Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Borderlands

Usually when writing these 100 Minutes With pieces the game I’m writing about is fresh in my mind. I’ll have only just bought it or I’ll have been playing it just prior to writing. Often I’ll take notes, so as not to get essential facts wrong.

Today I have no such preparations on hand and I haven’t played the game in question for a good many months. This is acceptable--nay, encouraged--because Borderlands isn’t concerned with planning ahead or lasting repercussions. Borderlands is the epitome of hit ‘em fast and hit ‘em hard gameplay. Like life, it’s spontaneous, and having sunk far more than one hundred minutes into the game that’s exactly how I like it.

Borderlands’ premise was so bold that before its release there were plenty of nay-sayers stating it wouldn’t--couldn’t--deliver on its promises. A loot-based first person shooter with RPG trappings? Absurd. Impossible.

The nays grew in volume with every video Gearbox released, the sayers more savage in their intensity. This wasn’t a game that simply didn’t work, they said, it was a bad game. It was slow; it was clumsy; the shooting--such an integral part of the game--was unsatisfying. They spun lies based on footage they’d seen or unfinished code they’d played. The enemies didn’t react to being fired upon--the only indication that you were making an impact upon them were floating numbers indicating damage. Borderlands’ vaunted gun system--in which weapons were randomly generated on the fly and numbered in their millions--produced an arsenal they said was unsatisfying next to the limited weapon counts in every other game ever made. This brave, noble idea, so they said, was a fool’s dream.

When Edge magazine awarded Borderlands six out of ten and other early reviewers weren’t exactly enthusiastic, it seemed the nay-sayers had been right all along.

But they hadn’t been.

Let me tell you about Betsy. Betsy was my favourite character in Borderlands, a character unique to my game, who followed no script, who had no voice actor, whom nobody but a few lucky gamers I played with ever knew about but who nevertheless had more personality than 90% of written characters in 90% of games. Betsy was a gun--not a rare drop, not something sculpted by artists and placed deliberately in the game but a gun I happened across, as randomly generated as any of the other 17 million guns. She was a six-shooting shotgun that did hideous amounts of damage to anything with the misfortune to get in our way. From a distance she was a nightmare to wield--she couldn’t aim for shit. But up close she was a grinder of meat, a shredder of metal, a weapon that smacked down even the hardest villain in couple of shots. It didn’t matter that she loaded slower than 128k Spectrum game. By the time I needed to reload her the fight would already be over.

She was awesome. Not in a turtle power “Dude, that’s awesome!” kind of a way, but in a Close Encounters, religious experience kind of awesome, the kind of awesome that provokes awe, not ‘90s surfer dude clichés.

She wasn’t the only thing I had going for me in the world of Borderlands, not the only thing that would have my co-op buddies’ jaws agape. Playing Brick the Berserker, when the going got tough I’d fly into a cackling rage, run up to whichever villain was giving us trouble--be it pint-sized mutant or robot mega-boss--and punch it until it exploded. Every time I did this my team mates on the other end of Xbox Live would be reduced to giggles. I imagine them stunned into inaction, watching as the lumbering idiot, all shoulder muscle and attitude, bum-rushed the enemy and felled them in a flurry of flaming fists. In all my time playing Borderlands multiplayer I never got to see this spectacle from the other side, watching another Brick dashing into the fray to wail on the bad guys, but I saw monsters fall at the hands of a mutant kestrel, watched the group soldier erect turrets that endlessly refilled the group’s ammunition, saw a Siren flash across the battlefield, through walls and doors, dismembering enemies before they realised she was behind them.

Even in a world filled with so many wonders Betsy was my ace in the hole. Nobody I knew was lucky enough to find such a diamond in the rough. When we opened treasure chests and ran as one to see if any of the blue, purple and orange loot would be useful, while the others measured accuracy stats and brandished their new toys I always came away disappointed. In the dozen hours of gameplay after finding her I never met a gun that outperformed Betsy. She was the powerhouse of my arsenal and though I sometimes switched to other guns to take on more distant threats--such as Mothrakk, a Pandoran bat who blotted the sky with wings the size of swimming pools--whenever it came to ground-based action it was Betsy I turned to.

I gave her up reluctantly. She was a fairly low-level gun, too low for a Berserker hitting his mid-thirties. I eventually found better guns, faster guns, and though I held her in my inventory I used her less and less. Finally I passed her onto a co-op buddy who was suitably honoured that I should give up to him not just a decent gun, but a gun I’d named, a gun I’d spoken about so often he knew her name. “You take care of her,” I told him. He didn’t need me to tell him anything. He’d seen her in action. He knew what she could do.

In time he passed Betsy on to another player, hopefully with enough reverence that he or she in turn passed her on to somebody else. I like to think Betsy was never cast aside like a white-hued revolver, dropped on the ground and forgotten when the level reset. I like to think even now someone out there is passing her on to an awestruck friend. “This is Betsy,” they say. “You take care of her.”

That gun had more character than most video games, it’s true. And Borderlands--which mightn’t be perfect, which have a hundred different fetch quests linked by interminable grind, pitting you against palette swap enemies in areas you’ll visit so often you could negotiate them with your eyes closed--thrives upon these brief and unique flashes of character. Ask a Borderlands fan about the game and he might tell you about its sense of humour. He might throw out some lines of its immensely quotable dialogue or talk about Claptrap, the game’s irritating yet strangely lovable mascot.

Or maybe he’ll tell you about the time he lay dying in the dirt, down to his last bullet, his partner pinned under fire too far away to help, and as the screen darkened and the last of his life ebbed away he made a one in a million head-shot, rescuing his buddy and reviving himself in the process. This is a game where killing an enemy in the last few seconds of your life is like throwing another credit into a ‘Game Over. Continue?’ arcade machine.

What every one of those reviewers and nay-sayers missed is that Borderlands mirrors life in its richness. Its blasted landscapes are often drab, its action is often monotonous, but there are moments when the levels open up in breathtaking vistas, moments made all the more poignant by the rusted metal and dusty canyons traversed in order to reach them. My co-op partner, the recipient of my treasured Betsy, often said: “This really is a beautiful game, isn’t it?” Every time he did, he said it with surprise, as if he hadn’t noticed before.

When an unexpected moment of comedy arises in the unlikeliest of situations, that’s pure Borderlands. When a routine firefight goes awry and you find yourself drilled under cover, cobbling together tactics in hope you might make it out of the level alive, that’s Borderlands as well.

A gun called Betsy in a sea of disposable pea-shooters? You’d better believe that’s Borderlands.

Borderlands is one of my favourite games from the past few years. It’s this spontaneity tempered with a certain slow-paced solidity that marks it apart from the many other first person shooters released in this time frame, all of which, with their noise and bluster, feel almost ephemeral in comparison. They’re blockbuster movies compared with Borderlands’ slow-burning TV series. Like Babylon 5 or The Wire, the start--the first hundred minutes, if you will--is the hardest part to get through. For the first few levels your weapons will be weak, your powers non-existent and fighting through skags--bottom-feeding rat-dog hybrids--soon becomes tiresome. But continue and your perseverance will be rewarded. This is your training, your course in surviving the wilds and wastelands of Pandora. Just as death in Borderlands can mean life, so the game’s lowest points make the highs feel even higher.

I recommend it, utterly and without hesitation, to anyone tired of being pushed through monotonous contemporary shooters. Those Modern Warfare guns with names like a toppled pile of toddlers’ alphanumeric learning blocks--you don’t need any more of those in your life.

No, what you need is a Betsy.

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