I decided to start playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (BLPS), as one of the literal 124 games in my Epic library that I did not pay for. No, really, I just counted one-hundred and twenty-four. Minus one, as I did end up purchasing Outward way back in the day:
Anyway. Borderlands: Pre-Sequel!
…yeah, it sucks. I give myself about a 40% chance of uninstalling it the next time I play.
There are a lot of people who don’t, but I for one actually do appreciate the Borderlands writing style. The humor doesn’t always land, but there simply aren’t many people out there writing, well, out there. Most games have utterly boring dialog and take their generic plots very seriously. So when you have a game series that does the exact opposite, amusing things can happen.
That’s not the problem though. The problem is the gameplay.
Back in the day (Jesus Christ, 2013?!), I talked about getting burned out on Borderlands 2. At the time, I was talking about the absurdity that occurs when you get to the level cap and end up facing enemies with tens of millions of HP. Some of that is impacting me even at the beginning of BLPS, as I start wondering whether I am going to just plow through the story missions or play this “for real.” See, nothing you do matters in a Normal playthrough. And on the next playthrough, you have to plow through the story again until the level-cap, doing zero side-quests, lest the unique side-quest rewards roll stats at your non-level-cap level. Which would make them instantly useless.
The other part though, is just how the gameplay design doesn’t fit the design of the game. For example, for such a kinetic gunplay experience, Borderlands has these awkward moments of intense inventory management. Bosses and enemies can explode in a fountain of epic loot… and you have to meticulously look at each one to analyze its stats, see if you have enough inventory space to pick it up, and so on. BLPS takes this to a whole new level considering the game takes place on a low-gravity moon. Which means you can be in an intense firefight and killing enemies with jetpacks, only to watch in horror as potentially good loot goes flying off in all sorts of directions.
Speaking of low-gravity, BLPS adds the element of gliding and slamming as attacking maneuvers. Which is fine. But it really highlights the fact that there isn’t much that the game is asking you to do that is actually supported in the game. This isn’t a cover-based shooter, for example, but the game does expect you to take cover/crouch to avoid damage while waiting for your shields to recharge. Arial acrobatics and butt-stomps are nice and all, but good luck surviving long enough to do any damage as you are literally floating out in open vacuum. Most of the encounters I face are either trivial or overwhelmingly difficult, depending on the availability of cover and whether enemies are randomly equipped with shocking guns (which melts shields).
The above issues are not unique to BLPS, of course. In 2021 though, the standards to what nonsense I am willing to endure have been raised.
Finally, I just have to say there are extremely early parts of BLPS that is just frustratingly bad. Like when you just start playing the game and are facing multiple rooms full of hostiles before you get your very first shield. Was that a thing in BL2? I don’t remember. But there’s also an area after unlocking the first vehicle where you are expected to make a jump while boosting… and I fell into the pit like six times in a row. I was boosting, I was hitting the obvious ramp, and down in the pit I went. Almost uninstalled that night. The deaths were irrelevant – the percentage of wealth penalty is trivial at that level – but it indicated to me that either the game was going to be that janky, or that I no longer understood what the game was asking me to do.
So far, the answer seems to be “both.”
(e.g. Why I Stopped Playing: The Division)
I can show you precisely the moment I decided to stop playing The Division:
There is nothing particularly special about this “boss” character. I had actually died to him once already, as he has a machine gun and is able to just keep firing for like 30 seconds as he walks around your cover and mows you down in a realistic way. Having respawned, I was able to safely stay at my pictured elevated position. I was compelled to take this screenshot because I just shot this dude 5 times in the face with a sniper rifle, and he still has a sliver of “armor” left.
I have had a tone issue with The Division almost from the beginning. This is not a game where you are shooting zombies. You are not even shooting infected people behaving erratically. You are shooting “looters” or “Cleaners” (who are trying to burn the infection out) or gang members or prisoners who broke out of jail. Granted, all of your enemies appear to be killing innocent civilians or otherwise impeding efforts to maintain law and order. But… The Division (thus far) made no attempt to even address the wholesale slaughter of people trying to survive in a government quarantine zone.
I bring this up because “motivation” is hugely critical in cover-based shooters for me. The core gameplay in these games is so banal and simplified, there is often nothing else to go on. Stay in cover, peek and shoot. Leave cover, die. The Division technically has some additional elements like special powers, and is definitely geared towards small-squad teamplay, including a trinity of sorts.
But otherwise? Peek and shoot. And 100% of the missions up to the point I stopped playing had been about killing people for vague reasons. Even when you are rescuing hostages, there is no sense that A) the hostages were actually being ransomed, or B) the hostages will be better off going back home.
I was actually going to quit playing two weeks ago, but Alex posted this live-action video in the comments. That was… kinda compelling, and set me in the right frame of mind for getting back into the game.
…at least up until I kept encountering these predictable boss characters, with their predictable face armor which takes a half-dozen sniper rifle rounds to remove.
I understand that the game is a looter shooter, and things are not supposed to make too much sense – not quite sure how a new holster is somehow giving me extra armor, but whatever. It would be quite the boring game if the first rifle you picked up from the body of an enemy was the same one you used throughout the entire experience.
But… I just can’t do it anymore. The Division just piles up too much unsupported nonsense and my suspension of disbelief cannot bear the weight. And if I don’t respect the setting and don’t care about the story, there is zero reason to play a cover-based shooter. So I’m not, anymore.
Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 6 hours
Buy If You Like: Kane & Lynch-esque cover-based military shooters
Spec Ops: The Line is an over-the-shoulder cover-based military shooter that seeks to subvert the tropes of its genre. You control Captain Adams, tasked with commanding your two Delta Force squad mates in search for what happened to Colonel Konrad and the rest of the 33rd Battalion. The search leads them into the ruined city of Dubai, which appears to have devolved into anarchy after a series of epic sandstorms cut it off from the rest of the world.
After killing some insurgents whom had taken members of the 33rd hostage, the mission starts to go pear-shaped when the very soldiers you are trying to save confuse your team for CIA operatives who have been riling up the insurgents. From there, things just keep getting darker and darker as you continue taking completely rational steps towards a line you did not realize you already crossed hours ago.
I was interested to play Spec Ops precisely because I heard about its subversive themes. What I discovered though, is that I have seen this all before in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In fact, Kane & Lynch is the perfect analog here despite approaching from the opposite side of the legal spectrum: both games are over-the-shoulder cover-based shooters whose scenarios start off as reasonable before relentlessly veering into the absurd. What seems like a natural progression or escalation of violence suddenly sickens you once you realize what exactly you are doing. How did I go from killing insurgents to killing Americans? Why am I looking forward to the next cover-strewn environment so I can use my grenade launcher to kill even more soldiers?
The eponymous “Line” referred in the game title probably refers to one specific incident (that I won’t spoil), given how long it was dwelt upon, but I personally found it curiously ineffectual. At first, I didn’t even realize that my actions caused the incident in question, and even after I wasn’t particularly convinced player agency was involved. In spite of that, the game does a great job in fostering a sense of nihilistic fatalism. The situation becomes so FUBAR that it almost doesn’t matter what else you do at that point. And then you, the human player behind the screen, start to realize what that means for soldiers in real situations out in the world.
I am sympathetic to the argument that perhaps some reviewers give Spec Ops: the Line too much credit. While the gameplay doesn’t noticeably change, I absolutely felt fatigued by the end of the six hour story campaign. Construing that fatigue and feeling of pointlessness as being intentional artistic designs, might be a little too clever an excuse to take seriously; it sort of hand-waves away any possibility of bad game design, and feels a bit too convenient besides. If you are willing to give the designers the benefit of the doubt though, it is certainly an effective plot mechanism… just as it was in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch.
Ultimately, I feel Spec Ops: the Line as an experience is worth a bit more than my usual limit for these shorter games. The visuals are amazing, the interaction with your squad is superb, and the setting is both unique and artistic. You might feel drained and depressed by the end, but at least you felt something – a feeling that might actually persist beyond turning the system off. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have played.