Despite the fact that I’ve got several games which I haven’t gotten around to playing (Arkham Asylum, Bioshock, Oblivion, Beyond Good and Evil, Braid) I keep on coming back to Borderlands, which is best described as an FPS version of Diablo.
Diablo II was kind of a love-and-hate thing; I played it intermittently for a long, long time, grinding Bloody Foothills and the Cow Level for XP and then spending my evenings killing Mephisto a few hundred times for the loot. I adored the Assassin class, but succumbed and built up a Sorceress and an Amazon just because the game was easier with them.
The “hate” part of the “love-and-hate thing” came from the fact that the game was appealing in part because I knew that part of the reason I was playing the game was that it felt like a grindy-productive thing to do, and I’d always have that niggling feeling that I could have been item-hunting and getting sweet loot (though I never did) when I was playing a game that I enjoyed.
Borderlands, however, has a lot of design elements in place which I can only describe as “merciful”–it could have very easily been a grindfest in similar ways as Diablo was, and since the core FPS gameplay is fun, I probably would have put up with it.
Part of the Diablo grind had to do with the online economy; characters played in the Realms (Blizzard’s protected servers) were living in a world where item-duping, cheats, and other unsavory gameplay was (supposedly) impossible, meaning that item scarcity was a very real thing, especially for high-end gear and crafting materials.
While Borderlands has a similar item generation scheme as Diablo (weapons are randomly generated with different sets of properties), the quality of your item drops are determined by your character level, not your enemy’s item level, and aside for Mordecai’s Rare Item Find modifiers there’s not a whole lot you can do to improve your chances for finding rare items. You don’t really have to, either–New Haven, the player’s home base for the last 2/3rds of the game or so, has five weapons chests that can all be opened in under a minute, and they respawn when the player reloads the game. Also, there’s no Realms-like protection in Borderlands–weapons are hackable, characters and items are copy-able, and power-leveling is pretty easy.
The other annoying thing about Diablo was the lack of a re-spec function; when you used skill points, you were making an irreversible commitment. In Borderlands, any of the save point/waypoint spots can let you reset your skill point allocation for a minimal fee, which is particularly useful because different Class Mods (items that give your character new abilities and significant skill bonuses) complement different skill layouts, and not being able to change them whenever you wanted would be a pretty dick move because you’d end up with a lot of discarded character builds before you found a few that you liked (most likely by looking at cookie-cutter, heavily min-maxed builds online).
All of this makes the end-game for Borderlands is a fun environment to play around with new guns and skills–a test for the character-configuring nerd in all of us, without nearly as much of the grinding as a roguelike or an MMO. The multiplayer isn’t really that much fun unless you’re playing with a posse of friends, but that was true for Diablo II as well–all the cheat-phobic measures designed to preserve the game made online multiplayer a grudging necessity for players looking to advance rather than a fun cooperative endeavor.
The end result is that Borderlands feels like it knows what it’s good at (providing a fun cooperative/competitive game both solo or with friends) and strips the “protection” as well as the grinding to make it simultaneously less addictive and more appealing. Perhaps there’s a lesson in here for MMO designers.