I know earlier I praised several aspects of the Pre-Sequel gameplay. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is a brilliantly constructed game. This is a very uneven game, and for every brilliant idea they had to balance it out with something annoying, broken, or terrible.
And then you run into something like the encounter with Deadlift, which is all three.
Early in the game you make friends with Janey Springs. She’s your tutorial questgiver and her job is to introduce the new mechanics (oxygen management, low-grav jumping, laser weapons) while also giving a little exposition and maybe telling the occasional quasi-joke.
She sends you to kill the banditHere on the moon they’re not bandits. They’re “scavs”. Which is apparently what moon people call bandits. Whatever. They’re people who shoot player characters without provocation. Doesn’t matter what we call them. boss Deadlift. She has a few reasons, but none of them really resonate. She wants him dead because he’s “a dick”, and because he has “something” you’ll need to get into Concordia. Getting into Concordia is the real goal here.
This feels a lot like the old lazy Borderlands 1 design where you have to kill a bandit king to get a key to enter a city that shouldn’t be locked in the first place. This is totally fine if there is a steady supply of jokes and lampshading to keep us engaged, but… there isn’t. Janey’s reasoning isn’t funny, Deadlift himself isn’t funny, and this setup isn’t funny.
This fight is based around Quake III Arena style jump pads. That’s pretty old school. In principle I approve of this sort of thing. Like double-jumping, jump pads are a great fit for this crazy universe and madcap gameplay. The designer clearly intends the player to hop on these pads and get launched around the arena, making this a boss fight that takes place mostly in mid-air.
That sounds like a great idea for a battle. Unfortunately, every single design decision undermines this, so the “intended” way to play is also the worst way to play. This fight is a disaster of conflicting design choices that synergize to create confusion and frustration for the player.
1. Vertical Arena
This arena is really deep. There are several layers of platforms. Deadlift might be directly above you, below you, or anywhere around you. It’s a fight that requires lots of horizontal travel and vertical shooting. That’s totally inappropriate for a fight against a minor threat this early in the story. In fact, this fight is the most complex fight in the entire game, and it’s only our second boss fight. You might argue that the final multi-stage fight against the vault guardian is pretty close in terms of complexity, but the Deadlift fight is a lot less clear about what you’re supposed to be doing. Also, that’s the final boss and Deadlift is just a speed bump bandit.
It sounds like it might be fun to ride jump pads around the arena, but if you try you’ll just get blindsided by his shock attacks. (See below.) Deadlift gets to have all the fun bouncing around. You need to stay on the ground or near a wall where you can’t be attacked from all sides.
What makes it worse is that you enter the arena at the bottom. From this vantage point, you have no idea where either of the two available jump pads will take you. You can’t get any sense of how this layout works. You just have to take a leap of faith, and then before you can even get your bearings Deadlift and his mooks will begin pounding on you.
2. Where Are All The Bullets?
There’s a reason most boss enemies are very large or covered in glowing lights. It’s really easy to lose track of this grey-blue person in a room full of grey-blue scenery. Can you spot Deadlift in the shot aboveHe’s above and just a little to the right of the center of the screen.?
You’re going to be engaging Deadlift at long distances where he’ll be very hard to hit. You’re still in the early game where you might still be using trash white weapons with terrible accuracy. So you’re going to need to use a lot of bullets to kill him. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of bullets around here. At this point in the game you’re still limited to just two weapon slots. This fight is roughly equivalent to the fight with Captain Flynt in Borderlands 2. Except that fight gave you a vending machine just before you enter the arena. Here you have a fixed supply of crates.
This can result in a death spiral. If you blow most of your ammo on him and then die, you’ll respawn just outside. You’ll get a modest handful of ammo when you respawn, but he’ll fully recover both shields and armor. Heck, you don’t even need to die. If you walk back outside to grab any of the bullets on his doorstep, he gets a free full heal. If you were a little low on bullets before, then you’re totally screwed now.
3. Deadlift Breaks the Rules
Deadlift shoots energy bolts at you. Maybe you’ll strafe to avoid them. Except no, they’re homing energy bolts with a tight turning radius, and they can easily obliterate your shields.
You’re supposed to shoot them down. Except, how are you supposed to know to do that? These things don’t look like homing missiles. They look like electricity, and the rest of the game has established that blobs of electricity are not shoot-able. Worse, this means the game is teaching you wrong things. Later in the game you’ll encounter energy bolts that look identical to these, except they can’t be shot down.
Even within it’s own rule-breaking context, the game is terrible about making the threat clear. What happens is Deadlift shoots at you, then jumps on a jump pad and rockets across the area. You’ll see him arcing overhead and start shooting at him. Since the energy bolts originated from the start of his arc, they won’t be in your field of view. They’ll clock you in the side of the head and you’ll have no idea why your shields are gone and your health is dropping.
So you need to watch Overhead for Deadlift, but you also need to watch all around for his energy attacks.
Just to keep things interesting: He’s also got a hitscan beam weapon. It doesn’t do a lot of damage, but it’s enough to keep your shields from recharging.
4. Electrified Floor
So after getting blindsided by shock bolts and wasting all your ammo at long distances, maybe you think the solution is an up-close engagement? So once you get some kind of handle on navigating the 3D maze, you’ll jump onto his current platform to give him a face-full of buckshot. But then he electrifies the floor you’re standing on. This does tons of damage, and the damage keeps coming even after you leave the platformJust in case you thought hopping might be a viable strategy..
So now you need to look overhead for Deadlift, all around you for incoming shock bolts, and below you to make sure you’re not heading for an electrified floor. This fight requires complete spherical awareness.
5. Don’t Forget the Mooks!
All of this might make for an acceptable fight against a mid-game boss, provided he’d been built up enough as a serious threat, and not just some “dick” that Janey wanted us to kill for lulz. You could bounce around, shoot the shock things, and slowly wear Deadlift down.
Except, there are also mooks in this fight for some stupid reason. They come from all sides and they constantly harass you with gunfire. They don’t do a lot of damage, but their attacks keep your shield from recharging. When combined with the way that the shock bolts obliterate your shields, this makes for a nasty combination.
Now, normally boss fights have mooks so that if you are near death you can kill a guy to revive yourself. Except, in this huge arena you’ll be engaging them at large distances. You’re already fighting with trash weapons, so once you go down the accuracy penalty and listing camera angle make it incredibly unlikely that you’ll be able to hit anything. So these mooks make the fight harder without fullfilling the one thing mooks are supposed to do in a boss fight.
And of course they just make for one more thing to waste your finite supply of bullets on. If you’re foolish enough to think, “I should wipe out these mooks before engaging Deadlift directly” then you’re basically doomed. By the time you realize they’re never-ending, you’ll be out of bullets.
Just to make this fight as tedious as possible, Deadlift only has a couple of combat taunts and some numbskull decided he needed to shout them every few seconds, so you’ll hear the same couple of messages many times before the end.
Worse, Deadlift has a taunt that can be confusing for the player. Sometimes when you shoot him he shouts, “Yes! Fill my battery!” When I heard this I assumed I was doing something wrong. I actually stopped shooting him. Am I charging his shield? Or powering up his floor shock? What does this line mean?
As far as I can tell, the line doesn’t mean anything and I have no idea why he says it.
Wrong, All Wrong
This is way too many new game concepts to be throwing at the player at once:
- Jump pads.
- Electrified floors.
- Homing projectiles.
- Shooting down projectiles.
- Multi-level engagements.
Generally you shouldn’t introduce new gameplay concepts during a boss fight. You let the player practice on mooks, and then the boss is the final exam.
But if you do throw new mechanics into a boss fight, you should usually limit them to one at a time. You could build a really cool encounter around any one of these ideas. But instead the game drops them all on you at once, early in the game, in a situation where you have very limited ammo and weapon choices.
If you get too close you get killed by electrified floors. If you’re too far then you’ll never hit him with your trash starting weapons and you’ll run out of bullets. He’s got a combat taunt that can confuse or mislead you. The generators he uses to electrify the floor look like the kinds of stuff you’re supposed to shoot to power down a boss, but they aren’t. The boss is a blue-grey blob against a blue-grey background that shoots blue homing projectiles at you. You enter the arena from the bottom and he enters from the top. You need to look down to figure out where the bounce pads are, up to see where Deadlift is going, and all around for his mooks and homing shock projectiles.
This fight is a perfect storm of appalling game design. It feels like you’re supposed to bounce around on jump pads. That sounds like the most fun way to play and it seems to be what the game designer is telegraphing you’re expected to do. But if you engage the fight on those terms then you’re doing things the hard way.
If you look online you’ll see the most common strategy is to cower in a closet near the entrance (Gosh, THAT sounds exciting!) and use the sniper rifle (Hope you didn’t sell it!) that Janey gives you after a sidequest (Hope you did all those “optional” quests before coming here!) in the previous area.
It’s clear this difficulty spike is not intentional. Deadlift is not supposed to be a major threat. The next boss is Red Belly, and that’s a completely ordinary fight in a flat arena with lots of places to take cover and no homing weapons, and it takes place right after a full set of vending machines. This fight is the result of several bad design decisions and not enough playtesting.
I’ve been in this game crit business long enough to see the objections coming a mile off. Whenever I pick apart a badly designed bit of game like this, I can always count on getting these two responses:
- I didn’t have any trouble with this. [Therefore you don’t know what you’re doing and your opinion is invalid.]
- It’s not that hard once you know how to beat it.
Taking the second one first, “It’s not that hard once you know how to beat it.” That’s actually the point I’m making. The problem isn’t that it’s “too hard”. The problem is that the game is presenting the challenge wrong, which leads to player confusion and frustration.
Imagine I set up a track and field challenge for the “best jumper”. People try it. They do their best long jump, but they fail the challenge. Someone else does their best high jump, and they fail. People start asking, “How far does Shamus expect us to jump?” Then after everyone blows several hours in confusion and frustration, someone points out that “best jumper” just means jumping as many times as possible in a given timeframe. If you do fast little hops, you’ll succeed.
Doing a bunch of tiny baby hops is indeed piss-easy. The problem with my challenge is that I didn’t make it clear what you needed to do to achieve your goals. This isn’t a physical challenge, it’s a trick or a guessing game.
In a good challenge, you can at least learn from your failure. Sure, you died. But now you see what you’re supposed to be doing. But on my first play through Deadlift killed me two or three times and I still wasn’t sure what I was doing wrongAt first I was hopping on jump pads to escape the shock bolts, and they would just do a hairpin turn and hit me in the backside. It took me a while to realize I was supposed to shoot them down..
The other objection – that the challenge is fine because some people got it on the first try – is obviously a goofy way to go about looking at things. If I ask you to guess what playing card I’m thinking of, then about 1 in 52 people will get it right on the first guess. That doesn’t mean this is a fair or reasonable thing to expect everyone to be able to do. Rather than saying, “Some people got it on the first try, therefore it must be fine,” it makes more sense to say, “An awful lot of people struggled with this fight, and they didn’t seem to struggle with other fights in the game”. Either these people became momentarily terrible at the game, or there’s something wrong with this fight. (Unless you want to argue that this difficulty spike is intentional. I can’t prove you wrong, but there’s nothing in the text to support that notion.)
And even if you’re reading this thinking, “Wow! That sounds like a fun challenge!” then don’t get your hopes up. If this sort of sudden arbitrary hurdle appeals to you, then you’re going to find the rest of the game to be very boring.
This is just a dumb broken fight. Nothing more. The game sets up your expectations for a thrilling bounce-pad duel, but then delivers a fight where that style of play is really sub-optimal. Borderlands is not a game about puzzle bosses and it’s reasonable to insist that the designer make our goals and the mechanics clear.
 Here on the moon they’re not bandits. They’re “scavs”. Which is apparently what moon people call bandits. Whatever. They’re people who shoot player characters without provocation. Doesn’t matter what we call them.
 He’s above and just a little to the right of the center of the screen.
 Just in case you thought hopping might be a viable strategy.
 At first I was hopping on jump pads to escape the shock bolts, and they would just do a hairpin turn and hit me in the backside. It took me a while to realize I was supposed to shoot them down.
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