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.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.
Charging More for a Worse Product
No, game prices don't "need" to go up. That's not how supply and demand works. Instead, the publishers need to be smarter about where they spend their money.
Revisiting a Dead Engine
I wanted to take the file format of a late 90s shooter and read it in modern-day Unity. This is the result.
A look back at Star Trek, from the Original Series to the Abrams Reboot.
The Witch Watch
My first REAL published book, about a guy who comes back from the dead due to a misunderstanding.