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. Boderlands 2 provoked a kind of zeitgeist among 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 that Modern Warfare used to revolutionize its multiplayer mode: 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 serving 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 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 in 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 clearly 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 also 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 should be slow and methodical. It results in the odd and discomforting feeling of being dragged through my own game.
It’s hard to appreciate the side-quests with a group that prioritizes 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 slowly, 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 real 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.