(WARNING: this article goes into spoilers territory on Borderlands 2. Avoid this if you’re still playing or easily offended)
Borderlands was one of my favorite games when I first started my satirical smashing on Twitter. We saw charm, humor, an excessive amount of guns, and some of the clearest, most honest marketing about a franchise in a good long while. This wasn’t a serious adventure. The world you were exploring was ridiculous, and there was certainly “no rest for the wicked”. I was really expecting A-L-O-T from Borderlands 2 and I regret to inform all of you that I was very very wrong.
I started off my adventure in a train that somehow gained the ability to move across ecosystems at an incredible speed. You see things, you hear things, you see robots, and then a nonchalant message that implies some dude on the screen doesn’t like you. If you saw the marketing then you’d realize that was Handsome Jack and if you didn’t then you would have no idea as to what the hell was going on. After one massive explosion we are once again alone and you have chosen which character you will be playing as. You’re greeted by the funny little robot Claptrap and begin a rather slow tutorial process as you start to head towards Sanctuary, where the game actually begins. Aside from the explosion we once again see the main character selection, leaving a vehicle, and entering what can only be described as the kiddie pool. For Borderlands 2 I was expecting some kind of ridiculous comical 3-minute tutorial and then we begin the actual game with the whole group doing missions. Maybe the Commando leads the team, tries to build up some failed attempt at camaraderie. Perhaps we even have the Gunzerker bust in out of nowhere asking everyone if they ever had fried marauder before, and I was expecting Zero to be the silent “true world” ninja type that always saved everyone at the last possible second with subtle sword and gun technique. I was expecting a mixture of the same and a great deal of something new based on their over-hyped marketing campaign.
About halfway through the game I was hoping to see the group diversify. Maybe Zero would go do some actual silent assassinations. Maya would head out on some dangerous misadventure with Lilith to learn more about the sirens. The Commando would lay out some ground work for the next major mission to take place in the storyline and I guess the Gunzerker would be on the hunt for a marauding cheeseburger. Sad to say, other than groundwork, we never once saw any of this. There was no true exploration, no individual quest lines going into why each person decided to come to Pandora or this particular sector. The game tried to feed the idea that each character was curious or searched for a challenge but we never get to see what truly caused this genesis and what they did with it afterwards. When I look at how Roland and Lilith had more personality then everyone else I’d seen in the game up to this point it makes me wonder: Is it possible that Gearbox believes each character’s true personality is only fully seen after a vault has been opened? I decided I was giving them too much credit and instead continued with the storyline.
The next section of the game was where I briefly started to truly enjoy it. The moment I met Tiny Tina and then later heard Tiny Tina’s story while trying to save Bloodwing is going down as one of my most memorable experiences in all the games I’ve ever played. We meet a strange 13 year old girl/demolitions expert that enjoys the subtleties of rap battles, goes out of her way to address guests for tea parties, carries various memorabilia on her walls like any child would, and through some form of psychosis is planning revenge for the death of her family. Later on when saving Bloodwing we get to actually hear what happened to her family and then learn that it’s more or less Handsome Jack’s fault. It is one of the most terrible things I have ever heard in my life. It’s ironic and sad, and for the first time ever in Pandora we are able to see how someone ended up the way they are. Under that battle-rap facade there was once a broken little girl and we can see what and who caused it. Handsome Jack at that moment went from being a jerk to being someone that needs a visit into Zero’s “true world”. I found myself wanting to know what happens next, to see what I would have to do to end that jackass’s involvement with Pandora, and then about 2 hours later it was completely ruined for me.
Roland’s death was pure overkill. At this point in the story I was expecting maybe the whole team would bro up again and go on some ridiculous mission that involved each character doing something to support the others, (and I think the marketing may also be to blame for this one) but instead we only go on a mission with Brick who uses vehicles that we ourselves never get to drive and begin a very long slog up a tower to fight a seriously over-powered robot and his many flying laser cannons. It was fun, but it wasn’t anything that we hadn’t seen before. We then enter a room with tubes that need to be destroyed but are protected by shields via Mass Effect 2 Reaper technology (ed note: not really) which forces us to wait around for ten minutes while Lilith and Roland try to take down the shields. The level then ends with Handsome Jack blasting a hole through Roland’s chest (I’d like to note that Roland was immortal and has shields before this). Maybe if there was more dialogue in the game at this point between Lilith and Roland I may have felt whatever it was that Gearbox was trying to make me feel, but in all honesty I felt nothing. I found myself thinking “well that was uncalled for,” instead of thinking about how much Jack needs to see that “True World” Zero talks about each time his cloaking field turns on. Gearbox had been trying to go the emotional route by over killing on the “evil” and narcissism of Jack without ever showing us any of it until this specific moment and it ended up burning me out.
For the rest of the game I continued through a strange, constantly shifting difficulty curve until I finally reached Jack. Jack was this enemy I was meant to hate, an enemy I supposedly needed to kill, but I no longer cared. Regardless of how incredibly easy the fight and “boss” fight was or how they ripped it completely from Assassins Creed, I would never have had any satisfaction. My main character was this soulless entity and everyone around him was either a “bro” or just some idiot that lacked the overall quality or substance to truly move me from beginning to end in this game.
Gearbox discovered an interesting formula for making a game with Borderlands. Lots of guns, humor, and atmosphere can certainly sell a game, but with Borderlands 2 it didn’t work for me. Everywhere I went I kept seeing the original game but with an extra layer of polish. The flaws of the original game were never addressed, and the storyline of this game did not look like something I should have been seeing from the second generation. Borderlands 2 story was not crafted by anyone that understands the basics behind any form of narrative. It was crafted by someone who has played a lot of games, knows which games did well, and knows the Internet far better than most of us. It is a story of timing, a story of overwrought ideas and emotions, and ultimately the moment we see them go for the kill and prepping us for Borderlands 3 was the moment it all fell apart. I know Gearbox is probably celebrating right now and will probably be pissed with me for being so harsh with them, but this game should have been something more than what it is. Maybe the real reason why no one has copied them isn’t because people fear being called out or even the genre itself, but because the genre itself doesn’t have enough breadth to it yet. Gearbox got lucky with a concept, but refused to really look beyond it. Adding a bazillion guns, tweaking the guns, and trying to make everyone except the main character talk more is not what’s going to redefine a series. These are little tweaks you’re hoping will only solidify the expensive polish that has been thrown onto your first game. It’s really quite sad to see a company boasting of never being copied do a whole lot of copying at its critical moments. Borderlands 2 was trying to show us all the “True World” but it ultimately fell into its own trap card, and here comes Blue Eyes…ready for the kill.