Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
“Welcome to the Borderlands”
Picture with me, if you will, heaps of concrete and rusted refuse atop an abandoned dam that has been co-opted by a by a gang of marauders whose leader’s name is “Flanksteak.” You proceed along the dam, gun(s) in hand(s), to rescue a friend, when, suddenly, murderous robots warp in like Protoss buildings in Starcraft and begin attacking everything—the marauders, you, probably some birds and other innocent fauna—and the proverbial gaping mouth of Hades opens up beneath you. The scene is narrated by a face-meltingly awesome track that crescendos when you enter direct combat. Meanwhile, the murderous machines continue descending like rail gun bolts from the H-shaped space station in the sky and warping in like so many pylons as flying robots zip past and pelt you with laser fire and humanoid mechs go kamikazi at you, charging up blasts that can be halted only by a zone-sensitive critical strike to their oculi from your sniper rifle. While aiming your precision strike against said mechs, you panic to find that your shield is being hacked away with a hatchet by a psychotic, mask-wearing midget who’s reciting awkward sexual commentary in his high-pitched voice while clearly experiencing PTSD flashbacks and threatening to eat your eyes.
Welcome to Gearbox Software’s Borderlands 2.
I was in a quandry over writing a Borderlands 2 review, on account of it being 2.5 years old and a generation behind Borderlands: The Pre Sequel! It’s not like it hasn’t been reviewed by all the big guys, or that I haven’t already played it for… *Checks Steam account* …198 hours?!
Sorry, I had a moment.
Reviewing a game that is fairly new but also by no means could qualify as “retro” leaves me with space to focus on two things the big guys probably didn’t accomplish too thrillingly with their pre-release commentary: (1) a review based on, ahem, copious exposure to the subject matter, as well as a (2) Christian perspective on a game that is anything but. I’d also like to judge BL2 on its own merits, not on those of Pre Sequel or the original.
Speaking of immediately contradicting myself, I played Borderlands plus the DLC, and I can say honestly that other than shooting and looting, I don’t know what the game was about. I remember ending up in a cave, and there was a final boss that seemed like something out of the Cthulu mythos. What was actually going on? Vault hunting, I suppose.
Borderlands 2 leaps over this narrative pitfall much like you would leap over your slow friend if you were both being chased by a bear. From the moment the game starts, you know your enemy is a real piece of work named Handsome Jack.
Jack, masterfully voiced by Dameon Clarke, functions as antagonist, narrator, and comic relief, and plays a similar role in BL2 as Loki in the Avengers, in that you love to hate him, and he makes the mistake of giving each character a reason to despise and unite against him. Whereas my best guess about the first game’s plot is that it had to do with treasure hunting, BL2 is very clearly a tale of vengeance against Jack after he tries to off the four playable characters in the prologue. As far as the plot is concerned, BL2 is very clearly not about “finding the Vault” as much as it is about getting to Jack. This does however happen to coincide with finding the Vault and all dem guns.
The player character’s role in this grand scheme is primarily that of “silent protagonist.” While the developers went out of their way to give you, the player, a real reason to have a beef with Jack, you essentially are caught up in a conflict that started long before your arrival on the planet Pandora, and much of the tension and conflict in the story involves running jobs for the Crimson Raiders—a resistance movement led by the playable characters from the first game—who have been dealing with Jack all along.
This setup leads to a series of escalating back-and-forth punches between Jack’s Hyperion Corporation and the Crimson Raiders, where you as the player gradually rise from being a gadfly to Jack’s military-corporate machine to the hammer and fist of the Crimson Raiders and Jack’s primary target. Along the way, you ally yourself with a cast of trash-talking, pop culture-referencing miscreants and outcasts who love to pay for favors with cash, acid-firing guns, and cheeky one-liners. All of this concludes in a grand, climactic sequence following the death of a major character at Jack’s hands.
“No One is Good, No, Not Even One”
Borderlands 2 rightfully earned it’s M rating. Be prepared for swear words and blasphemy, scantily-clad female characters, alcohol use, collecting porn for Scooter as a side quest, people’s heads exploding, and threats, musings, and death rattles that vary from the humorous to the unsettling from the countless psychotic denizens of Pandora. Yet over and above simply warning you to watch out for naughty words, defamation of the Fourth Commandment, and digital gore, there are deeper matters with the world of Pandora and the story itself that bear some discussion.
Despite the presence of cemeteries and a church in the Dust (a region in the game), the world of Pandora is decidedly godless. A violent, amoral, the-biggest-gun-wins (literally and figuratively) “Mad Max and the Spaghetti West have had a dirty love child with a Florida Man, and the kid loves toilet humor” mentality is present everywhere you go in the game, both in the foes you face and the allies for whom you run side quests. As Claptrap states at the dawn of the game after you kill a group of marauders, “Minion [his name for the player character], what you have done? These were human beings with lives, and families, and—I’m totally kidding, screw those guys!” The irony of this statement is that Claptrap is right. You learn a bit of the back story of the psychotic masses of Pandora while questing in the Caustic Caverns. They were family men and regular working Joes until they were abandoned to die by the DAHL corporation in the inhospitable wastes of Pandora. The psychos were made into monsters to meet a bottom line, and you, in essence, spend the game euthanizing them.
Borderlands 2 is about revenge. You start your quest to get back at Handsome Jack, and as the story progresses, engage in a back-and-forth slugfest with him and his Hyperion cronies, the stakes rising ever higher as you face more and more enemies and gain more and more allies who have all been betrayed by Jack and are looking to help you any way they can to give him his just desserts. The concepts of reconciliation and restoration don’t exist in this game, and in a stroke of narrative brilliance, you realize as the beaten Jack stands before you with your gun to his head in the game’s conclusion, that despite the moral ambiguity of your allies, and Jack’s supposed noble goals, he does deserve to die. But by those same standards, so does your character. So do your allies. Because while some are better and others are worse, no one is “good” on Pandora.
This raises the question of whether or not Christians should play Borderlands 2. I leave this issue to your personal convictions (and the obvious point that really, I’m addressing a larger question of whether or not we should play any game or watch any show or view any movie containing “objectionable” material) with this caveat: recall the violence recorded in the Bible. In many ways, what we see on Pandora is the world portrayed in the recurring refrain of the Book of Judges—“Everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). It is a snapshot of a world without God. In the same way that Judges often suspends the need to slap the reader across the face and shout, “By the way, what’s happening here is disgusting and against Torah!” because it assumes the reader is familiar with Torah, so, too, does Borderlands by and large avoid moral pontificating because it assumes the player has enough sense to realize that its largely unjustified to threaten to eat someone’s eyeballs. Instead, Borderlands does things like show you that the psychos exist because of DAHL’s corporate greed, and that Handsome Jack fell partly because he lost someone he loved to a power he didn’t understand, and that the smack-talking, borderline Tiny Tina watched her parents die brutally precisely because of the psychotic people broken by the greed of DAHL and the despotism of the world’s Handsome Jacks. By not overtly telling us what to think about violence and amoral brutality and instead showing us a world where it is simply daily living, Borderlands challenges us to draw our own conclusions about a world in which “Everyone did as he saw fit,” and to wonder, perhaps, if that is the sort of world in which we wish to live for a little while as we sit before our monitors and TVs…and as we look outside our bedroom windows.
“Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke”
Some reviewers suggested the game mechanics of BL2 were, at best, tweaks and necessary improvements to the relatively unoriginal experience of playing Borderlands. While there certainly were many tweaks and needed improvements, this is an inattentive estimation.
The largest improvements are the inclusion of a coherent, intriguing narrative that binds the whole BL2 experience together. Other than that, an easily-accessible item exchange system and inclusion of more guns was a big improvement, but I would argue that the whole reason we ended up with a Borderlands trilogy is because the first game did so many things right in this pivotal department of making the game fun. And while some people love guns, and looting guns, and farming guns, and, hey, look at this gun, I’m far more concerned with enjoying the experience of the sum-total of the game than simply raiding and re-raiding endgame content. To this end, all six character classes were diverse enough to warrant a full playthrough with each of them.
When it comes to actually playing BL2, excellent hit detection removes any doubt that inaccurate fire is anyone’s fault but your own. Or, I dunno, your cat is walking across your keyboard. I hesitate to call any game’s controls “perfect,” but BL2 comes close. Mouse controls are sensitive and precise, and making complex jumps to acquire hidden treasure or a secret Vault symbol can rarely be blamed on the developers or a dreaded invisible wall. The fluidity of the controls comes much more into play during frenetic combat sequences like the one I narrated in the introduction.
Normal mode is more fun than challenging, and with the plethora of side quests available, you’ll likely find yourself above level when completing the main quest line missions. In fact, I found this to be my main complaint about the leveling experience in BL2. If you were to actually complete all the side quests, you’d find yourself above level on pretty much all the main missions. Additionally, many of the side quests will reach the “trivial” category of negligible experience and useless loot if you’re real astute about doing all of them. This puts you in the unfortunate position of having to pick and choose which side quests to complete. There are entire areas of the game—the Caustic Caverns and Lynchwood, where you face off against the Sheriff character from Pre Sequel—that you can completely bypass without losing a step. Some might argue that this is a good thing because it provides more freedom to the player to choose how they want to adventure, and while it’s true that it provides more freedom, I believe it is unfortunate that the main quest becomes so trivialized and many of the side quests you don’t play become negligible if you actually decide to do as much as you can in a single playthrough. A wise solution on Gearbox’s part would have been to scale the main quest missions so they were always rewarding in terms of challenge and loot; that way, side-questers could get lost in Pandora’s side areas to their delight.
The “True Vault Hunter” mode, BL2‘s equivalent of a New Game +, ups the difficulty considerably with foes that have more health, do more damage, attack with elemental damage, and are resistant to many types of attacks. These changes, which are randomly applied to foes in each encounter, force you to approach combat more hesitantly, tactically, and to carry extra weapons in your arsenal to ensure you’re ready for any and everything. This is where Borderlands’ trademark of having every type of conceivable gun really becomes more of a necessity than a novelty.
The combat itself isn’t so much challenging due to sharp, intelligent AI as it is to various elements in each encounter. In this, BL2 is very much like Halo. Like Halo, every type of enemy in BL2 behaves consistently. If you see a Psycho, you know he’s going to be agile, lightly-armored, and running right at you. The Bruiser, who typically has high health and no shield, will slowly bear down on you as he empties his heavy machine gun and encourages his allies to press forward. When you engage in encounters with multiple, different types of enemies all working against you with their unique parameters, that’s when combat becomes truly challenging and interesting.
Borderlands 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously. It shatters the fourth wall on multiple occasions (Claptrap tells you in no uncertain terms how to twink items) while referencing everything from Skyrim to World of Warcraft (an achievement is called “For the Hoard!”) to Game of Thrones and Downtown Abbey to Dungeons & Dragons while casting literary tropes by the wayside. Ironically, this self-referential, idiomatic presentation vivifies the illusion weaved by the game and strengthens its standard as a sort of parody on games, gamers, and nerd culture at large. These references are so woven into the fabric of Pandora’s science fiction that it’s impossible to separate this game’s plot and presentation.
Though special credit must be given to Dameon Clarke’s performance of Handsome Jack, the voice acting overall is absolutely stellar. All the characters have unique, well-written voices with convincingly-delivered lines. Whereas some games have famously terrible voice acting that immediately ejects you from the dream of the story, this is not something you will ever experience in BL2. Full marks to all the voice actors.
Pandora is a surprisingly lush and vast world. Standing atop the aforementioned dam, you can look out over the various regions of the game you have visited or will soon visit. Wide deserts, craggy, otherworldly blighted lands, a futuristic city, and even a corrupted version of a key area from the first game are all places to fight through and loot on your adventure. The sun blazes down on your during the day, while the night sky is lit with Pandora’s version or aurora borealis. Drifts of snow and dust blow over the lips of sandy and snowy dunes, and unique characters with peculiar senses of style entertain you with personal anecdotes and goofy quests.
While I love the Dam Top track from the official album, the composer succeeds most with subtlety. There is a decidedly western, frontier-American, cowboy, rootin’-tootin’ flair to everything in the Borderlands, while Jack’s City of Opportunity clearly has a more sterile sound, and the Eridium Blight, one of the last areas in the game, is plum full of creepy, sci-fi undertones and overtones that mesh well with its black and purple rock formations and rivers of lava. Through all of this, each area has its own particular battle theme that kicks into high gear whenever you aggro mobs. These musical cues are perfectly integrated into the combat experience, coming in when they need to, and fading out appropriately when you’ve put the last bullet to the last mook. Sound design and music are truly significant and sublime elements of the overall BL2 experience and are executed to near-perfection.
The GOTY DLC Content
The Borderlands 2 GOTY DLC content is absolutely worth the additional twenty bucks (vanilla is presently running at $19.99 on Steam). With it you gain four expansion campaigns (Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage [Mr. Torgue is one of the funniest characters in the whole game, but oh my goodness, NSFW], Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt, and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep) that take about six hours each to complete. You also gain two new character classes—the Psycho and my personal favorite, the Mechromancer—a raised level cap, and an arena-type instance called The Raid on Digistruct Peak. The expansion material altogether doubles the length of a full playthrough, and the DLC classes offer new ways to play.
Getting back to the problem of BL2 having too many quests for its own good on normal mode, factoring in the DLC makes it pretty much impossible to actually be challenged by the main quest in normal mode. The Mr. Torgue and Scarlett campaigns are each designed to begin around level 15, and become quite easy (plus the loot is slightly below level) if you try to play them after finishing the vanilla quest line. Sir Hammerlock and Tiny Tina’s campaigns are each designed to be played after the main story ends, so they are unaffected. My advice if you want to play all four DLCs in one playthrough and actually be challenged? Wait until True Vault Hunter Mode to play them.
The other “headhunter” DLC content is essentially holiday-themed dungeons (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Summer in general) that take forty-five minutes each to complete and reward you tremendously for dropping the five extra bucks, since they are not included in the GOTY pack. They only connect tangentially to the main plot and focus on good loot and quick level boosting. If you’re curious and want to try one out, I highly recommend “TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest” (Halloween) if for no other reason than it’s wonderfully creepy, ambient soundtrack.
“(Still) No Rest for the Wicked”
Borderlands 2 offers exciting, addictive FPS single player and co-op gameplay with action-RPG elements in a fully-realized comedy/sci-fi world. The voice acting, sound effects, and score are all of the highest quality, the artistic aesthetic is consistent, and when all is said and done, this is simply a phenomenal game. The DLC content from the GOTY only sweetens an already great deal with more action, more content, and more laughs. Highly recommended for gamers mature enough to parse out its challenging themes.
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