There is no fundamental difference between Borderlands: The Handsome Collection and Farmville. You perform a rather limited set of actions. You have prizes and accolades rained down upon you for every little action you can perform. The long game stretches on and on, across seemingly infinite content, until you decide to either give up or fully integrate the game experience into your day-to-day life.
I got close to doing the second thing. I played the games in order, Borderlands 2 before Presequel, and I played them for days. Night after night, I stayed up later and later, going through the motions of shooting enemies, fetching things for quests, and following the storyline of the games. One o’clock in the morning turned into two turned into three for a solid week. Every time I got a story-based trophy, I would count the number of hidden trophies remaining to estimate how much longer I would have to slog through the experience. And then I stopped, cold turkey, turning away from the game’s encroachment into my life.
I just quit. About a third of the way into Presequel, I realized that these games have a very limited amount of stuff to give me and that I had hit that limit. The weird thing is that I’m generally a completionist about reviews; I make a strong effort to not cut corners and to really experience a game before I develop an opinion of it.
However, with The Handsome Collection, I realized that it had given me nothing new after the first hour of play. There was nothing added to my life. I was not pumping the air in victory or smiling after completing missions or ending play sessions like I would with a harrowing set of encounters in Dead Rising 3 or after a hard level in Rayman Legends. I was launching the game and sighing, audibly sighing, because there were a thousand things I would rather do than play the game.
The horror of the whole ordeal is that I don’t dislike these games. I used to think that I did. I had played Borderlands years ago and decided that the series wasn’t for me, and I avoided the sequels because of that, but I decided that this new collection was an opportunity for me to take a step back and reevaluate how I felt about the games.
The core Borderlands loop is smoother than I remember. You shoot things, aiming for their weak spots to generate as many critical hits as possible. When those things die, “loot” shoots out of their bodies. In the homes, workplaces, and caves of the dead, you will find boxes, safes, barrels, and other storage containers full of the same loot. You hoard it like the very act of hoarding is going out of style. It is tedious. It feels good. Embracing this tedium has a calming effect. You’re restoring order to the world, reducing the entropy of spread loot by concentrating it into your character’s mercenary coffers. It is pure, unalloyed capital management simulation.
Just like the act of accumulation itself, this basic gameplay never changes. It keeps going on and on, and it rides on the waves of the driving story and plot. It isn’t worth recounting here, but suffice to say that Borderlands 2 somehow manages to keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to its story, and it is this seemingly-infinite deferring of an ending that kept me from actually enjoying that game. You saved someone? It doesn’t matter, the Big Bad will reset the world. You got Cool Thing to Awesome Place? Too bad that the Cool Thing was really Not A Cool Thing.
Playing these games feels like chasing the horizon. There’s always more loot to gather. There’s always a plot complication that drives you further along a path. There’s always more interesting ways to do more damage to healthier enemies who you are racing against to prevent them from doing too much damage to you. Borderlands is a race to the bottom of quality. It is a system of demands that molds you into a very particular kind of player, and that act of discipline is one that strips the infinite play of infinite content of all of its potential joy. For me, what was fun quickly moved from tolerable to joyless.
For what it is worth, Presequel is at least unique in its drudgery. The game takes place on Pandora’s moon, named Elpis, and so that game adapts Borderlands gameplay to that new environment. There’s low-gravity platforming and an entire system of oxygen management that leads to more interesting combat encounters. At the same time, you’re still performing long quest chains of dubious intent where one-off characters send you to fetch things or throw switches so that you can pay them to kick the plot can on down the road a little further. And then someone calls you on the radio and delivers a “funny” and “ironically mean or cruel” quip.
At the end of the day, The Handsome Collection contains more Borderlands than I would ever want to play, and the likelihood that you will enjoy it or not has more to do with your being a fan of the series already or not. It is an immense amount of gameplay “value” for what you will spend on the collection, and if you’re looking for something to kick a few hundred hours into, there are less interesting games you could be playing.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.