Blast from the Past review
FBT returns to the game that padded out a hundred reviews.
Fellow Previous Weapon scribe TheMorty constantly takes the piss, claiming I can’t review a game without referencing Borderlands. A quick check, and … okay whatever.
In 2019 Borderlands will turn ten years old and its style is pretty standard now. But a decade ago … it was nothing new then either. We’d had non-linear shooters before, with raiders, creatures, powers and level ups all set in dystopian Mad Max scorched-earth scenario featuring cartoony graphics, in-jokes, gaming satire and self-references. We've been here before. But Borderlands had something none of them had – great marketing.
Borderland’s trailers, featuring Cage the Elephant's Ain't no Rest for the Wicked, and Champion’s No Heaven got me walking into Game and buying it at release price. The energy, the violence, the madness, the bazillion guns claim, the bravado of it all, the Lilith … Borderlands didn’t speak to me, it shouted.
It was the antithesis of the serious, choice-driven, worthy games back then. The kind TheMorty likes. Now every game has that irreverence, the Looney Tunes tone, the ultra-violence; is Borderlands still as Nirvana-like as it once was now everyone’s into Grunge? Even the sequel and ‘pre-sequel’ felt a bit copycat, shiny rather than down n dirty.
With Borderlands 3 finally here, it’s time to go back and reconfirm Borderlands is the OTT yardstick. It’ll be worth it just to annoy TheMorty.
Alexia! Play that song that goes ‘There ain’t no Heaven’ …
Still a Blast?
Choosing Lilith again (it wouldn’t be a Blast if I picked another character …), I’m deposited in Firestone and meet Claptrap. TheMorty hated him but I liked Claptrap. He sets the off-kilter, cabin-fever tone of Pandora’s inhabitants. You get what it means to be a ‘Vault Hunter’, not some reluctant hero who will make it all better. I’m here to make it all worse.
Pandora, the planet we’re on, does look like Fallout 3 The Comic Book but it’s not that, it’s just a gutted rock, a scrapyard; a mega-corp turned the planet upside down looking for an alien vault then abandoned the place - and everyone who followed them - when they struck out. It has a failed goldrush western feel to it.
Looking around, the new HD version isn’t adding much to the world; it’s mostly cosmetic changes but what more can you do to a cell-drawing comic book look? BL was always VHS to its peers’ Blu-ray sheen; the rough edges set the scene. We’re not in Cameron’s Avatar, this is a Golan-Globus home video exclusive, and I’m a middle-aged Charlie Bronson.
As I head for my first Skag confrontation I’m not as panicked as I was back in the day. I meet the locals, take out 9-toes and his pet Skags, deal with Scooter and his ‘catch a riiiiiiiide’ mission, and ... it’s just okay. Oh no. I can sense TheMorty smirking from here.
Next mission is Sledge, who has part of the key we need to unlock the vault that we’re here for. Reaching Sledge is listed in my mission log as ‘Impossible’ – so what the hell do I do now? I need to get my level up if I want a passing chance at taking down everything between me and the key. That means going out and looking for trouble. Not sure I can face it.
Borderlands does feel a bit more of a slog now. It’s not subtle, there’s no planning just run toward the danger; no point running away, it’s all faster than you are. I employ the military training I learned in Doom – circle, back off, switch weapons. The last few years have seen some extraordinary advances in NPC behaviours, there’s been times where I just have to admit the enemies are smarter than I am, but in Borderlands I’m Einstein.
BL was touted as a role-playing shooter and I start off careful, finding a health-replenishing shield, always running back to sell loot; I’m avoiding tough fights, taking the long route, grabbing mission items and phasing Lilith’s ass outta there. The first time I played I was cautious of taking money from lockers, expecting “stop you’ve broken the law” – but there are no laws here.
Borderlands is one of the few games that actually celebrates you being no better or worse than those you’re shooting – you’re not doing all this to bring peace, you’re doing it for yourself. You can play Shepard as a complete asshole but they’ll still end up saving the universe. But Borderlands is just about getting yours - even the quest-givers, with very few exceptions are doing nothing but enriching themselves. Even when our ‘Guardian Angel’ says we’re doing a good thing, we don’t care. Eventually, Sledge’s mission drops to ‘Tough.’
When I head into the area it all comes flooding back. I gotta get past two packs of Skags, two raider outposts then a base while not offending other Skags, some Rakk, and the two uber-Skags, then I’m into Sledge’s spot, which is through a factory-mine before the big man himself. I’m overwhelmed, lose my health, get into a Second Wind and … survive it! Suddenly I turn into Rambo, hollering as I fire my biggest gun in some Vietnam-flashback.
I go into a fugue state, a frenzy and remember there are layers to Borderlands after all, a method to its madness; it’s not as mindless as you might think. I’m flipping between targets, concentrating not on the Skag a foot away but the one behind - it is roaring and its mouth is the sweet spot. When it’s down, I shotgun the other as it leaps and I don’t even see the body drop, I’m already sniping a raider’s head off, avoiding a psycho with a grenade, all the while sniggering at the ‘Midget’ Psycho’s jaunty walk – he’s not seen me. He’ll see this bullet. That triggers five more to come piling at me. Have at it. Finally it’s quiet. I go looking to make more noise.
This is the beauty of Borderlands, it’s pitched as one of those nights out that just gets messier and better. Later games copied the madness but missed the point of it – Borderlands is about feeling smug; Lilith finds all this hilarious, and once I do too, it all works. You need to play as if you’re about to die. Dying is just a quick breather anyway.
Losing millions to clone Lilith doesn’t matter because what are you going to spend the money on anyway? This isn’t Skyrim, I don’t have a house to pretty up, and - oh who am I kidding, it hits me right in the elder scrolls to lose all that money, but it is actually fair; there’s money everywhere, ammo everywhere, there’s monster in-fighting, creatures drop loot which makes them viable targets not just enemies; this is sport.
There is a fatalistic theme running through Borderlands, which occasionally gets serious; characters do fairly horrible things to each other and some come to unfairly sticky ends. I’d forgot that nutjob scientist Tannis is actually suffering from extreme PTSD – she survived a skag attack by hiding under a friend who’s being eaten, and recalls not putting an injured colleague out of her misery because once she dies, Tannis will be alone and so imagined her death rattle as polite conversation. Jesus. Later she develops a relationship with her diary, but they break up - which is hilarious until you realise it’s her ‘Wilson’, and she’s so traumatised she can’t go outside to find it … Borderlands often jokes about life being cheap (and death being very expensive) but occasionally it catches you out.
Some bits do grate. At times you feel like you’re so done with Borderlands’ shit; it’s tendency to have side-missions that send you back into an area you just survived can be draining - those caves again?!I There’s a main villain of sorts, Commandant Steele who commands the Crimson something or others, but they’re redundant and just there to push the narrative along when needed, as are the Eridians, the aliens that placed the vault there. Get out the way, I have things to loot. The real plot is taking out the crims that have pieces of the key to unlock the vault, that’s all I care about. Once your Skilltree gets moving, and you earn that Vault Hunter reputation, nothing else matters but getting yours. The final act when we push through alien Guardians protecting the vault loses the wild-west feel of the main game though, I always disliked that; but there’s DLC if you fancied more BL insanity.
I avoid Moxxi’s arena – I loaded it, just to see her opening, which I’m fairly sure is a statement she’d have a comment on – the fights are fun but we do that in the main game and we don’t earn XP there. It’s worth it because she has a Bank you can store weapons.
General Knox is huge and takes real commitment – you’re always deposited back at the start and getting where you need to takes an age (and a few Second Winds) but it’s got great missions, including killing one of Moxxi’s exes, great new locations and a plot that sees Knoxx targeting you mostly out of boredom.
Zombie Island is prime Tim Burton-style Halloween and a refreshing change; looks wise that is ... Robot Revolution is a near straight comedy where Claptrap turns on his masters and reanimates all the mini-bosses. It’s perfect for anyone (TheMorty) looking to get out their Claptrap hate. They’re all set after the main game but worth dipping into as early as you can (for as long as you can survive) for the XP gains, cash and better weapons. It’s not cheating, it’s what a Vault Hunter would do.
It did take a while, and I did have a nervous moment early on, but Borderlands is just so metal. There’s still no game out there that rivals it. BL isn’t about surviving, it’s about making sure no one else does. Other extremes like Doom 2016 or Dead Souls don’t work because they think it’s funny to kill you; Borderlands thinks it’s funny to let you go berserk – when you find a blinder of a weapon you automatically go looking for someone to use it on, returning to an area that chased you off a few hours ago. Have that!
I thought this would be an easy one to review. Couple of hours to get my head into it, and I already had hundreds of screengrabs at the ready. But those couple of hours led to over a dozen more and I ended up rinsing it. Plus all my screengrabs were of Moxxi.
Borderlands has lost some of that mayhem feel in the last ten years, but by the time I reached the vault, with Lilith sprouting firewings (which, naturally, are as dangerous to her as the enemies – don’t stand near an exploding barrel) and me giggling alongside her as we cut through creatures I would have run screaming from hours ago, I realised Borderlands is even better than it was 10 years ago; when you walk into a showdown that becomes a shootout, with blood, guts and loot flying everywhere it’s as fresh and intense as in 2009.
The Enhanced GOTY edition isn’t worth bothering with, it’s pretty and adds surface improvements but it's also buggy, laggy, and just marketing to stoke brand interest for the third. With Rage 2 totally missing the point and Doom Eternal looking like a desperate over-designed attempt to be relevant, games have forgotten it’s not about just being loud; Borderlands reminds me of Doom back in the day – it might be brutal but it wants you to have fun and you get caught up in it. Best replay of the year.
Borderlands will continue to be quoted in every review I post. Take that TheMorty.