Borderlands 2 is a game I have a hard time judging, even now, two months after it came out. While I enjoyed the game, some clear issues constantly nagged at me. I really enjoyed the writing of Borderlands 2, for example, but I don't know if I can say the same about the game's actual narrative.
The individual elements of that storyline: the characters, dialogue, mission text, echo recorders, and even the title's overall concept are all generally really funny and/or interesting. Yet, the way you experience them as you play the game leaves a lot to be desired.
Borderlands 2's NPCs urge you to take on the main story quest, but you also have a giant list of side missions to accomplish that often take you far from where you're "supposed" to be going. Basically, the progression of the missions don't really support the progression of the story or vice versa.
These issues bring to light a question about the Borderlands games in general, which I think developer Gearbox Software really needs to answer going forward. Is Borderlands a linear or nonlinear experience? For me, the main story is written and executed for a linear endeavor, but all of the side missions are designed more for a nonlinear adventure.
Allow me to explain. If you look at just the main story missions, you'll come away with a clear story arc of the player as a vault hunter attempting to stop antagonist Handsome Jack. When you look at the side missions, most of them don't support that narrative. Instead, these bits of content have their own arcs involving the quest givers.
And that's totally fine. In fact, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim basically follows this structure, but the difference with Borderlands 2 is that your access to side missions is based on your progress through the main quest. This approach works if the game is supposed to follow a nonlinear path, but Borderlands 2's more linear progression and design causes the player to lose focus on the main narrative.
In the end, though, I understand why Borderlands 2 is like this. The game has an interesting world and an interesting story to tell, but it also wants to provide players with a lot to do, especially when playing the multiplayer mode. Having access to all those additional missions in a nonlinear fashion provides a lot of enjoyment. Because of this, however, the multiplayer experience can lead to people missing important story beats. The narrative might not even evoke the developer's intended reaction from players.
So Gearbox has to answer the aforementioned question in order for the Borderlands franchise to reach its full potential. The studio could choose to make the experience linear and still have lots of side missions that play into the main narrative, giving players plenty of content. Or, the devs could choose to make the title nonlinear with smaller narrative arcs that focus on specific people or places from Pandora. This approach would allow players to construct their own storyline instead of forcing them to follow an explicit thread.
If Gearbox doesn’t answer this question, then the next game will probably just be a reimagining of its predecessor.
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