October 14th is nearly upon us, and release-date delivery from Amazon means the new Borderlands will be waiting in my mailbox. This franchise is very near to my heart, since splitscreen co-op is standard. Things eventually got a little too tough for me to do on my own, and I’m not a huge fan of joining a game with random internet strangers unless I already know those random internet strangers. Convinced the game would stagnate on a shelf, I begged my fiancée to play with me. She agreed almost immediately, on the condition that we start from the beginning. She hadn’t played many shooters before, but she picked it up quickly, and we’ve been playing Borderlands and its sequel together ever since.
So, on this, the eve of new Borderlands, I feel like it’s time we take a minute to talk about Fallout 3.
I mean, really. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? We loved Bethesda’s huge games for so long. We bought millions upon millions of copies of Morrowind and Oblivion. Stepping out into one of their huge, open worlds and slowly realizing the scale of it was a formative moment for a lot of people. But, while playing Oblivion in 2006, I started to wish that Bethesda would make a shooter set in one of these ridiculous worlds. It was already dual analog and I could shoot fireballs, so guns would have to be easy to put in!
Well, turns out, it really wouldn’t be that hard. There were rumblings in the game world when Interplay closed down, and we knew that Bethesda had gotten the rights to Fallout 3. At first glance, it seemed like everything we wanted. In 2007 the first trailer got us hyped beyond reason, and in 2008, Todd Howard smugly played it on stage at E3 and we all salivated on our couches. That October, we finally had it in our hands, and it was even better than we thought it would be.
The old, isometric Fallout games were some of the best of their kind. They were also formative games for many, with their free-form story, open gameplay, and bonkers sense of humor. They were dark and hilarious, and we loved them for that. We wanted Bethesda to do justice to one of our favorite franchises to ever be brought back from the dead, but we also wanted an Elder Scrolls game with guns.
We actually got both. Fallout 3 was a pretty damn great homage.
It was huge, and you hardly had to touch the vast majority of it if you didn’t want to. It supported multiple options for every quest and side-quest, it was disturbing and funny the whole way through, it was blatantly offensive in its unflinching portrayal of mankind, and it… IT WAS AN ELDER SCROLLS GAME WITH GUNS! Faithfulness to the source material aside, it was exactly what many of us had asked for.
But, when given exactly what we want, we tend to want more. Fallout 3 was great, but it got a little lonely in the Capital Wasteland, and that loneliness was the biggest detriment to replayability. If only there was a version of Fallout that let us play with our friends. Then, we’d pretty much just play that all the time.
Enter: Borderlands. You see, as a game, Borderlands doesn’t have to stand on its own merits. There was a niche, and this game filled it. It provided us with something we asked for. It gave us large, open maps to explore, and it let us do it with up to three other people, one of whom could be sitting in the same room as you. There was demand for exactly this, and they supplied it before Bethesda could. It could have been terrible and we still would have played it, because games are fun in a group. Knowing full well that the game could be mediocre and we’d forgive it, we all went out and bought it.
Turns out, even if it didn’t need to stand on its own merits, it could.
Gearbox knew we wanted post-apocalyptic shooting in a group, so they gave us that. That, alone, would have been enough, but they went a step further and gave us customizable characters, shitloads of loot, and a sense of humor that rivaled even Fallout. I will never forget the first time I heard Scooter yell “Four wheels is better’n… zero… I reckon…” or Tannis’s journals about her attempts to not vomit while speaking to other humans. The writing wasn’t perfect, but the personality was.
My fiancée and I played this game several times through, and we loved it. It never occurred to us that it could get better than it was. We were wrong.
Let’s take a moment to talk about DLC. Love it or hate it, downloadable content for games isn’t going anywhere. We already missed our opportunity to tell game developers that it’s no good, because we’ve given them loads of money for DLC in the last few years. We used our wallets to say “Yes, this is an acceptable thing to do.” There are arguments for or against, but the point is moot. DLC is the future. The debate, now, is how to do it right. And Gearbox is one company who I feel does it right.
The first modern DLC for a game was part of a deal between Bethesda (full circle!) and Microsoft. Both companies wanted to figure out how to make it work in a way that made consumers like it. They knew from MMOs that people would become quite angry if what they were buying was “pay-to-win,” so they wanted to avoid DLC that would involve using money to bypass gameplay. Naturally, they figured that cosmetic items were best. That worked for MMOs, so it must work in other games, right?
Wrong. Cosmetic items are popular in MMOs because the escalating nature of gear in these games means that many pieces of gear will be considered to be must-have items. When everyone has the same armor, things start to look boring. So, in this instance, cosmetic armor makes sense; you want to make your character stand out. It does not make sense in an Elder Scrolls game. Oblivion’s Horse Armor was an instant lesson for both companies involved. Cosmetic gear means next to nothing in a single-player game. Bethesda took this to heart, and started making small add-ons that added locations and gameplay to Oblivion. These add-ons were more popular, but still not really anything to write home about. Knights of the Nine was an interesting bit of DLC that expanded on the lore of the series, but, again, it didn’t really wow us.
Then, came The Shivering Isles. Sheogorath, the Daedric Lord of Madness, was already the most popular “god” in the series, so further exposure to him was a natural thing for Bethesda to give us. And, unlike previous expansions in games, we didn’t have to buy a whole new game to play it. We downloaded it, and received a huge addition to the map that didn’t require an extra disc.
It was revolutionary without doing much new. Blizzard was already fond of making expansions for their games, but they had never done it like this. We were convinced. The Shivering Isles sold an obnoxious number of downloads, and DLC was cemented into our lives.
Fallout 3 was the next game to really blow us away with DLC, and they did so in such a thorough manner that it made Oblivion’s DLC look like bullshit. Operation Anchorage was pretty meh, but it added interesting new guns, so I can kind of forgive its blandness. That was the last time Bethesda gave us DLC that was uninteresting. Broken Steel, The Pitt, Mothership Zeta, and Point Lookout all added Shivering-Isles-level amounts of content. 4 sets of DLC, each bigger than most entire games. The golden age of DLC was here, and we loved it.
No one would argue that Fallout 3 was too short. It was massive. Yet, Bethesda knew we wanted to have even more adventures in the Capital Wasteland, so they gave it to us. Each one was so different from the rest of the game, it actually felt like DLC should. We would have been much happier, obviously, if these adventures had been included in the base game, but they were so grand in scale that it felt fair to pay extra. This is how DLC should be handled.
Borderlands handled DLC in a very similar way. The first one, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, did something I like to refer to as “shoving a concept up its own asshole.” It took characters we knew from the base game, changed them slightly, and created a whole new storyline set in a completely new area, just like the Fallout DLC. Zombies might be a tired-out old concept, but they handled it in a way that made it feel new. This DLC set the tone for the future of the Borderlands series. It was still in the same universe as the main game, but the characters really started to develop here. Most importantly, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned took itself even less seriously than the game it added on to. The subsequent DLC, Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot also didn’t take itself very seriously, but it added very little to the game, and was pretty disappointing as a result.
The next DLC did not disappoint. The Secret Armory of General Knoxx was huge and hilarious. We got to see Scooter get pretty flushed out as a character, and new weapons fell like rain. The level cap increased to let us combine skills in even more ridiculous ways, and we got to put these skills to the test against Crawmerax, the first “raid boss” in the series. General Knoxx himself was an incredible character to square off against, and started the trend of memorable enemies in the series, a trend which gave us Handsome Jack, the most killable main villain since Gruntilda in Banjo-Kazooie.
By the time my fiancée and I were ready to start Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution, though, Borderlands 2 had come out, and killing Jack was all we could think about. Let me make this clear: I am not exaggerating about how absolutely driving the desire to kill Jack is. Borderlands figured out the best way to make players want to kill the main villain: you give him the player’s phone number. Within minutes of beginning the game, he is calling you to brag about how rich he is and how much he wants you dead. He’s a gigantic douche, and it is highly motivating. There is no way to block these calls. Anthony Burch did a phenomenal job writing the script for this game, so the calls are consistently entertaining, but condescending and annoying enough that you can’t wait to shove an assault rifle down his throat. Also, without spoiling anything, I can assure you that, if you play Borderlands 2, you will get to kill Jack. No bullshit Vault Monster ending like the first one. Satisfaction will be yours.
It’s a nice touch that is sadly missing from most games. For whatever reason, so many modern games go the route of Final Fantasy 8, and have you fight some enemy in the end who you feel no connection to. Someone just up and tells you that the enemy you’ve been trying to find for the last 30 hours was a red herring, and you have to go kill the real bad guy. Why? Why would we want to do that? In the case of Final Fantasy 8 (in my opinion, a fantastic game until the last disc), we were chasing a time-traveling witch from the future who is possessing girls in the present. Esoteric, yes, but we knew what we were doing and why. We had never seen the witch in question, but we’d seen her effects. Then, right at the end, we find out that another time-traveling witch from an even more distant future is possessing the witch we’ve been chasing, and this witch is the one we need to kill. Ultimecia, she is called, and her name isn’t mentioned until the last hour or two of the adventure. The fourth disc is like a completely different game from the previous three discs.
Borderlands 2 maintains one contiguous goal from the beginning of the game: Kill Jack. Even if you forget, Jack will remind you, by being an asshole at you. This creates flow that games like Final Fantasy 8 lack. You are given a goal, and are gently guided to that goal at whatever pace you choose. And, just in case you develop some sympathy toward Jack, Anthony made sure to write in some truly despicable acts, so you can really work up the hate. Trust me, by the time you pull the trigger, your desire to kill Jack has become a need.
If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you’re probably wondering why I am saying so much about the story in a shooter. For the most part, I’m willing to ignore sub-par stories, particularly in action games. Well, the story in Borderlands 2 is that good. The first game had an alright story, supplemented by fantastic gameplay. Borderlands 2 streamlined the gameplay, expanded its scope, and gave us a story to tie it all together. Every bullet fired, every piece of loot acquired, every map traversed is a step in your journey, and the end is established from the very beginning. I simply cannot stress enough how important this is. Making the goal synonymous with the intermediate steps makes games better. No one is going back and playing the old Borderlands much these days, myself included, and the improved story is a big motivator.
The Pre-Sequel launches in a matter of days, and it is already working from a slight disadvantage. Since it is a prequel to Borderlands 2, the story is filling chunks of backstory, which carries the possibility of being awful. I have faith in Anthony’s writing prowess, so I am not too worried, but the possibility is there. If nothing else, it is not likely to be as driving as the previous game’s story, which could create the illusion of lackluster gameplay. Mel and I will be playing this the instant it comes out, though. If our previous experiences with Gearbox’s flagship series are any indicator, it won’t take us terribly long to finish it. As with all games I am interested in playing, I am running under a self-imposed media blackout, so rest assured, my perception of this game will be as untarnished by preconceived notions as possible. All I know, so far, is that there are low-gravity environments, there is a mechanic that utilizes oxygen tanks, and there is something happening called the “Butt-Bomb,” which sounds stupid. My media blackout has been so thorough that I honestly don’t even know who the characters are.
These games aren’t really games. They’re group adventures. And, while I usually only have a party of two, we will be going on this adventure together. Because the gameplay and the story don’t really matter in a game like this. What matters is what we make of it. I don’t want every game to be like this, but I really hope that Borderlands stays the way it is. There are enough games out there trying to make their mark by doing things we’ve never seen before. Borderlands, you just keep on perfecting the Diablo formula. You’re clearly good at it.
I can’t score the first Borderlands in good conscience, since it is overshadowed by its offspring, but Borderlands 2 is a solid 9/10, in my book. Hopefully, The Pre-Sequel knocks it down a peg or two.