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Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and Storytelling

The following post has information that could be considered spoilers for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!. If you don’t want to know some of the finer story details, do not continue reading. 

There is a lot of backlash out there right now for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!. After the massive success that was Borderlands 2, it was bound to happen. Critics harp on dumbed-down action skills, a few strange and grating dialogue moments, level design, and their fear of new mechanics (let’s call the people dislike O2 what it is). I might dispute a lot of these critiques. BL2 had two action skills that were fire-and-forget AI skills, Gunzerking was hardly “skill based”, and Phaselock was basically use on cooldown. Z axis movement changes combat tremendously, and it really makes the game less defensive and requires more action and movement. I understand that a lot of people like the more defense oriented feel that the second game offered, but Z axis movement helps separate this game and setting from the rest that Borderlands has offered. Level design is purely subjective, as I love the sprawling and desolate feeling that this offers. It help this game feel much more “hard sci-fi” than the post-apocalyptic offerings that preceded it. This is a big deal, because the settings are tonally disparate, but the game is still obviously and very Borderlands. The game makes some odd choices when it comes to sex and gender orientation that feel very un-Borderlands. I preferred the matter-of-fact nature the second installment offered, but it didn’t really impact my experience in this game other than one or two fleeting moments of annoyance.

The one critique I have heard that is interesting is that the core game is short, comparatively speaking. That’s true, on the surface. When you delve a little deeper, that’s not true at all. You see, one of the coolest things about Borderlands 2 is that it really played with narrative and how a story is presented to the players. The game talked to you and unveiled the story as you ran around and did stuff, rather than relaying on you to stand still as the story unfolded. NPCs would talk to you while you were on missions, and sometimes the missions would change abruptly based on what you found or what people said. The fact that the UI was an in-world item added to this, as it allowed the game to tell stories through creature names or unreliable narration.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! does something brand new for storytelling, once again. You see, this series of games has mutliple difficulty settings that unlock after completing a playthrough on the previous difficulty. This is pretty typical for “hack and slash” style games. This has always been the same story, only with harder creatures, higher levels, and better loot. BtPS does something different. The story is told through unreliable narration from one of the playable characters to already established characters in the BL universe. The second playthrough is you relaying the same events to a different set of characters within the BL universe. Due to the fact these sets of characters are very different, the story being told, while the same, is also completely different. You already know all the plotbeats and story elements, but it really doesn’t matter at all. The narration changes in every conceivable way, and what was a serious tale before becomes a comedic retelling.

Consider this for a moment. Playing the game on the harder difficulty actually changes the game. It is a similar, but vastly different experience than the first playthrough. In fact, I find myself looking forward to certain events because I want to know what these characters are going to say. I don’t understand how this is not content. In the past, none of the games have been long enough to allow you to reach max level before punting you to a different difficulty and making you replay content you have already played. This time around, it offers you something new when you do that.  That is completely unheard of.

While the game is not perfect, it’s pretty crazy that some of the best and most innovative narrative changes have come from a post-apocalyptic first-person shooter. Not just once, but several times.

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