Friday, May 15, 2015

Pushing My Love over the Borderlands

One of these days, Sony's going to have to sit down and reflect on the handheld gaming experience, because after ten years, they still haven't figured it out. Nintendo got the hang of it right away with the GameBoy, making simple yet satisfying diversions that don't demand much from the player or the hardware. By contrast, Sony has tilted at the windmill of console-quality portable gaming for years, culminating in Borderlands 2 for the Playstation Vita. 

This title, a first-person shooter with role-playing elements, would not normally be at the top of my list of games to buy. However, it was on sale at K-Mart for $15, and I desperately needed something to justify my Vita's existence. A teetering pile of versus fighters and a backlog of games for the ancient PSOne just wasn't cutting it anymore. So I took a chance on Borderlands 2, the current Vita pack-in and Sony's last bold grasp at relevance in the handheld wars.

They really should have pinned their hopes for a Vita comeback on a different game.

Almost as cold as the reviews this game got.
The reviews of Borderlands 2 have been mixed. For every critic who's applauded the game's pie-in-the-sky ambition, another has grumbled about the sheer hopelessness of squeezing a big-budget console title into the slight frame of the Vita. Rather than a slimmed-down side story, this is just straight up Borderlands 2, with all the levels, all the firepower, and all the strain of making it work on less capable hardware. The frame rate gets chuggy, onscreen text is hard to read, and using the Vita's bedeviled back touchpad for running and melee attacks is a frustrating kludge.

Personally, I'm not all that bothered by the game's performance issues. First of all, I've played handhelds long enough to temper my expectations of the hardware. Sonic never looked quite as good on the Game Gear as he did the Genesis, and nobody was expecting tournament-caliber gameplay from the button-deficient GameBoy Advance port of Street Fighter Alpha 3. Sony has spent millions trying to convince people otherwise, but the truth is that portable gaming is by its very nature a compromised experience. Pocket-sized systems with limited power consumption will always be at least one generation behind their console counterparts.

Secondly, I've always been fascinated by games for machines that shouldn't be able to handle them. They're typically doomed efforts, but they're also ballsy risks that are impressive simply because they exist. Just look at Dragon's Lair for the GameBoy Color, or Red Zone for the Sega Genesis (shown here), or Secret Quest, the closest thing the Atari 2600 had to The Legend of Zelda. None of these are objectively great games, but they push their respective systems harder than you may have thought possible, which is impressive in its own right. Borderlands 2 on the Vita is one such game... maybe it's not that great in direct comparison to the PC version, but that's hard to complain about when it's as complete as it is on a system dwarfed by your desktop.

The problem with Borderlands 2 isn't that it's a poor fit for the Vita specifically, but that this type of game isn't well suited to any handheld. It's the farthest thing from a pick up and play experience, with a high learning curve and lengthy load times. It takes fifty-eight agonizing seconds just to go from the Vita home menu to the Borderlands 2 title screen. You could be playing Super Mario 3D Land in half the time, and not struggling with a half dozen menus and way too many buttons.

It mirrors one of my first experiences with the PSP, waiting an eternity for Tony Hawk's Underground 2 to load while my friend was having the time of his life with Wario Ware: Touched! on the Nintendo DS. Sony had ten years to learn from their mistakes with the PSP, but with the Vita limping toward the end of its life cycle and no apparent plans for a successor, it doesn't look like they'll get any more chances to do things right.


  1. Hey Arugula!

    Haven't played BL2 but Sony definitely seems unable to get A-class stuff on the Vita that's appropriate for the hardware, for sure. No argument there. I honestly find it quite puzzling... I mean, I love my Vita and use it every day since I'm pretty content with non-"AAA" games (of which there are loads) but it seems so simple to get "AAA" games on the machine, and yet.... zippo. I mean, not even any in-house or second-party stuff. SO weird.

    Really bizarre.

    1. I'll be honest with you... I'm warming up to Borderlands 2 on the Vita. In fact, it convinced me to buy the PC version when it was on sale at the Humble Bundle store. It's a lot better on PC, and a lot CHEAPER, but I still find myself alternating between the two versions of the game.

      Anyway! Back to the topic. I wish Sony had been more sensible about the Vita's design. It's clear they wanted to do the same thing they did with the PSP and offer a premium handheld experience, but that just raised its price, and made it impossible to compete with the 3DS.

      When Nintendo sold the 3DS for (a frankly insane) $250, customers balked, and Nintendo quickly responded, because they could lower its price and still make money on the system. Sony just couldn't, and the price remained stubbornly high for years. Switching from OLED to LCD probably helped them, but there are still a lot of bells and whistles in the Vita that weren't strictly necessary. I mean, come on, that back touch panel? Has any game except Tearaway done anything useful with it?

      Then there's the software. It was pretty obvious that Sony wanted to take the Vita down the same path as its predecessor, and we saw a lot of straight console to handheld ports as a result. I'm just not convinced that this is what players want from a handheld. Nintendo makes games especially for the 3DS... even Smash Bros. is markedly different from its console counterpart. Sony insists on forcing the square peg of console games into the round hole of a handheld, with decidedly mixed results. PS3 games are too demanding for the system, so they've switched to PS2 games, and even those don't work as well as they had on the original hardware. Worse of all, Sony released the *PS4* a year ago, leaving the Vita two console generations behind.

      The console-quality handheld is a fool's errand. Sony should have realized this a long time ago, yet they still insist on ramming their heads into that brick wall. People don't want to play games they already have, and they certainly don't want inferior versions of them. They want portable games on portable systems, but I don't think Sony will ever allow itself to come to that realization.