Borderlands 2 and I shouldn’t have gotten along. It’s an first-person shooter, and a fairly aggressive one at that. It strongly suggests the addition of teammates. It’s tiredly open-world. It contains only limited role-playing elements. There are no difficulty options. Its story seemed to require prerequisite knowledge from the first game.
Well, what’s that they say about not judging a book by its cover?
Turns out that I had Borderlands 2 all wrong.
Set on a planet called Pandora, Borderlands 2 takes place five years after the events of the original Borderlands. In it, you are tasked with playing as one of four vault hunters, who roughly translate into the tropes of soldier, tank, mage, and ninja, in order to seek out Pandora’s hidden vault and take down its iron-handed ruler, Handsome Jack. Helping you along the way are the four vault hunters from the first game – Lilith, Brick, Mordecai, and Roland – who provide moral and, at times, physical support. You progress through the game by completing main story quests, which are accompanied by a plethora of side quests. Together they provide experience points and droves of loot, boost your stats, and give you the opportunity to explore the various lands of Pandora, which are undoubtedly gorgeous in cel-shaded glory that borders on manic and psychedelic in some regions.
I went into Borderlands 2 mostly sight unseen, having only read various blog posts and reviews about the game when it first came out. Its visuals were inescapable for a time, so I at least knew what the game looked like, if nothing else. Despite having obtained two copies of the game – one through Steam and one for the Xbox 360 – it took me awhile to build up the courage to tackle it head on. Upon starting the game a few months ago, I had only just recaptured my first-person-perspective legs thanks to Bioshock. And honestly, my last first-person shooter was…DOOM 2? (Wow, really? I guess Bioshock kind of counts as a shooter…kind of.) So yeah, I was trepidatious. But even though taking that first step was difficult, and it took me several hours of tinkering within the game’s first area to really become comfortable with what I had to do to progress, I was nonetheless rewarded with an amazingly appealing and addictive experience.
Off the bat, the game asks you to choose a character. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me before I settled on Zer0, the assassin (i.e. ninja). I spent far too long fixated on the fact that I felt like I should simply choose the soldier, Axton, because he would likely offer the most straightforward gameplay, skill tree, and so on. Both Maya, the siren, and Salvador, the gunzerker, were interesting choices as well. But when given the choice, I hardly ever start a new game playing as a mage-types or tanks, only because I usually need to get a decent lay-of-the-land with a simpler character first before choosing to either be more or less subtle in combat. If one thing steered me in the direction of Zer0, it was one word: sniper.
With my character chosen, I was then surprised to find that there were no difficulty options. Yes, poor lil ol’ me has become quite used to building up my stamina with a game by playing through it progressively on harder and harder difficulties. But Borderlands 2 would have none of that. Much like in some sort of old school RPG, everyone starts out on equal footing at the bottom. As your level rises, so to do the levels of your enemies. And in that similar vein, XP becomes more difficult to accrue as you level up. It had indeed been quite awhile since I had played a game that remained quite firmly rooted in ye old games of yore. (Like, DOOM 2, in fact.)
Then there was the whole question of teammates. I played the game on the Xbox 360, and from the moment I chose my character, the game constantly invited me to add “others,” up to three other players through Xbox Live’s online multiplayer system. When I settled on Zer0, part of me assumed that the other three vault hunters would appear alongside, but…nope. If I didn’t have a team, then I was to go it alone. As if I wasn’t nervous enough already.
With everything set, I was let loose. I met the inimitable Claptrap – the one character I knew best from reading about the game, and the one who was so much more enjoyable than I could have ever expected. And I spent time learning about the game’s mechanics, how to shoot, how keep my bullet stash on the up and up, and where to find loot and extra goodies. I spent forever and a day just on the Southern Shelf, where the story kicks off, taking down bandits and arctic beasts called Bullymongs, finding random stuff crammed into random corners, building up my bank in order to purchase health, guns, and various mods from vending machines. I met the curious Sir Hammerlock and was given my first assignments. And I stumbled across what seemed like a million sidequests just in the game’s opening hours. Oh, and I also discovered that I could change Zer0’s helmet and outfits, and, that Zer0 talked. Well, that he spoke a few phrases during combat. Lovely little phrases that I came to adore, like his sneeringly celebratory “I enjoyed that” upon getting a critical hit kill. Looked like I had my little RPG taste after all.
One of the other reasons I spent so much time on the Southern shelf was that it took me awhile to become familiar with combat. In a word, it’s frenetic. Bullets flying, bandits raging, and me just trying to keep my wits. The first mini boss fight against characters called Boom and Bewm had me raging myself after multiple deaths (The Hyperion “New-U” system is hilarious! …and expensive.) But from that battle I took away a host of information: how to best take cover, how to best deal with multiple enemies, grenades, gun switching, elemental damage, and how to utilize Zer0’s “DecapitiOn” skill (where he briefly creates a hologram of himself that battles for you). And I was also rewarded with a ton of loot! …which lead to me learning that I had limited carrying capabilities. Boo. Inventory management was something to master, as well. Anyway, after that battle, I felt much more at home in taking down my foes. I certainly died, a lot, but rarely did that become overly frustrating save for a few later spots in the game.
Holding the game together was one heck of a story, too. My worries about not knowing the first game were quickly quelled once I reached Sanctuary. Not only did the main characters provide all the backstory I needed, but recordings of Pandora’s history were scattered through the city (and elsewhere.) Most compelling was learning first of Handsome Jack’s rise to power, and second, of his relationship to Angel, a character that provides assistance throughout much of the game. It was also fascinating to hear, again through recordings, of my own character, Zer0, and his role in Pandora’s recent past and Jack’s maniacal plans. This definitely helped strike up an in interest in playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and possibly the first Borderlands, thought it might be moot at this point.
It hasn’t been that long since I finished the game, and already I’m kind of eager to return to it. That doesn’t often happen with me and a game – once they’re done, I rarely turn around and keep playing. But Borderlands 2 is different. I left quite a bit of Pandora in the dark. I’m immensely curious to reveal all its secrets, and I wonder just how much I can level up my favorite ninja assassin. It’d also be really interesting to play through as another character. I can’t imagine that the story would change much, but the gameplay would likely be completely different. How cool it would be to experience Pandora from another perspective.
As a final thought, Borderlands 2 reminds me of the importance of open-mindedness in tackling new games. My initial “meh, Borderlands is not for me” attitude was borne out of nothing more than a fear of failure. That I just wouldn’t be any good in or good enough for the game. Am I the best Borderlands 2 player around? Surely not. Am I suddenly ready to play the game in a team of four? Uh…no. Am I going to start seeking out all the FPS shooters in existence? Nah. But I am ready to take on new games, different games, games that I think aren’t “for me.” Truth is, you, me, any of us can play any game. Any type, any genre, any style. All it takes is a willingness to start.