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Why I Played 'Borderlands 2' By Myself
by Nick Dinicola on 11/27/12 01:55:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Borderlands heavily hyped itself as a shooter-RPG hybrid. I still remember that first tagline: “The shooter and the RPG had a baby.” Since I played the first game as a mostly solo experience, I was able to take my time and embrace this mixing of genres. Borderlands 2 was a zeitgeist amongst my friends when it came out; nearly everyone on my Friends List was playing it nearly every day. So this time I was able to play the four player co-op from the beginning and experience a side of Borderlands that I hadn’t seen.

At the risk of sounding misanthropic: I hated it. In my experience, groups of two or more tended to play Borderlands 2 as a shooter while I still wanted to play it as an RPG. Suddenly the contrasts between these genres became obvious and detrimental. Borderlands 2 was no longer a shooter-RPG hybrid, but a shooter impeding on my RPG.

Some RPG elements still worked in this new shooter-focused mix. Unsurprisingly, they’re the same elements Modern Warfare used to revolutionize its multiplayer: Character progression and loot. Whereas Modern Warfare used a very basic form of these RPG mechanics as gameplay hooks, Borderlands (and its sequel) made them more complex and more recognizable as RPG mechanics: Instead of choosing from a few minor perks to customize your character, you had whole skill trees to choose from. Instead of using predetermined unlockables as a reward, you got random item drops that helped keep you constantly counting stats.

These elements still worked within four player co-op because people can care about levels and loot while shooting. But there’s more to an RPG than levels and loot. There’s the story, the exploration, and the side quests. Borderlands 2 improves on all these areas, becoming even more of an RPG than its predecessor, but unfortunately these are the elements that clash with group play.

It’s hard to appreciate the story when one or more members of your team are yelling for help or shouting out enemy positions. I appreciate such communication in a shooter, but not an RPG. Even turning off player communication doesn’t help since the constant sound of gunfire easily drowns out dialogue, and any dialogue that comes in clear can be cut off mid-sentence if one player runs too far ahead.

This is an issue with any co-op game, but it’s particularly frustrating in Borderlands 2 since there’s no way to listen to any previously found audio logs; you have to replay the entire mission with a different character. The more players that get added to a game the more chaotic that game becomes. Chaos is a staple of the shooter genre, but it’s the antithesis of an RPG.

It’s hard to explore an environment when your team (even if it’s just one member) is focused on completing objectives. When one person runs ahead, everyone else begins to miss out on the actual content of the mission. Borderlands 2 is still part shooter, so if you’re not shooting when someone else is, you’re missing part of the game. My desire to see every aspect of a mission forces me to play catch-up with whichever player is moving the fastest. Even when a partner is simply helping me find hidden symbols or complete a collectible challenge, he either demands I follow him as he runs straight to the objective or he’ll just do it all himself. Instead of pushing through the game at my own pace, I’m being pulled through by someone else against my will. Such a relentless pace is another shooter staple, but RPGs are slow and methodical. It results in an odd and discomforting feeling: Being dragged through your own game.

It’s hard to appreciate the side-quests with a group that prizes efficiency over narrative. Players can spread out in any direction on a map, each one doing their own thing, so they can take on multiple side-quests at once. It’s efficient, but this means that I won’t actually get to experience half the quests in a given map. This kind of efficiency is prized in a shooter when everyone is trying to kill you, but side-quests in an RPG often flesh out characters or the world; rushing through them is the same as rushing through the main narrative.

After playing several hours of Borderlands 2 with a group, I started a second playthrough with a new character, specifically to play alone, and was surprised by how different the experience was. I could move slow, I could be tactical, I could be methodical. Pandora became a world with secrets, gimmicks, self-referential jokes, and a genuinely interesting story that managed to combine all the randomness from the first game into a coherent, consistent mythology.

After I beat the game, I’ll be more than happy to play with a group because by then I’ll have played through it as an RPG and I’ll be ready to play it as an FPS. This, I think, is the secret appeal of Borderlands: For all its talk of combining genres, it’s really two wholly separate experiences squished together into a single game. To get the most out of it, you have to know when to separate the two and when to combine them. For me, Playthrough 1 is all RPG; Playthrough 2 is all FPS.

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Josh Bycer
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Good post, and I think one of the failings of Borderlands 2. The game doesn't seem to scale well when you have multiple people playing, and this is made all the more worse if you're playing in true vault hunter mode.

I think it was a huge mistake to not make loot unique to the person like in Diablo 3. As playing with pubs it can become a mad dash to each treasure chest to empty it first.

Also I don't like how the end game of Borderlands 2 is about what they describe as "raid content" with fights only doable with a group. I don't feel like having to find pub groups to experience the end of the game or hope that all my friends are on at the same time.

Yama Habib
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I think I got lucky in that I played Borderlands 2 under optimal conditions:
A) I hadn't played Borderlands 1
B) I played through the entirety of the game with one friend, and we completed every quest together, at a very RPG-like pace and paid attention to dialogue
C) We played characters that complemented each other fairly well (I picked Zer0, he picked Axton, so often times, he'd run in and be point-man while I found a vantage point and applied big damage via sniper criticals)

It's odd to say, but I feel like Borderlands 2 actually suffers from the ability to join with randoms. It's sort of like the polar flip-side of the coin to, say, Journey, where the game benefits greatly from playing with strangers.

John Flush
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Actually, I'm siding with the author on this one. I played borderlands single player, found a friend at work that played it and we joined up - it sucked. Both of us felt pressure to avoid the parts of the games we liked as we 'kept together'. The more I hear about Borderlands 2's endgame requiring 4 people and such the more I feel comforted that I still haven't got it.

It is really odd - it was my #1 game to buy this year. What killed my enthusiasm?
1) DLC announcements - The original had it and I'm glad I waited until it was all dirt cheap and got it all at once.

2) The feeling that I needed to get it so I could play with people. I play games at my own pace. Multiplayer games don't help me at all and trim my excitement dramatically.

Bart Stewart
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I like this analysis because it points out pretty clearly how differing playstyles can conflict in games that support co-op play.

So let's say you're the co-op gameplay designer for Borderlands 3. Your job is to find a way to let 2-4 players progress through the (or maybe "a") story of B3 in a way that's exciting fun for a shooter of targets, efficient fun for a loot collector, intellectual fun for an explorer of secrets and jokes, *and* emotional fun for someone who likes stories about engaging characters.

How do you do that?

How do you maximize the shooty fun for three players who want exciting non-stop thrills? What mechanics support that while also allowing four very different kinds of gamers to enjoy the narrative, exploration, efficient loot-collection, and fast-paced action each prefers? What are some core design elements that allow both of those to work while also letting the game be equally fun for both of two players, one of whom wants to hurry up and score maximum loot by shooting anything that moves, while the other is happiest exploring the details of the world and the stories in it?

What kind of design could satisfy all these possibilities? Is a goal like this even worth attempting?