Borderlands – Final Review

Narratively, Borderlands shows a poverty of ambition, its story construction unremarkable and uninspired, with a total absence of character development, or the establishment of a singular, menacing antagonist. True, a solid motivation is established from the first, which consistently guides the player throughout, never wavering, one central anchor – here the game shows a sense of focus. The motivation is a common, mundane one – wealth, renown. Here these things are manifest in the mythical Vault, a bastion supposedly conferring those two cherished objects upon entry; here is something to be fought for, and desperately and urgently. It is an enigmatic structure, and notions of its origin and inception are gradually built upon as the narrative progresses, namely regarding its relationship to the wider game world proper, the sprawling, arid Pandora. Beyond the curiosities necessarily attached to such fabled objects,  the world building and narrative again falter; exposition generally is scarce, and what is present is delivered principally through audio logs scattered about the game world, the majority one-sided dialogues spoken by the eccentric Patricia Tannis, injecting humor and life into the gameworld without ever devolving into the obnoxious, awkwardly speaking when silence is appropriate, struggling to adjust to a world of abounding hostility, populated with individuals supposedly beneath her, they being wrapped up in non-scientific fable and legend; she is surprisingly compelling, likable and endearing, if a bit exaggerated, and her presence results in some narrative successes.

Through her speech – be it delivered at a time of great narrative heft or merely while speaking nervously to a voice-recorder – relative narrative intrigue shows itself. The fabled Vault is bound by certain temporal rules, openable every two hundred years, openable also under very restricted circumstances, entry possible only with possession of a single key. Naturally, that equinox is fast approaching, the player character afforded the opportunity to gather together the fragments of this key, fuse those pieces into one cohesive whole, and seize upon everything in sight, be it the mountains of wealth or the less visually perceptible acclaim. In the hunt, certain antagonists show themselves, like the crazed leader of a militaristic faction, the Crimson Lance, which she runs as tyrant, obsessed with power and, accordingly, the Vault; given this mutual yearning for the structure, combat is here inevitable. Conflict erupts; she is dispatched, becoming a non-entity, destroyed effortlessly by the Vault’s guardian with no player involvement. This is frustrating, her villainy underutilized, and the absence of any compelling antagonist greatly hampers greater narrative engagement or resonance; it is single-minded narratively, mapping about a journey from squalor through towards prosperity, minor triumphs occurring on the way. This humbleness of narrative results in the game’s greatest asset – with zero intrusive exposition or formal cutscenes, control is constantly in the player’s hands; everything subservient to gameplay, which the title cherishes above all things.   

Even in terms of pure gameplay, single-mindedness emerges – the vast majority of time is spent in open combat, exploration mostly kept to a minimum; matters are highly rigid, and exploration when it is embraced is rarely tangibility rewarded. Gunplay abounds, and while constructed on competent systems, the repetitious fast sets in, the game moving always at an unrelenting pace, afraid of pulling back and permitting a quieter moment to set in, when the inclusion of such quietude would greatly assist the narrative pacing. Vehicle sections arise periodically to break up this tedium and the overawing, but their control feels awkward and unintuitive; accordingly, these driving sections were disliked, and eventually grew rather frustrating when vehicular combat erupted, vehicles trading gunfire and rockets. Even beyond these skirmishes, vehicles will be employed quite frequently, principally during navigation of the game’s many environments, traditionally sprawling in size, thus tedious to explore on foot. A compelling sense of speed can emerge when activating these vehicles’ thrust features, seeing them spiraling onwards at rapid pace, though this commanding sense of speed cannot save these sections from mundanity – vehicles are merely competent. Further destroying avenues of variety, stealth sections are completely absent; player control in the narrative is also excluded. Save for the vehicular traversal and combat, and occasional spurts of exploration, everything is gunplay, and the opening minutes of the title are little detached from the concluding moments. The grandeur of the conflict certainly has escalated – a massive, frightening tentacled creature is being targeted rather than some puny bandit, but both scenarios are functionally the same.   

The game is devoid of any real tactical considerations – despite facades of depth, gunfights are a traditional affair. In addition to the basic selection of weaponry, other variables also need be considered, namely regarding special augmentations attached to specific guns – some augments imbue a weapon with shock effects, while another may fuel the weapon with fire, and a third may deal deadly corrosive damage. In theory, each element is heavily situated toward the dispatch of one particular enemy – a shielded foe can be decimated by a shock weapon. This depth is certainly present, but it is never properly utilized, never a sharp determinator of ultimate success in combat; careful exploitation can lead to easier, swifter victory, though they can be completely ignored, and no real fundamental changes would accompany that neglect. Had these mechanics been forced a bit more, been bolstered in complexity and actively emphasized, the game would only explode in depth, elevating greatly combat by imbuing it with the cerebral. As it stands, these systems merely point to missed opportunity, actual tactical considerations lacking, involving the whittling away of enemy health, followed by periodic retreats to cover to permit shield restoration. The mundane and formulaic are here clung to, and the combat overall is divisive – easy to pick and intuitive, it is immediately engaging and engrossing, though devoid of complexity.  

Understandably touted is the game’s procedural generation system, guns, shields, and grenade mods all created seamlessly, each seemingly possessive of fair variety in statistics. Diversity is immense, though it only extends for so far, the derivative fast showing itself; while guns are differentiated by a wide assortment of manufacturers, each possessive of unique quirks, strengths, and failings, functionally they are too similar; procedural generation is here lacking, this depth again a façade. An S&S gun may bolster an extended magazine size, display also a striking yellow-and-black aesthetic, but it still relies upon one central gun model, which is repeated and recycled countless times over, variety almost a myth; many limitations are here present, and realizing these limitations greatly minimizes the sense of awe or excitement upon obtaining a new weapon, “legendary,” though it may be; guns simply run together, lacking commanding originality, this failing applicable both to the aesthetics of the weapons and how they perform when actually wielded in combat. Certain assault rifles understandably possess greater recoil than do others of that class, while a pistol may be fashioned to fire multiple bullets at once. Despite this variation, weapon handling deviates little from weapon to weapon.  

Beyond aesthetics and statistics, this weapon handling should be considered; some weapons are intuitive and powerful, others imprecise, lacking totally in efficiency and thus made unviable. Sniper rifles are universally enjoyable to wield, and remain consistent and reliable throughout, helping to minimize any potential gameplay frustrations which would accompany a bolder approach, though a bizarre flinch feature is present, which often destabilizes accuracy. A gradual progression system is on offer here, every kill inflicted with a specific weapon type conferring experience points towards improving that corresponding class in a “proficiency” system. As the narrative progresses, many ranks are naturally unlocked, with subtle bonuses, like heightened reload speed or slightly boosted base damage values; it is compelling throughout, offering constant rewards merely for playing the game, without any player direction. This constant sense of progression is another of the game’s strengths, extending far beyond this mere proficiency system, permeating all aspects of the game’s design. There is of course the ever-expanding arsenal of weaponry, some late -game guns capable of inflicting incredible feats of damage. But a more noticeable instance of progression is evident in the game’s varied skill trees, new levels and skill points constantly thrust upon the player.

This leveling system is a very brisk process, the experience delivery rate quite generous, though understandably slackening as the game nears its conclusion. Indeed, so generous was this distribution I actually found myself over leveled quite frequently, trivializing many engagements, though this disparity is largely attributable to my commitment in completing all secondary content as it was unlocked, something I habitually did even as the narrative payoff for the scenario was slight, or the ultimate reward being paltry and insignificant. Challenge, accordingly, was lacking, even as certain engagements – such as boss battles – throw an absurd quantity of enemies at the player, overwhelming in ways one singular entity cannot be. Part of this easiness is perhaps attributable to my character build, a build I constructed organically, rather than fretting obsessively before expending a skill point. Playing as Mordecai the Hunter, I prioritized accuracy, easily the most important attribute in the entire game, highly necessary when considering the arbitrary dearth of accuracy possessed by many traditional weapons. Second in importance was an increase in critical hit damage, and these two upgrade paths served as a foundation for my entire built, carrying me throughout the campaign, though being supplemented with other skills, like certain which increase further damage after a recent kill. Even here, though, a flaw is present: Mordecai’s central skill involves the summoning of the avian Bloodwing, sinking down from the heavens to slaughter some unsuspecting enemy far below or in the distance. Despite these apparent strengths, the creature was mostly an afterthought, rarely employed. Still, when scrutinizing these skill trees at the conclusion of the narrative, the extent of character growth is made readily apparent – Mordecai has been on a literal odyssey, fleeing from the shelter of a derelict bus, before promptly traversing the desert wastes and an exotic, icy abyss, entering a long-sealed chamber, dispatching with its guardian, and obtaining the wealth and renown contained therein.

The principal environments of Pandora are impressive creatively, with clever, stylized cel-shading, imparting the game its commanding uniqueness. This effect is conveyed masterfully, making the craggy mountains somehow inviting and visually-appealing, rather than evoking angst or unease. Skyboxes can be quite beautiful, with stars shining at full force, lending light and beauty to the landscape, while the entire day/night system conveys a striking sense of the passage of time. The draw distance can be large, though clever atmospheric effects are also in place, like the replication of immense heat, obscuring distant objects in a haze. Interior environments are mostly unimaginative, though their construction imparts a lived-in sensation, while the feral Skaggs leave their own marks on the gameworld, vomiting up undigested food, left to rot and pile up in the environment in a sick mass. Regarding the wastes of Pandora in retrospect, many complaints are easily made – in the later titles of the series, environmental diversity exists in abundance, with expansive, frozen wastes, punctuated by exotic forests or dense cities of light, beautiful and atmospheric, new environments constantly thrust upon the player. Borderlands completely lacks any of that diversity, the entire game transpiring solely within those arid wastes, orange and brown always. This dearth of diversity could be taken as a flaw, though it also points to cohesiveness, a shunning of the overtly fantastical, a clinging to believability and consistency. The environments, repetitive though they may be, foster a playful, inviting tone, seizing on light and color rather than the dark and the gritty, fitting in with the game’s light-hearted tone.

As a title, the design philosophies in Borderlands foster a certain mindlessness, particularly when regarding its questing systems, matters becoming streamlined, almost robotic in process. The formula here is basic and clung to always: launch the title; accept a new mission or progress on one already accepted; go fulfill some pointless objective; receive a similarly pointless reward; repeat. That is how the game’s twenty plus hours are spent; no compelling payoff is ever present, no narrative or emotional heft is achieved; but the game is still highly enjoyable, almost relaxing in construction, transcending mindlessness. The entire experience is paradoxical and thus enigmatic, the hands-off nature of the narrative morphing the game into something singularly engrossing. It is that engrossing quality which greatly distinguishes Borderlands from later games in the series; gradually growing in narrative ambition, a correlative rise in exposition and cutscenes also transpired. This exposition may be delivered in clever, indirect ways, but the result is always the same – pulling the player out of the game world, rather than actively and continuously submerging them; in Borderlands, that submergence is always and total. The humor which would oversaturate Borderlands 2 and its subsequent sequels is here measured, present but unobnoxious, contributing to a playfulness of atmosphere, though eschewing the overbearing. Gameplay may be formulaic in nature, the procedural generation systems praised to a higher degree than is exactly deserving. But the engrossing sensations persist, Borderlands enveloping the player in Pandora, offering a long, storied campaign of near constant progress.

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