Oh dear loot shooters, how you’ve grown. We’ve had two Destiny games, two Divisions from Tom Clancy, Warframe is still going strong and even BioWare’s had a nibble with the divisive Anthem. Nowadays this is a sub-genre with well-defined rituals, core loops, challenges and, of course, highly involved loot systems.
The loot shooter is such a known quantity, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how much it owes to Borderlands. The first instalment of the rambunctious franchise burst onto our screens in October 2009, just a whisker shy of five years before Bungie’s Destiny. At the time I remember hearing just how many guns were in this game – 17.5 million, if you were wondering – and thinking it was nonsense. No game like this would ever catch on, I thought, that’s such an overabundance of loot that people will hit saturation point and just stop caring. Oh, how wrong I was.
With Borderlands 3 on the horizon, the big question now is whether a new generation of Vault Hunters will be able to stand tall alongside the Guardians, Division agents, Tenno or Pilots of today, or whether the OG buddies-with-blasters formula will seem staid and outdated. As a way of hedging my bets, I jumped into the conveniently-just-remastered Borderlands Game of the Year Edition to see how well the granddaddy of the genre is holding up, and the old boy is doing surprisingly well.
Borderlands’ visuals have always been striking, developing an iconic style few other games have managed or bothered to ape. That certainly still holds true – and the HD remaster certainly hasn’t done any harm – even if the aesthetically pleasing Pandora is considerably more beige than I remember. But it’s in the mechanics, the missions and of course, the loot system, that Borderlands has the most to lose.
Impressively, it performs here as well. The shooting is still smooth, the missions are varied enough to be entertaining and to be honest the game strikes a better balance between a decent challenge and tedious bullet-sponge enemies than some of the shooters being released a full decade later. The A.I isn’t exactly spectacular, but then Borderlands has always relied heavily on a weight of numbers to keep the interest levels up.
While I wasn’t surprised to find popping numbers out of men or turning in missions was still fun, I had quite forgotten how much glee is baked into its loot system – or, more accurately, I didn’t realise how accustomed I’d become to loot systems with massive grinds. In Borderlands you have a slot for a shield, one for a grenade mod and one for a class mod – that’s three slots to cover everything you’re wearing. The Division 2, meanwhile, has a slot for your bag, body armour, respirator, holster, gloves and knee pads before you even think about getting involved in gear mods – and to be honest that’s pretty standard for a contemporary loot shooter.
With only three gear slots to worry about, Borderlands frees you up to pay more attention to what guns you’re equipping – and it (eventually) gives you four slots to fill with whatever you like. Packing four different rocket launchers might be a bit of a weird way to play a game but, if that’s how you want to play it, Borderlands will happily let you. It’s a more streamlined, fun focused loot system, in other words, and why it may lack the complexity that modern day min-maxers enjoy, there’s a purity to the Borderlands loot system that can’t be ignored. It helps that your guns are frequently bananas too, of course.
Going back to visit Ol’ Grandpa Borderlands, then, was a much more enjoyable trip than I would have expected – the things that made it great in the first place have stood the test of time admirably, and it made me genuinely reflect on what defines a loot shooter these days and why. There is one area in which Borderlands hasn’t aged quite so graciously mind you and, much the same as with a grandparent in real life, it’s that a lot of the jokes don’t really work any more. Borderlands was always bold and brash and sometimes quite deliberately bratty – it remained so even after a considerable tonal shift with Anthony Burch writing Borderlands 2. Even knowing that Gearbox itself had taken steps away from the first game’s material, however, some of the lines still stuck out like a sore thumb.
The first lines you ever hear from Scooter, a staple NPC in Borderlands 1 and 2, are ‘Hey, you the one killin’ all the crap when people ask? The Catch-A-Ride near Fyrestone is more busted than my mamma’s girly parts. Really ‘preciate you takin’ a poke at that. Uh, the system, not my mom. Hotdog down a skag den, know what I’m sayin?’
And it’s not even that lines like these are especially offensive – school children have been finding coarser ways to talk about one another’s mum’s bits for generations – it’s more that they’re dated. They manage to be both sensationalist and tame, a bit like an old Jim Davidson routine. Lines like these might have raised a guffaw when they were first heard but, with games like South Park The Fractured But Whole flying about the place, any shock value they might have had has long since evaporated – and what’s left is more embarrassing than anything else.
All in all though, it’s been nice to go back and remind myself why Borderlands is, at its heart, a cracking franchise, and it has me looking forward to Borderlands 3 (and wondering who’s writing it).