Saturday, October 11, 2014

Borderlands - Secret Armory of General Knoxx Wrap-up (23 hours)

Obviously, I loved the original Borderlands. If I didn't, I wouldn't have bought it three times (granted, only one of those - the disc version of the Game of the Year Edition - was at full retail, but still). Yet, Borderlands 2 has so completely eclipsed it in my affections that my main thought while playing the DLC was "at last, this feels like Borderlands."

It's a subtle change, but there are significant differences in the plot and presentation that make the Secret Armory of General Knoxx feel like an entirely different game.

Obviously, there's the silly stuff, like Athena hijacking the ENGORGE broadcasts in order to communicate, or the Crimson Lance's admiral being a five-year-old promoted by nepotism, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Your enemies are more fleshed out characters. At one point, you obtain critical information from a recording of two Crimson Lance soldiers talking about mundane personal matters like Ice Cream Day (it's in the Lance rulebook, code 3.5.31) and visiting the World's Largest Bullet (a great Pandora location if ever there was one). The big villains, Mr Shank and General Knoxx, pop in on your ECHO recorder to taunt you (Mr Shank even gets a line that deserves to be a classic: "is this what stealth looks like to you?"). The Atlas drones spout propaganda while they're trying to kill you.

The other subtle change is that the cast of NPCs was pruned down to just the weirdos and oddballs. Unlike the main campaign, at no point do you have to deal with a "normal" person. The result is a world that is colored by the strange obsessions of the people around you - Marcus' shameless greed, Scooter's dumb-as-fuck sexism, or Moxxi's . . . um, general Moxxiness.

The story itself revolves around an assassin named Athena. I'm not quite clear on her motivation, but I think she wants revenge on the Atlas corporation because they tried to eliminate her for vaguely defined reasons. You talk to her a lot, and while she is not as amusing as the series' tentpole characters, I think there's potential there. She is dour and terse, and those traits, sufficiently exaggerated, could form the basis of a fun comedic character. Or at least, I'm hoping. She's been promoted to a player character for the pre-sequel, and it would be a shame if she turns out to be dull.

Unless Athena turns out to be a breakout character, I think the biggest legacy of The Secret Armory of General Knoxx is the expanded role for Mad Moxxi. She was introduced in Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, but plays a much larger part in this DLC.

Moxxi is a tricky character. She is a saucy, indiscriminately promiscuous bisexual with the body of a porn star who dresses in revealing fetish gear. That's not something I intrinsically have a problem with, but it comes across as just the teensiest bit exploitative, like someone on the team learned the definition of "the male gaze," and said, "you know what, let's make a character based on that." And I'm not sure I really get her.

Is she a sincere attempt at fan service or is her over-the-top "sexiness" actually a commentary on us, the gamers? Are we supposed to laugh at ourselves, seeing this exaggerated, hyper feminine, gratuitously sexual character as a gentle parody of the general tendency of games to objectify anything female? I don't think so. Though she is ridiculous enough to qualify as a parody, I think what really happened was that some artist somewhere liked drawing half naked women with big boobs and someone higher up in the chain of command picked one of the drawings that they thought looked cool.

Yet, despite the pandering, I kind of like Moxxi. Maybe my affection for the series is causing me to cut it more slack than it deserves, but I feel like, rather than being a shallow sexpot, she's actually a pretty strong character. This opinion is primarily based on stuff from Borderlands 2, but the fleshing out begins here. We learn that Moxxi is Scooter's mother, which puts her in an age bracket that is not commonly represented in video games. It's an interesting choice to make the game's "sexy" character a woman with adult children, especially since (as far as I know) the word "milf" is not uttered once.

Plus, Moxxi is a huge dork. She flirts constantly, but not effectively. At one point, she says the words "tiger roar" in a smarmy voice. She makes a crude "that's what she said" joke. It makes her feel like a more real, specific character.

But if I can accept Moxxi's lame sex jokes, Mr Shank's running gag is over the line. It's just an unfortunate intersection between prison rape humor and a really tone-deaf representation of gay men. The gay stuff is not super offensive, but there's an element of "tee-hee, it's funny because they want to have sex with each other."

Luckily that was only a small element of the story. General Knoxx is a fun villain. When you face him, he in the middle of committing suicide (while wearing power armor, for some reason), and he has an admirably realistic view of his chances against you (i.e. it's basically the same as committing suicide). When you beat him, you get a pretty cool reward - the ability to raid the armory and open a couple dozen treasure chests.

You only have a couple of minutes to grab as much loot as possible. It's kind of a blast, running from chest to chest, and loading yourself down with blue and purple weapons (sadly, I didn't find any oranges, probably because of my low level), though it doesn't actually make a lot of sense that you would set the bomb timer before you thoroughly search the armory.

Finally, the level scaling in this DLC may be even worse than the base game. I started it at level 36 and wound up at 41, and did only the main quests (plus the unavoidable assassin squad side quest), but the quest levels only ranged up to 37. It's a little inexplicable that you could so outpace the content without any grinding.

Still, I had fun, and I'm looking forward to Claptrap's Robot Revolution (if it isn't too low a level).

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