I like RPGs. So yeah, I like Borderlands. But the Borderlands hybrid RPG-shooter formula (recently co-opted by Bungie’s Destiny, and taken in a very different direction by the Mass Effect series) is more than the sum of its parts. So what is it about the Borderlands combination of the shooter and RPG genres that makes the games so hard to put down?
The main addicting force of Borderlands is its progression systems. Borderlands had ‘em, Borderlands 2 greatly expanded on them (as on practically every other element of the formula). In B2, for instance, you have the leveling system. Then you have the skill points system built on top of that (with the constant ability to respec your skill trees back at your base in Sanctuary). Then you have the kajillion different challenges, in-game achievements based on using weapons, powers, and effects in certain ways, killing various enemies, discovering stuff, pulling off stunts, etc. You name it, there’s a challenge for it. Completed challenges earn Badass ranks (in exponentially higher quantities as you go through the challenge levels) that eventually earn you tokens that can be redeemed for bonus stat perks. Each token can be assigned to one of five different stats (out of a total of fourteen that cycle through as options), with diminishing returns (from 1.0% increase down to 0.3%) as you stack more tokens on each skill. By the end of my playthrough I had a Badass rank of about 7000 (and so about 136 tokens). But since the rank points required to pop the next token increase alongside your rank, you essentially build up a tolerance, meaning you have to do more and more to keep getting the same achievement high. Just like with levels and skill points.
Then there is the loot. Loot is its own progression system, of course. As you level up and explore tougher areas of the game, the stronger enemies (and treasure chests that they guard) drop stronger loot. Gearbox announced that the original Borderlands procedurally generates over 17,750,000 unique weapons and that B2 generates even more. As a result, practically every fight you get in drops something new to check out and compare to your existing armory. And beyond guns, Borderlands 2 offers grenades, shields, and stat-increasing relics and class-specific mods.
This is, in my opinion, what Borderlands gets so brilliantly right. In a standard RPG, progression is pretty predictable. You know how much EXP you need to get to the next level, and you generally have some idea of when the next treasure cache or lucrative boss fight is coming up. In Borderlands, on the other hand, while you still know those things, there’s an increased chance of something interesting happening at any moment. Maybe this fight will finish a challenge and win you a token. Even more likely, maybe an enemy or chest will drop an interesting weapon (or shield, or relic, or mod). It doesn’t even have to be better than what you already have—the wide variety of weapon builds and tactics available even within one of the game’s six character classes (two of which have to be purchased as DLC) mean that a new weapon of similar power can be interesting by encouraging a different playstyle. Maybe you will switch from a powerful but slow pistol with explosive shots (and explosive reloads!) to a weaker fast one with a large magazine and great reload speed. Or to one with neutral speed and power but a decent chance to inflict additional fire damage. Or a weapon slag damage that will increase the impact of your co-op partners’ damage on slagged enemies too.
This constant influx of interesting new loot has two addictive results. First, it encourages the player to stick around for “just one more fight.” There’s always another batch of enemies on the horizon who might just drop (or pop) something cool. I can’t count the times I told myself, “Okay, time to stop. Time to turn off the game,” only to get sucked in for another 30 or 60 minutes by a never-ending stream of just-one-more-battles. Second, once you’ve finished that one last battle, you get the loot you were hoping for, and now you want to use it to see how it changes up your combat tactics. So to find out, you decide to fight just one more battle…
The endless, tactic-changing flow of loot in Borderlands (especially B2) is a terrific antidote to the rut that so many games fall into once you get comfortable with their combat systems. There are so many different ways to approach a battle, between respeccing skills, trying new gun and elemental types, and then there’s trying different combinations of guns to see how they complement each other, adding yet another layer of tactics and interest. You start out with two quick-select gun spots and unlock two more as the game progresses, and when playing solo, it’s easy to pause the game and switch new guns from your backpack into your quick slots to customize your selection for the fight at hand, so going into a tough battle, your second- and third-choice weapons can be as tactically important as your first choice. In my playthrough as Maya (with a damage-dealing skill build) my go-to weapons were sniper rifles and pistols, but I enjoyed experimenting with assault rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers in the three and four slots (I never messed around with SMGs much this playthrough).
As a result, my game-session stamina for the game is quite a bit higher than with a lot of other shooters or RPGs. When I get close to the end of a Borderlands playthrough, I tend to be somewhat exhausted from the addicted hours I’ve pumped into the game. It was the original Borderlands that got me to cancel my GameFly account because I realized it just wasn’t healthy to try to cram so much gaming into a short period to make renting cheaper than buying (and then selling). But I came right back to Borderlands 2 (which I bought) and did the same thing all over again (if at a slightly less hectic pace). This is because Gearbox have done such a good job ensuring that there aren’t many level-grinding lulls in the game where your effort isn’t being quickly rewarded by progression or tactical shifts.
The world and story of the Borderlands series is another matter, of course. But that’s a topic for another post. So what do you think of the Borderlands gameplay formula? Do you find it as addicting as I did? Did I miss any of the elements that made it that way?