A few months back I looked at a console game through the eyes of a table top role player, and I must admit, the game didn’t come out too well. Sure it got rave reviews all over the rest of the internet, but in this little corner, not so much. Today I place that role playing eye firmly on another Xbox game that I’ve been playing recently: Borderlands 2. This will not be an in-depth review about its merits as a first person shooter, but more a little look at how it works when seen as a traditional role playing game. For a bit of background, it’s worth knowing that I played and loved the first game, and most of the time have been playing both of them split screen with my girlfriend.
The first bad thing about the Borderlands franchise as an RPG is the almost total lack of interaction your character has with the rest of the world that doesn’t involve shooting it in the face with a mind blowing variety of boom sticks. The most they seem to talk in the second installment is a few little quips when employing their special abilities - maybe half a dozen different lines which get old pretty quickly considering how often they get used – and little back and fourths between player characters as one heals another. This kinda sucks, but when I think back to some other games, it really isn’t that big a deal. Sure, Deus Ex, Mass Effect and the Dragon Age games give you conversation trees a-plenty, but sometimes you really don’t want to hear the voice they’ve given your character as it may very well be a voice that you would never associate with the way you imagine it.
What it does to make up for that is give the NPCs some killer interactions with the player characters and each other. If you find an Echo recorder and pick it up, try and pay attention to what’s being said; it is usually tangential to the plot, but even so, they’re well written and bloody hilarious. There are little bits on the player character backgrounds, as well as history of the world and NPC back stories too. Actual conversations are also worth paying attention to. Usually the only verbal interactions available are when collecting a job, and turning it in. This will almost always have a bit of monologue from the quest giver, and once again, even though you don’t need to hear it, take the time to listen. They really do give life to the characters and contain some of the funniest writing I’ve heard in a video game.
Don’t get me wrong, the characterization for almost every NPC is pretty one dimensional. The bad-guy is bad, and every time he has something to say, it reinforces his stature as ‘evil-boss’ for the game. I would drop a few examples here, but I’m trying my best to keep this review spoiler free, and some of his best lines lead to some great reveals in the plot that I really don’t want to spoil for anyone. Handsome Jack isn’t the only bad guy in the piece, and all of the others are just as hammy when it comes to their lines and how they are delivered. Put it this way though, if you load the game up, take a look at the awesome stylized graphics and expected some subtlety to the characterization, you may not have very realistic expectations.
That is one of the strongest points about this game though; its writing and how well it all slots together to give a consistent feel to the world and the plot. Any GM knows that you can run a dark game and still throw in occasional bits of humour and not ruin the mood. The ‘GM’ for this game is running it for pure comedy, but knows just the right amount of ‘dark’ to slide in on occasion to keep everyone engaged with the plot and stop being nothing but a yuck-fest.
What else makes it a good RPG? Character advancement. The skill trees are pretty varied, and it’s easy to think of leveling up getting you some hit points, an advancement in a skill and/or a feat. All of which are perfectly in fitting with your character, while also giving you the freedom to try out a few different things without ever worrying about stepping on another character’s toes. As an example, playing a Siren I can be kick ass with a sniper rifle, but will still never get in the way of the Assassin being the best at it.
My final point is a mild spoiler for people who have never played the first game, and maybe even a little bit spoilerific for the second. You get to meet the characters who played the vault hunters in the first game. In thus game they’re pure NPCs, and the writers have done what every good GM should take a swing at at least once in the same situation. If you have returning players to the same campaign world, but years after the last plot’s resolution, and bringing in all new characters, then what do you do with the old ones? Write them into the world. Make them a little bit epic, give them their own followers and show that their actions have had long lasting consequences on the setting. To me this is one of the best examples of how the game works as an RPG, a thought given to the consequences of the player actions that tie in with the larger setting, and it’s something that a lot of GMs can learn from.
As before, I invite people to make their own comments below, either on the game itself, or thoughts on how I viewed it.