'Borderlands 2': A Fine Game's Follow-Up Prioritizes Dialogue And Character
Another game with a post-apocalyptic theme? There are so many of them. Why do game makers have this lemming-like, bandwagoning quality? It's going to kill this sub-genre, not only as entertainment, but as a burgeoning popular art form.
Such were my thoughts in 2009 when I received and looked at the cover of Borderlands. And the goal, finding treasure in vaults, didn't appear to be all that different from the others, either.
But within the first 20 minutes of playing the game, anyone could see that Borderlands was a cut above most interactive entertainment created that year. The cartoon-like art style is not new. Even the developers of funny animal games like Sony's Sly Cooper had used something similar. But what if you combine the artwork with a Ken Kesey-like bus trip with a crabby, mysterious driver? What if you add role-playing elements to the basic shooter so that the game is well worth the price of admission? What if your sidekick is a creaky, somewhat terrified, but often comedic robot called Claptrap? What if the game designers make the collection of loot so appealing that you want to collect every item you can find to modify your weapons? And what if the music that comes from a radio rocks in proper contrast to the moody score?
Then you finish the 127 missions and kill the many-tentacled, spike-throwing Destroyer to get the key to the Vault. Even though so many questions were left unanswered at the game's conclusion due to a faulty story, you realize Borderlands was a memorable step forward for games. It sold four million copies because the developers, Gearbox Software, went the extra mile in the way Rockstar Games presses its employees to go deeper and work harder than the rest.
Now comes Borderlands 2, and the question is, how on earth can the sequel top the original?
Early on, I was disappointed that Borderlands 2 begins with an introduction that's somewhat similar to that in the first game: Similar primitive drawings, similar voiceover, similar movie-style credits, similar first scene with a creepy billboard, similar meeting with the ubiquitous robot, Claptrap.
And yet, something is different. The action begins more quickly. The kooky humor is still there, but when you see an alien creature being dragged by a rope by monstrous morons behind an armored vehicle, the mood becomes far more menacing, bloodier, more torture-filled and ultimately, more fear-inspiring. A booming song plays, and these foreboding lyrics are sung as warnings: "This ain't no place for a hero. Go home." And when you do meet Claptrap, he is digging a icy grave in pelting blizzard. It's your grave. When you waken, he seems so happy that you're alive.
I wish it were, but this is not a game you play for deep story. Although the makers promised a better, overarching tale, what you often get is too episodic. Here, you have to restore peace in the world of Pandora by defeating the megalomaniacal Handsome Jack. He's such a grisly lampoon of evil, former Mexican crime lord El Barbie would seem like a Boy Scout by comparison.
Yet the dialogue can often be spot on. It's constantly in your ear, and it's a fine way to get to know the characters. For instance, at one point, the bubbly, cheerful Claptrap says he's actually depressed. He's merely programmed to sound optimistic. The line has a "Tears of a Clown" quality and made me pause from aiming and shooting to think about why the robot was so programmed. Is it simply to be a nervous jester? Or is it to coach you, as a mercenary, to be strong and jovial enough to undertake the brutal missions you must embark upon to travel through the very precarious land of Pandora? Or is it for the gamer and not the character you play, to keep you clear-eyed through the hours upon hours of mayhem that rarely lets up?
You play Borderlands 2 as a constant shooting challenge. There's a cornucopia of weapon upgrades and customizations — a dizzying amount. So much, in fact, that I now feel like I know the stultifying indecision Imelda Marcos must have felt when choosing a pair of shoes.
And the stakes are high: you need to choose well to deal with annoying enemies like Psychos, who are weak but aggressive. They speak in crazily poetic riffs, a bit like Brett Gelman's "Mr. K" character in Matthew Perry's new NBC comedy Go On. The more powerful enemies can work in tandem to kill you, like Boom (behind a Big Bertha gun) and his brother Bewm (who can fly and attack). Boom Bewm is very hard to kill. So you die. And then, when you respawn, you're both mocked and charged money in the game.
So you do everything to stay alive. But you still are murdered, again and again. You choose your weapons and upgrades as carefully as you would moves in a chess game. Thankfully, you can bring in a friend or ally at any point when the enemies seem invincible.
Ultimately, Borderlands 2, with its imaginative game design and piercing satire, certainly has game of the year potential. If the unfolding story had as much nuance as the dialogue, it would have been a masterpiece.
Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.