Borderlands of Opportunity

Ahhh, Pandora, a land of milk and honey — and by “milk and honey” I mean “blood and bullets.” What makes this dangerous planet so special? It’s the setting to the videogame Borderlands. A merchant in-game says that only a fool would search for something of value here, yet the draw of opportunity brings many aspirants, including myself, to this barely inhabitable rock.

borderlandsEDITv2Daring adventurers brave Pandora in search of a mythical treasure trove known as the Vault, but my own motivations are less grandiose than fame and fortune. I came to this wasteland with a single purpose in mind: to play through Borderlands and then review it. In my attempts at meeting that goal, however, the opportunities presented to me complicated my stay on Pandora to the point where I became part of this world as much as it was part of mine.

signUpon starting Borderlands and first setting foot on Pandora, I quickly realized that I would not survive here alone.The local threats read like a list of sci-fi tropes: alien beasts and insects, dystopian criminals, grotesque mutants, futuristic soldiers, and otherworldly beings. Once I had chosen from the rugged mercenaries to protect me on my excursion, I became more at ease with exploring this land of foreign dangers and foreign opportunities.

classesThe unique abilities of Borderlands‘ playable characters influence one’s avenues to victory in combat. The Hunter sends a pet bird to pick off enemies and scavenge items; the Siren turns invisible to ambush foes with her health-draining effects; the Berserker enters a full-on bloodlust to increase his speed, defense, and melee damage; the Soldier deploys a turret to establish a defensive position on the battlefield. Though all four classes are well-tuned against the enemy hordes, they never force the user to depend on said predefined strengths. The focus of combat remains with gunplay and relies on the abundant firearms scattered across this otherwise barren planet.

weaponAccounting for the munitions present all over Pandora, Borderlands‘ weapon creation system can produce over three million distinct results. By procedurally generating each gun’s attributes, it can form combinations that defy expectation. I recall finding a submachine gun that empties its clip in less than a second, a pistol with sniper-like accuracy, and a shotgun that fires rockets. The weapons on Pandora follow no clearly defined rules, and one cannot predict what havoc the next may unleash.

poseAfter familiarizing myself with the capabilities of my allies and the planet’s all-access armament buffet, I began to enjoy the unavoidable clashes with Pandora’s violent inhabitants. Spread over the desolate surroundings, hostile forces congregate around spawn locations that habitually cause wonky or comical results. Enemies pop into existence from nowhere, and the occasional hut or cave opening resembles a clown car with foes streaming out one by one for minutes on end.

packThe glut of enemies per battle creates intense yet crowded combat situations that start out tactical but end up mindless and frantic once overrun with attackers. Thankfully, enemy weaknesses offer some variety to the mindless killing. Certain species are weaker to elemental damage while others allow the player to shoot vital areas of their bodies.

enemiesAgainst such opponents, the landscape is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, combat requires the player to maneuver around threats for the best position — a savvy combatant might climb up to a vantage point for better view of a monster’s weak spot. On the other hand, character immobility is the most fiendish and reoccurring problem in Borderlands. Strafing around hostiles only to become wedged against a rock is unacceptable in a do-or-die shootout. While navigating a busy firefight, the frustration at being stuck on environmental objects outweighs the opportunity to use them for a strategic advantage.

vantageFunnily, the same issue with environmental collision befalls the inhabitants of Pandora, too. Better yet, AI behavior sporadically breaks to the point where hostiles don’t notice me standing beside them while I blast away. Taking potshots at oblivious or immobilized baddies isn’t honourable, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the end of Borderlands and onto my review. When the majority of gameplay involves shooting at things or being shot at, I welcome a respite from the return fire.

immobilizedThough the combat in Borderlands can reach tedium at times, key mechanics borrowed from role-playing games eliminate the dullness normally tied to repetitive gameplay. This action game hybrid uses an experience system for improving character proficiencies. As players progress along a hierarchy of upgradeable skills, they develop specialties that shape their role in battle. For example, the Berserker can become a damage-resistant tank, a beefed-up brawler, or an explosives expert. As always, the choice remains up to the user, and there are so many choices to make…

skillsPandora conceals more than just the Vault, many things to distract the fortune seeker as well as the game reviewer. Incorporated with the other RPG elements, quest lines define Borderlands‘ main narrative and side-story progression. Quests range from the commonplace (turning on a town’s power generators) to the heroic (saving the friendly populace from bandits) and the mysterious (uncovering clues about the Vault).

Side-quests, usually retrieved from the planet’s network of bounty boards, exemplify one or two things: Pandora is neither a friendly nor enjoyable place, and the Vault is the only thing worth idolizing on this godforsaken rock. Overall, I find the game contains too many missions that repeat sentiments. Five hours of content could disappear without negatively impacting the story or pacing.

folksThroughout my time playing Borderlands, opportunities piled up before me until I didn’t know what to do with them. At first, they manifested as straightforward choices like picking from the four playable classes. Soon enough, a steady influx of weapons, abilities, and quests diversified my options. The paths I took then furthered my potential but seldom delivered me to a final outcome. Every step forward elongated my stay on Pandora without directly helping me finish Borderlands or reach my review. My in-game decisions, which first appeared beneficial, delayed progress towards the goal I had set, as decisions often do in real life as well.

caveEventually, I beat Borderlands and was ready to review it, but the myriad opportunities available to me soon fragmented my writing. During my play-through, I had thought up many points to include in the review, but finishing Borderlands once proved insufficient to confirm them. I conducted extensive research by replaying the game numerous times. With each replay, I discovered new directions to take with my writing. Budding thoughts grew into content worthy of their own pieces. By the end of my research, I had several full-fledged concepts to write about.

Each article required its own planning, composing, editing…all the effort done many times over yet with no final result because I couldn’t focus on a single project. I saw the scope of my endeavours and began to feel burnt out — investing so much into a fool’s errand like Pandora will do that. After a while, I went catatonic with the review; I stopped playing Borderlands, and I didn’t contribute to my writing for months.

stoopIn the real world, I carried on with my day-to-day activities. In the back of my mind, though, I was stranded on Pandora, slouched on a stoop in some putrid commune just waiting for my ticket off of this place. I was rotting here, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to think outside the box. I knew that, to escape Pandora, I needed to write myself off. So that’s what I did, and that’s what you are reading. The only way for me to leave was by writing about how I was stuck.

titleDespite its outer image showing a destitute planet of dunes and slag, Pandora is practically stuffed to bursting: weapons littering the terrain, enemies spilling out from spawn holes, tasks covering bounty boards, limitless choice and boundless opportunity. Borderlands‘ content emerges from the overabundance on Pandora, but a blend of action gameplay and RPG structure deftly hides most excess from view.

With Borderlands‘ multi-faceted nature, I can focus on whatever aspect is most appealing. When I feel satiated by the bloody combat, I shift to developing my character’s abilities. Once that bores me, I switch to exploring the planet for more quests and then return to the action with newfound opportunities. Every time I change focus, the subject matter differs enough to retain my interest. The guns have randomized stats; the enemies exhibit varied weaknesses; the quests send me to diverse locations around the map. Slight alterations allow me to perceive similar content as fresh experiences. Only when I dwell on a single element for too long do I notice the repetition.

lootIf I fail to look away from a particular angle, Pandora’s bleakness shows itself again. Borderlands‘ combat would get monotonous without the supporting structure of quests and character growth to segment the action. Likewise, its RPG shell would be vacant without gunfights providing the necessary gameplay through which to grind. Borderlands‘ individual components appear simple and bare, but together form a beguiling combination that casts a favourable light from nearly any perspective.

vistaAnd there lies Pandora’s paradox: from so little comes so much thanks to endless amounts of potential. The source of all that potential, though, is false hope. People arrive on Pandora touting dreams of discovering the Vault. While the pursuit is admirable, anyone who strives toward a goal must first come to terms with an important fact: along the way, one will encounter unforeseen delays only resolved through mundane activity. Hope-filled opportunity seekers venturing across Pandora need supplies and safety before they can set out to find the Vault — or to beat a game and write a review.

Inevitably, the hopefuls succumb to Pandora’s wicked charm: turning mundane activities into what appears new and enticing. Once the routine seems enticing, partially-relevant opportunities show up everywhere. No sane person would want to scrounge for food among the garbage heaps of Pandora unless he or she were on the planet that promised treasure of incalculable value. People come for the Vault but stay for every other reason. It’s the only way this place retains a population.

foodSettling into routine can be all too easy even when it means sweating out existence on a planet of dust, guns, and death if only for another crack at a fading, idealized opportunity. Even I, not a vault hunter but a videogame reviewer, became victim to Pandora’s unassuming attractions. With my time spent on this planet, I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of many hopefuls, and I’ve reached a few conclusions.

For various and unpredictable reasons, people’s goals often become unobtainable. Suppose the treasure hunters succeed at finding the Vault. After all the strife they would have endured getting there, the contents could never meet their expectations. The same goes for other motivations; reality can solidify any dream into false hope. At such a point, one must settle on something more feasible. Otherwise, one risks getting trapped in a cycle of misleading opportunities.

vaultI was caught in the same predicament after experiencing Pandora for myself. The review I had planned from the start became impossible to write with my other ideas dragging it down. At the same time, I couldn’t replace my original article with one of my side-projects because that would sacrifice the initial goal for a tangential one. To solve the dilemma, I needed to divert my attention away from the unreachable and falsified opportunities of Pandora and to pursue instead a new motivation that was in itself realistic and of my own volition. By writing this article and escaping Pandora’s clutches, I have achieved that goal.

roadAs I pen these last few lines, I am packing my bags to leave Pandora. Will I ever return? I had so many ideas dug up from this planet that had also dug into me. Nevertheless, I doubt I will write about Borderlands again. There are other videogames to play and other places to explore. Besides, I prefer not to grow any fonder of this diamond in the rough. If I look at it for a second longer, another glint of light, another facet of opportunity, will surely catch my eye. It’s Pandora’s way.

planetplay-time: ~165 hours (eight playthroughs)
score: 7.8

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