Borderlands - A Belated Thumbs-Up

It's been a long time since we talked games here. In large part because posting frequency has gone way down (Hey, I've been busy), comment frequency is even lower, and because I hadn't really been playing much. Nothing exciting had come out and even the weekly multiplayer session had reached a threshold of "cancelled more often than not" for a while. Borderlands has changed that though. I was suspicious of the game at first, reading it as a Diablo clone with a sci-fi Wasteland skin applied. This sounds fine to me but the folks I play generally oppose RPG trappings like character levels and skill trees. But Tony was persistent and then Amazon ran a sale letting me pick up a few titles at a discount so I grabbed Borderlands and I like it a lot. The multiplayer is fast and frantic and each class feels very different. I'm even playing quite a bit of the single player which the reviews were pretty down on. As it turns out, the objections I expected to Borderlands hasn't materialized yet. I'm not sure how much of that is the fantasy trappings of Diablo (or a clone such as Torchlight) and how much of that is the change from 3rd person clickfest to the 1st person shooting, but the takeaway is that there's still a lot of interest in the multiplayer. I like the single player because I can sit down and play it for twenty minutes, complete a mission, and then turn it off with a success under my belt. It begs some comparisons to Fallout as both can make some claims to being the spiritual heir to Wasteland from back in the day. My problem with all of the Fallouts has been the lack of story. They take the sandbox approach so far that you're just wandering a wasteland aimlessly, trying to not get killed. There is a story in them, but the main story is sort of just incidental to the bulk of the game. Borderlands has story missions and it has side missions, but they are pretty clearly distinct. It just turns out I like that model a lot better. Fallout 3 took me at least an hour to get anything done - I'd turn it on, review what quests were active, pick out something that made sense, hike around for a bit, maybe get sidetracked into something else and so forth. I had fun with Fallout, but I'd only dedicate the time to play it maybe once a week. I can play a couple of Borderlands missions in the time it takes to drink my first cup of coffee of the day. That's a big plus for me. I'll knock it for one major stupidity: it plays in the first person and yet there are jumping puzzles. HEY GAME DESIGNERS: first person jumping SUCKS. It always has and I suspect it always will. This is 2009 now, you should have internalized the lessons of Half-Life 1 by now. (Even Bwana has played Half-Life 1 already!) But they are fairly intermittent and I haven't seen any that are "fall to your death" just "fall lower on the level and run around and try again". The latter still sucks but it's not a deal-breaker. It ends up being 2-3 minutes of annoyance, not 10-15 minutes. Anyway, if you're a fan of multiplayer action RPG lootfests, you should definitely check out Borderlands. And if you get it on 360 let me know!
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Fair Time for PSN

Sony added the ability to badge your PSN (Playstation Network) account on a web site, just like 360 and I added mine to the sidebar. The badge doesn't seem very useful, since all it displays is the account picture and apparently some sort of message that I have to use the PS3 to set, but whatever. I'll put it next to the 360 badge and if Sony makes it look stupid that's Sony's problem not mine. Anyway, if anybody has a Playstation, go ahead and send me a friend request or whatever they call it in Sony-land. Some day I really have to change the theme on this blog to get a second sidebar ....
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The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

JP asked about my opinion of the new Penny Arcade game, officially known as "Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness". I've finished the game although I'll probably play through it a second time, because I didn't unlock the "bonus comic" which I'd like to see. It's an action RPG and the combat is grounded in the recent Final Fantasy titles with a dash of new real-time gameplay added. Now, a competent action RPG on the 360 isn't something to sneer at but without the Penny Arcade humor there just wouldn't be enough game here to justify a purchase. The combat action is interesting and it gets a bit frenetic as you're deciding what moves to use next, whether to heal a character or unleash a special attack and all the while timing blocks against enemy moves. So far what I've written could describe Diablo, but there's no random monsters and there's little to no loot. There are inventory items to buff or debuff stats, as well as bandages and a handful of things like oranges (which distract robotic enemies - and if that doesn't make sense then you don't read Penny Arcade ;-) ) as well as explosives. But there's no armor or gear. You can upgrade the weapons of your three characters, but each has a unique weapon and there are two upgrades for each and it's all strictly linear. There aren't any random encounters and I'm of mixed mind about that. On the one hand the incessant "take two steps and stop to fight a monster" gameplay of a Final Fantasy is usually why I stop playing it (and the other reason is that I get ahead of my character levels because I haven't fought enough random encounters). From that perspective it is refreshing to have each encounter matter. But on the other hand it really makes the role playing element of the RPG seem hyper-shallow. You may thing that's a odd statement to link the RP elements to random encounters but no random encounters means no random loot drops as well, which means there's no glee in finding a better rake then the rake you started with and there's no telling your friends how they need this particular item because it's +3 versus mimes. OK, so it's a shallow RPG game with an interesting combat mechanic and a fairly limited amount of content. Why is that exciting? The answer is that it really does feel just like the comic. You're fighting mimes (and you learn of the dark god the mimes worship, one who wants to bring silence to the world). You're fighting what amounts to steampunk Fruit Fuckers. You're killing hobos in order to make sure they don't indiscrimately pee on the important "urinology" research of the local scientist. (Which is to say that he pees on things. But he pees scientifically see and that science makes all the difference.) Much of the world has little custom descriptions and many of them are funny. If you're the sort of player who will get a kick out of reading the description of every crab on the boardwalk in order to see every crab joke then you'll enjoy the game. If all you want to do is level up and grab all the phat loot (I've put my time in the Barrens chat channel, I know how the kids talk these days ....) then you're going to find this a fairly thin experience. All the reviews I've read basically say "If you enjoy reading the comic you'll like the game." and I think that's mostly true. The one exception that I'd make is that if you enjoy the comic and you'd enjoy an action RPG then you'll like the game. I know people who read and enjoy the comic who aren't going to enjoy the actual futzing about picking out attacks and managing their healing items and the like. Perhaps they'd like watching somebody else play it but I do think there's a weird disconnect between the casualness lightweightness of everything except combat and then the hardcore multitasking of the combat system. The demo lets you play the whole tutorial and by the end of that you should have a good idea whether you'll like the game. If you have a 360 go ahead and check it out.
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I've had it a week, I suppose I should write down something about GTA IV. The capsule review is that I've played it quite a bit and enjoyed almost all of it. The car physics are improved but still feel good for driving about - not realistic but enjoyable. The new aiming and combat controls make gun battles fun now. They've lost the goofy RPG elements of San Andreas. It's still recognizably GTA, it's still awesome. We've been waiting a long time for more GTA (the last "real" installment was San Andreas in 2004, and there were two PSP titles but the last of those came out in 2006), and the magic is still there. Having said all that there is of course a "But". While combat has vastly improved and lots of little things have been improved (you can now retry a failed mission almost immediately for example), oddly it's lost some of the GTA-ness. There are more radio stations (too many really), but the distinctive DJ's are gone. Fiddling with the radio isn't as fun as all three of the PS2-era titles were. The city is prettier and bigger, but it also seems emptier. I've got three islands unlocked now and the population seems very homogeneous. I miss having the gang-controlled sections and the almost cartoonlike "this is the Mafia section of town, over there are the triads" and so forth. Everything is more realistic, but the draw of GTA wasn't realism, it was a particularly stylized world. You don't hop in a cab to run cab missions, or grab in a cop car to run vigilante missions. You can call somebody on the phone and do a cab mission, but the Crazy Taxi mode where you tried to deliver more and more passengers against a timer is gone. You can steal a cop car, then hack the in-car computer and get a vigilante mission, but it's just another mission, not a unique little mini-game. Similarly, there's no strange garage with a big list of vehicles requested. There's a character that wants cars and he'll send you email telling you to get him a particular vehicle, but again it's just a normal mission. Go get this particular car at this street and bring it here. The spontaneity of being on a mission, seeing a car you needed and jacking it and then trying to hang onto it while doing something else is now gone. Perhaps more realistic, but it is definitely less charming and idiosyncratic. There are no ringing pay-phones with crazy little side missions. I haven't found any vehicles that have secret hidden missions where you drive explosive toy trucks around. Everything is now get text message/phone call/email, set waypoint, drive there, grab whatever you need and rinse/repeat. The new multiplayer is fantastic. We played a few deathmatches, a couple of races, and spent most of an evening playing the "Cops and Crooks" mode. In one of the races I got my car flipped almost immediately and ended up in a fire truck. Ridiculous but then it was pretty easy to just crunch a sports car of another racer. There were a lot of "Wow that was super-cool" moments in the multiplayer. In Cops and Crooks I (as a cop) stumbled across the crooks' getaway boat and stole it. We had a great time fooling around with it until I accidentally flipped it on a sweet jump. And that counted as a win since I destroyed the getaway vehicle! All of my complaints are still pretty nit-picky overall. It's a great game so far. I hope they bring the series back to more of the exaggerated gang action of GTA III or Vice City, but I imagine I'll spend a happy amount of time in Liberty City yet.
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Mauvais Role

Boing Boing TV is a bit hit or miss for me, but they recently had a French CGI short film (of all things) on and I really enjoyed it. As Boing Boing describes it:
Today on Boing Boing tv, Mauvais RĂ´le ("Bad Role"), a short animated film about a computer game character who gets fed up with playing the same lame villain roles all the time -- and takes matters into his own (clawed) hands. His quest leads him to new and increasingly more ridiculous casting calls, each one weirder than the last. And they lead him somewhere he never thought he'd end up...
Take a look. I thought it was worth five or six minutes.
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