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I was first introduced to the genre of “first-person shooter action role playing games” (FP-ARPG?) with Shadow Warrior 2, the sequel to the reboot of the Shadow Warrior series. That game introduced RPG elements to the series, though in my opinion not in a very effective way. Still, this idea to display a HP effect number on each bullet hit in an FPS did not seem to be something new: I have heard that the Destiny series was in the same genre.

While I’ve seen attempts to merge RPG and FPS elements together in a game in the 90s with Heretic and Hexen, those seem to focus more on the “Dungeons and Dragons” aesthetics than properly merging in RPG mechanics. From what I have read, the game that popularized FP-ARPG was Borderlands, and on the verge of its Borderlands 3 release I have decided to familiarize myself with this series.

Borderlands takes place in a world that mixes science fiction with heavy inspiration from the Mad Max movies. Like a proper RPG, it offers the player a choice of 4 character “classes”, and each character can learn skill (i.e. “spells”) in 3 different skill trees. Weapons fit into a handful of types and are distinguished beyond mere statistical differences with elemental effects and from time to time “wacky effects”. The visual style uses some cartoony cell shading effects, the story is simple, and the humour is of the “immature juvenile” style. It has vehicles, though they are limited and uninteresting (throughout the series).

The game strongly favours cooperative play of up to 4 players, in different classes. While the whole game can be played in a single-player “offline” mode, some boss fights have balancing issues in single player, since no other player can revive you if you’re downed and all the enemies aggregates on you as a single target. Otherwise, the game is quite good, both from the RPG and the Action sides. The game favours skill over just “grinding” for higher stats, and even if you just what to increase your stats, the side quests and varied and entertaining enough that you can increase your stats without falling into menial repetition.

The other games in the series were not released in the game’s chronological order, so while “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel” was released after Borderlands 2, I played it before. It is relatively short, but as it builds up on the engine developed for Borderlands 2 it still felt like a “proper” sequel to me. The story’s writing was much more interesting than Borderlands, though it relied to often on easy references to characters and settings that I have not yet seen in Borderlands 2. The DLC levels had severe balancing issues when played as single player, but otherwise it was a short but fun game.

Borderlands 2 is the most popular game in the series, for good reasons. Its story is captivating, the characters are compelling, and the game has a great balance between accessibility and depth. Its DLC levels are incredibly well-produced too.

The story follows in an adventure game “Tales from the Borderlands” from Telltale Games, though it may be difficult to get a copy of that game since Telltale’s close in 2018. It introduces many things to the Borderlands “lore” that is important to know if you play the last DLC of Borderlands 2, which was made as a bridge between Borderlands 2 and 3.

For the fans of the series, Borderlands 3 may be a mixed bag. The story and writing are not nearly as good as Borderlands 2, but both the Action and RPG parts are, in my opinion, far better, something I expected in the 5 years between the pre-sequel and 3. In fact, I’d say that the FPS part of the game has enough depth that even if you were to remove all the RPG parts, including the “wacky weapon effects”, the FPS part would be able to stand on its own. For example, the different sub-genre of weapons (by manufacturer type), secondary fire and even alternate fire effects was often how I selected which weapon to use, instead of just comparing the weapon strength. Getting better at the game over just having “better stats” was a great feeling that made the “grinding for better loot” feel unnecessary.

Playing the Borderlands series made me realize why Borderlands was so praised: Most “Action RPG” games are neither good action games nor good RPGs, and few games like the ones in Borderlands achieved being good at both. In fact, if I’ve learned something from playing the newer games in the Assassin’s Creed series, is that many action games in the recent years introduced RPG elements as a ploy to spam the player with micro-transactions to compensate for the artificial required grinding. The “Action” part then becomes far less about skill than just a form of addictive monotony mixed with gambling mechanics (random “loot”), or just straight-out gambling (paying for random “better” loot). The Borderlands games have to in-game micro-transactions to reduce the grind, and its single-player mission structure has generally such a great pacing that little to no mundane repetition is needed. Considering I have little spare time to play those games (it took me well over a year to finish the Borderlands series), it was refreshing that I wasn’t psychologically manipulated into addictive behaviour, enjoying the entertainment rather than feeling like this was my second job.

Published on June 29, 2020 at 16:19 EDT

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