Back In The Saddle

My usual combat position

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.

Wait, Kimosabe
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.

Comments

Great article. I have a fundamental problem playing first person perspective games: I get motion sickness and dizzy.

You hit on a great point, the enjoyment of playing cooperatively online, which is why I would say my times playing Monster Hunter online with a good group of hunters were among my favourite online experiences. It's you against the monsters, and if your team gets three KO's you fail the mission. The incentive is there to help your teammates, and it's so satisfying to take down a huge monster together with teamwork.

You hit on a great point, the enjoyment of playing cooperatively online,

Yeah there's something about coop. More fun that PVP. No trash talk and bad attitudes and blaming your teammates for losing... just us vs them, people vs ai, and a common goal. If your teammate gets more kills than you, so what? Dead bad guys, progress is made, game is won, that's all that matters.

gamerparent wrote:

Great article. I have a fundamental problem playing first person perspective games: I get motion sickness and dizzy.

I have the same problem with some games, including with Borderlands when I first started playing. The three things that fix the condition for me are playing in a well lit room, turning 'view bob/motion bob' off, and making sure that Vsync is enabled. The latter is the most important factor in my case, there is just something about the screen rendering at different speeds in different places that sets off my motion sickness. Borderlands does not have a vsync setting in its graphics menu, but diligent googling by another member of the team found that it can be enabled manually in one of the game's config files.

Since I'm a member of the aforementioned ragtag group, I'd like to chime in to state that Colleen is definitely selling herself short - I've had far more painful coop experiences in other games, with players that were already familiar with, and skilled at, the game at hand but were just unable to mesh with their teammates for some reason. To me the most important factor in playing coop is the ability to blend into a team and find your niche within that team; if you have that ability (and she does) then everything else becomes a simple learning curve.

Borderlands has a few uncommon twists to the coop mechanic that she and I struggled to get our heads around for a bit (the 'second wind' and how it's achieved, most notably), and starting out cold in multiplayer mode makes you miss some of the essential early learning which leads to a rocky start. In my case the killstealing problem is compounded by the fact that I'm the designated sniper, so I tend to dispense justice at a distance - usually enough distance that I can't really see clearly where my crippled teammates are located and which targets they're attempting to take down to gain their second wind. This leads to frequent unintentional kill steals on my part. The alternative (getting closer) has its own problems, as A) I'm usually either on top of or behind some convenient piece of geometry to get a better shot, and B) with crits usually in the several thousand HP range I'm an instant aggro magnet if I get under foot of the in-your-face classes. In these situations the team dynamic matters more than anything else - your teammates ability to compensate for your weaknesses (whether imposed by the game or your skill level) and complement your strengths, and your ability to do the same for them. In this case Colleen neatly bridges the gap between the aforementioned in-your-face frontline guys and my far-field sniping; she lends her firepower where needed when all goes well, but is perfectly positioned to lend a helping hand and subsequent revive if one of us gets ambushed or otherwise finds himself in too deep.

I've been a huge fan of coop FPS ever since System Shock 2's bug-riddled-but-nonetheless-awesome attempt at pulling it off. There is something intensely satisfying about teaming up to achieve a common goal, especially when the odds seem to be stacked high against you. I can't wait to properly introduce Colleen to my favorite coop FPS series, Left 4 Dead, once we're Borderlandsed out.

The co-op nature of Borderlands is what really draws me into that game.

You can play the PC version with a controller. The 360 controller should be plug and play.

Fire wrote:
gamerparent wrote:

Great article. I have a fundamental problem playing first person perspective games: I get motion sickness and dizzy.

I have the same problem with some games, including with Borderlands when I first started playing. The three things that fix the condition for me are playing in a well lit room, turning 'view bob/motion bob' off, and making sure that Vsync is enabled. The latter is the most important factor in my case, there is just something about the screen rendering at different speeds in different places that sets off my motion sickness. Borderlands does not have a vsync setting in its graphics menu, but diligent googling by another member of the team found that it can be enabled manually in one of the game's config files.

I will try that next time, but my history is against me. I can play for about 10 minutes before nausea sets in and I break out into a clammy sweat.

Even the worst human is better than the AI.

I wish that applied in L4D but apparently the devs did an okay job, or at least mediocre.

I think what Fire said translates to "Colleen is credit to team."

Borderlands co-op is so much less high stress than other games, i'm thinking in particular of Left 4 dead. In that game, your lack of skills will be an immediate detriment to the group, and everyone wiping out means you have to start over. In borderlands if everyone wipes, it just means you all have to trundle back to where you all died to get revenge on whatever killed you.

And obviously, a good group of patient, understanding friends can eliminate a lot of that stress. Its just whatever baggage you bring on yourself.

Momgamer, just don't try Borderlands 2 unless you want to lose untold hours to it. Its so much more fine tuned and polished. It would be hard to go back to the first one.

gamerparent wrote:
Fire wrote:
gamerparent wrote:

Great article. I have a fundamental problem playing first person perspective games: I get motion sickness and dizzy.

I have the same problem with some games, including with Borderlands when I first started playing. The three things that fix the condition for me are playing in a well lit room, turning 'view bob/motion bob' off, and making sure that Vsync is enabled. The latter is the most important factor in my case, there is just something about the screen rendering at different speeds in different places that sets off my motion sickness. Borderlands does not have a vsync setting in its graphics menu, but diligent googling by another member of the team found that it can be enabled manually in one of the game's config files.

I will try that next time, but my history is against me. I can play for about 10 minutes before nausea sets in and I break out into a clammy sweat.

Just realized in reading your reply that I left out something important. If you don't regularly have eye exams, go and have one done. Certain eye problems can cause the symptoms you describe.

Update: Colleen has been successfully smokered into Left 4 Dead. After a rocky start due to the much higher pace of the game, she's now found her feet and is racking up the cheevos.

Thanks for helping me finally nail down Zombie Genocidest!

I don't know if "help" was the right word for that, but all right. Smokered indeed (if that means spending the most time dangling from a Brobdingnagian tongue waiting for rescue).

Itsatrap's suggestion that I switch to the assault rifle and look around more was a winner. I'll keep at it. I've gotten better at spotting boomers and hunters which cuts down on the green-screen-jerk-magnet and laying-on-the-ground-with-amorphous-shadows-trying-to-eat-me problems. But I might adjust my monitor brightness if we play again tonight and see if that helps in the spotting-smokers-on-the-roof problem I keep having.

My hands are still a giant factor. Last night I tried playing with a game pad (Belkin Nostromo N 52) instead of the base keyboard. It isn't an unmixed blessing. The keys are tight, and the thumb button that apes the spacebar is farther away from the WASD analogs than I like and I have huge hands. I don't know how others do it. I'm going to have to figure out what in the Sam Hill its key-mapping software did with the bloody bedamned Crouch button. But the proof is in the pain-levels and I can definitely feel the difference today in the state of my left hand. SOLD!

Unintended side effect -- according to my kids, the incidence of exclamations that other people's parents weren't married or having pointed discussions with female dogs about their tendency to saunter into my firing line for no apparent reason and then complain when they get shot are much more prevalent when we're playing this than Borderlands. And louder. So add "watching my language and volume" to the list of FPS skills I need to re-acquire.

momgamer wrote:

Unintended side effect -- according to my kids, the incidence of exclamations that other people's parents weren't married or having pointed discussions with female dogs about their tendency to saunter into my firing line for no apparent reason and then complain when they get shot are much more prevalent when we're playing this than Borderlands. And louder. So add "watching my language and volume" to the list of FPS skills I need to re-acquire.

I think I'm the worst person I know when it comes to friendly fire. I would always have the highest number for it when the end-credits rolled.

L4D 1 & 2 both fully support the 360 controller as well, in case the Nostromo's too frustrating.

I know they do, and I've tried it on other games but it's not going to solve my issues here.

I kind of soft-pedaled this in the article, but there are medical reasons why I got out of this that the controllers don't help all that much. Things have gotten to the point where I can't even play a turn-based jRPG for more than an hour or so at a time without some pretty epic work-arounds even with a 360 controller. The Dual-shock 3 is even worse.

That said, I'm really loving the design and gameplay of Left 4 Dead. I'm glad Fire is dragging me out of my comfort zone in this direction.

When he's up for tagging, we need to get the collective mind going for a good "filthy enabler" joke. Because he is the filthiest of enablers - he's also the guy who dragged me into Civ 5.

Now the next rung, Colleen: once you've gotten the hang of the campaigns on L4D and can reliably survive them on Advanced, you should enter the next plane of fun by playing as the Special Infected by joining some friends in Versus mode. There still isn't a better multiplayer game than L4D versus, all these years later.

I saw the achievements for those, but as my team-mates can tell you, I think we're a long way from Advanced.

Being a Hunter looks very interesting, though.

Keithustus wrote:

Now the next rung, Colleen: once you've gotten the hang of the campaigns on L4D and can reliably survive them on Advanced, you should enter the next plane of fun by playing as the Special Infected by joining some friends in Versus mode. There still isn't a better multiplayer game than L4D versus, all these years later.

I'd warn against that personally. Versus can be really fun when it works, but you either need to have everyone at the same skill level, or no one care about how badly they get slaughtered, preferably the latter. If you've got a group of 8 who are more concerned with having fun than scoring well, by all means, but even having one person complain about team stacking or team balance can make the game less enjoyable. I just find it more enjoyable to play with friends instead of against them. If you do play versus, I highly recommend playing on a server with snare speak, so the special infected can talk to the survivors they pounce/smoke/puke on. Few things in L4D are as fun as singing to and taunting the person you're munching on.

We're using Skype for our communications needs. It seems to be a good all-around solution for us on all the games we play.

I don't know. We've got a pretty wide gulf in skills between all of us. Can you work it so you're all on one "side" by choosing all to be infected or do you have to split up into two teams? It might be cool to come at these stories backwards like an undead Rosencranz and Gildenstern Are Dead thing.

Duplicate

momgamer wrote:

We've got a pretty wide gulf in skills between all of us. Can you work it so you're all on one "side" by choosing all to be infected or do you have to split up into two teams?

Yes, that is what the Team Versus option is for. You only need three friends and to select that mode, and the game will find another set of four for you to play against. Having different skill levels is fine, because what is important is playing with people you know and enjoy. So long as you stick together and talk things out without getting upset, you'll be in a prime position to learn the maps and tactics and get better, both individually and as a team.

Keithustus wrote:
momgamer wrote:

We've got a pretty wide gulf in skills between all of us. Can you work it so you're all on one "side" by choosing all to be infected or do you have to split up into two teams?

Yes, that is what the Team Versus option is for. You only need three friends and to select that mode, and the game will find another set of four for you to play against. Having different skill levels is fine, because what is important is playing with people you know and enjoy. So long as you stick together and talk things out without getting upset, you'll be in a prime position to learn the maps and tactics and get better, both individually and as a team.

If you do play Team Versus, you will most likely not want to play w/ snare speak, as you'll be playing against random people from the internets. There unfortunately is no co-op infected mode, so if you play as the infected, you have to play against other people. I suppose you could have one friend play with three bots while 4 of you played the infected, though the game might switch people over to try to make the sides more balanced.