on Nov 18, 2009
The four playable characters / classes of borderlands are:
Lilith is a crit-stacking character with some area-of-effect spells. Mordecai is the sniper. (He also has the pet bird which is either completely worthless or the single most powerful attack in the game, depending on how you spend your skill points.) Despite being the “soldier”, Roland is actually the team medic / re-supply engineer. Brick is Brick. Brick punches. Brick also use rockets.
I’ve clocked some serious hours on this game. I’ve taken two different characters (a Brick and a Lilith) into their 20’s as part of a group. I’ve taken a single-player character (another Brick) to level 40. (The initial play-through ends in the early 30’s.) I’ve also taken a Roland and a Mordecai into their 20’s solo. That, and I have a couple of characters in their teens. I haven’t done the math yet, but that’s a lot of play time.
One of the things that is greatly confusing the discussions about the game mechanics is the number of different versions of the game. I’ve been told there are pronounced differences between the PC and Xbox offerings, which is further complicated by the fact that the PC version was patched at some point and important changes were made. (And the “full patch notes” are not actually entirely full. For example, try driving the car pre-patch and you’ll notice how easily it was to get caught on the most trivial scenery. Yet changes to the car aren’t even mentioned in the notes. What other slight changes or fixes are in there?)
So when we’re arguing about what weapons “work” or are “unbalanced” we’re not the group of blind men describing different parts of an elephant. We’re blind people describing what could be entirely different creatures, which may not even be part of the same zoo.
Guns each have stats, some of which (like accuracy) are shown in the interface and some (like reload speed) which can only be determined through use.
In the patched version, the sniping mechanics are broken. I wondered why I was having so much trouble sniping in this game. I’ve done a lot of FPS sniping in my day, and I’m familiar with how this usually works. I had a lot of instances where I was pretty sure I should have hit someone but didn’t. But you normally can’t make an accusation like this on the internet, or the people who have lashed their self-esteem to their “skillz” will dogpile with accusations of sucking, newbishness, and whining. But the vanishing sniper bullet has happened often enough and reliably enough that I’m prepared to say the hit detection is, in fact, utter hogwash. Far too often I find myself thinking, “What IS this dude’s hit-box shaped like? Because it’s not shaped anything like his body.“
I was giving the game the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the “accuracy” stat of the gun was throwing off my aim so that I’d miss even when I had the target all lined up. That’s plausible enough, although the misses and hits were often grouped suspiciously.
After spending many hours with the sniper rifle, I’m convinced it’s a simple hit-box problem and not some slight subtlety with the accuracy rating. In short: Sometimes you just can’t hit a dude, no matter what. He’s behind some knee-high cover and I’m shooting at him over the top of (say) a box or something. Yet round after round will magically pass through him. Did I miss? Did the gun miss? Did I blink? Then, I move into the open and he stops standing behind the knee-high wall and suddenly I can repeatedly ding him in the forehead without fail.
I satisfied my doubts on this last week when I found myself above some dudes. I aimed downward, put the dot right on the head of my target, pulled the trigger, and “missed”. Again. And again. Every time. He was standing still and he wasn’t that far away. And my aim wasn’t off. The bullet was passing through his skull and striking the ground behind him. I couldn’t see the bullet impact (which was obscured by his head) but I could see the dirt it kicked up, which from my vantage point formed a halo of dirt around his cheating, lame-ass skull. I aimed center-torso, and still hit nothing. Then the two of us changed position and I dropped him with a single shot. Hmmm.
I suspect there is also a maximum distance, after which the bullet abruptly vanishes rather than dropping and losing effectiveness, but I don’t know. It’s a bit hard to study when people are trying to kill you, and when people aren’t doing that there’s no way to study.
This is not to say that the sniper rifle is underpowered. Aside from frustrating hit-detection shenanigans the thing is perfectly serviceable, and sometimes a sniper rifle is the perfect tool for the job. But the dodgy hit mechanics really are a killjoy sometimes. It’s like playing sports with a bad referee.
Depending on how you look at it: Either the rocket launcher is lame or the shotgun is overpowered. A standard-issue shotgun is going to have roughly the same damage output as a launcher of the same quality and level. Except that rockets pass through standard guys, so you must aim at their feet to deal splash damage. This means anyone behind a waist-high barrier or at the top of a small rise will be immune to rockets. Launchers fire more slowly and have a smaller capacity than shotguns, and the rounds themselves are rarer and you can carry less of them. Worst of all, rockets can’t ever score critical hits, which are a huge part of the game. (And rockets also have the obvious disadvantage that you can hurt yourself with them.) Wall-based splash damage is kind of dodgy and suspect, and a few times I had rockets go through a mook and strike the wall a meter behind him without dealing any damage whatsoever. So rocket launchers deal the same damage as shotguns, aside from all of their various disadvantages that make them less reliable, efficient, and versatile.
I stacked all of my skill points into the rocket-launcher focused branch of Brick’s skill tree, and it was never a contest: The shotgun outperformed it every time, going all the way from level 20 to level 40, through several generations of weapons. There was never a time when a launcher was my weapon of choice, because I always had a shotgun that outperformed it.
Another thing confusing the discussion on weapon mechanics is the extreme randomness of the weapon stats. The more you use a type of weapon, the more you’ll gain skill-ups in that weapon class and thus the better you’ll be at it. But when it comes to choosing a good weapon, you’re really at the mercy of the random number generator. As you level, you’re going to find truckloads of ordinary weapons, and a very small number of godlike foe-blasting treasures. It’s possible you’ll want to focus on sniping, but find yourself with an SMG so exceptional that it’s just not worth getting out your good-but-not-remarkable rifle. This is particularly true in the early game, when you’ll outgrow weapons rapidly and your arsenal will see a lot of turnover.
250 damage at level 7 is huge, and I wish I’d screenshotted it. It was a one-shot killing machine for several levels after that, and Lilith used that sniper rifle for over ten levels. She also had a really good shotgun and never found an exceptional SMG, despite the fact that her powers are built around crit-stacking the SMG and adding elemental effects to rapid-fire shots.
In Diablo 2, you usually stuck to your class weapon. It doesn’t matter if you just found a super-extra-double rare two-handed sword, your sorceress probably wasn’t going to use it. In Borderlands we have the same looting & leveling pace, but the stats of the stuff you find will often overshadow your core skills and abilities. It doesn’t matter that you’re a Mordecai focused on sniper rifles, because that combat rifle you just found is so good it will outperform your sniper rifle anyway.
Thankfully, re-arranging your skill points is very cheap, so you can experiment and move points around to match your weapon loadout. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, it just feels… strange. In Borderlands, you are your guns, and everything else is secondary.
So when I see lots of comments from people saying “the rocket launcher is AWESOME” and others saying “the rocket launcher is balls”, it’s obvious that at least one of these two people had their opinion shaped by an exceptional weapon, or lack thereof.
Now, all of this sounds really bad, but the truth is the game is a blast anyway.
There. I spent one sentence telling you the game is awesome and 1,400 words telling you how broken it is. Which of those is going to leave a bigger impression in your thoughts? Because the one-sentence thing is probably the most important, but I couldn’t offer that without giving you the other stuff.
Who cares if the weapons aren’t balanced? Once in a while you’ll find the Holy Grail of Rocket Launchers and you’ll be blasting people to bits with it. Other times you’ll find that one shotgun that seems to be the Solution to All Problems, and you’ll use that. The latter is far, far more likely, but they’re all fun to use.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.