Dissecting the Wall Street Journal Borderlands 2 Review

Borderlands 2 came out in North America on Tuesday, September 18. That same day, plenty of reviews for the game were published, but one stuck out more than the rest – this one, from Wall Street Journal‘s Adam Najberg. It didn’t stand out because Adam gave the game a score that was far removed from the MetaCritic average. On the contrary, there was no score attached to it at all. It stood out because, in a rare showcase of solidarity across the gaming public, nearly everyone on the entire internet agreed that it is one of the worst reviews ever seen in a professional publication.

This gives me hope for the future. It gives me hope because it shows that we gamers are actually (finally!) expecting more out of the people that write about games. Quality can only go up if we utterly destroy those who don’t live up to our lofty expectations. It’s time to watch the world burn.

It’s hard to review games. You have to shed a lot of your bias and approach a subject you probably know too much about with an open mind. You need to understand other games of its ilk – what makes them work, what they have to offer, and what makes each one stand out from a hundred others in its genre. The big thing, though? Try not to bring up Call of Duty five times (count ’em) in a <1,500-word review. And don’t contradict yourself. And actually talk about how the game feels/plays before paragraph number… you know, I’m not sure if there’s really any solid opinions on how the game actually is in this “review.”

You know what else? This isn’t even labeled as a review anywhere, merely an “article.” But: 3,139 commenters as of this writing don’t care what it’s tagged as one bit. And the second-to-last paragraph is clearly giving a recommendation on whether or not you should buy it (one of the key reasons that reviews exist), so guess what, buddy? You wrote a review. And not a good one. LET’S SEE WHY IT’S SO BAD, SHALL WE??? One line at a time.

Ask me what I think about Borderlands 2 from Gearbox Software, and I’d tell you about its dubious, convoluted plot. I’d talk about a mind-boggling array of guns and loot. At no point, though, would I ever say I was ready to “joy puke” my face off, as the game box predicts players will do.

Alright, good start. Opinions. Examples. He didn’t like it as much as promised. We’re probably NOT looking at a 9/10 final score here. We should hear some things about why the plot sucked, a bit about the bazillions of guns, and why he was so underwhelmed. Like a review. Like exactly like a review. Let’s see where this goes.

The sequel to the highly acclaimed 2009 Borderlands game goes on shelves Tuesday in Xbox 360, PS3 and PC versions for around $60. At that price point, the first-person shooter, published by 2K Games, inevitably invites comparisons with the Halos and Call of Duty games already out and due to come in the next few weeks and months.

Hold up hold up hold up. It’s a big-budget, AAA game in 2012. They all cost $60. Even some PC games cost $60 now. You get in sticky territory when you write about the “worth” of games, anyway (even though I did this myself in my Dawnguard review). Will you get 60 times more fun out of Borderlands 2 than you would out of Super Hexagon? What if you use BL2 to bond with your bestest friend in the world; is it worth more now? And isn’t “fun” subjective? Are the 30 hours you can spend in the wasteland more valuable than a dinner for two at a fine casual dining establishment like Red Lobster? What if you get laid afterwards? Does that make it better than HaloCall of Duty?

Or how about this: in a few months, when the new Halo and Call of Duty release, will Borderlands 2 still be $60? Personally, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t get a Black Friday discount of $20-25 off to pull in those wait-and-see’ers. Would you recommend it then?

Borderlands 2 falls short because it’s missing several key elements you need to have in a 2012 first-person shooter game – most notably, a rich multiplayer online mode. There’s an extremely limited four-player cooperative mode, and if you have an Xbox Live Gold account, you can team up that way, but this isn’t the type of deeply engrossing FPS game the headset-wearing COD crowds gather to play months and months after release. In comparison, I read on several sites that COD: Black Ops 2 will feature up to six teams, for a total of 18 simultaneous players, in multiplayer mode.

“An extremely limited four-player cooperative mode.” This, I’m curious about. What was limited about it? Was it limited in the way that, say, Halo 3‘s co-op was limited, in that you just play through the same single-player levels, but now loaded with more enemies and a friend by your side? The first Borderlands‘ online co-op was one of that game’s biggest selling points – how has it changed here? Why isn’t it deeply engrossing? And why does 18 players in Black Ops 2‘s multiplayer – you know this from all those game sites you read! – have anything to do with how many players are in BL2‘s co-op? Are you trying to say that 18 is greater than 4? Because yes, it totally is. But did you read about how many different guns Black Ops 2 has been confirmed to have? 42. I know this because I read it on a site and look at this. HOLY CRAP IS THAT A LINK?! To back up the things I write instead of just saying I read it “on several sites” whoooooOOOOOAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!! You know how many guns Borderlands 2 has? From the very next paragraph:

“a bazillion weapons just got bazilliondier”

Pretty sure that a bazilliondier is more than 42. And I’m not even sure that’s a real number. Well, 42 is a real number, but that’s not the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. That’s just three-and-a-half dozen guns. A pittance. And that’s what happens when you bring number comparisons into a should-be-subjective review.

It’s apparent that Borderlands 2 is going after that testosterone-filled, 18-35-or-so demographic, with its over-the-top marketing verbiage (eg. “a bazillion weapons just got bazilliondier”), gratuitous cussing in the game and prominent placement of a pre-order advertisement on the ESPN.com homepage.

And here is where he blames the Call of Duty audience for Borderlands 2‘s faults. Since Adam is apparently a big CoD fan, and they have that same “testosterone-filled, 18-35-or-so demographic,” shouldn’t he by logical extension love this game as well? Both series have swearing. Both series have guns and a first-person perspective. I think both games might even advertise to people who like sports and the internet! (Although I can’t be 100% sure.)

I played the Xbox version of Borderlands 2 for close to a week, and while the development and upgrades from the original are apparent, the quirk and novelty that made the 2009 game so endearing and popular (according to VGChartz.com), combined unit sales of the original topped 4.5 million for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC) feel dated and tired in this game.

First, mentioning VGChartz is a bit like bringing up Hitler in an argument: you automatically lose. (See: Godwin’s Law.) Second, I had to re-read this sentence five times to try and understand what I was doing wrong, before realizing that there’s just a closing parenthesis without an opener. Or there’s two closers? Maybe that. Also: what development and upgrades. Specifics! Paint me a picture of this game! Make me want to play it, or give me a reason to skip it. So far, this review is just a Call of Duty ad. There are also four instances of the word “and” in this sentence, and, while not technically wrong, it still sounds kind of like something I’d hate myself for if I had written it.

Borderlands 2 doesn’t just bill itself as an FPS. It’s a space Western FPS or a role-playing shooter, with the ability to build and customize characters.

Didn’t you just say that Borderlands 2 is a full-on FPS? Otherwise, why would you ever compare it to Halo and Call of Duty, instead of something like, say… Fallout 3? And does it actually bill itself as an FPS? I’ve only ever heard that from… this review. I hear “RPG” a lot, though. That’s a bit like comparing Mirror’s Edge and Just Cause. Yeah, they both have running and jumping, but people would call you insane if you referenced one in a review of the other.

The game’s premise is that you’re a loot hunter fighting to free the planet Pandora from the evil CEO of Hyperion Corp, Handsome Jack. The evil CEO wants to wipe out the planet’s ragtag population and turn Pandora into an industrial playground for his company. His presence is felt throughout the game by the hovering H-shaped space station that serves as his and Hyperion’s headquarters. In actual gameplay, you’re expected to fight your way across Pandora, hoping to stop Handsome Jack from awakening “the Warrior,” an alien even more evil than he is. The events in Borderlands 2 take place several years after the original game and are a continuation of those events, albeit with four new playable characters.

Here’s some backstory, a.k.a. the most boring part of every review. By the end of the paragraph, I’d already forgotten the names and locations from the first sentence. Just use the last sentence (which honestly should’ve been earlier in the article), and shorten the rest to, “You’re hunting Handsome Jack.” Taa-daa. You could have just saved me five seconds of my life I’ll never get back. The biggest real issue with this paragraph is that there is ZERO opinion. Thanks for reading the game box to us again. Think I’m going to go do whatever the opposite of “joy puke” is.

I had to go back to Wikipedia descriptions of the original game to remember all the intricate twists and turns of the Borderlands backstory, which involved a couple of mega-corporations, called Dahl Corp. and Atlas Corp. Atlas set up shop on Pandora one fine winter, hoping to find a vault filled with high-tech alien weapons after finding a similar one on a neighboring planet. Alas, Atlas didn’t realize what a hellhole Pandora was in summer, when horrifying alien monsters come out of hibernation, and abandoned the planet. Enter Dahl, which basically pillaged Pandora for the sake of mining its resources, using convict labor that it shipped in. Complicating the already complicated plot, a xeno-archaeologist working on Pandora while Dahl was in charge, actually did find the mysterious vault. When Atlas heard that, it sent in a private army to claim the vault. Dahl, doing what all brave corporations do when faced with imminent invasion, skedaddled, leaving behind the poor, huddled masses and convict labor on the monster-filled planet. The vault is uncovered at the end of the original Borderlands, but is resealed for another 200 years.

Shorten this to, “I forgot what happened in the first game, and the intro of BL2 doesn’t do a great job of explaining where we’re starting,” instead of lines upon lines of boring, ultimately meaningless exposition. It’s like he’s trying to finally paint a picture of the world for us, but it doesn’t seem like anything you couldn’t glean from a 30-second commercial. Thanks for the insight! Did you get it from the trailer, too?

In this new game, in your battle against Handsome Jack and his minions and the Pandora monster aliens, you have your choice of playing as one of four protagonists – Axton the Commando, Salvador the so-called “Gunzerker,” Zero the Assassin, or Maya the Siren – each fully customizable in appearance and each displaying unique traits. The game’s opening sequence reminds you that Borderlands’ developers chose to go the animation route, and I don’t like it very much. The game isn’t manga-like enough to be super-hip, so instead, it just feels cartoonish. Menacing characters like Handsome Jack, who tries to knock you off in the opening sequence via a double-crossing explosion, are not at all fearsome. Your four heroes from the first game all appear as non-playable characters in this game. They are pretty cool in conception and rendering.

Revealed: he actually played the original! Or at least he knows enough about it to tell you who the leads are. And look, an opinion: “I don’t like it very much.” We’ll ignore the fact that what he doesn’t like is the graphical style that has been advertised at us for the past several months (so that we know exactly what we’re getting into), and maybe we’ll even ignore the fact that he delivered his opinion in the most basic, least interesting way imaginable. Wait, no. Let’s not ignore either of those things. Remember: this was published in the Wall Street Journal‘s webpage. The Wall Street Journal has won 33 Pulitzers.

Also back is Claptrap, a droid that’s somewhat of a cross between a snarky, profane C3PO with the body of an R2D2. Claptrap acts as your guide, and is a fairly detestable character, who left me cold. When his camera eye got plucked out by an alien on the first mission, I didn’t care. Still, I had no choice but to go out and put my Zero character at risk to restore the loathsome droid’s sight.

No way, a Star Wars reference! Hope he talks about his Slave Leia costume next. That’s when you can really tell he’s talking about stuff he honestly cares about, and he’s not just throwing cultural references in to try and keep his audience reading despite the fact that he hasn’t told us anything concrete about how the game actually feels yet.

Borderlands 2’s single-player campaign mode isn’t as good as what you’ll find in games like COD: Black Ops or the Medal of Honor series. There’s too much “feast-or-famine” hunting for tasks, supplies and a good battle for this to be a fun game all the way through.

That second sentence has a possibly valid point that deserves some extrapolation, even if he hasn’t indicated that a single moment of the game has been fun to him at all yet, let alone “all the way through.” That first sentence, though… dude. Come on. Get off CoD‘s wiener. At least Medal of Honor has a blurb for their box now. “Better than Borderlands 2!” – The Wall Street Freakin’ Journal. I’d use that. It’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about the new Medal of Honor.

I played with my 14-year-old son, and we found ourselves spending a lot of time mindlessly opening supply boxes and mailboxes to find bullets, health boosts and other goodies we didn’t really want or need yet. You also wander a lot in winter wastelands that are hard to find your way around, due to the cartoonish blockiness. The game’s mapping was detailed, though, and at first, it was fun to explore a bit. It became a nuisance later. I was reminded a couple of times of the desolate feeling you have on the road while playing Skyrim and struck by how long it took to get from one action point to another. Luckily, the developers built quick-travel machines into the game, allowing you short-circuit some of that boring travel time.

You let your 14-year-old son play M-rated video games? Is he the one that you play Call of Duty with too? You let your son hear… swearing? Well, that’s just bad parenting. You don’t want him to grow up and write terrible game reviews on one of the biggest newspaper websites in the world, do you? You don’t want everyone to call him terrible names on his Twitter, do you? Maybe they already do. With a teenage son, I bet it’s hard to be in that 18-35 demographic that this game is supposedly geared toward.

Controls are very similar to COD, which makes the game very familiar and easy to play right out of the box. Combat is definitely the best part of Borderlands 2, and when I found a good fight, I really got immersed. There were, however, too many interludes between pitched battles. The artificial intelligence of the aliens and other enemies in this game is excellent, and I found it hard to outsmart and outmaneuver them. I tried to outfox stone-throwing monsters by racing from one side of a sheltering shack to another, but they blew my strategy by simply coming at me from all sides, and in numbers. The best way to fight, I found, was to wade right in, blasting away with whatever weapons I had at hand.

Call of Duty is never calling you again, Adam. You’re too needy. At least you finally found the immersion you were craving! Sorry you couldn’t outsmart a rock-throwing computer character though. Must be tough. “Too many interludes between pitched battles,” however, is a valid review point, especially when you have ADD levels of excitement-craving like our intrepid reviewer here. Hooray! I think that makes two actual review points so far.

The types of guns and sheer number of available weapons in Borderlands 2 is overwhelming. There are pistols, shotguns and automatic guns and lots of variations and accoutrements you can add to make them better or more deadly. Incendiary guns are a good way to stop other humanoid enemies, I found. In the early stages of the game, I was able to switch between two different weapons, and had to go into my backpack if I wanted to switch them out. Keeping an inventory of your weapons is a bit complicated as the game goes on, and I found myself holding onto too many guns that were too similar to each other to be of much use. Likewise, you can acquire or purchase better shielding for yourself.

Note his playstyle: he is a hoarder. I Skyrim‘d the same way, but I didn’t get mad when it took 30 seconds to scroll to the bottom of my inventory. And this paragraph seems to be constructed of a lot of individual sentences without anything holding them to each other. Incendiary guns! Armor! Switching backpacks! Easy there, Trigger.

There’s a “fight-for-your-life” mode that lets you get a “second wind” if you kill an alien before your life meter runs out. The game slows down and goes black-and-white during this mode, and aiming is slower and harder, so you’ll have to be deft to recover.

“… if you kill an alien before your life meter runs out”? I suppose it’d be hard to kill an alien after you die. Think he means when you’re super-low on health? I… guess? It feels like he just REALLY wanted to mention this before his review was over.

As a $30 impulse buy, priced about the same as games like “NASCAR Unleashed,” I wouldn’t have a problem recommending Borderlands 2 as a fun diversion. At twice that price, though, I think it’s fair for players to demand the whole magilla – cutting-edge development, engrossing campaign gameplay, scads of downloadable content, a rich social media/community experience, sharing of loot and gear and online multiplayer modes that keep you and your friends coming back until the next version of the game comes out.

OH YES NASCAR UNLEASHED! Bottom line of this review seems to be that you should buy NASCAR Unleashed for $30 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 for $60. Oh, and without online competitive multiplayer, LOTS of paid DLC, and social media aspects (“Why can’t I Facebook-share my new gun?!”), games just don’t seem to be worth buying, especially if you spend all your money on M-rated games for your under-17 son. (Just kidding, I’m sure he’s very mature for his age.)

And Borderlands 2 misses on enough counts so that I not only didn’t joy puke, I didn’t even get a tiny bit of mirthful bile in my throat. It may be the game for you, but if you’re in the market for a new FPS, I’d at least counsel waiting to compare it to Black Ops 2, due out Nov. 13, or Halo 4, which is slated for a Nov. 6 release.

The conclusion actually contained the best part: he said Halo 4 was coming out in December. It’s since been edited. Heaven help us if he left every objectively false fact unchanged.

So not only did Adam Najberg fault a game repeatedly for not being Call of Duty, but he messed up basic, easily-verifiable facts. And he writes for the Wall Street Journal, an incredibly reputable paper with a huge reach and plenty of influenceForget losing your bonus because of your 84 MetaCritic score when you needed an 85; imagine losing 300,000 sales because of the gullible people that will take THIS as their final word on Borderlands 2.

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8 Comments

Filed under Editorial

8 responses to “Dissecting the Wall Street Journal Borderlands 2 Review

  1. aldowyn

    Short response: THIS is why I don’t read reviews from non-tech oriented sites. I’m sure most of them are okay, but they’re just not geared towards me, someone who has a fair chance of knowing more than they do before playing the game then they do after >.> (Exaggerating)

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one this article spurred to write a blog post.
    I’m also glad I beat you to it this time. 😉

  3. My favorite part of his review was the NASCAR Unleashed mention, which came pretty much out of left field. It felt like he just googled “$30 Video games” and picked the first one on the list.

  4. Matt

    Did he just say that Call of Duty’s single player is better? COD? The game whose single player is used as a go-to example of “What Not To Do” and mocked by even the biggest fans?

    This is where objectivity and examples have to come in to the review. He clearly likes COD better, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but just saying this isn’t enough:

    “Borderlands 2’s single-player campaign mode isn’t as good as what you’ll find in games like COD: Black Ops or the Medal of Honor series. There’s too much “feast-or-famine” hunting for tasks, supplies and a good battle for this to be a fun game all the way through.”

    It’s not as good because you have to explore and do things in an open world as opposed to this other game where everything happens instantly because it’s linear? Such apples and oranges comparisons with no context is not a review/article/whatever this is supposed to be.

    • I don’t think the fact that COD’s campaign is mocked by its own fans is really indicative of what they think of overall quality. People really liked The Dark Knight, but they still mocked Batman’s “WHUHISHEH!” I honestly did not know it was possible for a man to yell and mutter at the same time, but there you go.

      See what I mean?

  5. “Borderlands 2 doesn’t have NEARLY as many basketball jokes as Juwanna Mann. Clearly, it is the inferior piece of entertainment.”

  6. False Prophet

    As I read his review, I had this thought running through my head: This guy sounds like someone who normally reviews stocks (badly?) being forced to review videogames.

    He obsesses over numbers. He compares unlike things using numbers without context (e.g. you can say Apple’s share price is higher than Exxon’s, but without any context that data is apropos of nothing). He continually pimps his choice to the deprecation of what he’s supposed to be reviewing. He looks up something on Wikipedia and calls it research. Wikipedia is for average folks to get the gist of something they don’t know well. It should not be a substitute for academic research or professional journalism (I’m a librarian, this is a hot button for us).

    And really, crapping on Borderlands for its story while praising COD? Did he sleep through the tripe that passes for narrative in MW2 and 3 and BLOPS?

  7. Demonpie

    Jesus Christ how can you even compare CoD to BL2? CoD: Almost completely linear game that it usually set in the past or the very near future. You have a small array of guns. They tack on some stupid plotline and call it a campaign.
    BL2: Very open, expansive world with unlimited amounts of weapons and equipment. Lots of exploration and no where near as linear as CoD. He obviously played like 5 minutes of BL2 and then used Wikipedia to find out the rest.

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