Borderlands and the Art of the Rework

Borderlands’ ‘enhanced’ edition is a great excuse to return to the series’ humbler beginnings

Have you seen Star Wars? No really, have you? I’ve seen Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which came as part of a DVD remaster trilogy I bought in 2004. But savvier fans of George Lucas’ sprawling space opera series know how hard it is to come by the original theatrical cut of Star Wars. My DVD copy, for what its worth, included superimposed CGI and, most infamously, Han Solo not shooting first. A whole lot of us, in fact, have not seen the Star Wars that opened in theatres back in 1977.

Lucas has come under a lot of fire every time he has tinkered with the films. Game developers, too, are often treading on hallowed ground when a particularly beloved game is slated for a remaster. We saw Dark Souls’ remaster last year met with frustration by fans for not fixing enough of the bugs that plagued the game’s original release. Here’s the real problem with remastering games: everyone remembers that favourite title differently. The 3DS version of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was equally lauded for its quality and criticised for the way the game’s unique, punishing save system was neutered. In short, these remasters polarise because they are based on source material close to fans’ hearts, and each and every one of us has a different vision for what should and shouldn’t be fair game for a rework.

On hearing about the Borderlands Enhanced Edition, I was initially a bit uninspired. I was a huge fan of Borderlands 2, and assuredly got my money’s worth from 2K Australia’s contribution, The Pre-Sequel!, too. I’d never really sunk my teeth into Borderlands. The game, and especially it’s PC port, felt noticeably old. A dated UI coupled with some aim sensitivity settings that, despite hours of tinkering, I never got quite where I wanted it, meant I tapped out after about five hours.

Thus, with the Enhanced Edition, I’d hoped for sweeping changes including a UI that more closely mirrored the sequels, a little more polish and, in particular, more colour. Those hopes were dashed but, after some time with the updated version, I realised my hopes were misplaced: the Enhanced Edition isn’t a remaster, its a rework, and it is a worthwhile and charming return to both Pandora and the environment in which the series emerged.

As we’ve noted, changes, as opposed to updates, to an old title can prove to be hugely controversial. Nobody minded when Grezzo, the company Nintendo handed the reins to for both of the 3DS Zelda remakes, updated the game graphically. For it’s time, and on the small screen, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were welcome visual overhauls. Fans did mind, however, when saving, a core part of the gameplay loop in Majora’s Mask, was changed and made much more forgiving. Update-wise, Borderlands is generally tasteful. The game is noticeably prettier, supportive of higher resolutions, and has generally been cleaned up in the UI department.

What the game doesn’t do is fix any of the problems the original Borderlands had, something that, counter-intuitively, is for the best. The handful of boilerplate sidequests are here. The superfluous, incomprehensible weapon proficiency system remains. Gun-feel is still pretty underwhelming: those chunky Tediore shotguns still feel like you’re firing and plastic Nerf gun rather than some 16-pellet-per-shot piece of overkill. Where Blind Squirrel Games have tinkered with Gearbox’s breakout title, it is tasteful, subtle, and generally very agreeable. I don’t know anyone who would complain that money can be picked up by walking over it, rather than the button press it took back in 2009. Tweaks to the final boss to add challenge mitigate a glaring criticism from ten years ago: players grinding, looting and shooting for 20+ hours only to find that the final boss was the worst combination of extremely easy and tediously long. Neither of these alterations change the game’s character or spirit, but simply make quality-of-life improvements and correct a widely acknowledged mistake from the first time around.

In terms of the game itself, its the same old Borderlands, for better and worse. For the better, the generally bleaker atmosphere and more foreboding music makes for a nice contrast to the bombast of 2 and TPS. Likewise, the comedy is darker and subtler compared to the outright zaniness of its successors. All of these were things I failed to really appreciate the first time around. Playability here is key, too: I’m able to stop and smell the roses in the re-release because I am not constantly battling aim sensitivity that was never quite right (even with hours of tinkering in the game’s config files) or navigating a confusing UI.

Equally, some of the very things that stopped me playing the title back in 2009 remain here. The start is a slow plod with limited enemy variety and some side quests that verge on the banal. ‘Get the Flock Outta Here’ might have a fun title and some flavour text for why the quest needs doing, but those things cannot hide the fact the quest involves driving around the corner to an enemy spawn, killing ten of said enemy, and turning the quest in. It’s busywork, filler, which makes its presence so early in the game even more alarming. The enemy AI, too, is a noticeably poor. Firing at bandits from afar allows you to pick them off as they sprint towards you in an arrow-straight line.

Somehow, though, there’s a charm, a nostalgia, to these negative aspects, because what this enhanced edition does is transport the player back to the looter-shooter as it was in 2009. Seeing the flaws, the overreach and the half-baked ideas reminds us that the series began not with a slam-dunk classic, but with an encouraging, distinct title with enormous promise. That promise was realised in Gearbox’s opus, Borderlands 2, 3 years later. In terms of presentation, design and feel, Borderlands is the series’ black sheep, given that a lot of Borderlands 2’s assets and design elements were reused in The Pre-Sequel (TPS), something that makes it all the more interesting to explore. Where initially I had hoped that the re-release of the series’ first entry would absolve it of that outlier status by making it more like 2 and TPS, I realised I was hoping for the wrong thing. The small quality-of-life enhancements allow the player to enjoy exactly what made the game — and the series — so initially compelling, but also understand and acknowledge the game’s rough edges without them contributing to the overall frustration that reared its head when playing back in 2009. This is what reworks, as opposed to out-and-out remasters, should be: releases that correct specific errors or modernise the original release to make it run and play better on much newer PCs. I’m glad nobody at Blind Squirrel had a Lucas-ian urge to add in superfluous, distracting content, or make wholesale changes to the plot and presentation that make Borderlands’ enhanced edition a different product altogether.

The restraint of Blind Squirrel Games on the re-release, then, gives us the modern comforts we needed — better support for high resolutions, bigger textures — without being tempted to make wholesale changes that would alter the game’s distinct character. They avoid the Lucas-ian urge to, say, add new enemies or alter the plot, particularly in ways that seem pretty unnecessary anyway. For those reasons I’ve been quite charmed with Borderlands: GOTY Enhanced so far. It was, and is, far from a perfect game, and I’d still point series newcomers to Borderlands 2 for the definitive presentation of Gearbox’s looter-shooter. Rather, it’s a worthwhile curiosity: a nostalgia-trip back to a simpler, rougher gaming landscape; one where Gearbox were only dipping their toes into the sea of something much more bombastic and grandiose.