Tuesday, January 05, 2010
Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot
I named Borderlands my game of the year for 2009 for many reasons, but when it comes down to it, the most important thing is that the game lets you screw around with your friends, and doesn't do anything to get in the way of that. Something like Left 4 Dead 2 may be great, but its appeal comes from its difficulty -- and that means there are setbacks. With Borderlands, dying comes with minimal cost, and completed mission objectives are retained even if you get distracted and start doing something else. No matter what happens, you never have a sense that you're doing anything but progressing, if just barely.
I didn't play the first Borderlands DLC, "The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned," but I did play the newer one, "Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot." It's an interesting case because clamps down on the consequence-free feeling of the main game. It also takes a cue from the Horde Mode school of game design and throws waves of enemies at you, to the exclusion of any other objectives. You get three long and relatively difficult arena battles with enough inspired twists worthy of Borderlands, but which also lacks the feeling of upward movement that marks the main game.
The premise: Mad Moxxi is looking for her fourth husband, and intends to find him by running possible suitors through the gauntlet of the Underdome. Each battle, in one of the three arenas, consists of five rounds, with five distinct waves in each round. The format is a little like a game show: enemies get stronger at the start of each round, each wave has a different theme, and wild cards keep things unpredictable. So it's a relatively easy thing to beat a wave of weakened normal enemies with a wild card that increases one of your elemental powers, but it's difficult to beat a wave of strengthened badass enemies that are moving at twice the speed.
I'm a big fan of the pure gameplay of Borderlands, so overall I'm happy to be thrown into drawn-out battles such as the ones in "Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot." And there are some good ideas in there, too, such as the penalty box. When one person in your party dies, he's sent to a cage overlooking the arena, from which he can still shoot but can't otherwise interact with his teammates. We found that it was actually pretty helpful if our medic went down, because he could still heal us from the penalty box with his sniper rifle. And considering that the soldier's turret still works from up there, too, it's a nice way to keep downed players involved, and to allow for last-gasp victories when things look dire.
Even so, the biggest problem is simply that your team will fail to beat a round, often, and when that happens you have to start the round over again. This is not in itself a terrible thing. But it's something Borderlands avoided so deftly in the main game. The older I get, the less patience I have for games that tell me that the last 20 minutes of my life weren't worth anything. Besides which, you don't earn XP for killing enemies in this DLC, which is insane. Due to a hilarious mixup, I spent my time in the Underdome about halfway between levels 49 and 50, and despite killing hundreds of enemies, never reached 50 in that playthrough. It was a goddamn tragedy.
One more thing which is a bummer: the loot is severely restricted. You get supply drops of health and ammo between waves, but the only time you get loot is at the end of each round, when it spawns in the middle of the map for only ten seconds. You don't need to spend much time analyzing the guns, because also new in the DLC is the ability to store guns at a bank, which is a much-needed addition. Unfortunately, ten seconds sometimes isn't even enough time to get to where the guns are, especially when you keep forgetting that they're going to be there. The game never informs you that the loot has spawned, and it's hard to get in the habit of looking for it when you're used to chasing supply drops instead.
I'm glad Gearbox tried something a little different with "Mad Moxxi's," and I like the core gameplay well enough that I imagine I will go back and try to finish it off. But I do wish it felt more like a part of the main game, and less like what it is: an add-on.