Borderlands at 10: The Strange Legacy of the Looter Shooter
It’s hard to find a game these days that doesn’t promise tonnes of loot or that doesn’t require a constant internet connection. Back in 2009 no games other than those dedicated to online multiplayer required a constant internet connection. Borderlands changed all that but it didn’t know it at the time. The Borderlands series has never required an always online connection. It’s online co-op does but it’s just as easy, if not as fun, to beat the game offline on solo mode. Still a consistent connection to the internet wasn’t the only thing Borderlands introduced. That first crass, gory, garish game gave birth to an entire genre.
Let’s dial it back. Borderlands is a game about loot. Picking from one of four characters Brick the Berserker, Roland the Soldier, Mordecai the Sniper and Lilith the Siren (mage) players set off to scour the planet Pandora in search of a legendary vault. Also in search of the vault are it’s partially insane discoverer Patricia Tannis and the evil leader of the Crimson Lance military, Commandant Steele. It’s up to the Vault Hunter to rescue Tannis, defeat Steele and secure the vault and all of its glorious booty.
Borderlands was hardly the first game to introduce loot as a feature but it was the first to lead with it. “A gazillion guns!” “A bajillion guns!” “A hundred thousand quintillion guns!” cried the ads. They weren’t far wrong Borderlands had a shit tonne of guns. Revolvers, bazookas, acid sniper rifles, machine guns that fired electricity, guns that gooified your enemies. If you could think of it then it was in there in gun form.
In Borderlands if you couldn’t speak to it you had to shoot it. Sometimes you had to do both. Unfortunately Borderlands had so many guns that there was never a real opportunity to develop a relationship with your preferred weapon. These guns didn’t stick in the mind like the Battle Rifle from Halo 2 or the Super Shotgun from DOOM. They were easy to toss aside in favour of something better but this was one of many of Borderlands’ features that developers would latch on to.
Borderlands wasn’t the first RPG with guns and a first person field of view but it was the first game that felt like both an RPG and an FPS. Borderlands gave you skills to upgrade and basic customisation options for your four characters. Mordecai had a pet alien bat, Lilith could wield powerful space magic, Roland had a turret and Brick could become super strong.
We were light years away from Destiny’s Ultimates and Supers but the seeds had been sewn. You could say the same about the game’s transport system. Destiny’s Sparrows are pretty lacking in personality and so were Borderlands’ ramshackle desert buggies but they planted the idea for the Sparrows for sure. At least Scooter was an attempt at rejuvenating the vendor character.
Borderlands didn’t lack for supporting characters even if it did lack a fleshed out story and main characters. There was Scooter the redneck stereotype mechanic. There was the surgeon without a license Zed. There was the weird Cortana-like character that only appeared to you in visions. Last of all there was Clap-Trap. Hated by many, loved by few Clap-Trap was a small robot with a big personality and a loud mouth. You can see a shadow of him if you squint at Destiny’s own robotic loud mouth Cayde-6. Clap-Trap ultimately symbolised nearly everything wrong with the Borderlands series in neat, three foot tall package.
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Borderlands, let’s face it, was an ugly game. Sure it’s cel-shaded look was original in 2009 but that doesn’t mean it was pleasant to look at for an extended amount of time. It’s creatures, characters and environments looked like they were lifted out a particularly skillful MS Paint portfolio. And yet despite all this it stood the test of time. Long enough to maintain the same gruesome look throughout three sequels and a spin-off series. Unfortunately it maintained it’s crass sense of humour as well.
Looking back now the casual f-bombs and overly descriptive renal issues passed off as jokes read like the first draft of a South Park tribute script. It’s irritating characters didn’t help either. I could only listen to Clap-Trap screech “Holy fuck-balls” or some shit so many times before I muted him and by extension the rest of the characters.
Still, with that said it is very hard to find interesting characters in today’s looter shooters. Not even the presence of Lance Reddick and Nathan Fillion in the Destiny series can elevate it beyond “Space Wizards Save the Galaxy”. As I mentioned in my recent review of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint: “There’s only so much Jon Bernthal can add before you realise it’s the same shit but a different game”. Some games like The Division 2 know you’re not coming to them for the characters and so they don’t bother trying. Borderlands characters might be annoying but at least they add to the game’s abrasive personality. Borderlands 2 would try and rectify it’s cast of assholes but it still brought Clap-Trap back so it’s hard to know if Gearbox Studios rectified anything.
A decade on Borderlands reads as a basic template for the present state of mainstream gaming. It’s lackadaisical approach to storytelling and character along with its constant flood of guns, guns and more guns as well as its RPG-lite mechanics gave us what we have now. Every three months a new open world, always online, loot heavy shooter comes out. They’re like crap Netflix movies wrapped in prestige blockbuster clothes. Borderlands, for better or worse, changed the face of gaming and it did so with a shit eating grin.