For a series all about pointing bazillions of guns at bazillions of heads, there's a surprising amount of lore bubbling behind the scenes of the Borderlands series, which is about to continue the story with Borderlands 3 later this year. If you're someone who's new to the series, or have simply forgotten some of the key plot points since Borderlands 2 released almost seven years ago, you're probably in need of a one-stop shop recap to fix you up for Gearbox's incoming threequel.
Here, we cover the most pertinent story beats from the mainline games, their respective DLCs, the comic books and, of course, Telltale's point-and-click adventure spin-off, Tales from the Borderlands. We won't be able to cover everything, as otherwise we'd all still be here by the time of Borderlands 4, but will simply provide you with the crucial highlights you need to jump into Borderlands 3 as if you've been vault hunting from the very beginning. We'll be running through the narrative in chronological story order, too, so keep that in mind as we hop between games, with full spoilers for all things Borderlands so far (obviously).
In the beginning...
The Borderlands story begins eons before the events of the first game, with an ancient alien race known as the Eridians. We don't know much about these creatures, other than: A) they were almost completely wiped out by a mysterious extinction event; B) they hid their advanced technology in a series of Vaults across the galaxy; and C) subsequently created warrior-like beings called Guardians to protect these Vaults at all costs.
Of course, it's not long (only a million years or so) before a number of bloodthirsty corporations learn about the Vaults, and their rumour to contain vast amounts of Eridium; a valuable resource that could turn any daring venture capitalist into a multi bazillionaire. This kicks off a great galactic Gold Rush, where every conglomerate and their dog are on the hunt for a Vault, eventually leading two corporations by the name of Dahl and Atlas to the edge of the galaxy, the titular borderlands, where they find the planet of Pandora.
Dahl and Atlas quickly get to work colonising Pandora but, unbeknownst to them, they've arrived at the tail end of the planet's seven year winter. As Spring arrives, so too Pandora's native wildlife re-emerges, most of whom are pretty inhospitable to their newly settled neighbours, forcing them to either flee, defend themselves or, well, die.
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This development throws Pandora into anarchy, as Atlas and Dahl both pack up and flee, the former leaving behind both its Gortys Project (more on that later) and private paramilitary group The Crimson Lance, and the latter abandoning its mining facilities, allowing the remaining convicts turned slave labourers to roam free across Pandora as bandits.
Ironically, around the same time, Dahl scientist Patricia Tannis discovers evidence of a Vault Key (which does exactly what it sounds like) on Pandora, but we'll get back to that in a bit.
Dahl had also been attempting to gain access to a Vault on Pandora's moon, Elpis, under the leadership of Colonel Zarpadon, but this ended in equally catastrophic disaster. The company's mining efforts on Elpis' surface causes the moon to burst open, debilitating the entire planet's atmosphere in an event known as The Crackening.
Meanwhile, Zarpadon and her army manage to find their way into a Vault, but the encounter was apparently life-changing enough to make them defect from Dahl, form their own group called The Lost Legion, and protect its contents at all cost. This, alongside the whole Crackening fiasco, forces Dahl to abandon Elpis in addition to Pandora.
Ain't no place for a hero
Which brings us nicely to the events of the first Borderlands game. With Dahl and Atlas out of the picture, the scramble for Pandora's Vaults is now headed by groups of fortune-seeking mercenaries called Vault Hunters, including the original Borderlands foursome of Lillith, Mordecai, Brick, and Roland.
The gang begin their adventure in the small town of Fyrestone, home to Claptrap (a chirpy, somewhat annoying, all-purpose robot designed by weapons manufacturer Hyperion), and are led by an "Angel" who appears in their heads every now and again with the promise that she can guide them to a Vault. Yes, it's weird, but just go with it.
Angel's assistance leads the group to an Eridian Artifact, the first piece of a Vault Key, but trouble arrives in the form of the Crimson Lance and their leader Commandant Steele, who hears about the Vault Hunter's findings and demands their subjugation. But that's obviously not going to happen, and - with the help of Tannis - our heroes find the remaining artefacts that can finally open the Vault's gates to untold riches.
Except… it turns out Tannis has been working with Commandant Steele all along, handing the Vault Key over to her while sending our own Vault Hunters on a wild goose chase. After catching up with Steele, the foursome arrive just in time to witness her open the Vault, only to discover that the only thing inside it is a tentacled monstrosity called The Destroyer, who quickly proves good on its name by making a light meal of the Commandant's mutilated corpse. It turns out that this Vault wasn't used as a safe for Eridian tech, but a prison for a living weapon, and the Vault Hunters are forced to kill it before it can make its escape.
With The Destroyer… destroyed, our heroes return the key to Tannis (who, after being double crossed by Steele, is back to working on their side… for now). However, it turns out that opening the Vault has led to a huge influx in Eridium deposits across Pandora, catching the attention of Hyperion, who - in a last minute twist - Angel is revealed to be working for, as we see her communicating from one of the company's satellites orbiting Pandora.
Some time after defeating The Destroyer, the Vault Hunters are contacted by a defective Crimson Lance assassin, Athena, who asks for their help taking down what's left of the army, alongside their last surviving leader, General Knox. They succeed, and Atlas as we know it is permanently pushed off Pandora, with the remaining Crimson Lance soldiers pledging their loyalty to Roland, thus forming the Crimson Raiders.
Head over to page two of our Borderlands story recap to find out what happens during the events of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!