Borderlands is a shoot-and-loot franchise with the focus on multiplayer. I am not very familiar with this genre, having actively avoided it most of the time. I prefer shooters with emphasis on story and environment, rather than inventory management and acquiring stuff. As I have just a few gamer friends, it can be hard to coordinate multiplayer. (I don’t care for gaming with strangers.) So I tend to go solo. I had heard that the Borderlands games can be tough when playing solo, but after looking around a bit online, there turned out to be a new character included in the Borderlands 2 – Game of the Year Edition who would make it less daunting. I was lured in by positive reviews about the writing and I liked the look of the game, as well as the soundtrack, so I decided to give it a go.
My alter-ego was Gaige, a teenage girl and ‘Mechromancer’. Her special ability is to impossibly summon a robot (‘Deathtrap’) to fight for her, from thin air. One of her phrases as she summons him is ‘Damn the First Law!’ which will be funny to science nerds. Gaige and the robot become more powerful as you level up, with options you can pick from three specialised skill-trees. There is one focusing on defence, one with a focus on ‘elemental’ damage (electricity mostly, but fire, acid and ‘slag’ also play a part) and one tree for experienced players that gives you great bonuses, but at the cost of great handicaps. You can pick and choose from all three trees, but I mostly stuck with the elemental one, as that seemed the most entertaining. Simply shooting boring, straightforward bullets didn’t seem creative enough.
Gaige and her robot turned out to fit well with my playstyle for shooters, which favors sniping. I would snipe a few enemies, invariably setting off alarms. Then, when in threat of being overwhelmed, I would summon the robot and pick off the rest while they were getting distracted/assaulted by him. The robot also came in handy later on in the game, when I got a bit bored and just wanted to run through some familiar sections instead of getting into yet another repeated fight. When the enemies arrived as I rushed through a zone, I could drop the robot to distract them while I kept going.
The inhabitants of Pandora collectively suffer from a massive container fetish. The things are everywhere. Some of the containers are simple affairs, others have multiple levels that slide outward to present their contents as sexily as possible. It is ‘arsenal unboxing’ porn. Later in the game, you’ll encounter walking containers and enemies with a container strapped to their back. For some reason, toilets have also been designated a great place to stash things, so you’ll be raising the lids to find loot. The men in this game may generally be raging and insane, but they are always polite enough to lower the lid after they do their business.
The people who boxed the stuff weren’t especially efficient about it. It’s not uncommon to see three boxes in a row, each containing just a few dollars, or a small dose of ammunition with plenty of wasted space. There is a large amount of clicking required to open them all and get the content. It is thrilling enough at first, then slowly starts to feel like unnecessary busywork. And ultimately it feels like an annoying waste of time.
Comparing the stats of the loot you find with the loot you have is a great joy for some, no doubt. Finding something better and upping your arsenal can be very satisfying, but the process of picking the right loot felt a bit fussy to me. If you carry your maximum amount of items already – which I mostly did, being a bit of an indecisive hoarder – there is no easy way to check its stats against those of all the stuff you have. As I stared, my character would cheerily entone ‘numbers, numbers, math, math, math…’ but after a while I got bored of the stats. I would have preferred more straightforward, easy upgrades, maybe a way to craft your own perfect weapon over time. As it is, the system requires too much downtime from the story and the action for my taste.
More time is wasted when travelling. Do not always trust the mission indicators when they tell you where to go. They tend to steer you past all the locations you would logically pass on your way to your final destination. Once you have been to an area once, there is a fast-travel location you can zap yourself to instead. Because enemies respawn in the areas you would be passing otherwise, you’d just be fighting off the same enemies over and over if you took the long route.
Quitting a mission midway through should be avoided. Your mission progress will be saved when you shut down the game, but the enemies will all be back when you return, requiring you to take them down again. It gets repetitive. As side-missions often send you back to the same areas you will pass during the main storyline, your best bet is to hunt down and activate all side-missions as soon as they appear, so you can work on multiple objectives at once. There is no penalty for never finishing a mission in any case. Except maybe completist shame.
All of the above conspires to make Borderlands 2 a massive time-sink. Of the kind that makes a guy my age – nearly 39 – rethink how he spends his free time. I don’t think I will play another Borderlands game again, or a shoot-and-loot game in general. If you are young and have more time than money on your hands, and especially if you like multiplayer, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth in high-quality content. My mind boggles at the fact that people would go through the entire game again to experience it with the different play-styles that come with the various characters. So many options, but also so much time needed to explore them. Borderlands is a great outing for the genre, but that genre and I don’t fit together all that well. In the words of so many break-ups ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. It is a bit unfortunate, as I do really like the writing and characters. But time-wise, the price of admission is too high.
Ultimately, I did have a good time, despite the time-wastage. And I did of my own free will end up doing a fair amount of entirely optional side-missions, at least at first, because they came with a funny story. Like arranging a deranged tea party or being sent out by an angry narrator to kill an entire editorial staff because they gave his favorite game a mediocre review. The world may not be as immersive as something like Fallout 3, but the presentation is impressive and the characters and dialogue are entertaining, if you don’t mind the casual, tongue-in-cheek crudeness. It’s actually a shame that the noisy action sometimes stomps all over a voice-over with no option to go back and hear what you missed. One of my favorite comedic moments was non-verbal though. After an epic arena fight, for no apparent reason at all, one last guy appeared and slowly walked around the room, sarcastically slow-clapping my victory.
Credit to the game for casually throwing in some gay and lesbian characters. Sir Hammerlock is mentioned to have a ‘former boyfriend’ and at some point a female character is said to have a wife. These things are said in passing and are not made into a big deal at all, nor are these characters the butt of a joke. (Well, not more or less than anyone else.) This is in itself indeed a big deal for the shooter genre, which tends to drip with machismo. Casual equality.
I did encounter a few bugs. Funny rather than annoying was the tendency my robot had to sink into the floor, just showing his head and shoulders bobbing along above the ground. Annoying rather than funny was that the weapon selection wheel – using my X-Box controller – seemed to develop a stutter later on in the game. It would either fail to register that I was trying to change weapons, or come up with the wrong weapon, not the one assigned to the slot I was selecting. Not the most practical thing to be fighting with the controls while enemies are swarming you. And at one point I encountered a robot who was only partly there – the missiles I launched at him went straight through him without doing damage.
I’ll probably pass on playing most of the DLC that came with the GOTY edition, though I feel I have to experience Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. It has been lauded as a parody of the fantasy genre and seems to be a big, mult-leveled container full of laughs. I won’t join Handsome Jack in the Borderlands Pre-Sequel that is about to come out, but I will keep an eye out for the upcoming Telltale game that is set in the Borderlands universe. Its focus on story instead of loot looks to be more my bag. Having said all that, I still plan to wrap up my stalled playthroughs of Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age, which are also time-sinks and no strangers to loot and management. But then I’m out. I think.