So a new Borderlands game is coming in the fall. Now, a guy like me gets all kinds of news throughout the course of the average day—Facebook ate a baby, girlfriend has a rash on her foot, another A's pitcher's getting Tommy John surgery—but this cut through the clatter like a broadsword through Ned Stark's neck. A new Borderlands game? Jesus fucking Christ! Call off the Ukraine thing, cancel Obamacare: There's real shit going on in the world.
Funny thing is, it's not even an especially new Borderlands game. The original came out in 2009, with Borderlands 2 following in 2012; they're calling this new one the "Pre-Sequel," as in the prequel to the sequel. It's running on the same game engine as its predecessor, and is being released to last-gen consoles only. (Which, UGH: Why'd I buy this Xbox One First Day Edition for $600!? It was not to play Ryse or do P90X workouts, although I have reluctantly tried both.) So it's not new-new, but there's a lot of newness: There will be new characters to play as, new weapons to kill with, and a new game mechanic that seems immensely promising: It's set on a moon with reduced gravity, thereby enabling such things as double-jumping and the ability to blow enemies into bits that float off into space (!).
Alright, so it's not peace in the Middle East, but in my world, it's a BFD. It's such a BFD, in fact, that it has compelled me to make the case for why the Borderlands universe generally—and Borderlands 2 specifically—is the single biggest achievement in game design, ever. So here we go.
I realized last night that I've devoted more time to playing Borderlands 2 than most other activities in my life. This probably includes sex, although I can't be sure: Borderlands 2 keeps track of the number of hours you spend playing it, whereas my sexual partners presumably have not.
Obviously, this includes other games, too: I've spent more time on Borderlands' home world of Pandora than I've spent in the ghettos of Los Santos, the kingdom of Ferelden, the floating city of Columbia, etc., and I've spent a lot of time in all of those places. I've beaten the game twice, which sounds like an accomplishment, but in the universe of Borderlands 2 is on par with cooking a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and calling yourself a chef. This is not just because the game is near-endlessly extensible, because many good RPGs are these days. It's because the extensibility of Borderlands—the endless combinations of levels, characters, missions, and guns (most of all guns)—is so vivid and addictive: the Pavlovian rush of acquiring better loot and better powers, which allows your character to become increasingly badass, which allows for the acquisition of better loot and better powers, which allows your character to become... and so on and so forth. Five days, eight hours, 47 minutes, and 15 seconds. Call it 129 hours. That's how much of my life I've devoted to this cycle.
Here's what Borderlands 2 is about. You play as one of four Vault Hunters: the Commando, a G.I. Joe knockoff; the Siren, the comic-book-hot chick with mental powers; the Brute, aka Gunzerker (think B.A. from The A-Team); or the Assassin, a hybrid ninja/sniper . Each character posses its own unique skill tree, which you buff out by earning XP and gaining levels. In the first game, the Vault Hunters were merely concerned with living up to their name, their goal being to unearth a legendary treasure. The now-signature Borderlands sense of humor and general wackiness was in place, but the story itself was shallow. The sequel remedied this by introducing the character of Handsome Jack, a snarky supervillain with Mickey Rourke's face-lift. Joining up with the cast of the original Borderlands–an analogous quartet of Commando, Brute, Siren, and Assassin–your mission is to aid the rebellion and defeat Handsome Jack. It's not 12 Years a Slave, but it's better than just loot everything.
But speaking of looting everything: It's the goal of any good RPG to turn the gamer into a rat in cage, ravenous for metaphorical cocaine pellets or whatever. Borderlands 2 accomplishes this with Mephistophelean virtuosity, creating a universe so completely teeming with loot—guns, explosives, money, shields, more guns—that it turns the gamer into a rapacious militarist, hoarding, selling, upgrading, and endlessly seeking out more and better loot. I'm currently at level 56. In my 129 hours playing the game, I've accumulated just five of the roughly 48 illusive "Legendary" weapons, and zero of the seemingly Bigfoot-mythical "Pearlescent" weapons. I have actually dreamt about the day when I find the latter. It's totally not a good situation, but I love it.
A lot of games get easier as you master them, but Borderlands 2 is the opposite: To get the best loot, you have to fight increasingly difficult enemies, which require increasingly awesome combinations of loot to kill. I've reached a point where possessing the best weapons is the only advantage you can give yourself, because now all the bad guys level up at the same rate you do, plus regenerate their health. So the best combination of weapons I've got going currently is the Bee Shield combined with the Lady Fist pistol. When it's fully charged, the Bee Shield augments whatever weapon you're using with 31K points of additional damage per shot (I realize you have no point of reference here, so just trust me that that's a lot). The bonus effect for the Lady Fist , meanwhile, is that scoring a critical hit (a headshot, in most cases) increases damage by 800 percent (all the best weapons in the game have bonus effects, ranging from simple things like auto-targeting to much radder things like the gun that talked to me when I fired it).
It's unclear whether these multipliers are additive or multiplicative. I suspect the former, but it's a moot point: Scoring a critical hit with the Lady Fist and a fully charged Bee Shield inflicts a deliriously huge amount of damage—so much damage in fact that the game has to abbreviate "thousand" to denote it, as in "600K," a number that flashes above the exploding head of an enemy with deeply satisfying frequency once you've gotten really good at using the Lady Fist and Bee Shield in tandem.
This combination of weapons is my current crush, but I've had other lovers. Indeed, certain weapons can be so rat-brain-stimulatingly effective that I've basically had to quit them cold turkey, because their incessant use fucks up one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, which is the sheer number of weapons you get to use. An example of this would be Tiny Tina's "Teapot" pistol, a gun that became my weapon of choice for like a week . The thing shot corrosive bullets, and when you zoomed in, it "burst-fired." One of Borderlands 2's main subclasses of enemy are these homicidal robots, which are particularly vulnerable to corrosive weapons, and laying waste to them with my little Teapot stimulated that pleasure center we all have that makes lighting ants on fire with a magnifying glass such twisted fun (amiright?).
It's unclear to me if Borderlands 2 is appreciated widely on the level that I appreciate it. Video-game marketing, like all marketing, is so shamelessly deceitful that it's hard to tell if the various awards and accolades the game's marketers tout are meaningful or bullshit, like those glowing critical epithets foisted onto movies like Draft Day. The fact that the Borderlands team of developers pumped out installment after installment of new downloadable content (DLC), extending the shelf life of the game— first with new and increasingly awesome mini-quests, then by increasing the character level cap from 50 to 60 and now 71, a level status of such rarified air it demands more playing time than most Wimbledon finalists devote to practicing their lobs—would seem to indicate there are enough enthusiasts like myself to warrant such heroic levels of time and money. I'm sure game developers take it as a point of pride to build a game universe that's so rich and ever-expandable that it can never be fully explored, at least not in a single human lifetime. Pride aside, though, I also hope these guys are getting paid handsomely, because as software engineers, they're providing a way more valuable service to the world than that Flappy Bird dude.
Now, I know Borderlands isn't alone among RPGs in terms of the virtuosity and complexity of its game world. Mass Effect and Fallout do a damn fine job, too, and I'm sure many of you have been reading this with steam coming out of your ears waiting for me to conclude this piece without mentioning the game I'm about to mention so you could quickly pounce on me in the comments and tell me I'm up my own arse: Elder Scrolls. Yes. A fine game. A fun game. I've devoted maybe 20 hours to it, and am certain I didn't scratch the surface. I have the RPG gene, i.e. a predisposition toward hoarding loot and leveling up that goes back to seventh grade/Final Fantasy. So I like all these games—they're in my blood. But I've also grown up a lot since seventh grade, so while stimulating the rat-brain can oftentimes be all I really need to enjoy an RPG, the thing that pushes Borderlands so far beyond the conventional RPG is its tone: self-aware, irreverent, absurd, crass, goofy.
The conceit of Borderlands—that as a "vault hunter" you're a slightly and inexplicably mutated semi-super mercenary spelunking your way through a hostile alien universe full of dumbass humans, hapless if deadly bandits, alcoholic sharpshooters, and bloodthirsty flora and fauna, none of it connected in any narrative sense to earth or reality as we know it, all of it rendered with a graphic novel's color palette and sensibility, full of sarcasm, vulgarity, gore, satire, and British accents—that conceit just trumps that of any other game I've ever played, Elder Scrolls included.
Which for me means that building the ultimately immersive game isn't just a matter of arraying some convolved logistics and a few unique game mechanics to enable endless permutations of gameplay. The real challenge, which Borderlands rises to, is building those logistics into a world that feels completely unique and idiosyncratic, with all kinds of in-jokes and canny details that after a while can only be described as Borderlands-esque.
To take just one example: There are eight separate manufacturers that make the endless number of guns in the Borderlands universe: Hyperion, Jacobs, Vladof, Bandit, Maliwan, Dahl, Tediore, and Torgue. Each type of gun has its own unique perk: Bandit guns have bigger ammo clips, while Tediore guns are thrown and explode each time you re-load them. The unique perk of Torgue guns is that they always and only shoot explosive bullets: yellow pellets that detonate on impact. This is because Torgue guns are manufactured by one Mister Torgue, a steroid-addled "Macho Man" Randy Savage knockoff who presides over an entire DLC campaign, "Mister Torgue's Campaign of Carnage," during which he berates your character thusly: "Right now, you are rank 50 in the badass leader boards—that puts you behind my grandma, but ahead of the guy she gummed to death!!!" So that's the backstory. Of a gun. And it's funny/stupid/awesome. Multiply that level of detail by a couple thousand, and you start to get a sense for how much game there is in this game.
Which again, is not just extensible, but extensibly clever. Discovering the jokes, Easter eggs, and narrative swan dives starts to become as much fun as fetishizing sniper rifles. So that as you play, not only does the satanic rewards-system the game has now wired your brain to lay prostrate at the feet of become endlessly convolved and addicting— meaning the guns just keep getting weirder and more awesome—but so do all the things you can do in the game universe. It's to the point where, for the sake of various relationships in my life (not to mention my need to pay the rent), I need to ration out my playing time, at least until the Pre-Sequel is released in the fall, whereupon I can start from scratch and begin this whole process all over again.
 Two additional characters, the Mechromancer and the Psycho, were released for purchase and download, each with their own skill trees, special abilities, outfits, etc., but this is the core group.
 This piece is long enough as it is, but I'd be remiss not to spend a few sentences discussing my favorite character in the game, Tiny Tina. Tiny Tina is what you'd get if one of the Olsen twins was abandoned on the doorstep of the Wu-Tang Clan if it were an actual post-apocalyptic clan like the one in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. She's a homicidal 13 year-old who says things like, "Real badasses eat chocolate chip cookies. I'ma gonna get that tattooed across my back in Old English font."
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter.
Up Up Down Down is an occasional column about video games. Art by Sam Woolley.
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