The Internet is home to a ton of journalism of questionable merit. On the one hand, modern technology gives us all the opportunity to flex our reporting and editorializing muscles; on the other hand, not all of us are particularly good at it. Like anything else, you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to online journalism, especially when it comes to niche topics.
One place most of us wouldn’t expect to find such shoddy work is the Wall Street Journal. Surely such a prestigious media outlet employs only the finest wordsmiths who know their beats even better than I know my way from the couch to the refrigerator! Well, a recent Wall Street Journal review of Borderlands 2 proves that assumption wrong. Adam Najberg, the author, just doesn’t seem to get the game. Throughout the article, he vapidly compares Borderlands 2 to Call of Duty and bemoans the ways Gearbox’s loot shooter doesn’t stack up to Activistion’s venerable franchise. Let’s break it down.
“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.”
I have to wonder when Mr. Najberg last visited a GameStop. Pretty much every new game is released at that price point; using it as a means of comparison and a bar against which to set expectations doesn’t make sense. Calling Borderlands 2 a first-person shooter is equally silly. Yes, it utilizes the first-person view, and yes, the player shoots things from that view, but that does not make it a traditional first-person shooter. We’re dealing with something more akin to Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas: an open world RPG with first-person shooter mechanics.
And you know what? It’s all right to say you didn’t enjoy Borderlands 2 because you prefer traditional first-person shooters. There’s nothing wrong with that. But to knock it because it isn’t something it isn’t trying to be is just bad writing. Any good reviewer–whether he’s reviewing games, movies, restaurants, or toilet paper–judges a product based on similar products. Comparing Borderlands 2 to Call of Duty or Halo is like comparing the Wall Street Journal to Penthouse because both are printed on paper and sold at the gas station.
“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.”
I won’t deny that multiplayer is important for a first-person shooter. When you’ve got a game focused on combat, it’s natural that players will want to test their mettle against each other. Borderlands 2, however, is focused on exploration. Its main gameplay mechanic is finding things; building some sort of team death match based on who can discover the most hidden loot simply wouldn’t make sense. Hence, the four-player cooperative mode.
“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.”
Does it seem odd to anyone else that someone knocking a game for not being enough like the popular shooters of the world is complaining about that target demographic? All joking aside, one needs to remember that Gearbox keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek; Borderlands 2 is not a dumb frat boy who likes explosions, it’s a pretentious hipster that recognizes and appreciates the sheer excess of it all.
The review also reveals a few details of the plot with nary a spoiler warning in sight. This is simply poor form.
As I’ve read and reread Mr. Najberg’s article, I’ve come to two possible reasons for the its poor construction:
1. The writer is a journalist first and a gamer second…or perhaps not second, but fifty-fourth. Mr. Najberg’s review reads as if it were written by a concerned parent who occasionally games with his children, or perhaps a rookie journalist who drew the short straw at assignment time and had to write about “that Borderlands thing.” It doesn’t read as if it were written by an expert who’s taken the time to familiarize himself with the medium and the culture surrounding it.
2. Mr. Najberg wrote this article not for hardcore gamers but for readers of the Wall Street Journal. You and I know that Borderlands 2 is very different from Call of Duty or Halo, but the site’s typical audience would probably cross its eyes and browse elsewhere if it had to read about loot shooters and skill trees. Comparing it to one of those household names could simply have been the best way to describe the game to the writer’s intended audience, and likewise the remainder of the article is simplistic as a result. Claptrap as “a droid that’s somewhat of a cross between a snarky, profane C3PO with the body of an R2D2?” Not quite. But those two are the some of the only robots most Americans know by name, so there the writer’s choice.
The Wall Street Journal and other large news outlets are caught in a weird spot when it comes to gaming. The pastime is big enough to be news but not popular enough that you can go into deep detail without scaring off a significant portion of your audience. In principle, such things shouldn’t matter; journalists need to get their facts straight and keep them there. In real life, however, news is a business, and more readers means more money, even if a work’s quality suffers as a result. Regardless of the reasons, the mainstream media continues to prove that it simply isn’t up to the task of discussing video games.