I am a big fan of what you call “loot shooters,” which is to say, I’m a Borderlands fan. As a term meant to denote a shooter game that revolves around the pursuit of increasingly superior loot drops, let’s face it, the standing definition applies most specifically to Borderlands, a game that cobbled its appeal from a unique art style but also the disposability of the guns at the basis of its gameplay. Borrowing heavily from Diablo II, Borderlands centered its loot collection around a color-coded tier-based system that immediately told the player how valuable the drop was in terms of power and cash value. Whites were to be ignored, greens and blues to be sold, purples to cherish, and oranges to pursue at the expense of all else. Also like Diablo II, the different types of character class-specific items also afforded a bit of depth to the process by making every loot drop worthy of pursuit. Did you get a Siren-specific Artifact and you’re playing as a Hunter? No worries. Just drop it off at the nearest mailbox and be on your way. In that sense, the diversity of the weapons, shields, class mods and artifacts provided heavy support for the game’s replay factor, sharpening some of the dull edge to the grinding of other loot-based games. With so many different abilities and powers to choose from, and with so many weapons and accessories to support those playstyles, it was worth it to play the game through several times—or at the very least, far less boring.
Imagine my surprise, then, to fire up The Division 2 and, by way of Twitter, hear that not only is this game considered a loot shooter, it’s also considered a good one. Frankly, it’s blowing my mind. There is almost nothing compelling or fun about the weapons of The Division 2. I find no entertainment in the accurate gun models and names, their plainly stated firing rates, magazine capacity and damage per second. Sure, having an understanding of these stats is integral to progressing through the game. But I find no joy in it, and that’s the problem. Every shooter I play is trying to get me to place a high value on stuff like sway reduction and superior reticles. And while I appreciate the insight it lends into the incremental improvements in game performance, it adds no fun to the strategic process. I mean, in Diablo II, the forefather of all loot shooters, I could pursue magical armor sets that would offer glorious character class-specific boosts to whoever donned it. I could socket my weaponry with gems and runewords, spelling out power incantations that would dizzy the mind—not to mention get quite a few oohs and ahhs while showing them off to my raid buddies. In Borderlands I had an SMG that screamed every time I fired it; it was annoying as fuck, but it existed. Even just storing it in my inventory for a laugh was fun. I passed that thing around from character to character for literally years. And who could forget how Destiny 2 puts its own spin on the formula. I love finding unique items, especially Ghost Shells, and tracking down elite armor pieces and guns in the ever-elusive pursuit of that maximum possible Power Level.
The big problem is that there’s no personality here. While the later stages of The Division 2 do add some new dynamics to the loot system that open up additional goals and strategic considerations (the Chatterbox, for example, is extremely compelling), for the most part, even the Exotics lack the theatrics and effects that would make obtaining them feel special (a problem I similarly had with Fallout 4 with its addition of random weapon modifiers). My routine in The Division 2 has been reduced to sticking to a few specific guns and cycling them out as I find an identical one with even slightly higher stats. I understand why the system is designed this way; the game’s source material mandates a level of realism that doesn’t really coexist with deep lore or a sense of humor. But I miss that feeling of treasure hunting.
All of this is a very long winded way to say that loot shooters, to be effective, have to be about the loot. And that means actually enjoying, anticipating and valuing that loot beyond those incremental performance increases. Any game can force you through the disposable grind of collecting and discarding weapons. But it takes a good one to make it fun.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.