Well, I guess this story, like all gaming stories, begins with Skyrim...
Not that I have your attention, I just need to state that after Skyrim I was in one of those gaming slumps. I loved Skyrim, but I was over Skyrim. It was the best of times, yada yada yada. I started to fill the void with a lot of other RPGs, almost all of them actually quite good but I heard that Borderlands would fit this weird niche I didn't know I needed. There was a shooter that was also an RPG, and also open world, but also crazy driving at times, and also really funny at times, and...
Like these things happen when you get to the party a year or so late you can sort of see the entire story all at once. The game's release, the slow but serious devouring of the mechanics by the community, the DLC which was so of the time (zombie dlc) and yet also attempting to deal with the game's flaws in a way that DLC used to (a bank for weapons) and the inevitable hackers making the in-game economy of loot drops null and void.
It's one thing to see this stuff play out, it's another thing entirely to have the game's every secret transcribed on a wiki and to have all the hard fought intelligence of the game tossed around on forums like some passe fad. As much as me and the few other people I found to play through the game with were having fun, slowly Borderlands 2 was coming down the horizon. Just this inevitable reality that this game that shouldn't have been a hit was going to get a sequel attempting to put the title squarely in the modern franchise scene.
Well, I have some problems with Borderlands 2. I mean, I'm not the only person who had problems with the game, I think many people walk away from the game feeling it didn't really hit all the right notes, but with the release of a newer (older?) Borderlands title I thought I should ask the question: can the new release drop the ball any harder?
From the start Borderlands 2 is drastically different from the original which was riding the wave of wasteland titles with a few unique elements that let it stand out from the crowd. While most shooters were getting more shallow and yet pretending they weren't so...Borderlands was actually not afraid to admit at times that this was not some paragon a depth. Yet, where the sequel would often go just for humor from bosses to backstory and characters the original was not just a funny game.
However, this wasn't really a good thing for Borderlands. There were some fairly long sections in the last half of the game that really weren't funny at all. And even worse the attempts at humor failed pretty hard. The game seemed to tread this ground of bits of science fiction wrapped around these dark moments, with vast deserts in between filled with...vast deserts.
The sequel, in the first half hour of play time, tries to show it's an entirely different game. Snow instead of sand, tougher enemy encounters right off the bat, etc. And one of these elements is Handsome Jack's introduction. Full of humor and sarcasm this voice off screen exists to berate and humor the player, yet he is the villain and these awful stories are also told of how he made the lives of these pathetic people on Pandora so much worse. These stories didn't really make me feel like defeating him more, they just felt really cheap.
A lot has been brought up about the cheap writing in the game: the memes, the retro cartoon references, and yet I think the cheapness didn't just come out of nowhere. The game just doesn't feel really well put together. There's a weird floatyness to the movement, an insane amount of lead up to the actual hub city that sets up the actual story starting, and then there are the guns.
So, these opening areas of Borderlands 2 are obviously tutorial zones, but there's a sort of mess of blatant tutorializing and learning through doing going on. This wasn't that much worse or better than the original title. It's opening sections were a series of quests to get basic equipment and key items. The bosses in the original's first zones weren't nearly as eye catching. But all the same, this kind of hits another problem.
The bosses, hell the entire world of Pandora in Borderlands 2 seems to miss the point about what was so unique in the original. The layouts of the areas were so much more simple, but this meant that when an area with an interesting design showed up it actually felt interesting. When you finally fought a person that wasn't an alien monster it felt interesting. Borderlands 2 kind of repeated all the same ideas as the original, only flashier. You basically continue to fight through bandit strongholds, ending in a boss, moving from the trailer trash bosses to the elite weapon-manufacturer related compounds with futuristic designs.
There was a lot said about how Handsome Jack would give players an incentive to continue, would drive a story, etc. But looking back at the game it feels like Jack kind of just gave the developers free reign to pull players through the same trials as the original, only with worse guns.
So that's the big sin for Borderlands 2, in my final estimation. They decided that players liked having lots of guns so they made more. It doesn't matter that this kind of skewed it so that most guns felt the same, and that it was really hard to find decent upgrades at times, but the end result was that they created the Diablo 3 problem.
Diablo 3's problem, if people don't recall, was that they made legendaries pointless. Not really unique enough to make people who wanted something different happy, not powerful enough to make people who wanted better stats happy. For Borderlands 2 this sort of resulted from a change in how enemies worked all down the line. With the change in how enemies took damage the most important stat for weapons was dps. Not in an interesting way like I think they imagined, but in a "every enemy is a bullet sponge and the best way to get rid of them is either a rocket launcher that's a pain to get or throwing an exploding gun at enemies over and over" kind of way.
There was definitely some more interesting additions to the strategic aspect of play, something that kind of can't be over-stated, but the sheer slog that it took to get better gear at times meant it was kind of pointless. There were very few good legendaries in the game and the likelihood of getting a drop that you could actually use(not say a drop 2 levels below what you wanted) was frustrating.
These are all kind of deep yet not necessarily agreed upon problems with where the franchise was going. Similarly there's a line of thought that some of the new characters were in bad taste, that the game didn't really give enough of an experience before the DLC, and that beyond weapons not being done well the loot hunt wasn't either. These are all things that are "highly debatable" to say the least.
The best DLC for the original Borderlands was hands-down the release with a glitch allowing you to farm a vault full of chests as often as you wanted. For $10 you could play through a quite stellar DLC campaign and to top it off actually get some upgrades for your characters, maybe even find some weapons you'd never seen before.
I remember finding an Orion in that game. And more versions of my favorite gun, the Hellfire, than I could shake a stick at. Both were these weapons with elemental effects, so if you got a shot off that proc'd you would get this great damage bonus. In Borderlands 2 they basically did away with that damage bonus mattering at all, meaning that you really couldn't get psyched up for finding a weapon like that.
The new sequel prequel, or prequel sequel, apparently has more guns. Honestly, I don't know if the Gearbox people even understand that that was one of the problems with the sequel. Just like they didn't really understand that the vault dlc was one of the positives. As the DLC for Borderlands 2 started to drop you'd get these vaults filled with chests, but you couldn't really glitch you way in so they built that weird jealousy in regards to other people possibly grabbing the good stuff from the chests. And they had bosses that could drop good gear, but you could only hit them up once every 24 hours.
It was while playing Borderlands 2 I came to understand how game economies worked. Rarity in the real world is one thing, but rarity controlled by developers trying to sell you dlc, trying to sell you skins and heads, trying to sell you map packs or whatever, it's something so much more dreadful. In the end Borderlands 2 felt like a machine winding up, like a political machine or a media push for a summer movie, it was designed to draw as much money out of players as possible.
The shaky legs of the DLC market that appeared in the early part of the last generation of consoles had come full bloom by the end of the generation. No longer did developers have to slave over expansions to games that had to keep players interested for years, now they just bleed a steady stream of content until players no longer gave a damn.
The last content drop for Borderlands 2, an ode to the high point of the original game and one of the high points of dlc in general drops today. As Gearbox is starting to wind up the gears of the machine for another Borderlands bonanza I wonder if they've actually put effort in to solving problems with the sequel, problems sort of inherent in the series and how they bring it forth, or if they just put effort into trying to make as much money out of this run as possible.