Before I take this sharp stick and begin poking at the story parts of the Pre-Sequel, let’s talk about one of the odd mechanical quirks of the Borderlands series.
In Borderlands 1, we had Weapon Proficiencies as a system of long-term power building that was completely decoupled from the looting and leveling stuff. It wasn’t very interesting. Basically, every time an enemy dies (regardless of cause) you gain some sort of special XP for the particular weapon you’re currently holding. Occasionally this XP will cause you to rank up in that particular weapon type. This incentivizes focusing on a couple of weapon types rather than just using whatever seems fun at the moment. Or it would, if the game ever bothered explaining it to you.
What happens is that once every few hours you’ll gain a rank and get a tiny text notification will appear on the screen for a few seconds. Every rank will give you a miniscule bonus to weapon accuracy, damage, fire rate, reload speed, etc. for the given weapon. Odds are you might not even notice it amid the chaos. And even if you did notice it, the game didn’t tell you what it meant. It wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t ever explained, and once you do figure out how it works the only thing it accomplishes is to make the game less interesting by pushing you to stick to a couple of weapon types. It was one of the many strange half-formed ideas in Borderlands 1 that hinted at how the design doc was never really nailed down.
In Borderlands 2 they dropped this system in favor of Badass Ranks, which is a much better system that’s far more in keeping with the tone of the series. As you play the game you’ll get “badass points” for doing random stuff. Kill N enemies during the day. Kill N foes with grenades. Melee them to death. Kill N skags. Deal N points of explosive damage. Kill stuff while flying through the air. Run something over in a car. Open N boxes. Activate your special ability N times. Loot N items of a particular quality. Revive teammates N times. And so on.
Occasionally these badass points will fill up the meter and you’ll gain a rank. This gives you a token to spend on some tiny, tiny upgrade. You can boost your health, shield capacity, reload speed, fire rate, critical damage, or a dozen other attributes. The thing is, each token spent gives the ridiculously small benefit of 0.3%. Which means that if I’m currently doing exactly 1,000 points of damage with my gun, investing a token into damage output will boost that to 1,003. It will be incredibly rare for that tiny bonus to ever make a tangible difference in a fight.
But these bonuses stack, and they apply across all of your characters. 0.3% is indeed a tiny bonus, but over time they really add up. Once you’ve spent a lot of badass points you’ll have several percentage points of boost applied across the board. Eventually your character is firing 5% faster and dealing 6% more bullet damage and shooting with 4% more accuracy and dealing 3% more damage on critical hits and dealing elemental damage 5% more often and that elemental damage is boosted by 7%. When you add it all up, you’ve really boosted your combat effectiveness in a tangible way.
It feels good to master a game. For some people, that feeling of overcoming previously insurmountable obstacles is the primary motivation for playing games.
There are two major ways games can deliver this feeling:
1) Systems mastery.
Systems mastery is the obvious one. Get better at the game mechanics and you’ll get better at the game. Get good at aiming, master the timing of dodge moves, learn the timing of reloading weapons so you can do it at the right moment without needing to think about it, get a feel for the damage radius of grenades so you know when to use them, memorize the mana costs of magic spells so you can recognize when it’s time to unleash your big attack and when it’s time to drink a potion, develop a feel for the AI quirks of the stealth system, and so on.
Foreknowledge is learning specific things about the layout of the levels or enemy behavior. Once I’ve played a level a few times I know that a sniper is going to appear on a catwalk overhead and I can already be aiming in his direction when he shows up, rather than scrambling to find him while he’s shooting at me. I know the helicopter is going to appear as soon as I jump in the airboat, and I know there will be a ramp on the right-hand side of the canal that will take me over the flames. I know there’s a guy putting down mines on the right hand side of this area and he’s going to be a huge pain in the ass for Batman unless I can slip over there and take him out first.
I realize there can be some overlap here. If we want to draw a hard line between the two I’d say that mastery makes you better at the game in general, while foreknowledge is stuff that’s only useful in one particular area or one particular foe. Grand Theft Auto has a big focus on foreknowledge and Batman is more focused on generalized mastery.
But this system of Badass Ranks is something different, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s a system that will gradually make the game easier over time by making you more powerful. If a brand new player sat down at my computer and created a brand new character, they would begin the game with lots of bonuses and have a much easier time than I did on my first trip through the game. On one hand it feels good to get this steady trickle of rewards, but on the other hand it feels almost like a trick to make the game feel like it has more mechanical depth than is present in the mechanics.
“Wow. I remember this boss fight was really tough the first time I fought him, and now he’s a pushover! I must be getting really good at this game.”
I’m not saying the system was deliberately designed to fool you. It’s just that I’ve never encountered a system like this before. Sure, lots of games give you higher health and damage, but that’s always tied to a particular character and the leveling mechanics. I’ve never seen a game where playing for a long time will gradually make everything easier independent of all other game systems.
A Supervillain is Born
The Pre-Sequel is trying to show how stable, mostly normal middle manager “John” was transformed into the megalomaniacal, manipulative, and cruel Handsome Jackass. This is a really difficult kind of story to pull off under normal circumstances, and even harder if you’re doing so in the context of action comedy where you need to keep the energy up and maintain a steady flow of jokes. It’s harder still in the context of a sequel-prequel where both the past and the future are already set in stone and the writer doesn’t have a lot of room to make up new things. I’ll admit that the writer is trying to do something fiendishly difficult here.
But while I acknowledge that the writer has been given a challenging task, it doesn’t change the fact that very little of this really works. Jack’s fall feels less like a personal transformation and more like someone accidentally flipped his villain switch. That would be fine if the whole plot was just one big joke, but this story is actually pretty lean on laughs compared to the previous game.
The setup for the Pre-Sequel is thus: The Lost Legion is a bunch of military jerks under the command of a raving nutter who’s probably being mind-controlled by aliens. They capture Helios Station (the giant H-shaped deathstar) and begin using its enormous doom laser to blast the moon. If they keep this up, eventually they will shatter the moon. This will kill everyone on the moon, everyone on Helios, and possibly everyone on Pandora.
Handsome Jack needs to raise a robot army to retake the station, and a lot of the game is dedicated to pursuing that goal.
In Borderlands 2, Angel is a key aspect of Jack’s evil scheming. She’s a symbol of just how far he’s willing to go to exploit people. She shows that nobody – not even his own daughter – is safe from his cruelty. He manipulated her through guilt, and then used her to manipulate all of the vault hunters through lies while also using her miraculous abilities to make himself powerful and wealthy.
In the confrontation at Control Core Angel, she was a witness against him, revealing that he’s such an evil bastard that even his own daughter despises him. She’s key to understanding who he really is underneath the jokes and the schemes, and she does not appear in this game.
Okay, she appears in a couple of side-quest audiologs, and we see a picture of her on Jack’s desk. The point is that since she’s such a big part of both his plans and his villainy, leaving her out of this story feels like telling the story of Mr. Freeze and leaving out Nora.
I understand why she’s not in the game. Angel made it clear that Jack had always been a selfish, manipulative asshole. She certainly never hinted that his cruelty and manipulation were a recent development. In fact, when describing her experience as Jack’s daughter, she refers to it as , “A lifetime of servitude.” There are audiologs in Borderlands 2 that showed Jack using her to manipulate people all the way back at the start of the first game. It would be pretty hard to accept “Normal John” as a sympathetic character if the story showed he’d imprisoned his daughter in a tower against her will and was using her to manipulate people.
The plot wouldn’t work if she was here, but that just shows that this wasn’t a good choice for a plot. This is a supposedly a character study, and we’re ignoring the most significant details of his backstory and rewriting the rest.
The first big turning point for Jack happens about a third of the way into the game. He learns that The Meriff of Concordia has betrayed him. The story goes out of it’s way to show us that before this event, Jack was “good”By the standards of Pandora, anyway. This is still a world where EVERYONE is a little crazy and violent.. He balks at the idea of vengeance or torturing the Meriff, and he makes it clear that he just wants to talk things out.
Then after Jack shows him mercy, The Meriff tries to shoot Jack in the back anyway. Jack wins the exchange. Afterwards he says it was “exhilarating” to shoot the Meriff. So apparently this single act flips his latent villain switch and begins his transformation into Handsome Jack, Space Bastard.
Why are we doing a study of his fall from quasi-decency into Dr. Doom level super-villainy if the whole thing apparently turns on one not-very-compelling event?
The Meriff was too weak to create a character-transforming crisis. His backstab was too pathetic to generate a lot of outrage. His death was too mundane to justify Jack’s reaction. It’s not like this is the first person Jack has killed. He shot plenty of Lost Legion soldiers during the introduction. None of those kills gave him a murder-boner.
This is a bit like the fall of Anakin / Vader in Revenge of the Sith. I can see what the writer is trying to say. They’ve given the villain a reason to turn to evil. But the reason ins’t very compelling, the character’s behavior doesn’t match what we already know about them, and in any case it doesn’t make for an interesting story.
 By the standards of Pandora, anyway. This is still a world where EVERYONE is a little crazy and violent.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
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Secret of Good Secrets
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Top 64 Videogames
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The Witch Watch
My first REAL published book, about a guy who comes back from the dead due to a misunderstanding.