Borderlands 2: What if: the Weathergirls but NRA
Gearbox Software’s reputation in gaming circles is...mixed to say the least. Even after the chaos that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, the publisher has been involved in controversy and bad releases ever since. The less said about Randy Pitchford the better. But Borderlands 2 is something of an exception rather than the rule. It was well received and sold over 22 million copies at the time of release. Truth be told, at least for me it’s a perfectly fine game. Nothing particularly mind-blowing but not particularly bad either. I had fun with it while it lasted.
Six Vault Hunters are betrayed by corporate overlord and tyrannical ***hole Handsome Jack, when he discovers a Vault (larger than the previous one) hidden away on Pandora. This soon turns into a race against time as the Vault Hunters try to reach the Vault before Handsome Jack get there. Along the way the Hunters free Pandora from Jack’s rule while doing odd jobs. The story is light and extremely quirky.
Emphasis on the word “quirky” as everyone talks like they are the main comic relief. I will get into why this is not a good from a story telling standpoint in terms of tension building. However, in regards of video game story telling it works well enough. It provides motivation and reason to justify the player’s existence. I won’t put it up for the best screenwriting award (you can see the plot points from a mile off) but it’s perfectly functional.
The full cast of Falstaffs
Sacred 3 and Book of Demons seem to show a reoccurring trend in comedy games. There needs to be term for this so I am going to call it “The Falstaff cast”. A Falstaff cast is defined a cast completely made up of comic relief. When everyone is goofy all the time it sucks all the tension out of the story. As a result the player stops being engaged and just more or less ignores everything. If the characters do not care about the plot, then why on earth should the player? You could have the best plotted story out there, but if everyone is quipping or lightheartedly bantering with each other, players will stop caring.
I should point out that the humour (at least for me and the friends who joined me for it) is not bad. We were often chuckling or laughing at the strange and wacky delivery and dialogue. The problem is that it is often bland and unremarkable; when the comedy doesn’t land we were dead silent. This was majority of the time as the consistently wacky dialogue sort of blurred together, with the odd moment of something uniquely wacky providing most of the laughs. Maybe if there was more of a balance between the drama and the comedy in order for the comedy pace itself? Because (at least until act three) everyone is always joking all the time, player engagement is nonexistent.
The fun, the bland and the forgettable
Truth be told, asides from Handsome Jack and Claptrap. I cannot really remember a single character from the cast. They are all quirky, wacky Falstaffs without much to distinguish in terms of personality. They are like crisps in this regard, Lilith might be enjoyable to hear when she is interacting with the Vault Hunters. But I cannot say she is an interesting character or even a good one. She just cracks jokes and gives quests until the third act. Roland is even worse in this regard, he is the parody of a generic solider, so generic in fact that when the third act revelation happened I didn’t care at all. The citizens are too, boring one note jokes that blur together, just quirky white noise.
The good, the interesting and the memorable
However, Handsome Jack and Claptrap are stand out in terms of characterisation. Handsome Jack does crack jokes just like every other cast member, but he is a highly motivated villain. He desperately wants to unlock the Vault in order to gain control over the creature within it. This (along with his inflated ego) causes him to commit terrible things in order to achieve his goal. He is not evil because he loves being evil, he is evil because of his inflated ego and lust for power over everything.
He became the way he is due to his own greed. What is even more interesting about Handsome Jack is his strange and (f*cked up) relationship with his daughter. Despite doing so many terrible things to her, he weirdly loves her. In fact, he becomes dead serious once the daughter is revealed. All the jokes vanish and he becomes vengeful against you for saving her from him. In his own messed up way, Jack thought he was protecting his daughter from the terrors of the world. When in reality he was using her for his own gain.
Claptrap has such an inflated sense of self- its hilarious. From moment one , he is bombastically proclaiming how he is going to take down Handsome Jack single headedly, all the while getting embarrassed over and over again. The clash between his perception of reality and the actual reality is very funny. The fact that he is never fazed makes it all the more hilarious, as he tries to spin his constant failures into positives.
The main gameplay loop of Borderlands is a two way system; you get guns to shoot the bad people who drop better guns. You then use those guns to kill stronger enemies, rinse and repeat. I really enjoyed the loop. There is something viscerally satisfying about finding that new gun which blows off a midget’s (Borderland’s words not mine) arms and legs with a single blast, only for it to drop something bigger and more badass. I wanted to keep playing just to find out what sort of gun I might get next.
GUNs, GUNs and more guns!
Speaking of guns, there are lot of different weapons to choose from. I would be more put off if they didn’t have as many as the marketing claimed at the time. Everything from machine guns to rocket launchers and more are the player’s disposal. They are all satisfying to use, packing a hefty punch and often considerable damage. They are maybe not as fun as they properly should be, at least for the world Borderlands 2 occupied.
I mean, there are guns that (instead of reloading) are thrown away and explode upon landing. That is a fun spin on combat and allows for some strategy. However those tend to be the rarity. I mean there are some sub machine guns that fire corrosive toxic fuel, (which is highly effective against machines) but not much else really. I have heard that the guns in BL3 are wackier and I hope they are. Because at least in Borderlands 2, the weapons weirdly withstrained in a crazy setting. Nowhere near as imaginative as they probably could be.
Driving: the nightmare in physics
I won’t lie, I hated the driving. The steering is too sensitive, causing me to swirl off the road and fall into ditches, almost every time I tried to turn. It was Alan Wake levels of driving physic. Please keep in mind that this is a very subjective opinion, hell one of my friends doesn’t think the driving is too bad. He tended to be the main driver in that case, and even then he often swirled and tumbled his way to victory. I suspect it might be some sort of a joke on Gearbox’s part. You know, to make the cars completely ridiculous as a parody of terrible physics. If that were the case, they might have over done it. For me personally the cars were undrivable.
Levelling, artificial difficulty
My single problem with the loot game, is the grind that defines Borderlands 2. The grind is not the problem per say, but the levelling is. Namely enemies in each main quest are artificially higher than the level that you currently are same goes for the weapons. This creates a cheap form of difficulty that annoys instead challenges. Because it boils down to who has the biggest number, with the lesser getting squished.
Because you keep getting weapons above your current level, your limited inventory fills up with useless crap that you can’t use until the jar is filled. While it does keep the player going, it also makes inventory management a tedious job of sorting through an annoying interface. The interface forces you to go through two screens, plus two extra buttons in order to compare and drop. Either Gearbox should have made the interface less of a nuisance, or they should have made the backpack bigger and offer less over levelled loot.
The single ability
Unlike a number of other games set in Sci-Fi or fantasy worlds, Borderlands 2 has a gives you access to a single ability. At first I was very disappointed by this, as I was used to having entire keyboards worth of abilities to play with. However, (I played as a Siren) I was impressed by the versatility of that single skill (phaselock). Depending on how you mod it, you can either turn that single skill into an instant death button or a party wide heal. The latter encourages cooperation between teammates as heal only actives once the target dies. So with some simple communication you can survive even the toughest of encounters.
Art style and graphics:
The cartoony art style and larger than life character design have aged really well despite flat texturing and underwhelming graphical fidelity. It is most certainly an original and inspired art style that conveys a lot of personality and atmosphere. I hope in Borderlands 3 the graphical fidelity will be better.
Borderlands 2 is a perfectly enjoyable romp. Fun and energetic but isn’t that particularly memorable once it’s over. Think of it as pop corn whose dialogue was written by discount Joss Whedon. It might be amusing while consuming the quipping, wise cracking pop corn. But are you really going to remember anything they have said or did? I personally doubt it.
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