November 02, 2009
Successfully fusing two genres into a whole that is greater than its component pieces is tricky business. The balance of yin and yang that will produce a successful hybrid is going to be different for every game. Borderlands isn't the first game to blend shooting with character progression systems familiar to roleplaying games. Deus Ex was the first masterpiece to fuse the two gaming styles, providing player choice and a memorable story to go with its gunplay. Over the last few years, we've seen Mass Effect and Fallout 3 likewise mix shooting with roleplaying. While those two games balanced themselves more toward the roleplaying side of things, Borderlands is clearly a shooter first, RPG second.
Set in the barren wastelands of the planet Pandora, players take on the role of Vault Hunters, seeking the legendary vault rumored to be hidden somewhere on the planet, and filled with powerful alien technology. Unfortunately, the story in Borderlands never really develops beyond its "go find the vault" premise and its character development is nonexistent, for both protagonists and the villains, who seem to exist only to impede your progress toward the vault. It's Borderlands stellar gameplay that people will remember, not its paper-thin attempt at a story.
Borderlands offers four different playable classes, each with a unique play style and special ability. The soldier class is the closest to your standard FPS character. Competent with a wide variety of weapons, they can spawn an automated turret to aid in an attack, or as a defensive tool. Sirens can turn invisible and run quickly, enabling different battle tactics. Enhancing elemental effects allows them to quickly whittle down enemy health.. Hunters are sniper rifle masters, and can dole out amazing damage and reap additional benefits from their pet hawks. Berserkers favor shotguns, explosives, and melee combat. Their special allows them to Hulk smash enemies with enhanced melee damage, and recover health at the same time. Each class offers three different skill trees to pursue, allowing for further customization. Thankfully, all skill points can be reassigned (for a small fee), so players don't have to agonize over these decisions, as they're not permanent.
One of Borderlands' chief selling points is that the game includes a "bazillion" guns. Coming in the standard archetypes of shotgun, SMG, sniper rifle, etc, there's tremendous variety from gun to gun, which will keep players always alert for potential upgrades. Weapons can vary in damage, clip size, rate of fire, the presence or lack of a scope, additional elemental effects, and more, which makes for millions of possibilities. Different elemental types can make weapons more or less powerful against specific enemies in different situations. Shock damage can rapidly drain enemy shields, but isn't as useful on flesh. Flame and corrosive weapons can both deal damage over time, making them potent weapons to weaken tougher enemies. Explosive weapons naturally have the potential to blow things up. With the massive variety of potential weapons, players of any gaming style will find a weapon to suit their needs.
With all those guns, there had better be something to shoot, and Borderlands delivers plenty of fodder for your treasure hungry trigger finger. From pouncing Skags to Rakk that will dive bomb from the sky, there are dozens of different kinds of enemies, each with their own attack styles and weak points. The enemy variety alone would go a long way towards making Borderlands a great shooter, but developer Gearbox takes it one step further, making the enemies legitimately vicious. Skags will pounce from every angle, Rakk will dive as one, and the larger species of Spiderant can be absolutely terrifying in their mindless desire to slay anything that gets in their way. In the face of such opposition, and a few jaw dropping boss monsters, Borderlands' battles carry a feeling of higher stakes and more actual risk than your average shooter. Even though Borderlands borrows a page from the Bioshock playbook and allows players to respawn at certain locations, that intensity remains from the low levels all the way to its endgame.
Exploring the world of Pandora is as much fun as slaying the hordes of enemies the planet hosts. As players progress through the game, they'll traverse several large, open territories, each sufficiently large that they can take several minutes to cross, even by vehicle. Searching for small outposts and hidden treasures in these wide open spaces, while battling numerous enemies, gives Borderlands a distinct feeling from other shooters, which are comparatively linear and take place in confined spaces. The size of the battlefields in Borderlands offers more versatility in how to go about taking on the enemy.
Gamers who prefer some structure to their gameplay will be happy to know that Borderlands offers plenty, with a little over 100 quests to complete. Most of these quests are pretty standard, requiring gathering several items, killing X number of creatures, or killing a specific target. The quests that lead players into optional boss battles, such as killing the enormous Skagzilla, are easily the best missions, especially in co-op. While the objectives themselves may not be innovative, they provide motivation to explore every corner of Pandora, and players have the flexibility to take them on in the order they wish.
While players can level themselves up and play through the whole game solo, Borderlands offers four-player co-op play to keep things interesting. As more players enter the game, the monsters of Pandora grow increasingly tough to defeat, but also drop better loot, making playing with others a recommended way to stumble across some of the game's rarest weapons. Setting up a session is incredibly easy, as the game offers the ability to send invites to the player's entire party without having to send them using the guide button. As long as the host remains, players are free to drop in and drop out of the game without disrupting the action for the others.
In a co-operative game, story progress is based on the host's save file, so if a host is farther along than someone else in the party, that less advanced member will not be able to make progress. The same goes for side quests they may not have progressed far enough to unlock yet. Therefore, if there's any disparity in progression, the person who is least advanced in the story should host. If all players are on the same quest, everyone will earn quest credit and the reward items.
Although the difficulty of enemies goes up as more players join, the difficulty is scaled due to the number of players, and does not factor in the levels of the newcomers. This means that enemies are going to see the same difficulty increase if a level 5 player joined the game as if a level 50 player joined, which can throw off the game's balance. There's also no way to distribute ammo between players, forcing everyone to be careful what ammo they pick up or just buy some from vending machines. Dropping items so another player can pick them up is the only way to "trade" items, and there's no way to look at another player's inventory to help discussion of possible trades or upgrades. So, while co-op play is fun, there is room in the sequel for improvements to the inventory system when playing with others.
Co-op isn't the only multiplayer component of Borderlands. The game also offers two competitive modes, in the form of of duels and arena battles. Anywhere in Pandora, if one player melees another, and that player returns the favor with their own melee strike, a duel will commence, as a wall of static will surround the combatants as they fight to the "death." There's no real point to these fights except as a diversion to figure out who has the tougher character, or possibly as a decision making tool over who gets a certain piece of loot. Can't decide? Fight it out! The arenas scattered around the world provide larger areas to do battle in, but the basic premise is the same. It's unlikely that either mode will capture a player's attention for too long, but it's nice to have to option to duke it out if players want to.
Borderlands' art style is a treat for the eyes, looking crisp and colorful while at the same time it does an excellent job depicting a barren wasteland. Enemy designs are varied and consistently appealing, with some truly jaw-dropping bosses. The draw distance is also excellent, so players will have no trouble seeing a long way into the distance in any area of the world. The game's score has a mixture of laid back music and intense numbers that melds perfectly to the action taking place on screen. What voice acting exists does the job just fine, though Borderlands would have benefited from a lot more of it, as most quests are given to players through text windows without any actual speech, including most of the plot missions, and this technique feels extremely dated as a storytelling device.
Earning achievements in Borderlands is a satisfying process, with the points evenly distributed over the course of the game. Many come with progress of various kinds, from reaching new areas of the game, leveling up, or taking out certain bosses. Others come from using different abilities, achieving certain feats, or playing in multiplayer. It's a list that doesn't really give away a whole lot of points, but at the same time isn't unreasonably difficult. Players are free to enjoy Borderlands' action without having to go out of their way to gain achievements, and we appreciate that.
Offering up an open world with plenty of quests to complete, guns to collect, and enemies to shoot, Borderlands gives players dozens of hours of content to explore. With four different playable classes and online co-op, Borderlands is a highly replayable adventure, and one that will live on in our memories long after the credits roll.
The music knows when to be laid-back and when to be intense, complementing the action well. What voice acting is on offer gets the job done, but the game could have used a lot more of it.
Crisp, colorful cel-shaded graphics create a visually appealing world, full of distinctive enemies and jaw dropping bosses.
The controls will be instantly familiar to shooter fans, which reduces the learning curve for this title down to almost nothing at all. Co-op games are a breeze to set up and play, though there's nothing to facilitate player trades or ammo distribution, which make inventory concerns in multiplayer games more clunky to resolve than they should be.
Although it provides little for a story; epic bosses, enemy variety, thousands of guns, open environments, plenty of character customization options, and seamless co-op go a long way to smoothing away this shortcoming.
It's a well thought out list that provides awards for various types of progress, whether it be for leveling up, reaching a new location, or defeating a boss. The points are well balanced out over the course of the game, and satisfying to unlock.
Borderlands provides players with an open world to explore, thousands of guns to collect, and plenty of compelling moments, making it worth a look for fans of shooters and RPGs alike.