Still Playing: Borderlands 2
I knew I was at home the moment I put boot to snow in Borderlands 2; a punk-rock western with a socio-historical bite beneath its seemingly shallow insanity.
You see, I’m a sucker for anything that subverts the conventional. My parents were scouse punk rockers – heads half-shaved, pant-legs strapped together, berets worn semi-militantly, semi-ironically – and it’s an attitude that’s permeated my taste in pop culture. When a filmmaker tips tropes and expectations on their heads, giggling at our furrowed brows as they do – whether it Tarantino twisting the Western or Raimi revitalising the horror comedy – I’m first in line.
In Fargo, the Coen brothers inverted the darkest and dirtiest Hollywood genre, film noir, by setting it in the brightest, whitest place they could find and here, in the backyard world of Pandora where everyone’s a psycho-killer, Gearbox signifies the same sort of mischief by opening its science fiction western in the iciest glacial hell it can muster.
It may be sci-fi but for me the opening to Borderlands 2 is the old, heroic Hollywood west of Wayne, Cooper and Ladd literally frozen in time and unearthed to be satirised and slapped around (The Heavy’s intro track says it all: “This ain’t no place for no hero”). This is still a man’s world, of course, only it’s a more honest and treacherous tale of capitalism, one in which the biggest gun and the fastest trigger wins the loot, rather than the strongest jaw or the most golden of hearts winning the day, or the girl.
Despite the tongue lodged firmly in its cheek, Borderlands 2 is surprisingly relevant and cutting: There’s subtext all over this dirty ol’ town. From ammo vendors that tell us “If you shop anywhere else I will kill you”, to an attitude towards the indigenous life of Pandora that comes across in derogatory naming conventions like “Bullymong”, this is a knowing and sly commentary on how the west was really won and how its lands were laid to waste in the process.
But, fortunately for those of us just looking for a good time, Borderlands 2 has its cake and eats it. Rather than get bogged down in any of the cultural moralising, Gearbox paints its weird, wild west in broad comic-book strokes with more bang for your buck than any shooter of the last decade. When I’m strapped into one of the game’s vehicles, bombing it towards insane levels of profit and death, it feels like I’m acting in a cross between The Cannonball Run and Mad Max, living out a madcap Darwinian Death Race 2000. The colourful cast wouldn’t be out of place in any of those motion pictures, and neither would the real stars of the show: the guns.
In blacksploitation and carsploitation cinema, the car a man drives is often an extension of his… personality. In Borderlands 2 it’s the weapon you wield. Forget the stock characters on offer, it’s the trigger beneath my finger that defines and signifies who I am and how I take care of my business on this spinning rock of mayhem. Personally, I’m a Jakobs six-shooter. A gun that “fires as fast as you can pull the trigger”. With a few enhancements to the accuracy and reload rate, earned through some hard Bullymong massacring and raids on enemy encampments under gorgeous, luminous twilight, it’s the fastest gun on the planet and tells you everything you need to know. It tells you I’ve got a nostalgic streak, an eye for the theatrical and when the shootin’ starts I don’t stop until it’s done and the chamber’s got nothing left to give you.
The boom-sticks of my fellow vault hunters are just as unique and each vastly different. There’s a Vladof Spinigun belonging to a rogueish, gun-crazy individual who’d rather spit bullets than shoot the breeze and, if you thought that was a mouthful, there’s also a Dahl Nifed Ass Beeter! in my crew that’s both futuristic and anachronistic, evoking the recoil and bombast of Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30‘s Browning rifle (Gearbox’s finest moment before this game came along). Considering the amount of trash talk in Borderlands 2 it’s my contention that its inanimate arsenal may just be some of the best characterisation in recent videogames. Each gun tells a story – where it came from, how it was won, how it has lived.
I began by hailing Borderlands 2 for its subversion of genre norms, the way it twists the western like a wet flannel, squeezing out the heroics and leaving only a rag-tag bunch of renegades and selfish rejects. But in revealing its – and your own – personality through its firepower, Borderlands 2 also manages to transform one of storytelling’s great, enduring lessons: you should shoot, not tell.