Golden Box Slot Machine

Borderlands is a classic multiplayer dungeon crawler with first person shooter mechanics.

Traditionally, dungeon crawlers like Diablo or Baldur’s Gate do not require much skill. Defeating bad guys can usually be accomplished in two easy steps: walk into general vicinity of bad guy and press button. The game will then take care of the actual aiming, hitting, and defending as needed. While this mechanic makes dungeon crawlers really accessible, the lack of skill required also makes them less engaging for more advanced gamers.

First person shooters, on the other hand, are all about skill. A good player has to be able to aim, dodge, select weapons, reload, and fire all in real time in a 3D space. Top players of this genre require the fastest reaction times combined with great dexterity and precision.

Given the above, Gearbox’s combining the two to make a first person dungeon crawler is brilliant, but also kind of obvious. It’s a wonder why a whole genre didn’t exist when the game was released in 2009. That said, Borderlands didn’t become a hit on novelty alone. The game has great polish as both a dungeon crawler and a first person shooter. While building a good a first person shooter can’t be easy, I suspect that designing a good dungeon crawler is far more difficult.

Dungeon crawlers work largely on rewards and decision making. Rewards come in the form of new gear, higher levels, and skill points, while decision making involves choosing weapons, using skill points, and exploration/selecting quests. In example:

  • “Do I use the fire enchanted sword with a base attack of 50 or none enchanted ax with a base attack of 75?”
  • “Should I increase resistance to elemental damage or add a new attack?”
  • “Where to next, the next area or this newly discovered side quest?”

A good dungeon crawler has to consistently entice players with new rewards that engage them to make decisions. Decision making is the key part so if a reward is too great the game quickly becomes boring. Imagine a glitched game of Tetris that only served lines. It would be satisfying at first, but would quickly become repetitive and pointless. Dungeon crawlers have literally thousands of rewards with millions of combinations, any of which could effectively break the game.

Borderlands walks this line very elegantly, with the possible exception of the siren class which can be made invincible given enough time and the right skill selection.

Then there is Borderlands 2.

The highly anticipated sequel to Borderlands features much of the same with a few only a few seemingly minor changes. One of these small additions unfortunately results in gameplay eroding consequences. The golden chest found in the central town of the game can be opened with golden keys divvied out by Gearbox on a regular basis outside of the actual game via codes. Inside are a slew of top rate weapons, shields, and other swag that put to shame gear found organically via playing the game. This negatively impacts the reward system on two levels. First, the reward mechanic is flipped on its side. The reward is no longer gear gotten from killing bad guys. Instead, it is only the fleeting satisfaction of how easy killing bad guys has become. The second consequence of easy-to-get golden chest weapons is the cascading impact on non-gear related rewards. A skill point that provides 10% more damage is meaningless when the player’s gun already deals double what is expected at their level.

As mentioned earlier, Borderlands 2 is largely the same game as its predecessor and I am still enjoying the game as a result, but a better game exists with no golden chest at all.