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Borderlands: The Other Stalker

[Sorry for disappearing again.  Christmas, New Years, a PC crash, a PC upgrade, and some good ol' fashioned sickness all conspired to cause a pause in this blog.  Well, that stuff, and the post-Christmas gaming drought which seems to be a common occurrence for the past few years - I mean, how do you write about gaming when there are no worthwhile games out there?  Anyway, here's to 2013 being an active year for this blog and for PC gaming!  

Seeing how Borderlands 2 is now out, I decided to revisit the original and finally complete the campaign before moving on to the sequel.  Here are my thoughts after doing so.]

Wow, a rarity to report: I actually finished another SP campaign, this time from the original Borderlands!  As I mentioned elsewhere, I rarely finish game campaigns because I just hardly ever find the stories to be all that interesting. Generally, I just indulge myself with the game until I get bored with it. Then I either delete it from my HDD or just move on to the inevitable sequel, knowing full well that I probably didn't miss much story-wise, and the follow-on title is going to fill me in on the details anyway.

But I just couldn't do that with Borderlands. Even though the sequel - and two DLCS! - is already out there for the taking, I just could not leave this campaign unfinished. I just found the whole experience too engrossing. But why? As I powered my way through a second fresh start, I realized just why I so enjoy this game: you see, Borderlands is the other Stalker.

Huh? What? Yeah, that's right. While in terms of temperament Borderlands might be starkly different from the catastrophically oppressive Stalker, thematically it is identical. In Boris and Arkady Strugatsky novella Roadside Picnic, stalkers, those self-doomed souls who stalk the alien-created Zone, were always on the lookout for the mythical "wish granting machine" (or the "wishing granting room" in the movie of the same name), something that was reputed to make the wildest dreams of a stalker come true. In Borderlands, Pandora, the god-forsaken planet at the heart of Gearbox's tale, is reputed to be the location of "the vault", an alien repository lusted after by every "vault hunter" on the planet:

 As the video explains, like the Strugatskys' wish granting machine, the vault is reputed to contain the desire of every vault hunters heart, hence the mad obsession with finding it. I do confess: after picking up a few clues, particularly those gallows humor-laden voice recordings from archeologist Patricia Tannis, I, too, quickly found myself obsessed with finding it. 

Speaking of mad obsessions, did you notice how Pandora is described in similar tones to the Strugatskys' Zone? Pandora is...

...a wasteland, that it is dangerous, that only a fool would search for something of value here.

And Pandora is just that. Borderland's Pandora has absolutely nothing in common with Cameron's glittery jungle world of the same name, rather it is a zone just as lethal as The Zone. Sure, the sunny, Arizona-like desert expanses, combined with the colorful cast of characters, might serve to put you off the trail, but it is there. Like The Zone, Pandora is littered with danger of all sorts, from roving bands of bandit psychopaths (who like to string up their victims by the neck and then stack their skulls), to the (wonderfully imaginative) local fauna that sees you as nothing so much as a tasty snack. What is more, just like The Zone is a case study of human abandonment, Pandora is littered with long abandoned structures that were left to rust in the glaring, hot sun. Pandora is, in effect, one massive ghost town from a sci-fi Old West. It is Fannie Mae on a global scale.

 Which brings me to another alluring facet of Borderlands: the corporate backstory. One of the things that so annoys me about modern sci-fi, particularly sci-fi gaming - is how everything seems to have popped out of a Gene Roddenberry replicator. That is, nothing seems to be actually manufactured by corporations in the future. Where are the corporate logos? The corporate branding? Go take a moment and look around you: I bet you see at least a dozen corporate trademarks/names without even leaving your seat. Why is it then that the future is always devoid of such branding? For me, this is an omission that is immediately noticeable, and one that goes a long way in spoiling any sense of immersion to be had in a sci-fi future. Fortunately, Borderlands suffers from no such flaw. In many ways, Borderlands is just as much a story of the many corporations that make those wonderful weapons - Atlas, Tediore, Hyperion, S&S, to name a few - as they are of the vault hunters who use them. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that Pandora finds itself in such a sorry state of affairs precisely because of corporate shenanigans. It is for this reason that I always found the many Dahl trash bins scattered about Pandora to be a poignant commentary on the rise and fall of the planet.

I think another spice in this wonderful recipe are the great characterizations. As with stalkers, most vault hunters are societal outcasts; people living on the fringe and having nothing left to lose.  The vault, like the wish-granting machine, is their fatal attraction. 

I'll be honest here: I've only played one of the four available vault hunters - but that is because I find The Hunter to be such a great character (the nameless "Hunter" also reminds me of Tarkovsky's nameless "Professor" and "Writer" in the movie "Stalker")! I finally found an in-game alter ego that matches my gaming personality.  For example, I love how after he blows some bandit's head off he quips: "Did that hurt?"  Or how after dispatching a series of enemies he begins to laugh manically.  He literally steals the words out of my mouth! I also get a kick out of his pet hawk. Being a vault hunter can be a lonely endeavor, so it is nice to have a pet along (and you can't beat the "somebody is getting a treat tonight!" comment after the hawk takes down an enemy ).

But even the NPCs are great characters. Claptrap (CL4P-TP) is hilarious (favorite line: after getting back from your first mission, Claptrap exclaims with wonder: "Hey, you're still alive?!?"), and the slightly mad Patricia Tannis is equally amusing, if with a decidedly dark edge to her humor. These are characters that go a long way in making Borderlands seem like a very real place.

Then we have the art direction - brilliant! When Gearbox announced they were going with a graphic novel look, I was initially apprehensive. Would it make the game seem silly? I learned it was quite the contrary: by going with such a distinctive art direction, Pandora actually comes alive in a way that a realistic approach never would have achieved. The "alieness" of Pandora is made all the more believable precisely because of the shaded cell approach.  It makes the entire experience feel like a particularly vivid fevered dream.

I find it interesting that the Borderlands franchise has worked its way up to being one of my most valued gaming settings. When the game was first announced, I admit to being mildly interested in it, but that was about it. I didn't even buy the game until it was a month or two after release, so I was not in any particularly hurry to get it. Now...well, I can't imagine not jumping on Borderlands 2 as soon as possible (i.e., first I needed to finish the original campaign, and now I need to play Claptrap's Robot Revolution DLC as the finale of the campaign seems to feed right into it). Now if they would only give us a Borderlands series on HBO.....

PS:  I think my favorite weapon in the game was the Maliwan AX1 Lightning Viper:

Even though it is a level 23 weapon, I used it to drop level 30+ enemies with a shot or two.  Wow!  I sure hope Prez Obama doesn't take it away from me!


  1. I really enjoyed Borderlands. Initially it took me couple of hours to get into the game because it starts out so slow, but eventually it was a nice week long obsession.

    Borderlands 2 is a great improvement but it's more of the same gameplay wise, it's still pretty darn good.

    So how are things at GameSquad?

  2. Borderlands took me by surprise, too. It looked so quirky when it was released that I stayed away from it. But once I started playing it, I knew something great had happened to gaming. Looking forward to trying B2 soon.

    As for is currently in a holding pattern. Don has been busy with other stuff, so I just keep an eye on the place to make sure no one burns it down. :) There are a bunch of changes I would like to make to the place to make it easier to get content up there, but I guess that will have to wait for another day. This is one of the reasons why I started this blog - so I could experiment with some stuff that really isn't suitable for Gamesquad in its current form.


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