Borderlands 2 & Commander Lilith

Blast from the Past Review

FBT was supposed to review the Commander Lilith DLC but he used it as an excuse to play BL2. Idiot.

The Past

The thing I loved about Borderlands is how fast and loose it played with gaming conventions; it was disrespectful and dysfunctional, and that’s how you played; the rules didn’t apply.

Borderlands 2 had all that and more – much more. So much more. But what struck me was BL2 had an actual plot. BL1 was ‘reach the Vault. The end’. There’s not even a villain - we dealt with the Crimson Lance but they just get lost amongst all the other shenanigans and goings on. But in BL2 the fortune-hungry Vault Hunters became crusaders, united against ‘Handsome Jack’ who was tearing Pandora apart looking for an even more dangerous Vault. We’re trying to save Pandora? BL2 also had emotional moments that encouraged you to get invested in the plot. Whoa, a plot too? All very grown up.

But what I remember about BL2 is that it broke me. In short bursts it was BL1-level chaos, but short bursts didn’t get you anywhere. Areas took hours and if you died, which you did, you were deposited way back with so many respawned enemies to get through you became as mindless as the Psychos that run straight toward your gun – at least in BL1 I was doing it for myself. I don’t give a shit about Pandora; hearing ‘we have to stop Jack’ isn’t helping.

I get traumatising flashbacks when I think of what it takes to get through BL2. But I’m desperate to see what Commander Lilith has in store, and want to be ready for it. I owe it to Lilith to play it all before I reach her very own DLC and BL3 lead-in. Why do I do this to myself?

Still a Blast

In my previous plays, I used Zer0 the assassin with his ghosting ability, and Maya, the Siren with her shield. Clearly, I’m a defensive not offensive Borderlands 2 player. This time I’m Gaige the Mechromancer, who has a home-made robot, Deathtrap for company. Gaige gained some notoriety on release after a Gearbox designer called her playthrough the ‘girlfriend skilltree’ and said she was for people who suck at video games. Perfect.

My first thought upon starting BL2 is ‘oh god’ – it’s all coming back to me. The entire thing is one 50hr boss battle. It’s massive, like playing Frodo’s journey with a mission launcher. I try to convince myself it’s a ‘separates the men from the boys’ kind of game, and begin my ‘Girlfriend’ playthrough.

The opening of the vault in BL1 caused ‘Eridium’ to sprout everywhere, as well as clues to a second vault. The Eridium drew the interest of Hyperion, who’s boss, ‘Handsome Jack’ begins searching for the 2nd vault while turning Pandora into his own fiefdom. We’re a vault hunter again, but instead of hunting for a vault, we’re tasked by the original Vault Hunters to put a stop to Jack’s plans.

Why?! I don’t care, I’m a mercenary. The original Borderlands was Sex Pistols to every other game’s Genesis, but now BL2 is just the same; silent hero, planet in need of saving, bad guy to take down. BL2 isn’t even Peter Gabriel Genesis. Oh god I’m Phil Collins.

Actually, ‘girlfriend mode’ is an unfair description of Gaige. She gets killed as often as anyone else, she has some nice retorts and a great skilltree which, admittedly is all about increasing your odds, but that opens the game up for some risk taking, BL1-style. Deathtrap is great fun to have around too, the tree turns him into a badass on the field.

You need some clever skilltree manipulation though. Every location is sprawling, checkpoints are rare and it’s crammed with creatures. Heading out requires you to be ready, willing, and able. And have an empty lootbag. As I re-meet the Bullymongs - huge ape-like mofos that throw ice and rocks - I realise BL2 wasn’t ever going to replicate the original’s shock and awe, but much like Doom 2 it’s turned the wrong dial up to 11. Surviving Skag Alley was an early badge of honour in the original, here every location is Skag Alley and it gets a bit tiresome. Perhaps the most disheartening thing is Jack’s goddamn robots.

Robots are always boring to shoot. You need to enjoy killing to get through Borderlands, there’s not the same visceral reaction taking down a bot as when you pop a raider’s head off or melt a badass. When you see them, it’s just ‘oh’ not ‘oh-ho’ and they are the primary enemy you meet. Not to suggest there’s little else. Everything else is a pack animal it seems.

There’s Skags of course, which seem almost adorable compared to BL2’s menagerie. Varkids can evolve, Stalkers go invisible, Threshers just suck. Raiders now include a Goliath class – shooting them in the head just causes them to rampage, and Raiders are airborne as well; plus, Psychos. In short, there’s loads of crap in the way. I miss Lilith’s phasewalk, I’d just use it to shortcut. I often use Deathtrap as a distraction. I’m getting too old for this.

An early mission, A Dam Fine Rescue has a fun lead up, but once you’re into the bandit stronghold its arena after arena after second wind after second wind. A lot of BL2 set-pieces are like this and in the back of my mind I know there’s more to come; Jack’s under-construction city, the Wildlife preserve, and worse, and most have return-missions. The original Borderlands did this a few more times than was necessary, but in a game as big as BL2 it feels a little lazy to keep sending you back to areas. It makes an epic game feel small.

Yet BL2 isn’t small. It’s goddamn huge. Each region feels like the size of BL1 with tons of areas to shoot n loot through, cave systems, winding roads, rivers, gullies and cliffs, huge shipwrecks hanging over drained riverbeds, ice floes and desert, while everywhere we see Hyperon’s influence - in the sky Jack’s huge ‘H’ spaceship looms, occasionally firing down bots to piss you off. It’s just a violent schlep instead of a rampage.

Hold up. Lilith deserves better than this … Just like BL1, once I get my eye in, and my skilltree gets moving (as in, I stop being a baby), and Deathtrap lives up to his name, I relax into it. It’s all about that tipping point where you flip from ‘I will never survive this’ to ‘you will never survive me’ and it does get to be great fun in the moment. There’s tons of humour, clever gags – the camp where raiders play volleyball in a Top Gun parody is awesome - twisting missions, distractions and what were once slogging one-sided fights become incredibly epic, bloody good shootouts.

BL2 may be overwrought, and occasionally outright insidious, but it does want you have fun. All the insane weapons, including ones that talk and nag you, are put to good use. But I never shake the feeling that it’s a bit more generic. If it was just a DGAF Merc against the world instead of saving it, I’d have got it done. Being altruistic on Pandora doesn’t feel right.

The problem isn’t just the overreliance on bots, it’s their boss, Handsome Jack - wittering over the radio making meta references, mildly threatening you; with his taped-on ‘handsome’ mask, he’s actually annoying. When the true extent of his horrible plan is revealed, we do get into it, but again, this is Borderlands, I don’t have time for being angry/upset.

While having the original Vault Hunters elevated to heroes feel hokey, the other NPCs keep the sense of anarchy. All the familiar faces are here – Moxxi is as perfect as ever, and you can tip her huge wads to get her personal weapons including her fave, which vibrates … Newbies like Sir Hammerlock, a Jeeves type who’s here to trophy-hunt Pandora’s animals – or rather, get you to hunt them – are great. But Tiny Tina is the best thing in BL2. A little 13yr old bottle-rocket, she’s an orphan with questionable mental stability. A mission where we keep back enemies while she tortures the man responsible for her parent’s death is twisted AF; she did generate some controversy especially around her sexual references but bollocks to that, she’s just the Feral Kid from Mad Max after watching too much MTV.

After some insanely hard, near laborious fights – the one in Opportunity against endless waves of robots can F’Off, as can the fight to reach Angel – I’m done. This replay has been the slog I hoped it wouldn’t be. I thought maybe after time, it would have mellowed but no. Whereas BL1 has retained that sense of anarchy, BL2 has become a bit of a drag. Even playing as the Girlfriend, who is great, I just found it exhausting. Some set-pieces were magnificent though, and it’s got great writing. BL2 is rightly adored, but while it’s epic, insane and often brilliant, it’s not what BL was. It actually feels ... sensible at times.

But, the DLCs are here to save/kill me. Captain Scarlett is a pirate themed adventure for buried treasure - one Pirate lobs anchors to drag you in for a beating and another steals your health which sucks, but the humour, off-beat tone and Scarlet’s constant joking about betraying you make this a pure BL1 ‘get some’ experience. Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage is just as gloriously OTT as Torque is, as we compete for a mini-vault under a Terrordome-style stadium, and Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt is just for the sadists. And if you’re playing Borderlands, you are a sadist. Those DLCs are what BL is about; fame and riches.

But the real kicker is Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep. We’re in a D&D fantasy and she’s the Dungeon Master, so you can imagine how F’up it is, but it’s brilliant, huge and there’s some amazing commentary on loss threaded through it. Who thought Borderlands could be touching? I’m moaning BL2 is too plot-heavy and the one that wins me over is a 13yr old working her way through grief. Yes, I am crying, but only because it’s tough ...

And then there’s the ‘Headhunter’ DLCs, short fun little diversions ending with a mini-boss and a new head for your character. They’re all brilliant, but the Marcus one where you save Christmas is fantastic, as is Moxxi’s Romeo and Juliet caper, where you go to Pandora’s redneck region to make two opposing families let their love-sick kids get together.

Finally. Beaten and levelled-up to hell, I’m ready to save Lilith. A disgruntled Atlas Commander poisons Pandora’s atmosphere to turn it into his version of paradise. While Lilith tries to save the inhabitants, we go after the General who has also stolen the Vault Key. It’s a great little bit of business and feels BL1 in humour, missions and focus. It's so much fun, and there’s a great side mission where we all say farewell to Scooter; weirdly I’ll miss him. Catch a Riiiiiide.

At 10+ hours it’s not just an interactive trailer, but it is pointless; we don’t actually lead into BL3 in any meaningful way - we don’t even meet the new set of characters and we already knew we’d be leaving Pandora, BL2’s ending made that clear as have BL3’s trailers. Still, as a farewell to the BL2 era, it’s a winner, a legit timewaster, pure shoot n loot. And that’s exactly how Borderlands should be. Get you one.

This replay has been an odd one. My memories of BL2 could be summed up in one word – exhausting. This time I’m conflicted. I found it a slog, yet I’m tempted to get into True Vault Hunter mode so I can go toe-to-toe with it all, and that’s the mark of a good game.

One thing about the story-element I enjoyed though, is how the NPCs eventually group into an ultra-dysfunctional family – Lilith, Brick, Roland, Mordecai, Tannis, Tina, Moxxi; even Claptrap, sorta. In Commander Lilith, Brick chides a stroppy Tina after she talks back to Mordecai with ‘don’t talk to your mom like that’ and weirdly, it doesn’t seem that weird. They do make a great little team, and at times, Borderlands 2 gets you right here; but that’s not where I was aiming for.