Games

Why I Played 'Borderlands 2' By Myself

Groups of two or more tended to play Borderlands 2 as a shooter, while I still wanted to play it as an RPG.

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.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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