Review: Borderlands 3 (PS4)

It’s been seven years since Borderlands 2 was released. In that span of time we’ve seen groundbreaking gameplay in Breath of the Wild and The Phantom Pain. We’ve seen revised takes on the loot-shooter genre like Destiny and The Division. We’ve even seen oddball spin-offs like adventure game Tales from the Borderlands and the Australian-infused Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which added oxygen tanks and high-flying butt-stomps. After seven years of technical advancements, experimentation and hype, it would be safe to assume that the next major entry in the Borderlands series would be influenced by these factors. That’s why it’s a bit surprising that Borderlands 3 feels largely the same as its numeric predecessor.

For the first ten levels, Borderlands 3 is so indistinguishable from Borderlands 2 it almost feels like a rip-off. In the age of Overwatch, the shooting in BL3 feels sluggish and awkward. Despite the compelling art design of characters and locations, the new game reuses assets and animations from the previous ones, resulting in a decidedly last-gen look. Opening the menu grinds the frame-rate to a halt. Outdoor locations still feel vast and generic. Vehicle controls are still awkward. Small quality of life improvements, like the layered 3D map screen and the ability to switch quests on the fly, stick out as novel because they’re some of the only changes. Even additions from The Pre-Sequel have been muted or removed to the point where that game’s existence is negligible. Most mind-boggling of all, the game now allows you to climb certain ledges lazily marked in yellow, aping the same color indicator from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, resulting in some of the jankiest platforming challenges in any modern game. But in spite of all these problems, what sticks out most to me about Borderlands 3 is how much fun I had playing it, and how once I had finished it, I found myself wishing for more.

This is the gaming equivalent of an addictive fast-food cheeseburger. You know it’s fundamentally bad, and you’re probably supporting an evil company by enjoying it, but at the end of the day, the joy that it brings you outweighs the potential harm, or at least distracts you enough that you won’t feel bad until much later. The core gameplay loop of shooting and looting, ravenously collecting guns and comparing them to one another, following diamond-shaped markers from one arbitrary objective to the next is so fundamentally enjoyable and engaging, that the numerous reasons to dislike the game don’t carry much weight, even when added all together. They’re worth discussing of course, as some of the decisions that went into Borderlands 3 are surprisingly misguided, but it’s also worth reiterating that even as a single-player experience, you will likely have an enjoyable time from beginning to end (especially if you don’t pay too much attention to the dialogue and maybe throw on a podcast while you blast away the baddies).

Borderlands stories have never been great or particularly coherent, but the characters and vocal performances are generally enjoyable. This time there are some bizarre new inclusions to the voice acting cast, like problematic nerd mogul Chris Hardwick as an overly-enthusiastic bandit and Las Vegas magicians Penn & Teller as Mad Max­-ified versions of themselves. There are a few cosplayers known for erotic modeling in the game as well, which feels fan-servicey in terms of casting even though their roles aren’t particularly provocative. It only stands out as an odd choice given that Randy Pitchford, the President of Gearbox Software, allegedly left a hard drive containing underage pornography at a Medieval Times restaurant in 2014, giving anything he’s associated with a undercurrent of sleaze. Putting this further into sketchiness context, in 2018 the aforementioned Chris Hardwick was accused of mentally and sexually abusing his ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra, a well-known actress and cosplayer. Borderlands 3 is hampered by these controversies without actually saying or doing anything to address them, which feels a bit weird given the series’ Deadpool-esque penchant for meta-humor. But there does seem to be an attempt to make things slightly more politically correct this time. There are a staggering number of female characters in Borderlands 3, and that feels unique given that it’s primarily a game about murder, guns, and fart jokes. There aren’t any characters named “midget” in this game like there were in Borderlands 2, but you still have to shoot countless little people. Now they’re called “tinks,” which still sounds demeaning but at least isn’t a well-known slur. Adding to the game’s pseudo-feminism, there are now female bandits for you to murder as well. Talk about progress.

That sort of ambivalent progressivism abounds in Borderlands 3. It’s a game about family, trauma, loss, and murdering literally everything that crosses your path. The game is a cornucopia of carnage, but it also occasionally wants to make you feel things. It’s not shy about killing off characters or tossing in twists, but it rarely sticks the landings on these big moments. The best of the vocal performances ground the game in an emotional reality, though no one is as commanding or iconic as Dameon Clarke’s Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. YouTuber SungWon Cho delivers a nice, growly turn as playable character Fl4k, and trans actor Ciaran Strange’s performance of Lorelei is energetic and lovable, enough though the dialogue doesn’t do either of them any favors. David Wald’s Wainwright is a welcome addition. He’s a gay southern gentleman with depth and charm who never becomes an offensive stereotype. Less successful or explicable is the inclusion of Ice-T as a streetwise immobilized teddy bear who speaks about “bitches” and “chains.” This is the kind of thing that feels bizarrely incongruous with the rest of the virtue signaling, and like most of the game is a real dead-end in terms of comedy.

One pleasant thing that makes Borderlands 3 unique from its predecessors is its scope. Spanning several planets, and allowing you to travel via your own spaceship, Sanctuary III, the game fills a void left by the recent absence of a solid Mass Effect experience. There is never the depth or nuance of that series’ character interactions or philosophical musings, but the sensation of being commander of a vessel on a cross-universe mission is still fun. To be clear, you’ll still be shooting and looting on all of these planets, flipping switches and running errands for malcontents, but getting to stretch your legs and leave Pandora whenever you want is the kind of growth that the series desperately needed. Even though I’ll admit I left few stones unturned in terms of side quests, I was shocked by how long the story felt and how much bang there was for my buck. Every time I thought things would wind down they kept going a bit longer, with a few additional nooks and crannies even in the final moments. This is again a double-edged sword, as it makes the narrative bloated and meandering, but it also makes the game feel meaty and worth the asking price in terms of a time-sink.

Throughout it all you’ll be blasting bugs and badasses, grabbing their weapons, and testing them out for yourself. Why did ancient aliens leave so many modern firearms in their vaults? Who knows, and who cares? That’s the kind of question that Borderlands 3 gleefully ignores. It’s a game where a shotgun can shoot buzz saws, or a rifle can become a turret with tiny legs that runs after an enemy before exploding. Its absurdity is part of its charm, although that is often undercut by the implications that the writers were occasionally aiming for emotional depth. Maybe things would be different if they’d taken more time to revise and edit the story rather than adding a hundredth line of dialogue about how good the player is at killing things. The violence may be frenetic and fun, but the game keeps begging you to stop and think about it every ten hours or so, which raises the question: what exactly, if anything, is this game trying to say? Almost any point it makes is undermined by another aspect of the game, so perhaps the only thing for certain is that if you can overlook all the odd decisions and problematic elements, Borderlands 3 is pure, mindless fun.

Game Review: Blazing Chrome (Windows 10)

Blazing Chrome feels like the lovechild of Contra and Mega Man X. It’s a 2D side-scrolling shooter with six levels. It should be short and sweet, but ala Contra each time you’re hit by an enemy you die immediately. You’ll pop right back up, blinking with momentary invulnerability, hoping the same enemy type or boss pattern doesn’t wreck you again. It’s classic hardcore gaming for people who don’t mind a little frustration. At times the frustration might be too much to bear, but for certain old school gamers that’s half the fun.

          Like with old coin-op arcade games, there are a ton of sucker punches. Enemies pop out of nowhere and gank you easily, forcing you to memorize patterns and carve a replicable path through each level. It’s also a game where each time you die you learn something and can improve your strategy, assuming you don’t get too tilted. Levels start out feeling unfair and cheap, but once you recognize what the game wants you to do, it’s actually manageable. Sometimes the controls feel a bit clumsy, like when you’re trying to gauge how fast or far you can swipe with your melee attack. There are also occasional visual glitches, but they aren’t game-breaking, and in an odd way they make the whole thing seem more authentic. Unlike a lot of nostalgia-fueled games, this one seems to forego an added level of irony. For the most part it really does feel like a classic game, right until the clever CD gag in the credits.

          I wouldn’t put this game in the same category as Cuphead because it lacks the visual beauty and replay-ability. Finishing a section of Burning Chrome comes with the feeling of, “Good! Now I never have to do that again.” You’re proud of yourself for completing a difficult challenge, but there’s no incentive to ever experience that hell a second time. Cuphead is better balanced and a more polished experience overall. While Cuphead pushed the genre forward, Chrome is stuck in the past. It’s a callback to the omnipresent hyper-masculine shooters in the early 90’s, no more, no less. It’s a style of gaming perhaps forgotten because it’s no longer tenable, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its charms. Blazing Chrome embraces what made Contra work while never straying too far outside the SNES’s technical limitations. It’s a specific game for specific fans, and if you’re in the mood for some challenge and carnage you may very well be satisfied.

Game Review: Divinity: Original Sin 2

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For the sake of clarity I am reviewing the single-player experience on Playstation 4. I have not tried the multiplayer or the PC version.

Little things can make a big difference in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Whether it’s the note containing key information buried somewhere in your inventory, the elusive mouse that teaches you the trick to beat a difficult boss, or the many small annoyances that eventually add up to undermine the overall experience, the minute details of Divinity 2 are the deciders of whether or not you’ll have a good time. A devout Divinity fan might say that every choice you make matters, but the game’s lack of a coherent narrative and its focus on free-wheeling exploration results in each choice flying like a firework in a random direction. This would be fine if each one ended in a bang, but more often than not, the myriad choices, plot threads and side-quests result in a fizzle.

There are exceptions of course. A few of the companion quests end pleasantly enough (assuming you decided to help your friends and not murder them ruthlessly). Divinity 2 is the type of game that allows you a lot of leeway in how you solve puzzles or fight bad guys. You might level up a character’s persuasion ability and convince a guard to let you interrogate a criminal, or you could just kill the guard and enter the cell.  Then you can kill the criminal, find out where he lives, and kill his cat too. This might aggravate the guards in the city, but if you over-level your character and manipulate the combat system enough, you’ll find that bashing your weapons against the skulls of an entire city-state is a welcome alternative to diplomacy.

Even if you like the diplomatic approach, chances are the game will troll you and make diplomacy result in exploding death puppets. Divinity 2 has a pedant’s sense of humor, punishing you for misunderstanding its painfully obtuse systems on a regular basis. For example, one status condition known as ‘decaying’ makes healing potions poison your characters. If you’re not exceedingly careful you might murder your own team while trying to play doctor. In this way, it’s the perfect game for the streaming age, where eight-year-olds can’t wait to watch you fail and laugh at your misfortune. “You should have known that the fifteenth lever from the left was the non-murder-y one!” Remember to save often, as the game’s hour-long battles can sometimes end unpleasantly.

Many of these critiques could be leveled at Divinity 1 as well, but Divinity 1 understood pacing and balance a bit better. In the original game you played as a ‘Source Hunter’, an investigator on the hunt for powerful, illegal magic called Source. You investigate a magic-related murder, which in turn leads to an epic conflict with an evil space dragon and an undead psychopath. Though the story struck me as a bit barebones, there was at least a focused core narrative, something that the player could glom onto amidst all the chaos. Divinity 2‘s plot is almost unintelligible in comparison, with much of it hinging on your character following the whims of a sarcastic witch.

The game opens with the player’s Source powers muted by the magical equivalent of a no-bark collar. Your ship is attacked by a Kraken and from there on you’re stuck in a penal colony until you can find a way to remove the collar and escape. This all takes about twenty hours of gameplay to accomplish (longer than the entirety of Spider-Man) and constitutes the game’s tutorial. From there you discover that you’re Godwoken, the game’s fancy-pants name for Dragonborn, which basically means that you and your compatriots are on the short-list for divinity. Only one of you can ultimately ascend to godhood, so you’re forced into a difficult decision. Do you help your friends succeed in their own ambitions, or use them, then leave them flailing in the dust? In this way, it’s just like life as an actor in Los Angeles.

Who wouldn’t want to be the god of a fantasy universe- Hollywood or otherwise? It’s unclear what qualifies your character for such a position, what you might do with godhood if you got it, or what makes divinity distinct from being a really, really badass wizard. A couple levels into the game you can turn people into chickens, so how much more powerful do you need to be, really? Those are some questions that are never really answered, at least not to my satisfaction.

You’ll try to ignore them as you bumble your way to victory, accidentally finding secret lairs only to be told that you couldn’t possibly have found such a place by accident. The relentlessly boring lore is a ball of knots waiting to be untangled, but I preferred to turn it into a chicken and set it on fire. I like my fantasy Kentucky Fried.

It’s a shame that Divinity: Original Sin 2 has such interesting systems and beautiful music, because a lot of it feels wasted on a blasé story. Aside from killing whomever wanted to take my Source, I never got a sense of what my character wanted or needed. Divinity, sure, but to what end? The characters felt like passengers on a train, headed in the same direction whether or not they wanted to go that way, their individual plot lines mere distractions. Every character aside from the ridiculously arch villains existed in a moral gray area without any specific layer of nuance. While superior to the wafer-thin characters in the first Divinity, the Godwoken here still felt like watered-down versions of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s cast. Even the romantic elements felt phoned in. Love was just a matter of clicking a few text boxes.

After I’d discovered a majority of the combat abilities you can acquire, I was desperate to push forward to the ending. The game had other plans, hoping I would enjoy thirty more hours of combat. The joy I’d felt when concocting strategies for my undead summoner at hour forty was absent at hour eighty. Once you learn how to manipulate the game’s systems things become rote. Can I persuade this person? No? Then I shall murder him. There are no real consequences either way, aside from some quests not appearing because you killed a related character way back in Act One. And it’s not like any of the quests are particularly interesting- aside from the Red Prince’s companion quest, which allows you the insane and deeply questionable option of watching him have sex with his fiancé. That quest has a happy ending in both senses, even if it leans way too hard on Game of Thrones.

You could play Skyrim for a hundred hours and not get bored, carving your way through a vast world, following your heart. You don’t have quite so much freedom here, because each of the game’s areas are separated by huge bodies of water. Once you leave an area you’re gone forever. It’s off to the next “Act” to chicken-ize new victims. This becomes problematic occasionally, when your character learns of something bad, like a terrorist plot, but you are unable to prevent it until forty hours later when you get to the right locale. You will go where the sarcastic witch wants you to go, when she wants you to go there, and not a second sooner. It’s never clear if it’s a worthwhile endeavor to work with this woman, but since you have no alternatives in this masterclass of choice, you will do your wicked queen’s bidding, over and over.

What it all amounts to is a hundred-hour board game, which wouldn’t be so bad if the game had ever bothered to tell you the rules. The first unspoken rule seems to be ‘combat first, story TBD.’ Every time I was expected to care about a turn in the story, the return of a character from the first game, I sighed or shrugged. The combat is the through-line here, but as soon as you run out of new tricks to learn, the story’s shortcomings steal the spotlight. It is a game that requires patience and strategy, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when you want nothing more than to get to the ending, only to be repeatedly punished for rushing things. Maybe you’re too low in level, maybe you forgot to talk to the random NPC who knows the secret phrase for a puzzle on the other side of the island, or maybe the game just wants to kill you. In any case, you’ll finish when the game lets you finish. And if you’re like me, the only thing you’ll find satisfying about the ending is the promise that you’ll never have to play it again.