It’s a pretty intense moment when Angel dies, Roland dies, Jack recovers the vault key, and Lilith is captured. It feels like it’s supposed to be the crisis moment in the plot, except it’s kind of early in the story for that. We have a lot of hours of psycho-shooting between now and the conclusion, and a lot of it feels pretty unimportant compared to what just happened. If this was a movie, we’d be entering the finale right now while emotions are hot. Instead we get caught up in a couple more door-opening exercises.
You need to reach the Info Stockade to find out where the vault is. Which means you need to blow open a pipe in the Boneyard so you can crawl through it. But to get there you need to lower a Hyperion bridge. Which means you need to get some explosives. Which means you need to get you Sawtooth Cauldron and steal some from the local bandits. Which means you need to reach their storage platform. Which means you need to get the elevator working. Which means you need to kill a local bandit boss. Which means… you get the idea.
|I'm sure fighting this skyscraper robot is somehow related to killing Jack, but right now I've lost track of why. Fun trivia: That little shelter on the left is where the original vault hunters stepped off the bus back in Borderlands 1.|
It feels like Luke just took off in an X-Wing for the Death Star mission, but the director decided to cut away so we could spend a half dozen scenes with C3P0 and Mon Mothma. It’s not that this stuff isn’t fun, it’s that it feels like this is a bad spot in the game to pad things out. This isn’t just a problem with Borderlands 2, it’s a problem a lot of games have. If we go right from the crisis point of the plot into the finale, then we end up with the player being locked into the endgame almost as soon as they enter the third act. If you do this, the final stretch of the game can feel a little too linear, restrictive, and heavy on cutscenes. If we instead drop back into normal gameplay, then the story loses momentum because you can’t sustain that emotional high note for hours at a time, and certainly not across multiple play sessions.
Mass Effect went for the “locked in” approach. The moment you arrived on Virmire, you were basically riding a railroad to the endgame. In an ideal world, I suppose you’d be free to make a beeline for the endgame but also free to do sidequest stuff if you were looking for more gameplay. Obviously that approach doesn’t work for all stories and genres.
The point is that sooner or later the designer has to choose between their gameplay and their story. Borderlands 2 favored gameplay. That was probably the right move, but it still sucks the life out of the story.
The Final Push
Evidently while you were off doing sidequests, Mordecai and Brick stole a barge and spent hours covering it in elaborate anti-Jack graffiti.
Eventually we find out where the vault is. As it turns out, that’s also where Handsome Jack, Lilith, and the vault key are. So not only does everyone have really solid motivations pushing them into the final confrontation, all of the plot elements are forcing this showdown to take place at the vault. Once we reach the last area, we have a bunch of dialog from all the main characters to re-ignite the emotional energy that fizzled out over the last couple of hours of plot-door shenanigans.
This is the final push through hyperion forces. On one hand, Mordecai and Brick need to take part in this fight so their characters don’t seem lame and inert. On the other hand, we don’t actually want a couple of NPC’s running around, blocking our shots, jumping in front of our rocket launcher, kill-stealing tough foes after we’ve done 95% of the work to bring them down, and otherwise getting in the way as so many NPC companions do.
So instead the writer has the two of them “helping” by showing up in a flying barge and clearing obstacles for us. It keeps them involved from a story sense without making a mess of the gameplay. Good companion AI is hard, and far too many developers have tried and failed to hit that “Alyx Vance” sweet spot of “helpful but not in the way”.
That said, if there’s one thing I’d love companions to do in this game it would be reviving the player.
Fight For Your Life
No, it`s fine Brick. Just go on without me. You can be the main character now.
In the Borderlands series, when you run out of hitpoints you go into “Fight for Your Life” mode, where your character goes down on one knee. You can’t use your special ability. You can’t use grenades. Your view slowly lists to one side, messing up your aim. Your movement speed is reduced to a frustrating crawl. But if you can get a kill in these conditions then you’ll get a “Second Wind” and recover with partial health and shields.
It’s a really good system for making sure that running out of HP has consequences while avoiding the abrupt killjoy of respawning and running back to the battle. When you’re in a multiplayer game, your companions will come over and revive you while you’re in Fight for Your Life. Or maybe they’ll leave you to fend for yourself while they vacuum up all the loot. I guess it depends on the kinds of people you play with.
Like lousy multiplayer buddies, the NPC companions won’t revive you. Even worse, they tend to inadvertently make things harder for you. You’ll be on the ground, desperately trying to get a kill to revive yourself. The timer is ticking down and you only have a few short seconds left before you die and get sent back to the respawn station. You’ve managed to focus-fire this one foe down and you just need to land one or two more shots to get a Second Wind. Suddenly your NPC “buddy” will come and stand right in front of the guy you’re trying to kill. Or maybe they’ll kill the target themselves.
I understand that making good companion AI is hard, but this is still a real killjoy. It feels like your allies are griefing you. It seems like having them come over and revive you shouldn’t be too difficult, and it would turn them into an asset rather than a liability. I realize it might be a little overpowered to have an immortal NPC as your resurrection buddy, but these sections are usually really short and I think “slightly OP” is better than building unintentional resentment between the player and their supposed friend.
Barring that, it would really help if the AI would deliberately switch targets to avoid killing foes while the player is in Fight For Your Life.
COME OUT TO PLAY-AY!
The story has built up “The Warrior” as this horrible doomsday weapon that will let Jack control all of Pandora and wipe all of his foes off the map. Since meeting Roland it’s been clear that our ultimate goal is to prevent Jack from controlling the Warrior.
So it’s a little odd that our quest ultimately fails, but we win anyway. It turns out that the Warrior isn’t a world-shattering weapon, but a reasonably tough foe for a lone level 30 character.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: To kill the final boss you have to shoot the weak spot on its chest. I’d complain, but the Warrior is basically a dragon and fighting non-Skyrim dragons is cool.
The fight does keep you moving around. The fight takes place in a lava ruin and sometimes the lava rises and forces you to high ground. The Warrior dives into the lava, climbs the structures, breathes fire, and attacks from different angles.
Hit The Road, Jack
This looks a lot more brutal than just shooting him myself.
Once the Warrior is dead, you can settle up with Jack. He’s “dying” in the sense that he’s too weak to fight you, and the game is just waiting for you to come over and deliver the killing blow. I’m always glad when games realize that when it comes to offing the bad guy, I’d rather make it happen in gameplay than watch it happen in a cutscene. Yes, I know gameplay doesn’t have the same cinematic pacing, dramatic camera angles, and perfectly timed musical cues, but it feels good to deliver that final blow, and it feels frustrating to have the game designer grab the controller out of your hands so they can show you a movie they made about how the bad guy should die.
However, if you decide you don’t want to kill Jack, you can choose to let Lilith kill him for you. This sounds like the horrendous kill-stealing bullshit Reaver pulls at the end of Fable 2, but there’s an important distinction here:
- Lilith is your friend, not an invulnerable infuriating GMPC that’s been antagonizing you since they showed up. (Seriously, screw Reaver.)
- Jack killed Lilith’s boyfriend and then tortured her. Compared to the player, Lilith has lost more, and suffered more. If they’ve connected with Lilith then they might actually feel like they want her to have the satisfaction of revenge.
- It’s a choice you get to make on your own. You can shoot Jack, or press the activate button on Lilith to let her do it. She’s not going to jump in and and steal the kill from the player because they were listening to the dialog.
- Even if you let Lilith kill him, you’re the one to press the activate key to make it happen, and the game doesn’t take control away from you.
I like giving Lilith the last hit. It feels like an appropriate way to end the game.
Holy Crap, It’s full of Stars!
We found another piece of Darth Revan`s starmap!
Once Jack is gone, Mordecai and Brick show up to reveal they made it through their bullshit just fine. Once everyone has celebrated a bit, they gather around the vault key for the big reveal: A huge star map appears, showing countless vaults across the border worlds. Rather than limit the entire setting to Pandora, it seems the developers want to take us to other planets.
I love that the writer is thinking ahead like this. Even though this is a “silly comedy” game where the story supposedly “doesn’t matter”, the writer is thinking ahead, making plans, and doing a little worldbuilding. They’re setting up the next game without ending this one on an annoying cliffhanger. This story wraps up nicely, but gives us a hint of new adventures to think about.
Without this worldbuilding, the next game would have to clumsily explain, “Yep, we somehow know there’s another vault out there but we don’t know where it is, so let’s do the same plot all over again.”
This final reveal is brilliant because it gives the next writer lots of room. All we know is that “there are vaults on other planets”. If the next team wants to make a game about one new planet with one new vault against one new rival, they can do that. If they want to scale the next game up and have a world-hopping adventure where we open four vaults on four planets, they can do that. If they want to add more of a meta-story with the aliens, they’re free to do that. If the next story needs us to already know the exact location of a vault, we can say this starmap gave us that. If the next story is going to be another hunt for secrets, then we can say the starmap identified vault planets but not exact locations. This ending liberates the next writer instead of constraining them.
As a bonus, this reveal feels cool and makes for a great visual payoff.
After the finale, it`s clear that Lilith has replaced Roland as the leader of the original vault hunters. I wonder if that group will grow to include Athena and the Borderlands 2 characters once Borderlands 3 rolls around.
I know I keep coming back to this, but just compare this ending to the end of Mass Effect 2, when the writer ran the plot into a wall with no setup for the next game, and then burned their bridges in the DLC. The story-focused Mass Effect 2 really needed to get this right, and they whiffed. Meanwhile, hardly anyone would have complained if Borderlands 2 had half-assed this, but the writer nailed it anyway.
I hope this contrast is useful to the development teams currently planning to make sequels until the sun burns out. You don’t have to make a sequel if you don’t want to. You can make all your games self-contained stories like the old Final Fantasy titles. You can make brand-new IP if you want. You can reboot your world if you want. But if you’re going to make sequels forever and you insist on connecting them with an ongoing story, then you need to plan ahead with your writing.
And to the writers of the Assassins Creed series: We’re mostly talking about you. See me after class.
I think Borderlands 2 is the best in the series so far. Aside from a little Flanderization around the edges it manages to respect the returning characters while making room for the new. It nails the tone, dumps the awkward mechanics, polishes the gameplay, delivers on the humor, and moves the story of the Borderlands universe forward instead of trapping the next writer into giving us yet another vault on Pandora.
Next time we’re going to talk about some of the Borderlands 2 DLC. After that, we’re moving on to the Pre-Sequel.