Back In The Saddle
When the fall patch for Civilization V made it even more difficult to get through a decent multiplayer game, the ragtag group I play with several nights a week decided to give it a break and started looking at other alternatives. Everyone started suggesting things they thought would work and would probably be easy to get a hold of. Left for Dead 2, Borderlands, and Borderlands II topped that list. Uh oh. My Achilles' heel — online FPS.
Betrayed by age and life and the treachery they work on your body, I got out of there a long time ago. I know you whippersnappers don't want to hear this, but at a certain point, even a very well-trained selective memory can't protect your pride any longer. I didn't give in completely, but I'd slog through for the story by myself on Easy or marshal my troops and act as armchair general/support in local co-op.
But when the gang figured we should give Borderlands a try, I figured, why not? The fluttering of the calendar pages has wafted away most of the scent of scorched ego, and these days I'm a lot more comfortable with the fact that I suck hard enough to unbalance the HVAC. I know this isn't a Western, but the setting has that frontier/space opera/Firefly sort of feel for me. I like that. So, after giving them fair warning, I hitched up my britches, slung my Cobalt Firehawk low on my right hip, and swung back into the saddle.
Rustle up the posse
I'd been intrigued by Borderlands a couple times. But while I might have tried it singleplayer, I would never have gone online on my own. Not only because I long ago exceeded my US RDA of slurs and exhortations to get back in the kitchen; I'd rather not inflict my idiot savant skillset on strangers.
This isn't my first rodeo. Unfamiliarity with the controls isn't the issue. But just because I know what to do doesn't mean I can make my hands do it. Plus, I have been a console player for a long time so my keyboard gaming skills are seriously rusty. That doesn't add up to anything approaching 'leet. Some things, like shooting, I still do pretty well. Others, like movement, well... .
I'm incredibly lucky in my fellow players. These are people I know and work with in the real world, and they have been incredibly patient with my stumblings and fumblings. The fact that they mean well and I can trust them to do any laughing at me that needs to be done right to my face (decorated with a couple bad puns) is what's making this whole thing even possible.
I still feel bad sometimes, though. I think one guy spent as much time reviving me as he did kicking butt at first. I know he knew what he was getting into when we started this; he's the guy who tried to coach me through my first (memorably bad) attempt at playing Team Fortress 2 online. It's getting better with each session we play, but that didn't make me any less mortified when he has to run back and revive me yet again because yet another Badass Incendiary Skag pinned me against yet another cave wall and ate my face.
Nice shootin', Rex
The rubber hits the road when you setup your character. I've never been the Rambo type — if I decide something needs to be dead, I'd rather not be close enough to smell it. But I didn't want to be a wallflower; I wanted to get in there and mix it up. Soldier seemed like the most versatile class, and that turret seemed like a very good idea for someone who tends to need a little extra cover now and again. So I'm Roland's very similar cousin, Faraday.
At first it was pretty ugly. There was some fumbling with the controls, because I have to play with one of those ergonomic trackballs instead of a traditional mouse and I kept hitting the wrong keyboard keys with my weaker left hand. Now that I've gotten used to it, that trackball might be a back-handed advantage in some circumstances. I still jump in and out of the vehicle at odd intervals and randomly reload weapons due to my recalcitrant fingers, but that big rolling ball acts almost like a regular steering wheel for the driving.
I like the compass/HUD design. It's great at helping me compensate for my lack of a sense of direction. The reticule is clear, but unobtrusive, and the way they implemented iron sights is slick. After a few false starts, with the help of my team I got myself a decent combat rifle and a healing shield, and we went off to bag us some skags.
Things went pretty well overall, but getting better just opens bigger cans of worms. After a while I managed to have brief periods when I'd figured out how to hit the floor with my hat and started working on more tactical positioning. But then, seemingly all of a sudden, the whole tenor of the encounters changed.
At first I thought it had to do with the way we (and the critters) have leveled up. They are fast as all get-out at level 1, but they hit Greased Preschooler speed when we're both at level 17. But I realized it has far more to do with a fundamental game mechanic that has changed drastically since I put down my rocket-launcher in Unreal Tournament.
Me plinking them in the backside from half way across the map draws aggro. Duh, right? But I hadn't realized how that was specifically applied here.
In the singleplayer realms, the only thing aggro effectively governs is when the fight starts. You get ready, then you draw the critter's attention, and you're it's target. Shoot 'til it falls over. Draw the next guy, bang bang bang, splat. Move on. In the multiplayer space, it's more complicated, and I'd forgotten that.
I had improved my movement skills to the point where I could work around the edge of a fracas until I got a nice line for my combat rifle. My plan was to hit them under their armored carapace from the side. The given critter would continue working on whichever one of our front-line guys they were menacing, but I would help knock them down so that guy could kick 'em. I could make myself somewhat useful without getting shredded all the time.
But apparently our wandering appetites don't have much in the way of focus. One round in the rear and they'll spit out whoever it is they're gnawing on and pelt right over to to express their feelings. I'm not being a good team member working from a tactical advantage. I'm a kill-stealing jerk with a face-full of toxic halitosis. And to make it worse, both of our front-line guys get a bonus from kills, so they lose the needed health points and the time it takes to come rez me again.
Once I'd figured that out and talked to them about how to better handle it, the next session went better. I started playing a singleplayer game on the side so I can practice basic skills and hopefully deal with any more of this stuff before I end up dragging my teammates through it. My current challenge is figuring out a better solution for the movement keys so I can shoot and move sideways while still being able to hit the floor with my hat.
A moment of clarity
Huddled with two of my teammates under a rickety tin roof after midnight on a work night with Mothrakk raining flaming death all around me, I had a time for a quick flash of, "Why am I doing this again?"
It's a good question. This isn't the only game in town by a long shot. I could be holding the world in my rusty, but still iron, fist in several other genres instead of flopping around the landscape like a stranded fish. It's not like I'd lose time with my friends. They've dragged me into several other games, and I play boardgames with them, too. I'm not so lacking in ways to feel stupid in public that I needed to sign up for another one.
But the list of pros to go with those cons more than balances them out. It feels good to get my hands dirty and be able to hit the broad side of a barn from the inside again. A big part of the fun of playing FPS games is testing your skills with and to some extent against other people. Even the worst human is better than the AI. I'm better than I was afraid I was, and I'm getting even better as we play. I've had to go revive the guy who had to keep helping me a couple times now, and I feel like I'm becoming a useful part of the team.
It's a closer connection with the broader gaming landscape. I'd been staying out of certain conversations because I didn't feel like I was good enough to have a valid opinion about things since I was just playing the games by myself. I would talk about storytelling for days, but I slunk away from deep conversations about the combat systems. I feel like I have more of a leg to stand on, now.
I've got a lot of learning to do, and things I still need to figure out how to work around. The world didn't exactly sit still while I was playing turn-based, and these baddies aren't getting any slower. I don't ever expect to be hardcore. But if pure, stubborn pride, some out-of-the-box problem solving, and the patient good humor of my friends can somehow power past the obstacles, we'll be good.
So if you'll excuse me, I got TK's artificial leg away from the rotten skag that stole it, and I've got to get it back to him. I'll tip my hat, and head off into the sunset. See ya in Fyrestone, pardner.