Thursday, 22 October 2015

Tales From the Borderlands: Worth Writing Home About?

Short version: buy it. Why? Because it is the funniest 3D game since Giants: Citizen Kabuto, and Telltale's most structurally ambitious and sound adventure to date. 

Long version after the jump. Major spoilers throughout.
That was good, wasn't it? Sure, it had its flat moments - long, information-light diatribes from Jack; more visual bugs than usual; over-reliance on arbitrarily killing characters off and frequently also on bringing them back to life; Felix's voice acting; deus ex machina all over the shop; and a seriously questionable interpretation of physics. But none of that matters too much.

What makes Borderlands so special in the Telltale canon is brought into stark relief by playing Minecraft: Story Mode. The structure is not dissimilar - a clutch of central characters whose lives are turned upside down, some jokes, some drama, some choices - but the narrative body paint is oh so different.

In Minecraft characters are introduced without flair or imagination. They are distinguished from one another in the bluntest and blandest of ways: one character cares about a pig; another plays a practical joke. But in Borderlands, every character is afforded their moment of coolness, and usually you get to influence it in some small way.

This pride and meticulousness is exemplified by the score, where the best parts of Telltale and Gearbox's long-time fixation with licensing appropriate tracks collide into a beautiful whole. The opening sequence (of the whole game, and most of the episodes) is always a masterclass in matching mood, music and visuals. Each one tells you exactly what the tone of this episode will be. It tells you what you are about to experience is something special. And introductory gameplay included each one lasts a good half hour. This always feels like a meaty experience.

And what is really special about these games is the character list. Almost everyone is fleshed out and interesting to be around, and this adds new weight to what you say to them. In The Walking Dead, I often felt like the small things I said made no real difference, because it's always a life or death situation. But in Borderlands, it's all about riffing with characters, setting up a funny joke, or learning something personal about them. Borderlands pulls off that wonderful thing of being both slapstick and dramatic. Only just on that last count, but it gets over the line nonetheless.

There was some risk that by doing a comedy game, Telltale would undermine the import of the decision points in the game. Frequently you will choose an option, only to find out both were lies, and here's what really happened. But this approach is saved by the way it all comes together in the end. I think in episode 5 Telltale was consciously messing with us with that whole destroy Gortys mid-game fake ending bit. They know the last episode of The Walking Dead was super short, and they know Borderlands as a series has a reputation for let down endings. So they do this really quite weird thing where the whole plot stops for three months, only to pick up exactly where it left off. I can only think that tricking us was the reason, because things get convoluted.

But it doesn't matter, because the game pulls it all back. The vault team selection bit is I think Telltale's best idea to date. They have had problems in the past both with failing to deliver sufficient branching, and on failing to communicate the branching that actually is happening. By putting that stuff onscreen, by telling you what you did to impress or repel different characters, and by making some of those things big decisions, and some of them very small ones, Telltale adds weight to everything you did to this point. And then it follows through on that with a finale which - though making no difference to the plot whatsoever - is a thoroughly fitting way to feedback on the experience you created for yourself.

I kinda wish they'd opened that vault crate and found some rubbish sniper scope or something ("Skags drop better loot"), and spent the end credits arguing about what the next job would be, but hey ho, it's the same basic outcome.

Polish: 2 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

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