This is to thank General Knoxx, Scooter, and Mr. Shank for their hilarious monologues. This is to acknowledge that I want my own Claptrap, who dances at random and gets stuck to giant ceiling magnets at the most inopportune times. This is to say that Borderlands’ Pandora is one of the most unique gaming worlds created in the past decade.
This is a love letter to Borderlands and its downloadable content. It’s almost a year late, but my love is strong enough that I know no shame.
And make no mistake–it’s got some tough love in it as well, because sometimes we are prone to be exceedingly critical of what we adore the most.
When I reviewed Borderlands on release last year for another website, I said it was a phenomenal title with a lot to offer this generation of gaming, but I boldly proclaimed that “this was a loot game and nothing more” like its cousins Titan Quest and Diablo II. In retrospect, I was wrong. I downplayed it. For some reason I was afraid to eschew its creativity and revel in its ingenuity. Rather than a game, I should have said it was an experience and a beautiful one at that. Nearly every step of the title is crafted so perfectly that it’s hard to find faults, and when they are found, they are easy to forgive. Borderlands, as an entry into the action RPG genre, reminds us that that these dungeon crawl type games can be fun and not only that–they can be deep, engaging, and complex.
It also reminds us that sometimes they don’t even have to take place in a dungeon. And that, even more importantly, they don’t have to be fixated on a cumbersome experience grind to be rewarding.
Borderlands came out last Fall and I played it on release all the way through. I loved it then, but I appreciate it fully now. My interest in the game started months prior to its release when I caught a developer interview that explained Borderlands’ special A.I. system made specifically for their guns. The gist of it was that the only thing more prevalent than enemies in Pandora were guns–there were millions of possible combinations for each classification of gun. No revolver or sniper rifle was quite the same. There were dozens of modifiers, different brands, and even simple cosmetic changes like different colors or scopes. I was sold on both the system and the way the developers from Gearbox spoke of their ideas. They were remarkably confident yet never egotistical. They espoused excitement, humbled at being referenced as a futuristic Diablo II, and they became illuminated when they explained Pandora as the world they built pixel by pixel.
It was evident that they loved what they created, and admittedly it made me fall in love with it a little as well.
Upon release, the A.I. the developers spoke of in Borderlands shined bright and stole the show. It more than lived up to what it was sold as and collecting guns quickly became a driving force for the game. The weaponry was nuanced, too, and imbued with a strong sense of game balance. It wasn’t as simple as finding a sniper rifle and then traipsing through the wasteland. Although firearms existed in endless quantities in Pandora, a good gun lasted a player twenty some levels and the game’s difficulty level edged the player towards needing a good gun. It was rewarding and addictive when one was found. More so, it was memorable.
With four weapon slots active at a time, players ideally wanted four good guns, and they had to fit a range of purposes. Each class fixated on a certain gun type, though they could use all. For example, Lilith the Siren was meant to be played with pistols and submachine guns as her primary weapons. But just finding a good SMG and a revolver wouldn’t necessarily put her at the top of her game; elemental damage was key for a Siren, and Borderlands put four types of such extra damage modifiers. Lightning was good for dulling shields, fire burned flesh, explosives worked well in crowds, and acid ate through a variety of barriers.
The end result was that Lilith needed one of each elemental gun and it wasn’t until she found them that she would peak. Switching to them correctly played on bosses weaknesses, focused on teamwork, and made the game naunced. Throw some lightning rounds into an armored engineer until his shield falls, then switch to acid to dissolve him into the ether.
Naturally, finding a good gun wasn’t easy. It was memorable, as I said, because it was so rare. So rare in fact that even finding even a well-budgeted gun useful for your class after hours of searching the barren wastelands was something reminiscent of farming Baal or Mephisto in Diablo II over and over again for a rare drop. This sense of accomplishment makes every “badass” (elite) killed and every weapon chest opened made you hold your breath. Every single minute of gameplay is like Christmas.
And of course, more often than not, the chest opens to reveals a useless Rocket Launcher. Sometimes a machine gun that would be perfect if its clip was just a little larger. And once in a while, there’s a really underpowered class mod that shouldn’t even exist.
But it’s okay. Because there’s another chest just a few minutes away–and we have no idea what it will contain.
The characters of Borderlands are a supporting cast to the pistols, grenades, and shotguns. They–and their dialogue, explicit and witty enough to have been written by Quentin Tarantino–are probably my favorite part of the game besides the combat. They are a wild cast of crazy, fascinating people and Borderlands intelligently uses them to propel the player through the series of missions throughout the planet. They make the rather barren planet of Pandora seem alive with every word.
While driving across the map on a mission, Scooter asks us to detour to say hello to his old friend–which, he says, means “murder the crap out of him.” Absurdly the ultimate bad guy of the latest DLC, General Knoxx, hates Mondays and contemplates ending his life several times over the radio. In another vignette of a mission, tape recordings tell the tale of researcher Patricia Tannis going down into a spiral of insanity while searching for the Vault: “I haven’t slept in three days. I just ate six bugs in alphabetical order, starting with Carabis Arinidus and ending with a dessert of Tetrix Undulata.”
The whole process hides what most games embellish–leveling and traveling. Instead of leveling, players are going to the next camp of enemies to both use their new guns as well as find more. It’s more effective to quest than to grind endlessly. Instead of reading perhaps boring or trite texts, or even watching overly long cut scenes, players are caught up on the events through radio and aural archives. The cutscenes that do exist are short and light with very punchy writing. This may be a game assuaged with brevity, however, it’s done with players’ intelligence in mind.
But if the weaponry and the cast are the highlights, as well as their remarkable presentation and overall design, the Vault is the dark underbelly of Borderlands. It doesn’t always work and it does the game a disservice by being the end goal.
The Vault is a bad plot device, mostly because the game doesn’t necessarily require a good one. It seems like a convenient out–ultimately tacked on, unimportant and underwhelming. I think this is largely why I was so afraid to back the game up the first time around. When I first beat the game, the ending was anticlimactic and disappointing compared to the rest of the stuff that had been thrown at us. While I won’t spoil it for people, I will say that nothing happened of any significance. It was a lot of build-up for a weak and uninteresting fight that was meaningless. If the game didn’t launch into a second play through almost immediately after the credits rolled, paying homage to its genre, I suspect a lot more of us would have been angrier than we were. As it stood, though, we were mostly just trying to come to terms with our journey being over than anything and grateful for some more time with the four vault hunters.
Because of this, Borderlands is probably the only game where I would argue that DLC was needed. It is actually one of the few times I’ve ever purchased and installed DLC for any title. Luckily, it was done quickly after its release and has been on sale from Steam lately for under $4 USD. The latest DLC, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, has an ending that chooses to blow us away–in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. It felt sort of like this had been the game’s original end, but somewhere it had been cut off and saved for a future expansion because the game was already too long on launch. The original ending is more a pause then anything, with Knoxx serving as the virulent and explosive conclusion. The ending of the DLC was probably one of the best endings a game has ever served to me. It was custom tailored for the genre, the player, and it knew exactly what it wanted to do.
And damn, was there a lot of loot.
It seems weird to have simultaneously the worst ending and the best in the same game. But that’s really the heart of Borderlands. It’s campy, in a good way. It hits and it misses, time to time. It takes risks.
I always see games like Bayonetta, Alpha Protocol, or even Deadly Premonition praised for their mediocre gameplay–their poor design excused as unique and their paper thin characters called tortured and deep. People justify these games by saying they aren’t afraid to shake things up a bit and that we, as gamers, could learn from them. They postulate that we don’t understand these titles and can’t recognize them for what they were. They say that if we just looked deeper, we’d see it wasn’t really wasn’t the subpar experience critics thought. Maybe we’d get their supposed satire.
But I think they’re just stretching for a point that doesn’t exist. Bayonetta is nothing more than a shallow game starring a sexy witch and Deadly Premonition is just laughable title that will be carried away into the bargain bins for its pointless dialogue and clunky controls. Alpha Protocol had potential that was lost when it became apparent it was nearly unplayable on a grand scale–its level of brilliance forever lost by the virtue of its gameplay being so horrendous we were actually unable to play the game.
It is in a sea of revolutions that Borderlands stands alone as an unlikely success. It is the breath of fresh air that no one realized gaming needed.
I make no excuses for Borderlands.
The first ending didn’t make too much sense like I said. Sometimes it has a little too much fun. It tripped over bugs during its first few months of release. Sometimes Pandora is just a cold and empty planet no matter how luminescent the cast of characters are. But I make no excuses because I don’t need to. Borderlands, with or without my love letter, is a brilliant game. From the stunning art direction to the fun gameplay, it is its own champion.
It doesn’t need my support. And because of that, I’ll give it anyway.