I never understood why people didn’t like Claptrap. He’s warm and welcoming, a generous soul in a broken world full of murderous lunatics and viciously territorial wildlife.
I haven’t played Borderlands for ages, but I got the itch after crimbo and figured I’d reinstall it and have another go.
Needless to say, Borderlands comes with a “release date check” at the end of its installer, that phones home to a SecuROM server that is no longer active, so my lovely disc copy is no longer functional (sigh). There’s a tool available on Steam that’s supposed to convert discs to Steam copies, but it didn’t work for me and returned a non-specific error (double sigh). I had to contact 2K Support, who took a whole week just to give me a Steam key (multi sigh). I had just reinstalled Star Wars: Empire At War for another stab at that (dreams of when Star Wars hadn’t yet been ruined by Disney, mega sigh) when they finally stumped up the goods.
After all that, I was worried that I’d discover I didn’t enjoy the game anymore — but luckily, phew, it is good.
I suppose it’s easy to dismiss Borderlands as a parody with a juvenile sense of humour. Which, well, yes, it is, but like all the best parodies, that overt stupidity is underpinned by what is fundamentally an exceptionally well-refined game. At its most basic level, as a first-person shooter, it is hella tight. Okay, you get that for free with the Unreal Engine, but you’d be surprised how many UE games I’ve played where the shooting has been mangled by careless console porting. Once you turn off aim assist everything is just fine.
Although there are only a few categories of weapons based on real world archetypes, within those categories there is sufficient variety to support almost any play style, and with the gradual rolling deprecation of lower-level weapons as the RPG level ladder is climbed you are gently encouraged to move on and try different tactics throughout. Maybe you used to prefer that burst-firing assault rifle, but this less accurate faster-firing sniper rifle looks too tasty to pass up? Maybe your acidic shotgun doesn’t cut the mustard anymore and you fancy giving that ludicrously fast-firing electrocuting pistol a spin? Go crazy! What’s the worst that could happen?
Okay, it’s an action-RPG in the form of a shooter, but even here the tuning shines through. The level curve is basically flawless — I’ve never been caught out by a difficulty spike, or at least one that wasn’t telegraphed by the enemies being 2 levels above me. The main quest might be linear but the wide-open world platters of geography offer plenty of room to manoeuvre, to find better guns or clear off some side quests if the critical path is too hot to handle.
Sure, those side quests are probably about killing more stuff, but there’s always something to match your current level, always geared towards where you are in the main quest and where that will put your number of experience points. What I mean to say, I suppose, is that you never need to grind — as long as you do the quests, you’ll be completely fine. (Possibly even better than fine if you do all of them, as I am compelled to do.)
Not that grinding would be too much of an issue I suppose. Ultimately, the core gameplay mechanic of shooting things is so well realised I wouldn’t mind just going around shooting more things.
Beyond the raw mechanics of the game, there are more subtle twists that elevate Borderlands above the rank and file. It seems like a simple thing, but enemies are actually equipped with the items they drop. If you come across a bandit with that ludicrous electric machine-pistol and take him down, you will get that pistol for yourself. If a grenade comes over the wall that has vampiric properties, you will find the mod for that on the ground when you’ve cleared the field.
Okay, that doesn’t work for animal enemies, but these have an alternative explanation — that they simply eat anything on the ground and occasionally vomit up what they can’t digest. That covers items being in piles of scrap on the ground, and it covers animals having a few guns and wodges of cash lodged in their guts. There are, after all, guns everywhere on Pandora.
They even explain why there are so many bandits around during one of the side quests: the corporations that used to exploit the planet used criminals for slave labour, and when they left they just set them all free. Needless to say, the world descended into chaos which in turn explains why everywhere you go is completely wrecked. (This tidbit comes from collecting Patricia Tannis’ lost journals — in itself a delightfully daft quest line, where you get to listen to her oddly detached observation of her own descent into madness.)
It’s that kind of subtle lore thing that brings out the best in a game world. The loot-grind of games like Torchlight and Loki is nonsensical because a single enemy wielding a generic weapon can explode in a shower of far superior implements on death — why do they have all these items if they can’t, or won’t, use them? (Needless to say, Nox‘s enemies also only dropped items they were wielding, except in the case of the odd special boss.)
This approach brings another benefit, in that there isn’t too much loot. Each human enemy will generally only drop one weapon, maybe a shield or a grenade mod too, but they will never fill the screen with junk. There is still junk, there are still weapons you will never want except for selling, but there are few enough of them that the world is not overwhelmed.
And Claptrap? Well, his irrepressible joie de vivre can’t fail to lift your spirits. In the face of constantly being shot at, smashed and battered, he never lets anything get him down. When you repair him, he immediately springs back to life and love, gratefully increasing your inventory size and often leading you to secret loot chests on top of that!
Although much his dialogue in written form could be taken as sarcastic, there is no trace of this in the voice acting. When he exlaims “Wow? You’re not dead?” on you passing by, it is delivered with a note of genuine delight that you are, indeed, not dead. When he tells you about his project to explore the properties of sand, it is with real enthusiasm for his chosen subject. When you just stand around and he starts dancing… I think we could all learn a lot from Claptrap.
It’s good. It is so good. If you don’t enjoy its purile sense of humour, fine, maybe no amount of highly refined action-RPG shooting can make up for that. But, well, I still have a mental age of about fourteen and I love it, small warts and all.
Check me out, I’m dancing, I’m dancing!