A funny thing happened when I reviewed Borderlands 2. I discovered that I didn't like it very much.
In the immortal words of Red Dead Redemption's Landon Ricketts, this produced what we call, “an impasse.” See, the original Borderlands was my personal game of the year in 2009. I found its mix of gonzo first-person shooting and articulate role-playing options one of the most innovative and engaging gameplay hooks of the last decade. A sequel was not just imminent, it was mandatory. After 200 hours on Pandora, I wanted more, because not only had Gearbox struck it rich, it was evident that there was lots of room for improvement- especially on the narrative front.
Here's where things start to diverge. First, anyone who's read my review knows that I scored it high (yes, 8 is a great score, no this won't be one of those editorials), and dubbed it, “...a boisterous and extremely engaging shooter-RPG.” Hardly a damnation, by anyone's standards, but the fact remains that when I think about Borderlands 2 now, I feel disappointed and unmoved to return. I want to talk about the gulf between my feelings and the review I wrote, and why I think it was uncalled for to indulge in every criticism I had (not to mention nearly cutting the score in half).
Let's establish right off that objective criticism is a white stag. Reviewing games “objectively” is generally impossible because not every reviewer will have the same taste or experience with a given title. Therefore, an objective critique would require a certain amount of equivocation, i.e. ”well, the game's AI isn't particularly strong, but maybe not everyone will have that problem. 8/10” It's unfair to games and audiences to de-fang valid criticisms by invoking the “what if” scenario, no matter how much it might mitigate a game's flaws. However, in spite of this rule, there are moments when taste and objectivity intersect, and the road must be ceded to the less personal option. Objectivity plays an important role here, because I encountered just such an intersection as I reviewed Borderlands 2.
Specifically, this intersection was found in its classification as a loot-based RPG. In no uncertain terms, I think the loot system is bad game design. Much like the first game, I couldn't trot nine paces without coming across a box or chest that begged to be opened; the green light on its face crying out for acknowledgment. And I obliged, every time, because there's always the chance that it contained what I wanted- more money, more ammo, more mods, more upgrades, more weapons -the game turned me into an obsessive-compulsive glutton, and I realized I hated that. In the three years since those first 200 hours, I discovered that what had pulled me along all that time wasn't great shooting, atmosphere, or class-building, but mostly a desire to see the slightest of upticks in my weapon stats as often as possible.
As one of my friends pointed out, the game was a Skinner Box and I was the rat- and this time, I wanted out of the lab.
But, you might say, didn't Gearbox make a significant effort to enrich the shooting, atmosphere, and class-building in this go around? They certainly did, as I noted in my review, but there's the rub: shooting, atmosphere, and class-building are all things that can be more-or-less judged against a reviewer's standards, whereas a core-structural element of a game, in this case the loot system, answers only to itself. If it works as intended, it's not doing a disservice to the game. And yet, when that core structure shores up all elements of a title and begins to grate against a player’s whims, the impasse starts to take shape and demands delicate assessment and deconstruction, lest the reviewer come down unfairly on the game as a whole.
For example, I don't review sports games because I don't like sports games, but that doesn't make them bad. It takes a seasoned sports game player to assess the core systems of Madden, et al, to determine how well they acquit themselves. Because I don't have the background to do that, my opinion on sports games can't be trusted. So while there are no truly objective reviews, there are objective ways to provide better reviews for games and their patrons.
As I played Borderlands 2 and started to realize my problems with it were growing quite serious, I had to make a call: is this game really bad, or is it doing good things that I just don't like?
I divided up all my problems and went on down the line: I didn't like the humor; I didn't like the tenor of the narrative- that was fair game. I also didn't like the map system, and the way it managed checkpoints and fast-travel- these are obstructions to the gameplay, so they are also fair. Finally, I hated the loot system. Pure, uncut vitriol. I hated feeling like a shark, unable to stop moving forward without hitting “X” every five steps to accrue some largely useless bounty of procedurally-generated content. I hated that. I couldn't warm up to it, and I couldn't compel myself to stop playing that way, it felt integral to the experience on a microscopic level. Compulsively grabbing loot didn't feel nutritive or engaging, just gimmicky; a hook in my mouth that promised a nebulous return on the investment of my precious time and movement through the game-world.
But the hate wasn't just.
In all fairness, the loot system in Borderlands 2 is blameless. Nothing doesn't pop out the right way, the numbers are always there, the guns are always different, and it doesn't behave in a way that goes against what the game promises or how it's supposed to operate. For the kind of entertainment that Borderlands sets out to be, the loot system works in perfect service to it. I might have grown to hate it, but I was the one who changed, not the game.
So, as much as I grew to dislike what I was playing, I had to admit that it was fulfilling its ambitions for both Gearbox and the vast majority of its established fan-base- and for that, it deserved a positive review. I still expounded on my remaining criticisms, but one of the aspects of game-reviewing that I enjoy so much is being able to give developers their due when they do good work, and I couldn't go against what Borderlands 2 had achieved just to satisfy my own personal misgivings. There may yet come a time when loot-based game design sees its place on the dock, but a review of a game that does loot-based design well isn't the place to open the prosecution.
As it stands, my review is out now- it's set in stone -and anyone can reference it as they please. I applaud Gearbox and publisher 2K for a job well done. However, from now on, when I'm asked how I feel about Borderlands 2 in the company of close friends and the honestly interested, I think I'll appeal to game criticism's cranky, resentful professor, Roger Ebert, who once remarked (in no small amount of solidarity with the Borderlands 2 script), “Something may be excellent as itself, and yet be ultimately worthless. A bowel movement, for example.”