Monday, November 02, 2009
Your level best
It's amazing what a powerful motivator leveling up can be. In any game with roleplaying elements, the promise of dinging the next level is what keeps you grinding through repetitive and, let's be honest, often un-fun gameplay. You know your hard work now will pay off later. (Sometimes much later.)
Borderlands does a better job than most of keeping you focused on this goal. Your XP progress bar is always shown on your HUD, right in the center of the screen. When it's nearly full, you'll do almost anything to push it over the top. When it's nearly empty, it's so shameful that you need to redeem yourself by taking on as many missions as you can.
But Borderlands also discourages grinding in the traditional sense. The difference in XP awarded is enormous, depending on whether you're killing garden-variety enemies or completing missions. My soldier character is at level 34 now, and I'd guess that I've only leveled up in the ordinary run of play once or twice. Every other time, it's either been upon killing a boss, or turning in missions.
The way the missions are stacked is pretty clever. They're not clever quests on their own -- almost all of the "go here and get this" variety. You can accept several missions at a time, though, and you don't earn your XP at the moment you've completed the objective. You have to turn in, which usually means returning to the place where you picked up the assignment. This is often very far away. As a result, it's easier to complete multiple mission objectives at the same time, and have several quests in your mission log marked as ready to turn in. Then you'll turn them all in at once for 40 or 50 thousand XP.
Missions are categorized by difficulty, according to level. If you're at level 25, a level 25 mission will be designated as "normal" difficulty, while a level 27 mission will be "difficult" and level 23 will be "trivial." These are often correct, and it's astounding what a difference a level makes. When the League of Extraordinarily Gentle Men first broached Old Haven, one of the best designed "dungeons" in Borderlands, we were ripped to shreds. Our first encounter ended with several deaths, a couple of revivals, and a hasty retreat. Two levels later, a couple of us went back in, and although it was still challenging, we accomplished our objective without ever risking failure.
Gearbox dangles one more carrot in front of you during the course of play. It's not uncommon to find weapons that can't be used until you've reached a certain level. Your inventory is pretty small in this game, even as it can be expanded over the course of play, yet it's impossible not to allocate one crucial spot to the bitchin-est sniper rifle you've ever seen, which sets dudes on fire and never needs to be reloaded, knowing that it will all have been worth it in eight hours or so when you've finally leveled up enough to use it.
With each level boost, your character grows appreciably stronger. Your bullets do more damage. Enemy attacks hurt less. The action points that you assign become exponentially more useful. My ammo-regenerating turret still isn't very useful for supplying my teammates, but no longer is it a wimpy sidekick. It fires in five-shot bursts, with my choice of elemental power. And with a much reduced cooldown, I can toss it onto the field numerous times per battle. I finally agree with Roland when he exclaims, "I love this damn thing!"
A few times before, I've mentioned that games are often more like work than they are like play, and Borderlands is a great example. Much of it is about putting your head down and taking care of business. Gearbox did such a good job of spacing out the rewards, and making sure that one is always visible around the corner, that it rarely falls into the trap of feeling like a simple grind. Sure, it's like work, but payday is every day.