Once the player is done with the robot “army” thing, the team returns to Helios Station to kick the bad guys out. On one hand, it’s nice to get off the moon and see some fresh scenery. On the other hand, I really miss my low-gravity double-jump ground-pounding. I guess I’m just never happy.
As part of re-taking the station, we have to rescue a bunch of scientists. These aren’t generic nobodies. These are named, voiced characters with unique personality quirks and character models. Which leads us to…
Gladstone casually mentions that it’s possible that someone in the group of scientists is a mole working for the bad guys. This sets Jack off and he executes all the suspects without making any effort to find out who (if anyone) is guilty. Unlike the Trolley Problem we faced with Felicity earlier, this is a proper act of villainy. Even better, these aren’t a group of nameless randos. These are the scientists we just got done rescuing so we probably feel some attachment to them.
Jack blows the whole group out of the airlock. When it’s over, Jack again comments about how good it felt.
I guess that works in terms of showing a descent into evil, but this doesn’t really “click” with the established facts about the character. Jack was established as a guy motivated primarily by ego and secondarily by avarice. But his fall to evil is driven by paranoia and blood lust?
I realize my criticism might feel a little weak. I’m not saying this moment is impossible within the world of Borderlands or that this story is a travesty of mistakes. I’m just explaining why this story wasn’t nearly as satisfying as Borderlands 2. Borderlands 2 was a game where the big emotional thrust was “kill Handsome Jack”. The story made us really want to kill him, and it told jokes along the way. Pre-Sequel is trying to sell us on his turn to evil, which doesn’t fit with existing lore, doesn’t really match the personality we’re familiar with, doesn’t feel like a properly justified turn, and doesn’t have a lot of humor.
This isn’t Bethesda bad or anything. It just doesn’t have a lot of punch, and so it makes for a forgettable tale. None of this “clicks” into place an explanation for what happened between Borderlands 1 and 2.
Lilith and Roland are present for the execution. They’ve been working for Jack for most of the game, doing various jobs to help him build his robot army. I like this because it shows Jack as a leader, and because it shows the whole operation was the work of many people, not just the player character. The dialog after the execution indicates that Lilith and Roland are appalled by Jack’s actions and no longer want to work with him.
This finally creates some conflict between Jack and the original heroes, and we’ve even got some narrative tension wondering how and when this conflict will escalate. Yes, the execution is a pretty brute-force scene. But at least it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
We’re going to skip a bunch of screwing around and cut to the next major plot point, where Jack and the vault hunters finally corner Zarpedon and put an end to her. As another example of the haphazard way the mechanics are designed in this game: Zarpedon is once again a blue foe against blue scenery that shoots blue spheres at you. These spheres look exactly like the homing spheres Deadlift was using at the start of the game, but these spheres don’t chase you. Instead they have splash damage with a huge radius.
This sort of thing is game design 101. It goes to the most basic ideas of communicating with the player, depicting the state of the game, and helping them understand the rules of the system they’re trying to master. These goofy energy balls are the equivalent of having a movie where the boom mic dips into the frame. It’s not that it ruins the entire movie, it’s just that you don’t normally see these sorts of mistakes in big-budget productions.
This is mystifying because there are some mechanics in this game that are really good and genuinely improve on the formula. Even in this fight, Zarpedon has a cool shockwave attack that you can hop over. That attack is visually clear, operates in an intuitive way, and makes the fight more interesting. I’m not sure how to explain this strange mix of good ideas with bush-league blunders. If nothing else the team probably should have sat down with the guy in charge of coloring things and encouraged him to explore the non-blue areas of the color wheel.
This is the best boss fight in the game (which is admittedly a very low bar) but also the end of what seemed like our main villain. It’s clear the game isn’t over when Zarpedon dies, but the story has no momentum and we’re not looking forward to any big conflicts or showdowns. The story will pick up again in the next chapter when Lilith and her team betray Jack and become our new antagonists, but at this point we’ve got this odd aimless section where the game isn’t over and we don’t know why.
In terms of motivating the player, who is supposed to be the target of their aggression in this story? Is it Zarpedon? She dies here two-thirds of the way through the game. Is it Lilith and her crew? Because they don’t start opposing us until late in the story and we never actually face them outside of cutscenes. Is it the aliens? Their agenda isn’t clear and they’re not direct adversaries.
Even when Zarpedon is at the center of the story, it’s hard to get a feel for what we’re supposed to think of her because the story doesn’t really make her motivation clear. Did she mess with alien technology and lose her mind? Or are the aliens mind-controlling her? Or is she lucid but acting on information we’re not privy to? Zarpedon keeps saying that she’s trying to save the world by destroying the moon. That sounds like an interesting idea, but it’s never explained. And not in the sense that it’s an ongoing mystery. In fact, nobody in the story seems to care. We talk to Zarpedon a half dozen times and we even read her audiologs, and yet she never explains herself and nobody cares enough to ask.
This is such an oddly constructed story. If we’re trying to do a character study of Handsome Jack then we probably want to keep the plot simple and focus on the characters, but if we’re trying to do an action adventure story then we want to keep the energy up and direct the player’s focus to the next bend in the road. But Pre-Sequel is doing this weird thing where we don’t have a single clear villain, Jack’s turn seems to be happening in the background, and the aliens don’t seem to care what’s going on. There’s a mystery that feels less like a question left unanswered and more like the writer created a setup and forgot to do the payoff. It’s like the entire narrative is made out of B-stories.
The game reveals that Mad Moxxi – the buxom innuendo-talking flirt who likes to run gladiatorial fighting rings – is also a tech genius. This is a really odd choice. Borderlands 2 already turned her son Scooter into a tech genius. On top of that, a large chunk of the introduction to this game was spent introducing us to Janey Springs. Janey is tech-savvy and could fulfill any duties related to spewing technobabble to explain why the player needs to push the next glowing red button to advance the plot. Also the story just introduced Gladstone, who is some sort of engineer invention wizard. But instead of using any of our established technical characters, the writer added Moxxi to the list of technobabble dispensersThe reveal that Moxxi is a mechanic happened much earlier in this story, but I’m assuming the writer set it up early so they could pay it off now..
Now, there’s no reason she can’t be a tech wizard. But we’ve never heard any hint of this aspect of her character in either the past or the future, so this feels less like a cool reveal and more like an asspull from a writer desperately trying to bend this world in ways it wasn’t meant to go.
Also, too much of this sort of thing can really degrade a setting. If you create a story where one character is an awesome shot, another is a brilliant mechanic, and a third is a master of quips and one-liners, then you need to cling to these attributes and lean into them, because these are the things that make your characters special and interesting. In the short term it might be fun to reveal that all of your characters are really good with firearms. As a writer it might make things easier on you if everyone is great at cracking jokes. And maybe making everyone a mechanic makes it easier to move characters around and put them in new situations. But when you’re done you’ve blended all your characters together. Instead of having three contrasting characters, you’ve got three copies of the same overpowered fast-talking, technobabble-spewing, crack shot character. Just because Moxxi can be a tech genius doesn’t mean she should be.
The Eye of Helios
It’s revealed that the doom laser that’s busting open the moon was designed by… Jack? I guess he’s an engineer in this scene? Whatever. I don’t care what the writer claims Jack did before becoming CEO. I just wish they would pick something and stick with it.
But where things get stupid is when Jack enlists Moxxi’s help to… shut down the laser? You would think that Jack ought to know how to shut down his own invention. But instead he decides to ask a fight promoter who’s never seen this device, never been to the station, and has no prior experience building world-shattering doom lasers. Even allowing for her sudden tech wizardry, this still makes no sense.
I have no idea why the writer decided to use Moxxi for this purpose in the story. This is a terrible role for the character. Her entire shtick is built around flirting, quips, and double entendres. She’s optimized for jokes, not exposition. She’s the last character you’d want to use to explain lots of dry technical nonsense. You can hear that vocal performer Brina Palencia is doing her best to make the dialog as “flirty” as she can, but the writer has given her absolutely nothing to work with here.
The writer retconned Moxxi into a role that’s unsupported by later events so they could shoehorn her into a situation where she wasn’t needed and is ill-suited in terms of style and tone. And for what? It’s not funny, it doesn’t tell us anything new about her, and it doesn’t do anything to set up later events.
Moxxi talks the player through pushing the buttons and the laser is shut down. The moon is no longer in danger of being destroyed.
E Tu, Moxxi?
Roland, Lilith, and Moxxi have conspired to betray and kill Jack. Not only is Moxxi apparently such a tech wizard that she’s able to tell Jack – who invented the laser – how to shut it down, but her procedure is secretly sabotage that he can’t detect even though she tells him the steps. Jack is a manager in this scene and gives no indication that he has any grasp of what she’s doing or what any of these machines are for.
Once JackThe player is the one actually pushing the buttons, obviously. is done following Moxxi’s directions the laser explodes, forms a singularityNot a science singularity. This is a videogame singularity, which is just a particle whirlpool that acts like a magnet that attracts things important to the plot. and begins devouring the station.
Keep in mind that Lilith and Roland are basically mercenaries who killed thousands of bandits on a treasure hunt. Moxxi is a fight promoter that gleefully cheers over murder-as-entertainment in her gladiatorial arena. They’re not paladins or the space police, and I feel like blowing up the whole station to punish Jack for five murders is a little weird.
I never got the impression they were driven by a strong sense of compassion and justice. But if they are motivated by those things, then wouldn’t they deal with Jack more directly? I can see that they wouldn’t like what Jack did, but they struck me as the sort of people who would shrug, shake their head, and move on to the next job. Maybe Brick or Mordecai would make a joke. It’s a hard universe and I doubt Jack’s violent outburst is the worst thing they’ve seen on Pandora.
Now, this is the Borderlands universe and you could easily gloss over all of this with some jokes. It doesn’t even need to be funny in the sense of creating laughs or side-splitting humor. It just needs to modulate the tone of the scene so we don’t take it too seriously. Something like:
Jack: I only killed like, four people!
Lilith: Five. You killed five people.
Jack: Four, five, whatever. Whatever. You guys are vault hunters! You kill more than that on the way to [reference to some meme, DLC, or in-joke].
Lilith: True. But we LIKED those five people.
Moxxi: Eh. To be honest, I didn't actually like [one of the victims].
But instead the game keeps playing everything straight, which makes it feel like we’re supposed to care about the story, which only draws attention to the fact that it doesn’t really work.
If Lilith and her team are really that offended, then why didn’t they just attack Jack directly? Why didn’t they intervene when it was possible to SAVE the five people they supposedly care about? Instead they watch it happen and then slink away to plot a backstab later. A backstab doesn’t fit with the straightforward sensibilities of soldier Roland, and waiting until later doesn’t fit for hothead Lilith.
But fine. They want to avenge this small handful of people and are motivated entirely by justice. I’ll go along with it. But then they sabotage his laser and doom everyone on the station to death. Keep in mind that Jack isn’t the only person here. Good guy Gladstone might still be around. Dr. Nakayama is here. The player is here, and they were the one who rescued the scientists in the first place. And given the size of the station, I always assumed there were probably a few more other people lurking around that we don’t meet.
So Lilith and company are angry about a small handful of murders, and are willing to murder a slightly smaller handful of people to bring Jack to justice. That is a very specific level of moral compromise. Instead of using their considerable powers to take him down with no casualties, they try to kill him remotely like cowards, taunt him smugly like they’re villains, and doom him and the people of Helios station to death because he killed five people.
More importantly: They don’t even bring up the five people he killed when they betray him. They just mock him and declare they think he’s too ambitious and powerful and so they’ve decided to preemptively kill him.
Again, I’m not complaining that this is a “plot hole” or whatever. I’m just saying that this scene is bending these characters pretty hard, and whole thing feels incredibly forced.
 The reveal that Moxxi is a mechanic happened much earlier in this story, but I’m assuming the writer set it up early so they could pay it off now.
 The player is the one actually pushing the buttons, obviously.
 Not a science singularity. This is a videogame singularity, which is just a particle whirlpool that acts like a magnet that attracts things important to the plot.
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30 thoughts on “Borderlands Part 23: The Big Googly Eye of Helios”
I feel like I got audiologs explaining some of this? Granted, my memories of this (intensely forgettable) game are fuzzy, but Zarpedon wanted to keep everyone out of the vault by any means, and the problem with Jack(‘s laser) was specifically the use of the eye from the pandora vault monster, right? Basically, vaults are bad and so are the things that come out of them.
Which is an odd point to make in a game series about vault hunters opening vaults across an entire galaxy.
I kinda liked Moxxi as another super-tech, though I felt like there was probably a pretty specific reason they did it: “redeeming” the one-note sex-joke character by retroactively making them two-note and instrumental in a plot. Scooter’s good with tech ’cause he got it from his mom, Moxxi’s roots don’t match because she made a dramatic change of outward appearances at some point in the past which we see a bit more of here. And since there basically seems to be two things you can be good at, shoot or tech, more techs
For the station, once again I’d had kind of the opposite impression. For all the fairly massive area we cover, far more than any city in the games, we find all of what, five people still alive besides us? I seem to recall there being mentions that the lost legion had already slaughtered everyone they could find who wasn’t hiding, and we dug those people out where Jack killed most of them except for the Jack-worshiper. Add to that the impression that Roland is more terrified of the idea of leaving Jack (or possibly anyone else) up in the sky with control of a doom laser, when the player already knows that even without it he terrorizes the planet with just the moonshot and constructors, and I can see why he’d suddenly get all special ops and wait for the backstab.
Asking Moxxi how to stop the laser is indeed just more proof that jack isn’t as much of an engineer as he likes to pretend. It seems pretty clear he had the idea of using the eye to power a laser and told his people to make it, and he takes credit for the whole thing based on that. Very egotistical manager/idea-guy sort of thing. Makes one good thing that management likes so he gets promoted, tells the team to do stuff and then takes all the credit when it works. And Moxxi didn’t actually need to have enough genius to figure out the laser- just have some background and presence to make Jack think she was necessary, and then enough “well this’ll probably break it” to get it broke. Jack’s doubtful the whole time since he does know some of the basic principles, but she strings him along just long enough to make it happen.
And yet, for all that I wasn’t bothered by a lot of things, I do still have to agree that the story does lack a lot of punch. A little too much drama swapped in place of jokes, not enough done with that drama, not enough personal investment, too much reliance on player knowledge from previous games, etc. Lots of places where those extra little lampshades could have done heavy lifting, I’d add another line “You killed five people for basically no reason, and made a giant doom laser! at the end.
“One death to save… minions”?
And they aren’t Morally Outraged that Jack killed the four science guys and the spy. They’re concerned that Jack is being smart and ruthless and see the signs that he’s going to turn on one of them next, so they get prevenge on Jack for his coming betrayal.
That the writer didn’t realize that was happening and make a few jokes explaining it is beyond me.
I think part of the problem here is that the writers have a backstabber quota they’re trying to work through. Roland, Lilith, and Moxxi all have personal vendettas against them from Jack hinted at in BL2, and the writing team was struggling to find a way to get all of them on his bad side in this game.
I’m pretty sure the reason everyone betrayed Jack is because he built a giant, death-star, moon-destroying laser out of a dead vault, not because he killed five people.
Aside from that, I vehemently disagree with you on whether Moxxi’s character change was unearned, but I will definitely agree that they shoehorned her into this part of the conflict.
The really strange part is that the whole game is Athena explaining her actions (and thus the other Player Characters’ actions) to a judgmental group of Vault Hunters, including Lilith. So this section would be an ideal one for the person listening to the story (Lilith) to interject and explain herself a bit better.
To be fair, they are pretty much interrogating Athena to decide whether to kill her quickly or slowly so why should they explain anything to her? If anything it would have come off as even weirder if Lilith suddenly started going off on a spiel about the sincere motivations she, Roland and Moxxi had. Basically, if you can’t justify the betrayal by prior events once it happens, a character going out of its’ way to be overly explicit won’t do you any favors and will only strain the suspension of disbelief more (unless you’re in a heist or spy flick, where this twist is the entire point).
So, a whole story spent to explain a Face-Heel turn, and the writer didn’t properly think about what would really cause such a dramatic arc to ensure that they properly seeded it?
For some reason, this sounds familiar.
Yeah, well, it could be worse… you could spend two and a half movies getting to this point without doing any decent seeding :-)
I’ve been playing BL2 again with some buddies, and now that you’ve called attention to Moxxi’s actions here, it becomes evident that they actually undermine both Moxxi and Jack’s characters in BL2.
In BL2, Moxxi breaks up with Jack and Jack overreacts, to the point of building an arena just to taunt Moxxi’s loss of her arena – and it serves to emphasize how Jack is a bad guy.
This really muddles that and makes it seem like Moxxi is being deceptive since she didn’t just break up with her ex-husband, she tried to kill him and everybody. It makes Jack look less unreasonable or unjustified in his actions/attitude towards Moxxi in BL2.
The claptrap-centered DLC does that with claptrap too, I feel.
BL2’s reveal that Jack had destroyed every claptrap unit in existence except the one who finds you in the beginning of the game seemed to be trying to emphasize his villainy, but in the pre-sequel’s DLC you learn about so much horrible stuff directly resulting from Claptrap’s existence and actions that it kinda makes Jack look way better as a person for trying to wipe out this robotic plague upon the universe.
Got to disagree here. Only his “act of pyrotechnic genius”, as Mr. Torgue put it, was outright horrible, and even that was all about Clappie being a bumbling idiot. Most of the product line was just unspeakably annoying and incompetent, which of course was exactly why Handsome Jack wiped it out. It was excessive, cruel and basically just what I expected from the man we love to hate. The sad thing about the DLC was that it had good writing, and the same kind of surreal, brutal and occasionally tragic atmosphere that BL2 had. The writing talent was there, but it just didn’t show in TPS.
That game’s plot tended to actually make sense, but only assuming you liked it enough to fill in its ton of gaps with some plausible headcanon. Most people didn’t, and no wonder, because the story and characters were generally lackluster, and of course it really isn’t the player’s job to make things work.
Sounds realistic to me!
Shamus has been arguing against the point that the game says that Jack’s an Engineer, when in fact it portrays him as Management.
Frankly it sounds possible for both a manager or an engineer to have an hard time figuring out how to fix something sometimes. And to be fair Jack is the one to decide to do the last step of fixing the laser remotely and thus avoided getting vaporized at point zero. Maybe he figured out something was wrong but not what exactly?
Keep in mind we’re talking about a situation where Jack is standing inside the machine in question while Moxxi is nowhere near the machine and is basically helping him over the phone. And yet somehow she walks him through steps to supposedly shut down the machine that actually blow it up without him having any idea.
Okay, I’m sure you can imagine a scenario where this MIGHT happen, but… this is a REALLY ODD setup, right? Like I keep saying, this isn’t about “plot holes”. This is about baffling decisions on the part of the writer. They chose this setup on purpose, and it comes off as really weird.
Why did they claim Jack was an engineer if that odd claim was going to be unsupported by the story? Why claim he designed the machine if he was going to stand there and have someone ELSE explain to him how it works? Why re-write Moxxi to be a super-scientist when we already have other characters in the story to fill that role?
Yes, you CAN do these things… but why?
Because they needed someone motivated to take Handsome Jack down. What I would have gone with though is have Janey guide the player all along and then (regretfully) betray them at the end because she was secretly answering to Moxxy, which fits both characters. Moxxi is a manager who’s not above using her charm and Janey already expressed her obsession with Mad Mox.
Janey would then be ashamed of almost wiping out everyone in the station and try to earn back the players’ trust (especially Athena’s), which would give her a much needed arc.
That feels pretty beat for beat what Angel did in BL2.
Granted we’re using a hot woman stringing along a starry eyed girl with the hopes of getting some action, rather than an abusive father torturing his daughter to make her do what he wants with her phenomenal cosmic power, but the beats are there.
I think that would probably be okay; Jack sees someone manipulated into betraying him and immediately thinks, “I could do it better”.
Actually now that I think about it Jack stated he was the one who designed bnk3r back in BL2 so it’s possible he was supposed to be an engineer even back then. But yeah I don’t know why Moxxi is a gearhead in this game.
What’s weird is that when you start picking up Jack’s ECHO recorders in Opportunity, he comes across as someone in charge of marketing, especially when he’s talking to the Board of Directors on renaming Hyperion firearms to be “Smart guns built by smart sonsabitches, For smart sonsabitches”.
So we’ve got at least three separate roles, each with wildly different skills sets that Jack is supossed to be capable of.
Engineer / Code Monkey (I’m putting these in the same line because Mr Tassiter calls him a “hideous little code monkey” in the second ECHO of the quest “Get To Know Jack” while he tells Jack to pull the ANG3L satellite away from Pandora, and Tassiter doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who knows the difference between a programmer or an engineer.)
Team Leader / Manager
Marketer / Public Face
That last one I’m pretty sure is just because of his immense ego and love for flashy non-sense.
I’m going to guess Moxxi is there because “we need to squeeze in as many references and familiar characters as possible” and she’s given a different skillset because, like someone stated above, they wanted to push her beyond the overly sexualised character she was established as. Though we could argue what their motivations behind such a push were.
In fairness to Moxxi, she is shown to have hijacked and rewritten a Hyperion AI in BL2 (InnuendoBot). That at least demonstrates more technical competence than Jack seems to show here.
I had a post in last night but after trying to edit it twice to fix italic tags it vanished, presumably to moderation?
Agree with everyone else here that Lilith&Co’s motivation is pretty clear : Jack is clearly unstable, he can’t have a death star canon aimed at Pandora. And just killing him wouldn’t do the trick, another Hyperion sociopath would take over, and they’d end up with an even worse Atlas situation (which they did anyway, but at least they tried to avoid it).
Completely agree with the loss of focus after Zarpedon however. I think they should have teased us more with the Vault. Why do the soldiers want it to stay closed so much? Why does Jack think the content is worth it, while the previous one was disappointing?
I mean he managed to build a super-death laser with the contents of the first vault. I guess he probably thinks it wasn’t disappointing.
You know, I think perhaps this was an editing failure in the writing phase. Think about how the plot would have gone, if the airlock scene and the Eye scene had been in opposite order.
Yes, you could have Lilith and Roland backstab Jack here, they could even have the exact same reason to do so: This Hyperion Doom Laser has already threatened to destroy the moon (and devastate the planet below with moon chunks) once, why should they leave it intact for the next band of crazies that seize the station? The next band of crazies might be the ones that own the station.
But anyway, they could have convinced one or more of those scientists to turn on Jack, for the above reasons. Jack now has a good reason to blow them out an airlock, more motivation to be more ruthless in his dealings with the natives, and Lilith and Roland are no longer just standing there watching.
It would also explain the very specific level of sabotage involved. They’d have good reason to sabotage it in just such a way, that the laser itself is destroyed. As to Jack himself? Well, he was supposed to be at ground zero, just like they wanted him to be in the plot as written; as with the original plot, Jack choosing to reboot the system remotely wasn’t part of the plan.
Now as to why the Borderlands 1 crew didn’t just shank Jack directly, consider the more meta reason: Technically, Jack’s full three-man-and-a-tin-can Vault Hunter team is there, not a lone PC. In a straight fight, Roland and Lilith would have been facing two to one odds.
On an unrelated note, I finished my first playthrough a few days ago. I’ve got some thoughts, but they’re mostly DLC related, and can wait until Shamus gets there in his series.
I’m not sure that singularity was supposed to destroy the entire moonbase. Seemed to me it was always supposed to only going to take out the cannon and the areas close to it. That it was so overkill the way it happened I always assume it was just because Borderlands.
The again I’ve rewatched the scene and Handsome Jack did say: “[…]do you know what you’ve done? You’ve killed us all!” so maybe I’m wrong.
On an other note, I don’t know if it was a typo but Gladstone is pretty dead at this point.
I still think you should talk about Tales from the Borderlands. I know you said you wouldn’t because it has different gameplay to all the others, but you’ve still written quite a lot about the stories of these games, and Tales has the best story of any of the Borderlands games, and possibly of any Telltale game.
I just realised I meant to leave this comment on the next article, not this one.
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