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Jumping the Shark Podcast #154

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The gang is all here for Jumping the Shark #154, which makes two episodes in a row with a full house. Don’t look now, but it could be a trend. This week Mr. Abner brings you more details on Tomorrow, including the launch of its already successful Kickstarter campaign. The group takes a stroll with The Walking Dead, what with Mr. Binky having completed the final chapter of TellTale’s incredible episodic adventure. Brandon also spends some time with the new Borderlands 2 DLC, Torgue’s Badass Crater of Badassitude. Seriously, that’s the title. I decide to put my time with Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition on hold in order to wait for the iOS version (unbeknownst to me, it would arrive the very next night), but in the meantime I’m very excited about my new Windows Phone 8 and forthcoming Pathfinder campaign (it’s a D&D like pen-and-paper RPG). Finally, our apologies for the quality of Bill’s audio this week. His mic has been spotty for awhile, we know, but a quick plug and unplug has always done the trick… until this week that is. Be sure to send him some hate mail for it as encouragement to pick up a new headset for this week’s show! (No, really, you should absolutely do that. Be as vulgar as you want to be. He likes that!)

After the break, an Honest Trailer for Dark Knight Rises, just because it’s awesome…

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I love this. I really, really love this:

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Borderlands 2: Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate Booty in Review

I don’t know at what size or at what point what we traditionally call “DLC” gets magically transformed into an expansion pack, but make no mistake, Borderlands 2’s first piece of story related content, Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate Booty is a full fledged expansion pack, giving players thirsty for more Pandoran mayhem a healthy portion of new areas to explore, guns to find and enemies to kill.

Your first stop in the expansion pack is the town of Oasis, a combination of awnings and pastel colored buildings, evoking a somewhat twisted take on beach hotels and seaside resorts. One man resides in the town, the rest of the residents having died of thirst, and what a fellow he is. Named Shade, he looks like he dropped right out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, complete with bucket hat, tropical shirt and large sunglasses. Seeing how one of your first quests for Shade is to check on the “residents” of the town, corpses he strung up or placed in cars, complete with megaphones strapped to their heads so that he can provide voices for the dearly departed, it doesn’t take long to see that Shade is quite crazy. He’s also infatuated with the Vault Hunter and this combination of insanity and obsession allows him to alternate between creepy and hilarious with extremely entertaining results.

It’s not long until you’re contacted by Captain Scarlett about teaming up with her to find Captain Blade’s Lost Treasure of the Sands and the real adventure of the DLC begins. The DLC boasts some pretty large map areas, from vast seas of sand, navigable by the sand skiff, a two person vehicle obviously ripped from Return of the Jedi, but so much fun to drive that you don’t care, to abandoned refineries, lost underground springs and a junkyard set atop a mountain ridge.

You’ll have plenty of opportunity to visit all of these areas, as the quests in this expansion pack are a lot more fetchy, for lack of a better word, than in Borderlands 2. The game also is a little less free with doling out side quests, keeping them hidden until you’ve turned in main quests which, in my playthrough, resulted in a lot of revisiting areas I had just cleared, all because I decided to wait and turn in a number of quests at once. A word of advice, resist the urge to turn quests in en masse. Turn them in once you’ve completed them and you should avoid a lot of unnecessary backtracking.

Despite the fetch nature of the quests, the writing and characters met along the way make them pretty dang entertaining. In one Shade’s creep factor gets dialed up to eleven on his marriage proposal quest. In another,you meet an old man obsessed with getting back into Captain Scarlett’s good graces. One quest line has you learning about what happened to Captain Blades and his ill-fated crew and one line of quests, my favorite in the DLC, has you stamping out profanity, software piracy (cleverly entitled “Don’t Copy that Floppy”) and pornography at the behest of a prudish Hyperion loader. Having grown up during the Congressional inanity that gave birth to parental advisory stickers on CDs, that last set of quests was particularly funny.

Borderlands wouldn’t be Borderlands without enemies to fill with corrosive, exploding bullets and sticking with the pirate theme, the expansion packs’s enemies range from cursed pirates that steal health with every strike, grenade tossing powder men, suicidal pirates rushing you with flaming bottles of grog, midget cabin boys and armor clad harpoon men, capable of injuring you and dragging you towards them to inflict more damage. Hyperion loaders still litter the landscape as do sand worms, a less annoying, but no less dangerous form of threshers.

Quests are capped at level 30 for those on their first playthrough, with True Vault Hunter mode setting them somewhere in the low 40s. It was a little disappointing to see the quests and enemies set at such a low level for the first playthrough, ditto for the loot, but hey, that’s what TVH mode is for. The game’s two raid bosses, Hyperius the Invincible and Master Gee are both set at level 50, and both require more than just a Bee shield and a Conference Call to take down. Hyperius is protected by a number of shield bots, and unleashes nasty shock waves and a crippling melee attack, all but ensuring that solo players have a very bad day, while Master Gee is surrounded by sand worms, worms that unleash room filling corrosive gas when killed. Either bring someone to make with the heals, or plan on losing a bunch of money. In one of the DLC’s only missteps, the raid bosses are only accessible once a day, so if at first you don’t succeed, move your system clock forward and try, try again.

One of the best things about your journey with Captain Scarlett is how well it integrates into the main game. Almost everything crosses between Borderlands 2 proper and Oasis with the sand skiff being the one notable exception, a shame given how fun it is to try and launch the skiff on to every piece of architecture in the desert. Other than that, you’ll get experience, money, loot and challenges towards your badass rank by playing the DLC, same as with the main game and you can move between Oasis and the rest of Pandora as much as you want.

I enjoyed all of the DLC for Borderlands, save Moxxi’s underdome, for all of the reasons I enjoyed Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty. Gearbox does a great job of giving players more of what they liked in the main game, but at the same time, making the new content both expansive and sufficiently different to where you don’t feel like you could skip it and just revisit parts of the original game. The fact that this content is filled with such weird and enjoyably creepy characters helps, too. I bought the season pass, so I’m on the hook for all four pieces of Borderlands 2 content. If this DLC is any indication, I’ll definitely get my money’s worth.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #148

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With Bill spending a few days getting back to nature, it’s the Brandon and Todd show once more and we spend it talking about the things of largest concern to gamers everywhere: The Tigers in the World Series and my nightmares of demonic possession. There’s some game talk thrown in for good flavor, I guess. Brandon goes back to Borderlands 2 and it’s initial go-round of DLC: Captain Scarlett’s Pirate Booty. I get in deeper with XCOM, including an ill-fated experiment with the game’s Classic difficulty. We also talk a bit about game modding and DLC in general. (I was wrong, by the way, that the modding scene hasn’t broken out yet for XCOM. There’s already some interesting options out in the field. You can find and read all about them at XCOM Nexus.)

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And Now, Your First Bit of Borderlands 2 DLC

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Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty, the first of four planned Borderlands 2 expansion packs drops today and I couldn’t be happier. I just finished the main game yesterday morning and am in the midst of mopping up the last side quests while at the same time, going back through the game in True Vault Hunter mode. Yeah, I have Dishonored. Yeah, I have Sleeping Dogs. Yeah, I have Walking Dead Episode 4. I don’t care. I want more Borderlands 2, whether it be DLC or redoing the main game just with harder enemies and better loot. Those other games aren’t going anywhere and level 50 is a loooooooong way off.

Why I Think Borderlands 2 Sucks (But I Like It Anyway!)

Borderlands 2 is a terrible game design. It’s boring, tedious, repetitive, and it never actually rewards the player. It’s obviously a successful design because people continue to play and enjoy it. But can you really, honestly say that it’s a great video game?

Hold on angry internet mob, put the pitchforks and torches down and lemme finish. I like both Borderlands 2 and its predecessor quite a lot and I think Gearbox’s latest is an across-the-board improvement. They’re fun, casual games that don’t really require much focused commitment or involvement other than spending a lot of time futzing around with character builds and all those oodles of weapons. Playing with friends is neat because you can shoot the shit while you shoot the bad guys. I’m glad that improvements were made like dropping those restrictive weapon specializations and adding the Badass goals and bonuses, which hugely increases the gameplay- and challenge. But both Borderlands are absolutely terrible designs along a couple of different parameters.

The obvious ones are laid bare just by playing the game for an hour. The story is barely more interesting than the first one and the game world remains oddly barren, lifeless and remote, despite decent character writing that too often mistakes “attempts to generate memes” for “good”. Personally, I’m pretty tired of characters being little more than quest dispensers in any game. That’s an aspect of MMORPGs that has consistently chased me away.

Quests are somewhat improved, a couple of them are a little more thoughtful and I like that some have optional goals. But by and large, it’s the same post-MMORPG find-and-fetch or kill X number of Y kind of affair. It’s still boring as hell to drive way the hell out to a waypoint and trundle around looking for an item you’re supposed to retrieve while shooting a bunch of bad guys that pretty much just run at you.

The gunplay is rudimentary at best outside of picking which shooting implement to use at a given time. Playing a Gunzerker makes the game feel almost like a Serious Sam title. Despite class abilities, extended elemental effects, and more enemy variety than the first game it’s still pretty basic, undynamic shooting action that really isn’t all that much fundamentally different from Doom. Or Castle Wolfenstein 3D.

Further, there are no RPG elements in the game despite claims otherwise. Fiddlefarting over whether to sell Gun A that does X damage and has Y% of this effect or Gun B which does X+1 damage but doesn’t have that effect but another is not role-playing. Nor is shopping for new class abilities with your new XP-purchased skill point. Those things are micromanagement, not role-playing.

More discreetly, Borderlands 2 sucks for the same reasons that the first one did. It’s the same silly, ultimately pointess loot grab where 99 percent of the loot you find is either not as good as what you already have, it’s something to give away to another player, or it’s more or less worthless. Shops are stocked with the same kind of junk with the occasional daily deal there to tempt to you sell off your entire backpack. And don’t get me started on clicking on Pandora’s countless lockers and storage boxes. I don’t consider wandering around and picking up $2 and a pack of sniper rifle bullets over and over again to be gameplay and it’s definitely not great gameplay. I almost grimace when I see a bunch of green lights from a distance. I know I’ll go over there, collect my two dollars and sniper rifle bullets, and move on. Like a Pavlovian dog.

But it’s the leveling and character development that keeps you playing, right? That’s great, but the development curve and sense of progression in the game remains completely screwed up- it’s too long, drawn out, and rewards perseverance and grinding rather than good play and player skill-building. It takes like 10 levels to even unlock your character’s core class ability. Levels are few and far between, it seems, and it feels like you are constantly chasing a game-changing function that never materializes.

In fact, that kind of summarizes a lot of my complaints with how Borderlands 2 is designed. It’s a hamster wheel game. You’re constantly trying to advance or find a great new gun, but when you do either it’s rarely more than a minor, incremental change. I can’t believe they haven’t figured out a way to monetize this endless chase for something slightly better. Maybe Borderlands 3 will have you buy BorderBucks with your credit card to increase the odds of finding a purple weapon. But for now you can pay the entry fee and just keep running and opening boxes between bouts of shooting, blissfully ignoring how empty the game actually is.

Of course, with co-op partners, it doesn’t feel quite so much like that and bear in mind that most of my time with the new game has been solo, although I played through every piece of the first game with a steady group. We didn’t bitch too much about the design. We talked about movies, family, politics, whatever instead. The game was nearly secondary. Focusing on the game as a single-player design reveals things that are still present in co-op- you just don’t pay as much attention to them. You also tend to blissfully ignore how tedious, repetitive, and workmanlike so much of the design is.

Of course, the great art direction and visual panache, coupled with some funny jokes helps to glosses over all of that ugliness and eventually the game bests you. It is addictive. You fall into a kind of a dull-eyed stupor and just enjoy it for what it is- a dumb shooter with a lot of guns, quests, and four very divergent character options. There’s nothing wrong with that for so long as you’re having a good time. The good news is that Borderlands 2 is more fun to play than its predecessor. There’s plenty of activities to do with it and many hours of them at that. But I’m not under the illusion that it is in any way a great or progressive video game design.