That Game With the Crazy Guns…

A decade ago a company I loved released the first in a series I would come to adore. A sprawling universe filled with exotic locales, a few zany heroes, and an absurd arsenal, baptized in hilarity with a fart joke or two on the side, Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank games became synonymous for me with the PlayStation — indeed, the gaming — experience. They were about exploration and discovery, about friendship and betrayal, and about destroying a lot of stuff to collect a lot of stuff so you could afford to destroy more stuff more efficiently. I spent a great deal of effort in each entry striving to unlock the promise to “rip you a new one” with a weapon more ludicrous than most other guns in the game combined, and the aim was always one of two extremes: awe or amusement. Rain fire from heaven or turn enemies into chickens, and let the 1812 Overture play on.

It’s been ten years since I first strapped a robot on my back and used his propellers to glide safely from one hilarious encounter to the next, and my memories of the franchise will always be golden as the hidden bolts I slaved away to acquire. But I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured (though some may beg to differ), and while the franchise survives it has done so as a perennial family affair — perfect for the twelve and thirteen-year-olds of today, but not so much for young adults like me. Sadly, for quite some time that “maturity” translated to the mundane, and years ago I traded the R.Y.N.O. for an M4A1 Carbine, the colorful worlds for gritty deserts, the boisterous protagonists for silent, faceless soldiers.

To clarify: I don’t consider the Ratchet & Clank series “kiddie games.” I played three of the PS3 entries last year and enjoyed them well enough. But when it comes to Insomniac, there’s a very clear divide between family-oriented material and adult-oriented material. And sadly, that sterile divide I alluded to earlier is most clearly seen within Insomniac’s own games: in its attempt to provide a “serious” experience in the first Resistance, Insomniac stripped almost all of its signature personality out of the game. Weapons felt uninteresting, and no one was cracking jokes. For the first time in my life, I felt compelled to call one of their games generic. I didn’t even have the heart to push through the whole campaign.

Insomniac’s heart is in making entertainment that everyone can enjoy, and while they excel at this goal, they do so at the cost that comes with eschewing specialization in any field: by being good at everything, they fail to be great at some things. As the most recent entries in the series demonstrate, Insomniac has decided to stop trying to please everyone and instead focus its future R&C games on younger players and their parents, on cooperative groups instead of “hardcore” soloists. And good for them: may they continue to thrive.

As for me, I’ve moved on. I’ve wanted a game that has inventive weapons that made each new acquisition feel exciting and new. I’ve missed in-game challenges, the signature Insomniac “skill point” checklist that functioned on a deeper and more engaging level than any achievement or trophy could hope to. I’ve longed to laugh out loud at character quips, to just listen to radio chatter or the recorded voice on a loudspeaker because everything is too brilliantly-scripted to ignore. I’ve wanted all of these things, but without the chains of childhood reigning them in. I’ve wanted a game that knows exactly what it is and has a blast being just that, and nothing else.

In short, I’ve wanted Borderlands 2.

Now, a “review” proper of this game will have to wait until I’ve finished the main storyline, but suffice to say the similarities between BL2 and the Insomniac games I once loved are uncanny:

  • To begin, the challenges list is the first time I have seen anything like the skill point system implemented in a mainstream shooter, and it is (dare I say) better-implemented than the skill points ever were, contributing directly to player strength and ability through the “Badass Points” system rather than merely unlocking easter eggs.
  • Vault symbols hidden in hard-to reach places are the golden bolts of Pandora, often requiring a great deal of time off the beaten path to locate and affording a similar sense of accomplishment when all in an area have been found.
  • While the weapons themselves never quite accomplish the cartoonish extremes of R&C, their names and effects are more creative than any I’ve seen elsewhere, to say nothing of the oddball unique weapons that some lucky players have been known to encounter. Grenade mods prove particularly compelling, between singularity bombs that create temporary miniature black holes to suck enemies towards them and the many varieties of child-bomb spawning ordinance.
  • Of course, no discussion of Borderlands 2 would be complete without mention of the humor, a point so ubiquitous that it notoriously ruined one prominent reviewer’s experience with its omnipresence. That’s not to say the game plays like a gag reel, of course. A few surprisingly poignant moments pepper the landscape, but the general feel is extremely laissez-faire, with supporting characters I’ve come to love as deeply as ever I loved Captain Quark and an antagonist as dreadfully endearing as any that ever threatened a lombax. Hyperion’s propaganda (especially at the Eridium mining facility), spouting with great pleasantness the expendability and worthlessness of its employees and citizens, brings me right back to the malls, factories, and cityscapes of years past, albeit with a more malicious edge surpassed only by that of a certain Aperture AI.

New, modern, and mature as it is, Borderlands 2 has been for me a game ripe with nostalgia, reminder of why I first loved games and why, despite years of ennui, I never truly lost that love. It proves that even if there is truly “nothing new under the sun,” there are endless, exciting ways to reconfigure the past.

  1. The only issue I’ve taken with BL2 is that the game can cross the line from “funny” to “quite a bit offensive” on occasion. I’ve felt uncomfortable with some of the stuff in the game (for instance, a side quest for Scooter involves acquiring inspiration for him to write a poem for his “main squeeze,” and you can also find some adult literature for him in case the poem doesn’t do the trick), but at the same time, so much of the game is firmly tongue-in-cheek, and it’s so stinking good that I’ve overlooked it so far. That said…there are plenty of funny games I’d recommend to kids and adults. Most of the R&C games are on that list. Borderlands is not, and I’m not entirely certain that it’s worth playing in the long run because of that. Fun? Oh, most certainly. Uplifting? …I can’t really think of how.

  2. You make a very good point — the game is often pretty offensive, to the point where I would definitely hesitate to recommend it to some people. As for discomfort, that’s not peculiar to this game, and it’s a trend I first really noticed while playing Skyrim — being asked to do things which I really don’t feel comfortable doing. To some extent the dissonance can be chalked up to “my character would do this, and i am not my character,” but especially in role-playing-games that means breaking the experience a little.

    I will note that that particular mission is completely optional, and within the mission itself the acquisition of porn is also optional — technically, completion of the quest merely requires taking a few pictures. In fact, most of the objectionable (at least, the things that actually made me pause and think) moments in the game are just like that: easily ignored if you choose to.

    The spirit of the game is indeed ironic and extremely sarcastic; most characters are caricatures to the point where you recognize the things they say and do are far more a commentary on the real people they represent than anything else.

    As I said earlier, I would definitely not recommend this game to everyone. And the question of whether a game is “worth playing” is much bigger than whether it may or may not be offensive. I reserve judgment until the conclusion of the game as to what redemptive qualities it possesses, but I accept that in the end it may simply be the social aspects of the game that I use to justify having played it.

    • Fair points, one and all. And I would agree that RPGs are generally more at fault with this stuff than other games. Skyrim is definitely more at fault than Oblivion, but the game I really noticed this in the first time is Fallout New Vegas, and in that one it’s more of a “I have to choose between two or three flawed options, why can’t I have my cake and eat it too?” This also shows up in ME3 but that’s less of a character issue and more of a “I will kill the game designers for leaving me hanging like that” thing.

      And honestly, it’s mostly little things the characters say (specifically Scooter) that really make me feel a little uncomfortable, and even then it’s mostly an eyebrow raised and shrugged off. I’m not certain I’m okay with the fact that things like this don’t seem to bug me, I guess – feeling guilty about not being convicted, if that makes sense.

      As for the social aspect, I completely agree. Playing with Carl has been awesome (and if you had caught up to us we coulda gone 3-up through the game) and that in my mind has been worth the 60 bucks by itself.

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