can solo the raid bosses!” Sure he can… with a very specific loadout of Legendary/Unique weapons, which either requires luck, grinding, duping, or all three. While I am obviously not allergic to chasing gear drops in games, in this instance all I really wanted to do was finish the Hammerlock DLC and then complete Tiny Tina’s Dragon Keep DLC. You know, at a level in which it’d be challenging and rewarding too – there isn’t any real reason to blow through it on Normal or anything.

Unfortunately, I was stuck between a rock and Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode (UVHM). I beat the game on True Vault Hunter Mode (TVHM) way back when, plowed through it again in “2.5” mode where everything is scaled up to level 50 (the cap at the time), leaving all of the sidequests alone so that I could give myself the option of getting the highest-level versions of the various unique gear. Hell, I even farmed the last boss a few times. UVHM steps it up a few notches though, including a level cap increase, and basically makes Slag elemental weapons (which increase the damage of all other sources) required. Not only did I not really have any of those weapons, my current gear was simply not cutting it… or anything, really.

This past weekend, I finally decided I was going to give it one more shot. My plan of action was to grind to level 51 and then cash in my ~40 Golden Keys and hope that the level-cap inflation on guns would give me something worth shooting. Since I was grinding anyway, I decided to do so in the Torgue DLC, in the repeatable Bar Brawl quest area; each run gives you special DLC currency to purchase, among other things, an Unkempt Harold, e.g. a Legendary everyone seems to use.

So I did. And got it. And now it feels like a whole different game.

The basic gist is that the gun says it deals ~14k damage per shot, but the “bullet” is actually a missile that splits off into 3, 5, and 7 missiles depending on how much distance it gets before impact. The Double Penetrating Unkempt Harold, which is the version I got, does the same thing x2. So, depending on how close something is, a shot from this pistol deals ~196,000 damage. Meanwhile, my best rocket launcher deals 226,000, with a 3-round clip and 7.4 second reload speed. I can carry 700 pistol rounds and reload in under 2 seconds. I could technically pick up another Unique item from a sidequest (The Bee shield) which would add something crazy-stupid like 40,000 damage to my bullets – which ends up being added to each bullet from the Unkempt Harold – but it is already making my TVHM-ish run somewhat of a joke.

What all of this is making me realize is that I don’t like this paradigm. Specifically: the gear-based-build paradigm. “Get item X and now you can do build Y.” Another of the items I picked up was a weapon (the Rubi) that gives heals you for 12% of the damage you inflict while having it equipped. It is another of the sort of “required” weapons for endgame Zer0 builds, as you can abuse the life-gain by dealing melee or grenade damage; the gun itself will never hold a candle to others, but firing one and then swapping back to it before impact will still basically let you heal to full. Combined with the “health-gating” hidden mechanic that prevents you from being one-shot (50% + 1 HP and you will survive any hit), this lets Zer0 basically melee raid bosses.

The problems, as always, are A) getting the gear and B) what to do until you get the gear. I am 100% for different character builds. I don’t even have much of an issue with talent choices leading to different stat weightings, e.g. choosing Talent X makes Haste worth more than Crit or whatever. But building an entire character around single pieces of (rare) equipment? That feels awful to me. Either you don’t have the item yet, in which case you feel weak/incomplete, or you do get the item and suddenly everything else that drops is useless/unrewarding. Plus, there is the whole side-effect of the fact that your character identity feels weakened or nonexistent; do my character choices even matter in the face of my item collection? Am I Zer0 at all, or am I simply “some dude with a Rubi and DPUK?

I decided to take a break from Borderlands 2, and started playing Path of Exile as a backup game. And… whoops! Just like many hack-n-slash games, it too features rare items that you can/should/(have to?) build entire characters around. Because that’s fun. To someone. Sigh.

Posted on September 18, 2013, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. The question I would ask is; how is getting a special item with game changing properties any different than reaching a keystone talent that does the same thing? Is “Get item X and now you can do build Y.” so much worse than “Get to level A and now you can do build B”? Was your time sans special weapons really so much worse than say, a pre-Cata Enhancement Shaman sans duel wield and Stormstrike?

    I’m not so sure I see much of a difference really.


    • I would say, yes, it is worlds different. For one thing, the talent is guaranteed at X level whereas you might be farming the item for days. And, secondly, once you do acquire the item, you’ll never see another useful item drop for that slot again. That might technically be a “bonus,” insofar as you can feel a sense of completeness, but it always seemed counterintuitive to me in a game based on loot.

      As for your point about shaman, yeah, it does suck when signature abilities are saved until the late-game. But at least it is a known quantity and something you can plan on happening. Plus, the game usually informs you that it’s coming via in-game means; I can’t think of a Diablo-esque game that actually showed you the unique items ahead of time. Ergo, the central conceit of item-based builds only makes sense with metagaming.


      • Disregarding actual existing games for a moment, in theory experience might either be losable or take a vast amount of time to obtain and a special item might be a guaranteed drop from a quest or event. You even stated that your pistol came from a token vendor instead of a random drop and I know I’ve played games where getting 1 level took days worth of playtime. So these things aren’t entirely the realm of fantasy

        Thinking along those lines, it would appear to me that is not so much the presence of such game changing elements that you’re objecting to so much as it is the length of time and the amount of effort needed to acquire them. Which seems to me to be a more useful stance.

        Hell, I’ll also contest the idea that never having to upgrade a certain slot again is a bad thing. Personally I’d find it a relief to never have to worry about finding something decent for a particular slot ever again. I hate it when games throw loot at me that is totally useless while I have some item that is way behind the power curve. Not needing to bother with boots anymore after acquiring the Giant Stompers of Infinite Comfort would be a positive boon.


      • The length of time and uncertainty are definitely considerations, but it’s more than that. No matter how long it takes to level, you (typically) do so by playing the game. As in, it happens as a natural course of gameplay. Conversely, I would argue that farming the same bosses over and over again is metagaming, even if it may be par for the course in the sub-genre.

        Besides, getting the loot you want basically invalidates the underlying gameplay of these loot-centric games. While it’s fair to say hitting the level-cap probably does the same in more traditional games, at least they still have loot to fall back on.

        I do agree with you that it feels good to get the thing you want. It just sucks when that occurs relatively early and you have dozens of hours left to go before being the game.


      • Farming isn’t playing the game? In a genre that typically expects, plans for, and explicitly provides ways for players to farm? I’m having issues swallowing that pill.

        I’m also having trouble fathoming why you insist on insinuating that metagaming is a wholly bad thing. What’s so terrible about having a deeper knowledge of a games mechanics and exploiting them? Sure, metas can be obnoxious and boring like the one you’re describing in BL2, but they don’t have to be.

        As for invalidating loot-centered gameplay, the same could be said about any piece of gear that fully covers your needs. If some generic hat has the stat distribution you need to meet all of your goals in the game how is it different than a special named hat that let’s you do the same? So long as fun is being had does the number of different kinds hats you’ve used throughout a game really matter?

        Sure, it sucks when your entire class plays second fiddle to a sword or when a necklace is hilariously broken in such a way that it promotes an extremely unfun, but totally overpowered, way of playing. But to me that seems to be the fault of poor itemization, or poor playtesting, and similar things. I don’t see how you can blame those awful circumstances on the very existence of special items themselves.


      • In my specific situation, no, farming isn’t playing the game. I wanted to complete the last two DLCs (one has since been beaten) and move on. My choices were to either do so on a lower difficulty, thereby receiving no challenge and no reward, or complete them on a higher difficulty, which was impossible without X amount of gear gained only by farming. Had these DLCs been released all at once, it is possible (and even likely) that my progression through them would have been smooth and rewarding both, given how the enemies and reward scale with your own level up to a certain point. Instead, I was caught inbetween difficulties, which necessitated metagaming for just the possibility of enjoyment.

        I’m not against metagaming per se. What I am against is a single-player game requiring outside intervention in order to provide entertainment for its single-player portion. Games should conceivably be self-contained. And this whole episode is illuminating, to me, what I consider a weakness in this sub-genre vis-a-vis item builds vs talent builds. With the latter, it’s possible to puzzle out on your own the best implementation of a particular build. With the former, you wouldn’t even know boss X dropped item Y that makes build Z possible unless you looked at a Wiki.

        There are people who will farm for days to complete their perfect gear set just because. That is not me. I will complete tier sets in games like WoW, but it is always in service to a greater goal, be it raid progression, preparing for a new raid tier, and so on. I’m willing to admit that that perhaps puts me as an outlier in terms of the average hack-n-slash fan. Because I do enjoy these games while they last.

        But I am not sure that that necessarily excuses the game design of having a loot-based reward system render itself irrelevant before someone is even finished with the campaign. Because that’s what happens, right? You don’t spend the entire game in your weakened state; you unlock your build via certain items around the middle or wherever and thereafter everything else for those slots are vendor trash. An ideal game design would be rewarding from beginning to end, no? This was my huge problem with the first Torchlight, in that I received a rare/unique/legendary/whatever necklace at level 3 and never replaced it. Whatever fun I had with receiving such an overpowered item so early was replaced with the drudgery of vendoring every single necklace drop thereafter. More aggregate entertainment would have been provided in +5% increments rather than 100% all at once. Especially when loot is the primary drive of the game.

        When you are no longer excited about new loot dropping in these games, what the hell are you still playing for?


  2. Yeah well thats gear grinding games paradigm …. Item centric games have characters build centered around specific items

    I personally do not have any problems with this approach as an idea except that in gear grinding game there is …well… gear grind. and very long to boot. In path of exile in particular there are several very powerful builds centered around very hard to obtain/expensive items
    such as lion eyes glare, khaom’s heart ,shavronne wrappings. the whole game revolves around grinding to get those items and then bam your character is complete .

    I dont think its bad to have such design when items are so powerful they serve as cornerstone for character builds as long as it doesnt reduced the whole formula to grind for those items but it seems inevitably happens


  1. Pingback: Borderlands 2 Masochism | In An Age

%d bloggers like this: