Borderlands 2 is a time capsule, from the time immediately before loot-shooters took over the world. The margins of its script are filled with memes from 2012.
But I’ve decided to go back, for a couple of reasons. First, I missed the boat at the time, and would like to at least hitch a dinghy before Borderlands 3 comes into harbour this week. And second, I want to know if there’s anything left that Destiny 2 didn’t improve upon. Borderlands 2 is a game that’s been pilfered for parts ever since, and while pilfering might be in the spirit of Pandora, there might not be much left to discover. Still: 22 million players couldn’t have been wrong. Could they?
9 mins: Introductory cutscene. There’s a big fight happening on a train, which I can relate to, having once attempted to board the Tokyo subway wearing a huge backpack. This one ends in a mute murder dance, though, the only sound the strumming of a ‘70s-style guitar. Did… did James Gunn watch this before making Guardians of the Galaxy?
13 mins: Arriving late has its benefits. At the class picking screen, I plump for the Mechromancer, a specialist that came as DLC. Gaige is essentially Borderlands 2’s D.Va, except for the fact that her robot does its own thing, drifting about the battlefield to swipe at bandits with wolverine claws. I’m playing solo, so I’m into it.
14 mins: The action opens in a BLIZZARD. Coincidence? Yes.
16 mins: Ooo, I can see my hands. You can get the measure of a first-person game this way: checking to see if they bother to render limbs when they’re not carrying a gun.
20 mins: Do you know what? Claptrap is a surprisingly tragic figure, living among the remains of his peers in a snow-blasted cave. I’m starting to feel… not empathy, but sympathy at least. I think it’s gonna happen. I’m gonna be the first Borderlands player to not hate Claptrap.
21 mins: The tutorial mission, My First Gun, is undermined somewhat by the two assault rifles on my Y. One is a pre-order bonus, the other presumably part of some weapon pack or other. I am drowning in DLC.
29 mins: I don’t think a triple-A developer in 2019 would call their enemies midgets. Nor mongs. Even Ricky Gervais apologised for using that last one, and he offends people for sport, because that’s what ageing male comedians do instead of golf now.
30 mins: “Much as I’m sure you’d like to jam your fist into my skull,” begins Claptrap’s 38th line of dialogue in ten minutes. That sounds like an exaggeration, but I checked the transcripts. If Gearbox know exactly how annoying he is, why write him that way? Does he even have a skull?
34 mins: The first moment of uncanny familiarity for Destiny players. Borderlands 2’s quest reward screen isn’t exactly the same – the character stands on the right, not the left. But the approach to laying out exactly how much XP is in it for you, and offering a choice between a couple of pieces of gear, is identical. Then again, you could see the same principles at work in WoW. And ultimately, Borderlands owes its take on loot to Diablo, so there’s plenty of Blizzard there too. Turns out influence is complicated, and not as linear as you might think.
45 mins: My fast travel map is filled with expansion locations – the sign of a game loved long and hard.
48 mins: Having Claptrap restate the tutorials I’ve just read in game-halting text boxes feels like unnecessary cruelty. I’m already on the rack, you can spare me the Chinese water torture.
1 hour: There’s so much more writing in Borderlands than in Destiny. Bungie buries its most interesting stories in weapon descriptions and supplementary material. Gearbox simply yells plot at you, shouting over the noise of co-op voice chat. Neither is ideal, and both are symptoms of a wider difficulty in applying narrative to fast-paced multiplayer. It’s worth remembering, though, that it is possible to tell a subtle story in an action RPG – Obsidian did just that with Dungeon Siege 3.
1 hour 10 mins: There are still things for contemporary loot-shooters to learn here; about not relying on bullet sponges, on making your opponents and the environment lithe and dynamic. Borderlands 2 is a great shooter, not just an RPG. It never feels as if your victory or failure in battle has been predecided – instead, it’s a true marriage between your build and your skills.
1 hour 30 mins: There’s even loot inside Sir Hammerlock’s mailbox. Nice.
1 hour 35 mins: ‘Midgemong’? Come on.
3 hours 2 mins: I’d anticipated Borderlands 2 would seem empty when played solo, the way MMOs do. But it still feels like a complete game, possibly because it never stops talking.
4 hours 24 mins: Borderlands 2 isn’t particularly funny. It’s what comedy becomes when it curdles: zany. Zaniness can be mistaken for funny from a distance, but once you get up close you realise it’s all noise and no timing. It reminds me of my French exchange student, whose idea of fun was hiding in our cupboards and jumping out to shock my mum. Need to check if he wrote Borderlands 2.
6 hours 40 mins: I know there’s no fall damage, intellectually, but it still gives me the willies every time I plunge from a high platform.
7 hours 15 mins: I’m listening to gun manufacturers aggressively promote their wares on the radio. The brands are a really powerful way to meaningfully differentiate loot, the spokespeople reflecting the characters of their guns. Vladof weapons, for instance, offer poor aim but an extremely high rate of fire. “If your finger ever leaves the trigger,” says the Russian revolutionary salesman, “their boots will never leave your neck!”
7 hours 30 mins: Hammerlock pronounces thorough as “tho-row”. Fake Brit.
8 hours 9 mins: Truly, computer systems take on the personalities of their creators. Destiny’s gun naming algorithms will never come out with ‘Lumpy Slapper’.
9 hours: Claptrap is beatboxing in the streets of Sanctuary, rasping like R2D2 with a broken speaker. Every threat ever uttered against him has been deserved.
9 hours 23 mins: It’s weird to think now, but back when Borderlands was first conceived, action RPGs had become a PC niche. Now that the loot-shooter is the backbone of triple-A games publishing, it feels safe. But really, Destiny 2 is the peri peri showing up in supermarkets after Nandos has done all the hard work selling the British public on South African spice. It’s important to remember when it first blew our heads off.