Like I Said… A Bazillion Guns Can’t be Wrong!
On the corner of Co-op and Devine stands Borderlands – a cooperative RPG-shooter hybrid that brings players all the charm of Mad Max to a galaxy far, far away. From the unique, hand-drawn art style to the “bazillions of guns” you can pick up, Borderlands oozes craft and fun. This is a gamer’s game – full of action, rewards, and challenge. The world of Pandora is wonderfully realized, character advancement is satisfying, and the shooting mechanics are solid. All in all, Borderlands comes off without a hitch. This will likely be the sleeper hit of 2009. Hopefully it will keep its head above water amidst stiff competition from the likes of Modern Warfare 2 and Dragon Age, because such a quality title shouldn’t go to waste.
The game takes place on the planet of Pandora – a barren wasteland filled with thugs, bandits, and death – in this regard it is very Tatooine-like. Needless to say, you’ll “never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” than what’s inhabiting this dangerous world. Dilapidated shanty towns strewn throughout the Borderlands are the only centers of civilization (if you can call them that). The human population on Pandora is on this backwards, fringe orb for one reason: to find the mythical Vault. Legend has it that a vault, hidden somewhere on the planet, secures a horde of wealth, power, and alien technology so fabulous that its finder will be destined to change history. The tantalizing nature of this legend has brought you here, too. However, unlike the rest of the rabble, you’ve got a mysterious guide on your side assuring you that you are the chosen one.
While the story of Borderlands isn’t outstanding, it definitely begets a setting that’s utterly fun to roam around in. After being dropped off at the nearest settlement, you’ll soon learn the ropes to surviving in the Borderlands. You’ll be given a handful of fetch quests from key Pandorians that will not only teach you the combat ropes, but they’ll get you through the first five character levels, preparing you for the far more dangerous challenges ahead.
That’s right; Borderlands is more than just a post-apocalyptic shooter, it has some rather sturdy RPG components to it as well. For starters, players will choose between four different classes: Soldier, Siren, Hunter, and Berserker. Soldiers use turrets and formal training to control the battlefield. They are the all-’rounders. While the Soldier class is pure vanilla, the Siren is a stealthy assassin that can actually become invisible and position herself to deliver crushing sneak attacks and critical hits. The Hunter is a sniper class that uses distance, a keen eye, and his raptor companion to tear apart foes. Finally, the Berserker class uses brute strength and a primal rage to pummel groups of enemies into a bloody pulp. All of these classes play quite differently from one another. Moreover, each class can be tailored via skill selection to give it a further customized feel during play. This effectively gives the game a lot of staying power. However, I would have liked to have seen another four classes in the game to bring even more variety to the title and co-op adventuring.
Whether you’re going solo or playing with others, you’ll always be completing the main story. Of course, as you can imagine, going it alone is a dangerous proposition. That’s why Borderlands makes it easy to hook up with up to three other friends online or with one other vault hunter locally via split-screen to conquer Pandora. The cooperative aspect of Borderlands is where this game really shines. When played alone, it feels a lot like Fallout 3 (sans V.A.T.S) on amphetamines. Conversely, multiplayer co-op play in Borderlands completely changes the feel of the game. Rather than getting bogged down in melancholy isolation, blasting your way through Pandora with three other friends is much more social and enjoyable. Additionally, the more players that join in on a game, the more challenging the missions become, the better loot you’ll find, and the bigger the mission rewards will be. Moreover, the interplay between classes adds a lot to combat. Finally, not only does the game breed a sense of camaraderie, it also makes for some heavy competition (more on that soon). Without a doubt, this is one of the most gratifying co-op experiences around.
On a planet called Pandora, it’s only fitting that you’ll be opening up a lot of boxes, unleashing fury. Within those boxes you’ll find not only ammo and grenades, but also guns and mods galore. Borderlands puts an emphasis on cool weaponry. Rather than fashioning a dozen or so beauties, the devs put together a program that randomly generates firearms. Guns fall into a number of different classes (repeater, revolver, shotgun, sniper and combat rifle, SMG, etc.), made by a ton of different fictional manufacturers, and with a load of varied modifying characteristics. You may find guns with elemental effects, faster reload times, improved accuracy, greater chance for critical hits, etc. Essentially, this plays out a lot like the random loot generation on offer in Diablo and Diablo II. While I loved that mechanic back in the mid-90s, I wasn’t sure how it would play out in a contemporary shooter. I figured every gun that dropped wouldn’t be particularly interesting due to the random nature. However, I was wrong. Certain characteristics are rarer than others, and the guns are all nicely put together in logical ways with interesting color-schemes. This makes every weapon worth taking a look at. Additionally, unique epic weaponry can be found among the possessions and corpses of boss encounters.
Interestingly, the powerful loot you’ll find throughout the game is not distributed equally or fairly – it’s first come, first served. This can be especially gutting when you invite your buddy, the gun-hog, into your game and he constantly picks up the super-rare goodies. While this will undoubtedly piss off a lot of people, it really enhances the setting. After all, on a planet such as Pandora, it’s survival of the fittest, and scavenging goodies from the world and your so-called friends is just part of the experience. Besides, you can always try and convince them to trade with you. Undoubtedly, finding extremely rare weapons will have community members hooking up in-game just for elaborate trade-meets. I really enjoyed the feelings of covetousness and greed fomented by the random weapon generator. Further enhancing the competition between players is the ability to challenge someone to spontaneous PvP duels right in the middle of a mission. Demanding satisfaction in this way adds yet another barrel of fuel to the interparty flamewar that’s bound to erupt.
In addition to looting and glove-slapping, players will also have to take on missions – adding purpose to their adventuring. As with any RPG, about half of the missions you’ll take on are little more than ways to boost your character’s stats. Still, many of the objectives are story-driven. In any case, goals are always challenging. If you want to test yourself and your party a bit more, you can always accept missions that have a challenge rating above the level of your group. While the mission structure is standard RPG fare, it is well implemented in Borderlands; you’ll always have a lot to do with friends.
Shooting mechanics are sound. Players used to delivering headshots and teabags will find a lot to love in Borderlands. Weapons all control distinctly, and clearing out bandit warrens with lead and shrapnel is a joy. The only area I felt that needed work was the lack of a cover mechanic. It would have been great to find some sticky cover to snipe dudes with. As it stands, Borderlands is really a run and gun game best-suited to tank classes. Sure, I loved the lightning-fast pacing, but using a Siren or a Hunter should place more of an emphasis on stealth. Heck, even the Soldier should seek to use tactics to its advantage. Alas, pretty much everyone just has to run out in the open, guns-a-blazin’.
In terms of production values, Borderlands is top-notch as far as I’m concerned. The voice acting that is featured is of high quality; though don’t expect every encounter to be voiced. In fact, voice work is somewhat sparse, but what’s there is full of humor. Graphically, the game kicks ass. While I tend to prefer photo-realistic graphics in shooters, the hand-drawn (don’t call me cel-shaded) look in Borderlands is perfect. It feels like you’re battling your way through an anime – only cooler. The dusty, lived-in environments, the great character designs, and the rock-solid framerate makes this game a real looker.
I could go into so many more details about combat, customization, fast travel, vehicle joyriding, Second Wind, DNA Reanimation, the HUD, the maps, and inventory navigation, etc. However, why bore you with minutia? Simply know that Borderlands is a deep and engaging, RPG-shooter hybrid that needs to be played to be fully appreciated. Blending the best elements from games such as Fallout 3 and Diablo II, Gearbox and 2K Games have put together a real winner. Don’t let it fall off your gaming radar this holiday season.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
The visuals may not be the photo-realistic renderings of MW2, but the hand-drawn style is arguably just as attractive. 4.1 Control
The shooter aspects are solid, but they’re not quite as tight as what’s found in genre-leading entries. A cover mechanic would have served the game well. 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The voice over work is sparse but hilarious. The wasteland that is the Borderlands of Pandora is nicely captured in sound. 4.6 Play Value
Pandora is a huge world, and the co-op play is some of the most satisfying to date. I would have liked to have seen more classes, but future DLC could augment that – certainly fun modules are already on their way. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.