Despite not being particularly enamoured with Borderlands itself I still dived, with enthusiasm, into Dr Ned’s Zombie Island. Possibly because I felt that Borderlands had potential, I certainly enjoyed Fyrestone and all it had to offer before being coughed out into the vast and unremarkable world of Pandora. But if that were the case Dr Ned wasn’t the man to convert me.
So it’s General Knox’s turn to try.
Retreating back from the shadowed hallows of Zombie Island, General Knox’s tale takes place in the familiar barren wilderness of sunny Pandora. It’s peppered every four nano-seconds with a Lance stronghold and is still as devoid of personality as ever. But hey, it’s still absolutely ravishing and there are even a few civilians meandering about T-Bone Junction, which is where you begin. The Junction is perched high up above the desert planes that made up the world of Pandora and is connected by long highways that lead off into the more traditional bleak wastelands. Besides a wealth of shops and weapon-chests there is also a curious supply of rowing boats hanging over the plateaus of T-Bone Junction and it’s almost a shame you can’t use them to fall back into Pandora itself because the results of a mile high boat-fall could have been amusing. Regardless, it’s one of many familiar comical touches that remind you that Borderlands is still loveable even when you hate it most.
Anyway, the Atlas group has inexplicably invaded the highest reaches of Pandora and has brought a huge armoury with it. Perhaps this is atonement then.
Of course, Gearbox are at the helm so you’re sent about uncovering General Knox’s armory (if we’re spelling it incorrectly) in the least straightforward way possible but this is a substantial package with dozens of quests and new enemies, so if that’s your thing you can’t argue that you aren’t getting your moneys worth. There are some huge War of the Worlds like stalkers prowling the deserts of upper-Pandora as well the by-now accustomed array of soldiers, with jetpack strapped Lance, comical loot midgets, and mech-suits making several appearances throughout the lengthy campaign.
However the most interesting of the new characters are the assassins, lifted straight from Opposing Force. Blink and you’ll miss them and you’ll also be left with a gaping wound to attend to because they come equipped with samurai blades. The infrequent encounters with the assassins bring about a welcome change of pace from the shootouts that became so routine by Borderlands’ end. As a level fifty soldier with an arsenal of extravagant death-dealing antiques, I was used to either firing a cruelly effective assault rifle from distance or hurling my turret into the fray and darting back to safety while it goes about doing all the hard work. But that’s not possible when dealing with the assassins because they bounce about like kangaroos overdosing on Smarties. In theory anyway.
It’s a little misfortunate that if you happen to leap on top of a crate or bin you’ll learn that the assassins will swarm beneath you but never actually attack. From here it’s a simple game of 3D Duck Hunt. When four of the episode’s boss sequences involve the assassins, the clear lack of testing drags General Knox into the dirt with gusto.
But more often than not the skirmishes are fought in a vehicle anyway and there are now three to choose from, the returning racer and two larger alternatives. The Monster is a jeep-cum-tank with a triple barrel homing missile launcher attached for good measure, it’s the most useful and the vehicle you will use most prominently on account of how utterly ineffective the other two options are.
The Lancer, a brutish APC that’s as much use as a fork in a joust, isn’t unlocked until nearer the end of the main quest arc which is just as well because there is a pause between charging its cannon and it firing, a pause long enough for a corpse to escape the line of fire. The flying drones and slippery vehicles that make up a significant proportion of the enemies you’ll face have no problem evading the cannon and in light of the homing missiles it’s a throwaway feature.
And with emphasis firmly placed on the vehicular combat there’s no room for fast-travel. This is a huge nuisance if you exit the game at any point before finishing it, which you will, because you’ll be transported back to T-Bone Junction the next time you load the game. Perhaps Gearbox assumed players would be so engrossed in the plight of whatever the story is that they’d never feel the need to reacquaint themselves with the real world. But it’s flippant and thoughtless to throw you back so far, particularly when there are checkpoints scattered liberally throughout the map and all of the enemies resurrect for the long trudge back.
But that’s far from the expansion’s biggest flaw. With the level cap being raised to 61, bringing with it another tenuous grind for XP, the Secret Armory of General Knox is hideously unbalanced if you don’t have three other players backing you up. You might interject, but Borderlands is a co-op game! Indeed, but it’s game that claims to be playable by one to four players and as a single player experience it suffers from total negligence in design.
And so death is frequent and tedious. Patrolling Lance vehicles will destroy yours with frustrating ease while standard enemies, capable of withstanding a barrage of bullets, will drain your shield in a couple of shots. The incessant death and resulting ten percent financial tax for expiring is exasperating but not nearly as much as the prolonged firefights. Battles are of attrition and it’s irrelevant who you are engaging, the same tactic works for one and all. Parking up a mile away and unleashing a cloud of homing missiles is the most effective way of turning everything in view into scrap metal or a gory corpse. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Same old Borderlands.
At best Pandora is the playground everybody is talking about but when you arrive it’s just a rusty swing and a merry-go-round. And there’s broken glass under the swing. And the merry-go-round is on fire. And the only people here are drunk and homeless. The armoury itself is full of toys but they’re the same toys you’ve been playing with throughout the entire game and the three expansions and you’re only given access to them all during the finale. It’s almost pointless.
I guess what I’m saying is, whichever part of it you play, Borderlands is hollow. If you can fill it with your own ingredients chances are you’ll overlook some of its many flaws, but by now it should be emphatically clear whether Borderlands is your ideal cup of tea or not. I don’t like tea, but if I did I’d like mine with a little more flavour, I’m sure.
So if this is an apology for Borderlands’ inadequate finale it’s not a particularly good one. It is fitting though and this time, for me, it’s the final nail in the coffin.