Back to the Borderlands: Gaming the Player Way

When someone asks what are your favorite books, movies or video games, how do you come up with an answer? Do you list the canonical classics you’ve finished, like Citizen Kane or Super Mario World? Is it the ones you enjoy the most: the pulpy action and intrigue of a James Bond type, or the surreal misadventures of wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood? Or maybe it’s the ones you’re happy to return to time and again—a dog-eared copy of On the Road or a boxed set of the Star Wars trilogy (just the originals). As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that last category to be the most meaningful measure of how much I really like something. Knowing everything that happens in the story does not diminish my enjoyment in the slightest upon each return; it only adds to my delight when I discover something new and interesting hidden within a work I love, like treasures buried in a tomb. When free time is scarce, returning to a work you’ve already consumed is a luxury you can’t afford to waste on just any piece of bargain bin junk. By that very scientific metric, Borderlands 2 is easily my favorite video game of the last generation. And I bet if you gave it a try, it could become one of yours as well. Allow me to explain.

Borderlands 2 is basically a first person shooter with RPG elements stapled on. You move through the environment shooting psychos and monsters with a world-record variety of guns. As you level up, points can be invested in various skills that will change and improve your character’s abilities. The more you play, the stronger you become. Your enemies do as well, always keeping you just challenged enough. The core gameplay loop is immensely satisfying, and the rewards continue to increase with each playthrough. You chase a waypoint across the Pandoran wasteland, murdering everything in your way until you get a quest complete. Then you loot the dead bad guys for loot and take it back to town for sale, keeping the best pieces for yourself, of course. The gear (guns, shields, grenades and class mods) is all randomly generated, so there is always an element of surprise when opening a chest or killing a boss. You will never find a weapon so powerful that it cannot be replaced by something even better further along in the campaign. It also means you cannot walk up to a vending machine and buy the exact gun you want. Thus, there is always motivation to head back out into the wasteland and continue your treasure hunt. Borderlands doesn’t let you get bored.

This game is all about value, reflected in both its design and the mechanics of play. Let’s start with something simple, like the look of the game. It is all rendered in colorful cel shading, giving the world and its inhabitants the vibrant life of a well-animated cartoon. While gorgeous in its minimalism, it also serves to make the outrageous violence more palatable and fun than if it were still the grimly serious brown and green military shooter shown in the first previews for the original game. By the time Gearbox got to the sequel, Borderlands 2 had become an absurdist action adventure through a surreal sci-fi landscape that is as ridiculous as it is dangerous.

It all begins with a basic call to adventure. You are a treasure hunter on Pandora, a planet filled with alien artifacts and technology to pilfer—a premise ripe with potential for excitement. The story is incredibly flexible and even optional to a degree; you can completely ignore it as you blast your way from one checkpoint to the next. You are never forced to actively participate in dialogue. At most your character is asked to push buttons while they have scripted banter with an NPC. But if you decide to pay attention and engage with the narrative and its cast, you will be rewarded with tons of metafictional humor and some surprisingly poignant moments. Some NPCs will transition from faceless quest-giver to treasured friend as you get to know them, and even the most hateful villains have a human side hidden away if you look hard enough. You might even shed a single tear for the plight of a psychotic teenage explosives expert, which is not something you expect from most shooter campaigns.

This economy of narrative is also apparent in the quest design. Borderlands 2 is often content to provide you with only the flimsiest excuse to go somewhere and shoot lots of enemies, rarely wasting extra words on why. NPCs will spout ridiculous sci-fi gibberish to justify their odd requests, and some will even wave their hand and literally say “Blah blah blah, go kill them.” Many of the most memorable quests in Borderlands poke fun at the very nature of quest design itself. My favorite was given by a psycho in Thousand Cuts named Face McShooty. He screamed about how bad he wanted to be shot in the face (not the arm, not the leg!) and a quest box opened telling me to shoot this guy in the face. I did. He thanked me with his dying breath and another box appeared. “Quest Completed! You shot that guy in the face.” Finally, an achievement unlocked, titled “That Was Easy.” I haven’t laughed that hard at a video game since the original Grim Fandango.

Even when you finally beat the game, slay the villain and save the world, it is not the end, but merely the beginning of your adventure. While the game boasts a plethora of difficulty levels, you can’t just pick them from the main menu. No, you have to earn them—the next tier only unlocks when you have defeated the previous one. I have beaten the main quest of Borderlands 2 at least fifty times by now, and yet that does not qualify me as a hardcore player. After your first playthrough you get access to True Vault Hunter Mode, and beating that leads to Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. That’s as far as I go, for beyond that lie Overpower Levels 1-8, which make the game nakedly unfair. Enemies are ten levels more powerful than you, with massive damage bonuses that can kill you in two hits in addition to their mile-long shield and health bars that regenerate constantly. Although the loot is significantly better, it certainly doesn’t make the battlefield level. OP Levels are a nightmare challenge for only the fastest and most dedicated players, the kind of people who never think Doom is hard enough. But this range of difficulty not only attracts a wider player base, it allows more of them to feel accomplished. While I never ascended Borderlands’ highest mountain, I still feel like an unstoppable badass in that game. I have become an expert in its fictitious munitions, collected a respectable assortment of legendaries, killed every boss in every last downloadable corner of Pandora and maxed-out four characters at Level 72. As of this writing I have a fifth in progress.

If you are interested in entering the wild world of the Borderlands series, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Handsome Collection for your preferred platform. It also includes The Pre-Sequel!, which is best viewed as an extensive DLC campaign rather than its own game. The Collection contains both games and all of their add-ons and extras, which totals hundreds of hours of endlessly re-playable content on one disc you can probably get for twenty dollars at your local Gamestop. It’s a whole lotta bang for very few bucks.


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