Borderlands is a best-selling franchise. This is an objective fact. Now let's get subjective.
Borderlands! Who wants to talk about it with me?
Before I express any opinions on Borderlands, we have to pause for a disclaimer: until quite recently, I shared a house with a flatmate who worked and continues to work for 2K. Because of this, I've been as conservative as I could be, in this job, with coverage of 2K titles. I have to do news, of course; I've done previews, hesitantly and with a disclaimer, if nobody else could do them; but I've really tried not to do anything that could be considered an assessment of a finished game, and I've declared my potentially compromising situation over and over again.
I moved out of that particular shared house in February, so technically we can forget all about it, but I'm not sure what the half-life on these things is, so I thought I'd let you just make up your own mind. If you think the fact that I argued about the dishwasher and girlfriends and whose turn it was to pay the electricity bill with a 2K employee makes any opinion I have about the publisher's games suspect or corrupt, please stop reading.
If you're comfortable moving forward with this knowledge in your mind, then let's talk about how great Borderlands is.
It's really good
Just to complicate my disclaimer above, I did not love Borderlands before I moved into my last share house. It was indeed my 2K-employed flatmate who got me into the franchise, suggesting Borderlands 2 as the next title in a long string of co-op adventures, which has also included The Secret World, Torchlight, Destiny and many other games.
I wasn't super convinced, not being massively into shooters, but I gave it a go on the basis that I like RPGs a lot. Turns out: Borderlands is brilliant.
What I really love about Borderlands are things that, according to my research into shooters, are pretty old-school. I like the complicated twisting paths through each short arena, with enemies popping out of multiple doors to surround you on all sides while you duck and weave through the area, searching for a waypoint that gives only a vague indication of your goal. I like that finishing an area often drops me back at the entry point.
I like that it rewards off-the-hip shooting, encouraging me to play a more fluid and fast-paced game than ironsights allows. I like that projectiles are often weighty and slow, so that you often have to lead enemies, and that said enemies move unexpectedly in a variety of patterns, sidestepping, rolling and ducking behind cover to lob grenades at you. I like that throwing grenades takes skill and practice. I like that enemies don't appear on your radar until they're aggro'd.
Less nostalgically, I like that Borderlands is kind of like a first person shooter version of Diablo, only instead of being a travesty it is marvellous. The sheer variation of weapons on offer is staggering, and each statistic is genuinely significant. Finding a really good gun is like Christmas, and makes you forget all the pocket-lining guff you've picked up along the way in order to get to this point.
Even without the randomly generated explosion of weapons, there's a hell of a lot of variety in gameplay. The basic options - handgun, SMG, assault rifle, shotgun, sniper, rocket launcher and in The Pre-Sequel, lasers - combine with melee, grenades and special abilities to almost ensure no two players will ever take exactly the same approach.
In fact, your approach changes not just from character to character but minute to minute, as you pick up new weapons, juggle ammo supplies, and discover new depths to gameplay. This is most obvious in The Pre-Sequel, where the addition of Ozkits on top of class mods, new moves and new weapon types offer a startlingly varietous combat sandbox, but it's true for each game in the series to a not insignificant (if comparatively lesser) degree.
Really, the permutations are as close to endless to be practically inexhaustible.
Exploring the different builds on offer for each character, even within one of three core skill trees, unlocks so many new options - and at any point a random weapon drop may suddenly rewrite your whole approach, encouraging you to respec from shotgun-wielding elemental shock troop to stealthy melee assassin to long-distance one shot-ter to group healer to controller to - really, the permutations are as close to endless to be practically inexhaustible.
It's a shame so many people miss this. Playing in co-op doesn't exactly encourage you to stop and think and appreciate. In other ways it's fantastic; it's a riotous, explosive experience of water cooler moments and non-stop action, and you can put together builds so perfectly complementary that playing alone makes you feel like a shadow of yourself. But those who play only in co-op might never even discover this; who wants to piss about reading menus and thinking about synergies when their friends are sighing down the mic in impatience?
As well as its gameplay depth, Borderlands' lore and characters really suffer as a result of its co-op focus. Gearbox has admitted first-person co-op shooters aren't the best place to tell a story anyway, and in a recent (and terrific) blog from Anthony Burch on Kotaku, the former series writer said Gearbox did a pretty poor job of selling the player on its lore until the Pre-Sequel.
That said, if you play alone, taking in the dialogue and scenarios rather than following waypoints while laughing with your mates over your own jokes, there is a lot of very funny writing and interesting situations in Borderlands. For example, Borderlands 2's DLC pack Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep is a great example of a heart wrenching emotive tale wrapped up in a very funny and clever package of shooter goodness. But all three games have excellent and memorable moments.
It's kind of amazing how much better the series gets as it goes along, and I can only imagine how good Borderlands 3 could be. Replaying the original Borderlands recently (it's the one I've played the least, and I wanted to see a bit more of it since it's not in the Handsome Collection) I was struck by just how contingent the game's success was on its personality. As I think I've already made clear, I think Borderlands has terrific gameplay, but that's something that's almost never acknowledged. If not for its unique world setting and especially its visual style, it might have gone under the radar entirely.
This nearly happened; the shift to the beautiful, hand-drawn style came quite late in the original game's development. I like to imagine what Borderlands' reception might have been without it. This was 2009, remember - just one year after Fallout 3, when dusty post-apocalyptic landscapes felt tiresomely common.
That first Borderlands game feels much closer to Fallout than its successors do. It's very much more in your face about being an RPG, with intrusive on-screen inventory update prompts, clumsily blatant hub-and-sidequests design, and exaggerated difficulty scaling. It could have been written off as a poor attempt to ape Bethesda, which would have been unfair; where Bethesda's Fallout is an RPG with shooter combat, Boderlands is a shooter first and RPG second.
The second game is much more slick and polished, with carefully designed menus, plenty of licensed music, and greater personality in its cutscenes and set pieces. The Pre-Sequel embraced the same presentation, with the result that the two make a homogenous package in The Handsome Collection, while still feeling like very different games.
The Pre-sequel is to Borderlands 2 what Borderlands 2 was to Borderlands 1, although I don't expect many to see it. The difference is that Borderlands 2 took a central premise presented in a very rough fashion, and polished it up beautifully: compare the menus side by side, or the landscapes - you know that bit in Borderlands 2 where you first get out to the ocean, with the sunsetting over the ice?
Although it has a much more interesting and colourful visual style than even Borderlands 2 brought to the table (and the first sequel was already one of the most gloriously colourful shooters of its time), The Pre-Sequel is much more than a glorified skin and expansion. As briefly mentioned above, new gameplay elements make it feel entirely different; this is the mid-2010's, so of course a triple-A shooter needs a mobility gimmick, but the low-gravity traversal and butt slams of The Pre-Sequel stand out in a crowded pack.
It's also much more open about putting storytelling and characters first and foremost, not least because the class design opened up so much, and because of this, it makes an excellent starting point for those coming to the series because they liked the look of Telltale's Tales from the Borderlands, which I encourage every Borderlands fan to check out.
I have Borderlands, Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel on PC, and recently acquired The Handsome Collection on PS4. I don't know how many finished and half-finished and deleted and resumed saves I have across the three Borderlands games. I only know that I'm always ready for another one.
I'm still friends with my former flatmate, and we happened to both be playing The Handsome Collection last night, so I hit him up on Party Chat and we decided to team up and start The Pre-Sequel together.
"What level are you?" he asked. This is important because unbalanced Borderlands co-op can be dull as ditchwater.
"Don't you want to start another save, specifically for our playthrough?" I answered.
"That would be ideal," he agreed. And it was.
Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is out now on PS4 and Xbox One.