Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
One of the tricky things about critiquing video games is that the metric used for judging whether or not a game is “good” is often even more subjective than elsewhere in the arts. One person can have fun with something that another person doesn’t have any fun with—but also, some games aren’t supposed to be fun at all. Some games have a story. Some games are just about fitting shapes into little holes and making the shapes disappear. You can praise Red Dead Redemption 2’s story while knocking its gameplay, and you can praise Tetris’ gameplay while arguing that it would be better served if it had a story. That would be a weird argument, but that’s what I’m saying. It can be subjective.
So let’s talk about Borderlands 3. When he saw the game earlier this year, The A.V. Club’s own William Hughes noted that it was “more of the same,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s coming off of something as popular as Borderlands 2. The problem is that Borderlands 2 came out in 2012, and that’s a long time to go without any real evolution in its mechanics. You shoot bad guys, you collect tons of different guns that all have little stat improvements (like better reload speed or weird effects like electric bullets and alternate firing modes), and then you… keep doing that.
You get better stuff. The numbers tick higher. Sometimes you do some platforming to find secret areas in hopes of getting better stuff and watching the numbers tick higher. It all feels good to play, as Borderlands usually does, but technical competence is the lowest bar that a video game should have to cross in 2019. Halo figured out how to do good first-person shooter controls on a console 18 years ago, and the original Borderlands already nailed the cartoonish art design of the visuals, but hey, it’s good that Borderlands 3 managed to do the thing it’s supposed to do.
What’s not good about Borderlands 3 is pretty much everything else—and this is where that whole subjectivity thing really comes in. I personally think, subjectively, that all of the selectable characters in Borderlands 3 are extremely boring (I went with the gadget-user because his ability to create holographic decoys reminded me of a better game). Also, I think the writing is a disaster, and the classic Borderlands humor is more grating here than ever before (hope you like fart jokes!). Every character is either a maniac who screams every single word or is too cool for school and rolls their eyes at the screaming maniacs. There’s very little nuance or interesting character work that doesn’t require an existing fondness for idiots like Claptrap the robot, and the narrative consistently gets in the way of the tolerable shooting. The villains, a pair of twins who are essentially evil YouTubers, are actually kind of fun—but that could be due to my dislike for influencer culture.
Basically, Borderlands 3 is a game that does the things it’s supposed to do, in a way that is reasonably fun, which, to some people, is all it needs to do. Plenty of players will be perfectly content to dump 100 hours into a game that is just Borderlands again, but I don’t like it. It’s so mindless that it feels like a grim indication that video games haven’t changed at all since Pac-Man, since you’re still just hitting a button, watching the game react in some way, and then being rewarded with happy sound effects and bright colors. It’s sad that this is what we’re accepting as a big, new game when it does so little to actually make itself seem big and new. To put a fine point on it: Borderlands 3 is a good game that is bad.
On the other side of that coin is a game that is technically bad but creatively good: Daemon X Machina. From the developers at Marvelous!, Daemon X Machina is a blend of casual, arcade-like mech action and the unnecessarily complex simulation-style mech action of something like Armored Core, resulting in a game where you can look at absurdly specific statistics about how quickly your mech can turn and how good it is at shooting lasers versus bullets, but it’s in service of gameplay that is far too simplistic for information like that to be especially important.
You play as a little anime mecha pilot who never speaks, and you can walk around your hangar, equip new arms, legs, heads, and weapons to your mech, and then fly out on relatively short missions that typically involve killing all of the enemy robots in a given area and then looting dead robots for new armor you can attach to your robot. The story is unintelligible, with characters you don’t know having conversations with other people you don’t know about concepts that haven’t been properly explained, but at least every other word isn’t about farting, unlike in some other games I could mention.
The combat is serviceable, but it’s all so dependent on your chosen load-out that it’s easy to end up with weapons that are all boring to use if you only care about what does the most damage or what is the least complicated. The right way to play is to go with the stuff that’s cool or fun, which typically means swords, Robotech-style swarm missiles, and shoulder-mounted laser cannons. Though it’s not necessarily a wise tactic, I like going into every mission with as many rocket launchers as I can carry so I can just blast through levels and blow shit up like the Red Comet himself.
Here’s where Daemon X Machina actually benefits from a subjective reading, unlike Borderlands 3. I’m on the record as a huge fan of Mobile Suit Gundam and all things mecha anime, which is exactly the tone that this game is going for. So I’m more than willing to overlook some shaky design decisions if it means getting me to the next point where I can decide which arm looks better on my robot and which paint scheme will make it look more like a Gundam. It’s very likely that Daemon X Machina won’t interest you at all if you don’t go into it with an affinity for anime robots, and even then you might not have any patience for its simple, repetitive missions. Still, it has a spark of life that Borderlands 3 is lacking, and the obvious appreciation that its developers have for the same mecha anime stuff that I love so deeply tells me that there are still people out there approaching this medium with some degree of passion and excitement—rather than just looking to make some numbers tick up.