A kaleidoscopic display of unbridled, unhinged mayhem, Borderlands served up a storm on its first release, conjuring up as it did the words of the late, great Hunter S. Thompson: “too weird to live, too rare to die”.
The refreshing and vibrant series has been making the big shooters look positively po-faced across three full titles now, pulling down their trousers and penning moustaches on their bemused, play-it-safe faces. Borderlands’ charm has always been its raucous commitment to total irreverence. Now, with Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel remastered and repackaged as The Handsome Collection, Gearbox’s rebellious middle finger to the gaming establishment has been sent hurtling, for the first time, onto current gen hardware.
The package itself is the latest in a recent, industry-spanning wave of ‘remasters’ (read: rehashings/ over-milked cash cows bleeding from the udder/corporate cynicism at its worst). Despite bringing the series’ hallmark cartoon chaos to the current console generation, and I may as well set my stall out early, there’s little in the way of all new content to justify this as a purchase for owners of last-gen versions.
However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and write this baby off just yet. Where existing fans may despair over the lack of new content, prospective fans yet to delve into the ecstatic carnage that is Borderlands may have just been handed a blessing of the kind usually categorised under ‘divine providence’. This isn’t one existing title upscaled and shipped back out with a shiny new label; The Handsome Collection comprises two full games, together with the complete range of available DLC. Although it’s missing the original Borderlands, this is the most complete compo release the series has seen and is a must for anyone missing a Pandora stamp on their intergalactic passport.
Gearbox have stumbled upon a thing of precious genius in Borderlands. By chucking a cocktail of gameplay styles together in a hot mess officially termed a ‘role-playing shooter’, the devs have satisfied the dreams of a broad swathe of the gaming community. Though aligned primarily as a shooter, the series’ role-playing and character development aspects dismantle the linearity that so often stymies mainstream shooters. By offering choice, the games become more personal, more bespoke, and by foisting so much freedom of exploration, the sense of adventure that gamers crave is restored. This is vital because choice, freedom and adventure all nurture an attitude of experimentation, and it’s when games tease players into exploring the full range of possibility that they’re at their best.
Something of a Far Cry on acid or perhaps a Destiny with an ASBO, Borderlands is the life and soul of its subgenre. Beneath its irreverent veneer lies an authentic focus on player enjoyment, something too often lost beneath the leaden weight of bloated, overextended high-concept. AAA titles often feel aloof of the player, but there’s not a hint of that here.
The extensive experience proposed by The Handsome Collection is back to basics carnage, chaos and mad cackling when it all gets a bit too much. It’s a masterclass in old-fashioned fun – something exemplified perfectly by this version’s refreshingly anachronistic willingness to give the power to the people and provision for 4-player local splitscreen; a true godsend.
Borderlands 2, though second in terms of canonical chronology, was the first title in the collection to see the light of day back in 2011; a huge refinement over its groundbreaking predecessor. Four standard issue player characters to choose from, bolstered by an additional two included as part of the packaged DLC content, ploughing through the story in multiplayer is a bloodthirsty rampage, with the difficulty cleverly scaling according to the number of gunslingers shedding lead. The craziness always conjured by four-on-the-couch multiplayer, no matter what the game, is pushed to near delirium, tickled further by the heavily stylised, cartoonish visuals. Barrels of tongue in cheek references and absurd non-sequiturs pepper the dialogue, contributing to create a hugely welcoming and hugely rewarding break from reality.
The Pre-Sequel, an oddball creation and interquel set between the first and second games in the series, turns the tables and has us fighting for Hyperion, the vast corporate entity persecuting the series’ protagonists. It also gives us a chance to get under the skin of chief villain, Handsome Jack, filling out the backstory for the other side of the coin, whilst also affording ample opportunity to wreak havoc across the moonbase environment that motivated the game’s development. Though we’ve swapped sides, the action and gameplay hardly pushes the envelope.
A joyous, intoxicating romp no matter what, both games are fine in single player but truly shine in the presence of friends. This is clearly nothing new to Gearbox, a strength now fortified by the bulk up to 4-player splitscreen. Playing solo has a tendency to grind if played in binge quantities, though the experience regains its charm relatively swiftly.
The frame-rate of both games are a significant pinch point, particularly on The Pre-Sequel, getting distractingly sluggish when the engine is pushed to its limits in 4-player splitscreen. This isn’t quite game breaking, but shows a disappointing lack of polish for a product angling to present itself as a definitive collection of the content on offer. Niggling, too, is the absence of UI scaling in splitscreen modes, making multiplayer menu navigation a somewhat arduous task.
As a collection of two existing games, The Handsome Collection was never going to receive a cut-and-dry, across the board recommendation. For obsessives, this will undoubtedly be worth a purchase, simply to be able to play the content on new hardware. For Borderlands virgins, I can’t recommend this highly enough: there’s a huge mass of content to dig into, plenty of game time to justify the expense and the potential to really shake up your game library if the likes of Call of Duty, Battlefield and Destiny are getting a bit stale. For players of Borderlands who weren’t totally sold on it the last time around, this could perhaps be an opportunity to give this wild buzz-saw another spin. Regardless, Pandora awaits.