Borderlands 2 opens on a car full of post-apocalyptic freaks that gets run over by a train. Even people who didn’t play the game remember this scene and the song that went with it. After that it pivots to the game’s heroes and their bombastic attempts to escape death aboard a locomotive which ultimately self destructs on them. What happens after that is wonderfully different, however.
When the game finally starts, the character you’ve selected awakens amid a snow storm. Up north in what the game calls the Windshear Waste, you leave the wreckage and action behind to tread miserably through an arctic sprawl. Borderlands 2 has a reputation for being aggressively over the top and absurd, but this sensibility, and the action set-piece antics attached to it, belie a game world that’s amazingly empty by modern standards. At times the game borders on being a walking simulator punctuated occasionally by chaotic firefights, and no place in it better exemplifies this meditative balance than the early handful of missions up north.
The first thing you run into is a robot called Claptrap. He’s there to double as a waypoint marker and also as comic relief, an exposition delivery device suffused with the game’s hit and miss, fourth-wall breaking witticisms. He guides you from the cold to his house. Before going there though, you can always double back to behind where your train crashed and open a small metallic crate, one of several hundreds, perhaps even a thousand, littered throughout the game. There’s two bucks inside. It’s the equivalent of the game giving you a middle finger for thinking there might be more to the crash site then there in fact was. No cool weapons. No secrets. Just and inexplicable treasure chest laughing at the absurdity of its own existence.
On the walk to Claptrap’s house you won’t run into enemies. This probably breaks somebody’s hard and fast rule about making sure the player of a shooter actually gets to shoot something in the first 60 seconds of the game, but Borderlands 2 doesn’t really give a shit. Instead, your first main activity in the game consists of rummaging through a robot’s luxurious igloo made of ice and garbage. There are dead bodies to glance at in horror as well as other Claptrap-like robots strewn about lifeless. It’s unclear why Claptrap keeps corpses around, but the game certainly hints at two purposes: heat and spare parts. A warm fire rages in the middle of the igloo with enough environmental storytelling to heavily imply it doubles as a morgue furnace. As for the other Hyperion-made, CL4P-TP general purpose robots hanging about, it’s possible Claptrap was desperately trying to fix them so he had at least one other friend. In an early conversation he mentions going crazy with no one to talk to. Less charitably, I’ve always assumed he uses their remains to keep himself in relative working condition. How else would he survive for so long surrounded by death and sub-zero temps?
But my favorite part of this area aren’t the weird pinups in the bathroom or the poker table Claptrap has arranged like a doll house. It’s the array of grotesque plaid couches furnishing his pad. Nothing says junkyard like the kinds of 1970s styles routinely left out on the curb in the hopes they won’t be there they next day, either because trash collection actually picked them up or some overly ironic millenials did the job for them. There are three plaid couches in Claptrap’s igloo. I can only imagine how long it took a robot with one wheel and no arm strength to arrange all of them just so. The rest of Windshear Waste follows a similar pattern: icy sprawl dotted with small details just out of place enough to give you pause such that you take a moment to consider the space beyond the next set of hitboxes to gun down.
Borderlands 2 is an open world game , but not in the sort of living, breathing way we now expect based on things like Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, and Assassin’s Creed Origins. A day and night cycle follows the flow of the game’s action rather than the tedium of an actual in-game clock ticking away the seconds it takes you to sort out icons on a minimap. From Liar’s Berg, the starting area’s home base, to Gateway Harbor, where its enemy boss resides, the game’s dynamic weather shifts from a snow storm to bright sun to haunting northern lights and eventually a slow sun rise. There aren’t a ton of sidequests to complete or people to talk to. Even chatter with NPC allies through your comms channel is limited. Mostly it’s just you picking through hideouts of the bandits you’ve killed while a cold wind whistles past in the background.
A ridge that overlooks the area has snow blowing off it, and also transforms into a beautiful, dark silhouette as the remaining light peers over it during a sunset. I wouldn’t call it loneliness but rather comforting solitude. After all, there’s little risk of dying. Borderlands 2 isn’t a hard game by any stretch, and if you play as Salvador, the Gunzerker, as I do, there’s the added benefit of being able to self-revive by killing enemies during bleed-out. Instead, the quiet allows you time to rummage through an endless number of treasure chests, mostly containing junk, but which are occasionally lodged in interesting areas that invite you to actually explore the bandit forts the developers have spent time crafting.
During a recent replaying of this part of the game I spent an inordinate amount of time shooting at enemies from behind the cover of a makeshift bandit bar. Christmas lights hung in the rafters and nearby tables gave the impression of a motley crew of Mad Max extras who enjoy kicking back a few during Tuesday night quizzo. Once I’m done with the place there’s no one left to do things like that, but at least now I have time to try and reconstruct their dark but whimsical backstories amid a sea of glowing loot, little beams of light from which shoot upwards as if preparing for the rapture. Two of my favorite touches in these forts remain a boombox with only two stations (how quaint FM and AM seem when the game’s vending machines can clone human beings) and the occasional gun you find in a toilet. Borderlands 2 has no illusions about its weapon progression system.
No matter how many times it’s happened, I’m never not sad to leave the Windshear Waste behind. The area concludes with a shootout atop a gang hideout. From there you join Claptrap in a boat to set sail for the game’s mainland, an expanse styled after Westerns whose long stretches of nothing never quite measure up to the hyperborean beauty of opening levels. In its first few missions, Borderlands 2 succeeded at capturing the freedom of an open world game without weighing it down in the aimless minutia of world intended to trick you with its uncanny realism. There are few skies I’d rather look up from my reticle at than the bitterly cold and frayed ones hanging over Windshear Waste.