The guns – all 17 million of them – may be the most obvious draw, but it’s the setting of Pandora that ultimately saves Borderlands from a life spent aping Halo. The planet’s as craggy and hostile as any Forerunner ring-world, but it’s built to serve humour rather than dry, rattling grandeur, and its dramas are personal, for the most part, rather than apocalyptic. A plot swerve may pitch you towards saving the universe as usual, but you still leave feeling short-changed rather than noble. Ultimately, even this fact comes down to Pandora, whose narrative twist stems from hillbilly craftiness rather than ancient- prophecy-anointed champions.
Pandora is arid, ramshackle and only faintly fantastical. If this is science fiction, it’s of the TV show variety rather than the big screen – the kind of fraying melodrama that’s tugged together by a tiny crew working with puppets in a quarry. The backstory, however, legitimises most of the rough edges: Pandora’s a place where nobody would choose to live, where much of the fauna has either sprouted teeth or sharp spines. Halo dropped you into a misty world of pine trees and green grass; Borderlands invites you to enjoy the sagging stalk of a giant sunflower that’s grown monstrous beneath a busted sewage pipe. This is a planet where everything’s been crated in by a network of rival mega-corporations – a neat justification for some bold asset reuse – and the only reason to stick around is a legend of an alien vault housing unspeakable riches.
The legend has attracted the most recent – and most deranged – settlers, and gives your trip to Pandora what little structure it has, too. Over time, the Mad Max wastelands give way to isolated moments of widescreen grandeur, but even then, amongst the corroded alien temples and bleached Godzilla rib cages, the white-trash tang hangs in the air. An ancient sea bed contains a drab roadside amusement known as the World’s Largest Bullet – the kind of thing that may well have a real-world counterpart somewhere along the highways of Nebraska or North Dakota – and the pillars rising in the distance by the Lockdown Palace (typically, it’s actually a prison) aren’t the limbs of a crumbled temple, but concrete spars that once supported a dusty two-lane highway.
These reminders of humanity hold Pandora together, allowing the game to support the odd dead-beat flight of fancy such as the Salt Flats’ massive, rusting digging machines; the windmill fields surrounding Zephyr Substation; or Jakobs Cove, a spooky corporate workers’ town locked in a perpetual Halloween dusk and menaced by pumpkin-headed mutants. More poignantly, it’s also these kinds of details that would never have come to the surface at all without a desperate last-minute change of art direction. The most astonishing fact about Borderlands is that its knockabout personality only emerged once the game was in the final quarter of its production run, and the team, according to a GDC post-mortem, realised it had to step beyond a constrictive style sheet based around the words ‘gritty’, ‘serious’ and ‘mechanical’, ultimately leaving the so-called ‘Brown Period’ behind.
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