Classic Comeback | Borderlands 1 & 2
Do these games still get a Clap or are are they just a Trap?
Borderlands is often credited as the grandfather of the looter shooter genre - if you say the word ‘sh-looter’ I will ask you to leave. But despite having plenty of younger descendants how has it aged?
Everyone has a favourite pair of pants, that pair that fits just right, that feel like coming home to a fresh bed. We have it for games too, the games that ground us and remind why we love this pastime to begin with.
For many it’s one of the original Mario or Sonic games, for a younger generation it could be Mario 64 or an early mascot platform and for a certain generation it’s one of the Call of Duties or even Fortnite. For me that perfect pair of pants is Borderlands 2.
I first encountered Gearbox’s flagship franchise during an hour-and-a-half play session when at my cousin’s house for a family gathering. My only exposure to First Person Shooters before this was through the RPG lens of Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland and snippets gleaned from sneakily watching my brother play MW2 or having a go at a friend’s house.
This was different from anything I’d played before; this was loud, vibrant and churlish. Despite limited time and being carried by a player who already had a fully levelled character, I fell quickly in love. The madcap humour, the overdone violence and excessive attitude of it all enraptured me.
As a newcomer to gaming as an enthusiast’s hobby I looked at games not as pieces of art to be experienced sequentially but as products to be bought and utilised to their fullest based on facts and figures like time to beat and number of guns. I also put much stock in review scores and their bullet point comments. So, looking to the two big publications for advice, both GameSpot and IGN told me that Borderlands 2 ‘improved in every way on its predecessor’. ‘Well then’ I told myself ‘there’s no point in buying the inferior product’. I trojan-horsed the sequel past my parents and into my PS3’s disc-drive by claiming; the game ‘looks like a cartoon’, and getting my cousin to vouch that it ‘wasn’t really violent’ and never thought much about the first game after that.
Hundreds of hours later, I was filling in plot holes with head cannon and YouTube videos. Hundreds of legendaries later, I didn’t care about the parts on guns being less randomised and modular. Hundreds of loot duplications later, I didn’t fret about any of the differences or inconsistencies I caused by skipping Borderlands 1. But now almost 10 years after its first release, Borderlands makes its way to the current generation of consoles in UHD. So, I ask again, how has it aged in comparison to modern looter-shooters and is it still as effortlessly comfortable to slink back to as its older brother or is it bogged down by its age?
If we keep this increasingly tenuous pants analogy going Borderlands 1 feels like an old and ripped tracksuit that has just gotten back from the drycleaners. Yes, its old. Yes, much of it is breaking down, but nonetheless its ludicrously comforting and easy to slip on. For every aspect that makes Borderlands outdated there are two making it feel like the looter-shooter genre distilled down to its purest form.
You don’t need me to tell you that the mechanics pioneered by role playing games of numbers going up and colours surrounding your items getting more vibrant is addictive, but a rugged charm is at play here. Unlike many games that seek to follow in Borderlands wake there’s no frills here.
The first thing you’ll notice is how modern it looks. Borderlands original E3 showing positioned it as a gritty sci-fi shooter set to rival Halo. When it arrived though its art style had evolved to an iconic and almost timeless cell shading. At the time of release it may have appeared cheaper compared to the realism being stived for by the competition, but now years later it Borderlands has transitioned to higher fidelity consoles with much more ease and much less of a graphical overhaul than other games from the same period.
Turning to the star of the show; guns. They‘re great, the games random generation leaves the impression of weapons being haphazardly pieced together, as if some of the pieces didn’t quite fit and have been forced into place by bandits. It’s a lovely piece of world building that folds into gameplay.
It also lends itself to simple upgrading; unlike games like the Division or Destiny, you can’t add modifications to these guns or choose their perks, what you get is what you get. This allows simple comparison of ‘what am I using?’ and ‘what is on the ground in front of me?’, limiting rifling through menus, previewing attachments or infusion potential, just a snap decisions, pick something up or leave it behind. The Badland’s guns are truly unique; you won’t find a gun and keep it through your playthrough, you won’t get the same model with slightly more optimised perks later or bring a weapon up to your level continuously. Once a weapon becomes weak you toss it aside -selling or dropping it. Leaving you with a sense for the brutality of this land which is being slowly tamed by the whips of darkly comical capitalist mega-corporations and arms dealers.
Playing Borderlands in 2019 some may find the movement lethargic, after years of being spoilt by the ground sliding, wall running and double jumping of other games Borderlands only option to increase moment comes in awkward grenade-boosting. However, I was shocked to find this deliberate combat pacing along with over-the-top gore and dismemberment to lend itself to engaging gameplay. Your position is scrutinised by rushing enemies. You feel capable, able to blow psycho into ridiculous chunks, but not overpowered, you can be easily overwhelmed if you throw yourself too far into the fray.
This slower flow can best be felt when you lose all your health you enter a downed state where you can take out an enemy for a second wind. During ‘Fight For Your Life’, you become completely stationary, reinforcing that positioning fuels combat. Gunplay is a game of tennis where both sides are throwing bullets at each other and you must be mindful of your location on the battlefield, so you can strike back even at your weakest moment. The Siren, Lilith, who’s action skill permits her the opportunity to retreat or reposition embodies this gameplay chess. You hop from enemy to enemy taking a knee at tactical points so that you can blow a weak combatant away and go on your merry way.
It’s a good thing gameplay is as strong as it is, once you stray from the main storyline what awaits you is a list of what usually amount to fetch quests. Strangely, I find myself drawn to the mission menu as this is where you’ll uncover of the games sharpest writing, which would come to the forefront in later games.
That being said, this is a decade old game and the UI is clearly a generation behind. If you want to change your shield you must…select your shield I the menu, scroll past each weapon in your inventory (which most certainly can’t be equipped in that slot), once you pass your class mods and grenade mods, you can then select your shield. The mini-map added to the re-release is of little use, being as legible as a ‘Psycho’s’ handwriting.
Not all menu-ing is bad, similarly to the feel of guns you find, when it comes to interacting with what matters it is all intuitive and streamlined. It's easy to weigh up the pros and cons of guns and being able to equip them straight into your hands allows gameplay to keep flowing. While the implementation of 2’s ‘Lock’ and ‘Trash’ system both speeds up and takes away the worry of miss-clicking when selling.
Perks and levelling begin to show more of the games confines; each of a character’s three perk trees contain humdrum, incremental upgrades to accuracy, bullet speed, elemental damage etc. They could all be swapped, and you won’t notice a difference. The only impact comes at the end of these trees. These capstones do change your approach to gameplay, however, unlike Borderlands 2 any synergy between skills in a tree appears merely coincidental. This is in stark contrast to the trees found in Borderlands 2 or other looter-shooters that than give you exponential explosions of power during gameplay by having kill skills, passives and midpoint skills bolster the impact of the rest of the tree’s skills. By the time you’ve reached the DLC-aided level cap of 69 (can you tell the DLC were where the franchise got really wacky?) you will be an all-powerful MOB killing badass, but you’ll rarely feel like you possess many cool abilities to vary gameplay.
Enemy scaling is flat and not exponential like in 2 resulting in a more consistent gameplay experience from the beginning of your play through to the end. Yes, it was satisfying to see millions in damage numbers pop off on enemies In BL 2 but when your endgame is balanced around a weapon that returns 65% of damage dealt while holding it back as health you know you enemies are doing too much damage. Here the numbers do get ever bigger as you play but never stray into becoming meaningless. You die because you didn’t manage grenades, reloads, positioning and action skills well enough, not because you didn’t have enough constant healing to counteract all the enemies that could one-hit-kill you.
Borderlands is a bombastic game that only drop its AAA façade when inspected under a microscope. Side missions are repetitive, guns can have a serious case of sound-the-same-itus and enemy variety is limited. However, it constantly manages to avoid letting these confines damage the experience of playing the game, by focusing on what it does better than any game before it and many that have followed.
It is a game which, when you play, you can’t wait to see how its expanded on, but I suggest you do. Take your time and enjoy it for what it is before jumping into its follow up. For every lacklustre NPC voice there’s two jokes in quest description that’ll have you chuckling. For the lack of colour in the environments there’s plenty of morbid world building that makes up for it. And when it comes to the simplicity of certain mechanics and gameplay element more often than not it’ll feel like slipping into your favourite pair of pants you never knew you had. Stupidly comforting and a lovely return to basics.