I’ve been bugging Gregory Weir to play Borderlands for a while now. There’s a reason for this, apart from my insuppressable urge to be annoying: Borderlands is almost certainly the best game I’ve played in a long time. It’s so good, in fact, that I’d like to write a long analytical article about it, one that goes into every detail of the game.
This is, sadly, not that article. I don’t have the time. Too many games and other projects need to be worked on. I did, however, want to set down some thoughts, especially on one subject: how to enjoy the game.
Why the hell would you need a guide to enjoying a game? Shouldn’t a good game be instantly enjoyable? Those are good objections, but it’s not necessarily how things work. We are all – and that includes me – too bound by preconceptions, by expectations, by routine. Very often, when work of art are at just the right level of difference to what we’re used to, we tend to get them wrong. Sometimes that impression corrects itself after a while. In fact, that would probably be the norm if we gave all works of art enough time – but nowadays we are being bombarded with such amounts of crap that it’s very tempting to throw something away without thinking too much about it.
The first thing to do when playing Borderlands is to forget every other game you’ve ever played, and approach the game like you approached the first games you ever played, back before everyone was a cynic. Don’t expect that because one gameplay mechanism exists, others therefore must too. (As an example: there are NPCs, but no dialogue options. At first this seemed superficial and annoying. Then I realized the quest descriptions were beyond awesome, the voice acting probably the best I’ve ever heard, and it all contributed to the worldbuilding. There’s no need to have dialogue options just because other RPGs have them.)
Borderlands does something I rather admire: instead of trying to do ten million things half-arsedly (hello BioWare!), it distills itself down to a number of specific elements and does them really well. So, as I mentioned above, the game doesn’t give us a bunch of dialogue options that really do nothing, but gives us some seriously funny quest descriptions and simply the best audio logs/transmissions ever. It doesn’t give us token non-combat items to pretend it has depth it doesn’t have; every item you find is either for using or for selling, and the game shamelessly has enemies of every kind drop loot.
But that doesn’t mean that Borderlands isn’t deep or solid; quite the opposite. Borderlands is probably the most ridiculously deep and solid-feeling game I’ve played in a while. But the depth isn’t in the exposition. It’s between the lines; it’s in the world.
So here are some things to concentrate on:
- Glee. Not that weird show people in the United States seem to be obsessing about a lot, but glee as in maniacal glee. Glee in looting, glee in shooting a bandit in the head or exploding a skag. Glee in how wonderfully megalolmaniacal/deranged your character is (“Is there no end to my power?”). This is the most essential element of Borderlands: have fun.
- When I first played the game, I was tremendously annoyed by the constant respawn. But that’s because I was thinking in terms of other games, where I always want to clean out every area. But in Borderlands, respawn just means the chance to get more XP and blow up some enemies. Hooray!
- The importance of respawn changes as the game progresses. When the bandits in Fyrestone respawn and you’re at a low level, they’re a challenge and a source of XP. When you’re high-level, they’re a way of enjoying your hard-earned powers: laugh maniacally as you mow them down. Remember: glee.
- Take joy in the characters. Don’t let the pop culture jokes and the fairly generic-seeming plot distract you: there’s real writing gold in Borderlands. My favourite example is the character of Patricia Tannis, who is actually introduced through a side quest. Her audio logs are a mixture of hilarious insanity and small moments of heartbreaking humanity. This is a character I feel serious affection for.
- The characters are a good example of the enthusiasm that characterizes Borderlands. The creators of the game have really put their heart into it; you can tell from the amount of details they’ve included. None of the characters are generic – even the claptraps, which could just always be the same, eventually start showing up in delightful variations (“Get out of my scan radius!”).
- The female characters in Borderlands. There’s quite a few of them – in fact almost all the important characters – and they’re well-characterized, well-acted and sensibly dressed. Yes, this is that one game where the female characters aren’t scantily dressed nympho-teens or wholesome loving stay-at-home-to-be-killed wives. Besides Patricia Tannis, I’m also very fond of Helena Pierce, the administrator of New Haven. There’s a seriousness to that character, a dedication to keeping the settlement working, that I find very admirable. She’s an adult, not a naive child or a adolescent fantasy. Female characters are rarely portrayed that way.
- I’ve always believed that in a game, the setting is as much a storytelling tool as anything else. This was the driving force behind the design of Phenomenon 32, and it’s the same in Borderlands. Reviews of Borderlands claim it has a thin plot; this is utter, utter bullshit. Sure, if you were to write a summary of the main plot missions, it would sound thin. But even the best story sounds thin if you summarize it; that’s why hearing a story told is not the same as reading the Wikipedia summary.
- Through observation, through little snippets of text here and there, we learn a lot about the history of Pandora. We see a planet stripped clean by greed, its inhabitants abandoned by the corporations that brought them there. We see traces of a more ancient history, of a world whose ecosystem used to be radically different. To the player who is genuinely interested, the landscape is full of fascinating things to wonder about.
- The first three DLCs, by the way, are superb. They are expansions in the true sense of the word, expanding the world, the story, and our understanding of Pandora.
- The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned could have been just an attempt to cash in on geeks’ obsession with zombies; instead, it’s a genuinely well-told Halloween story. It’s got tons of atmosphere, new types of enemies and gameplay, and a very funny story interspersed with subtle moments of seriousness. (In the intro, for example, when Marcus is talking about trees, the kid interrupts him and asks “What are trees?” There’s something chilling about that, and it’s even more chilling when later in the game you see cut-down giant trees.)
- Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot also adds a new form of gameplay, and one that is both challenging and enjoyable. Plus, Moxxi is a great character. She also appears in the next expansion, and what I really like about her is that she’s such a strong individual. Oh, she’s certainly very, very sexual, but that doesn’t turn her into an evil bitch to be defeated or a hot victim to be saved. If you tried to lay a hand on Moxxi, she’s probably shoot you with a gun concealed god only knows where. She’s sensual, and cruel, but she’s her own woman. Plus, she’s funny.
- The Secret Armory of General Knoxx really puts companies like BioWare and Bethesda to shame. For the money that usually get you a shitty dungeon and a new bit of armor, here you get a huge new part of Pandora to explore, incredibly memorable characters, and tons more story. New enemies and creatures by the bucketload (and not just new skins for old ones), new vehicles, new items… this is how you do a damn expansion.
- And again, the enthusiasm behind Borderlands shows itself in the expansions. From bitter anti-corporate satire to messages concealed in penis enlargement ads to the resigned, sarcastic General Knoxx and his frustration with his admiral, everything that could be generic has been suffused with personality.
- And the environment! Ah, the environment. Instead of giving you some tiresome exposition about what T-Bone Junction is, the creators leave it for you to figure out. How many games are there that tell you something about the biological and geological history of their setting? In how many games has anyone even thought about that stuff? But it’s all there in Borderlands – barely commented, but present, and part of everything you do.
- Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution, on the other hand, is total crap. The expansion was outsourced to another company, and it’s lacking everything that makes Borderlands good: the intelligence, the politics (its notion of politics is so pathetically unfunny, it’s kind of sad), the sense of fun. It has one good area, one good line, and that’s it. Depressing.
- To avoid ending this list on a sour note, let me just mention that Borderlands has great music, is full of style, and has my favourite intro video of all time. And I seem to be the only person on Earh who thinks the claptraps are cute.
Play Borderlands. But don’t play it to win: play it to play. Play it to enjoy its characters, its setting, and the satisfying squish your enemies make when you crush them. Don’t obsess over its faults; celebrate its strengths instead. You’ll find that there’s nothing quite like it.