The ever-growing first-person shooter and role-playing game crossover genre has received its latest addition with the release of Gearbox Software’s Borderlands. Set in Pandora, which has an old West style theme, you and three friends can set out on an epic adventure to do two things: kill lots of bad guys, and collect tons of loot. With a unique comic book style art theme, 100s of quests, and the promise of “bazillions of guns,” Borderlands sets out to offer a new take on the modern RPG shooter genre. While many people will rank this game as one of the best of the year, it’s not as universally accessible as other entries in the genre, and it has some flaws that at the least were minor annoyances, but at the worst, were enough to deter our enjoyment significantly enough to have us want to shut the game off for a few hours.
The most rewarding aspect of Borderlands is the cooperative play, both online (up to four players) or locally with a split screen option. It’s a welcome addition for any RPG fans looking to play through some quests with a small group of friends. You’ll find plenty to do so long as everyone is within 10 levels of one another, though if a friend has fallen behind in the levelling process, the enemies will either be too hard for them to defeat, or too easy for your more advanced friends. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem because there are plenty of ways to gain experience and level your character, though we’ll come back to the multiplayer component in a bit.
At the start of the game you’ll get to choose from one of four characters. Each of the characters has a unique ability in addition to a skill tree that you can pump points into as you level up. As you can imagine, different characters are better suited for different weapons, and as such you’ll find each character has weapon specializations. The soldier, named Roland, is a brute and has the ability to drop turrets that automatically fire at nearby enemies. The hunter, Mordecai, gets a hawk named Bloodwing, which can swoop down and attack foes. Lilith is a siren and works heavy in a magical field, entering different planes to damage enemies or gain a quick speed boost. The last character you can pick is Brick the berserker. As the name implies, he’s a beast and uses melee combat to his advantage. It should be noted that any character can use any weapon, but each character will get a boost depending on his or her weapon specialization. Once you pick your character you can customize him or her to your liking through basic color template changes. While some RPGs have a greater focus on character customization, Borderlands doesn’t offer a great deal of variety for your character. We weren’t bothered that Borderlands lacked deeper character customization because there was so much you can do to alter your weapons and shields.
Speaking of weapons, the world of Borderlands is covered in guns. While there may not actually be “bazillions of guns,” there is enough loot to keep even the biggest treasure hunters happy. Most of the guns are randomly generated but some you are certainly intended to receive. You’ll find guns in all shapes and sizes dropped throughout the world, or you can purchase them (along with shields and med kits) at vending machines. The RPG element again returns when looking at guns. You’ll find gun stats like speed, base damage, accuracy, and clip size; along with modifiers, stat bonuses, elemental damage, zoom, and increased reload speed. As mentioned before, each character has different gun specializations. You’ll find weapons that fit into different categories: pistols, sniper rifles, sub-machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, and even rocket launchers.
The armor system in Borderlands works on a regenerating shield basis. You can buy or find upgradable shields. Having the shields regenerate means your gun battles will last a long time if you know how to duck and cover. Better shields regenerate faster, and some will even heal you over time. If you need to heal, you’ll have to use various items or abilities – don’t expect to sit back and watch your health slowly regenerate over time or you’ll end up bitterly disappointed. Elsewhere, you will also find grenade mods that will add various effects to the normal grenades; such as having them stick to an enemy, bounce, or explode on direct contact, among others.
If you are a fan of loot, you are going to love Borderlands. However, if you are more interested in getting set pieces of equipment as you progress, you probably won’t care much for the randomly generated guns. We fit into the former category and loved finding different guns at vendors, on bosses, or in chests. We would have liked greater diversity in the later levels since weapons didn’t seem to change much after a while – we only noticed stat boosts. It would have been great to find that one awesome endgame weapon. Then again, there probably is a killer weapon out there – we just didn’t find it.
The plot of Borderlands is almost nonexistent, though we can’t say we had much of an issue with this, as there is just so much to do in the game. To be honest, the world felt a bit like an MMO. You know, the kind where you and 20 other players spend hours in a random instance, trying to take down a boss for some sweat loot. But the story isn’t nearly as deep as those games; instead it’s pretty vanilla and completely unimportant. As one of the four characters, you are essentially a treasure-hunter, brought to the planet of Pandora in search of the vault. The vault is believed to hold some alien technology, but that’s not really important to the story. You’ll start off in the desolate town called Fyrestone and are instantly contacted by a mysterious woman who only you can see. She starts to talk about the vault and tries to emphasize to the gamer that your character is important. Again, none of this felt really successful, though we’ll be the first to admit that a game doesn’t necessarily have to offer a strong narrative in order to provide for a compelling, enjoyable gameplay experience.
Despite this, the idea of an enjoyable experience is open for interpretations as we find it very likely some people will absolutely despise the gameplay and quest system. One of the fundamental issues with the quest system boils down to lack of variety in the quests themselves, and some players may find that the game becomes a monotonous grind in parts. On the flip side, the notion of grinding for your experience points is exciting, for others, it will probably sound more of a chore than it’s worth. Ultimately, we would have liked to see a greater diversity in the quests and a more options for levelling up.
The world of Borderlands is absolutely huge and traversing the wasteland will take some time. At the beginning you’ll spend most of your travelling time running from waypoint to waypoint. As you might expect, this task quickly descends in to boredom rather quickly. When you start using vehicles, your travel time is certainly cut down. There are, however, major flaws with the vehicles. Driving is incredibly cumbersome and the vehicles seem to have no recognition of weight. One of the moments that made us put down the controller and take an extended break was when our vehicle got stuck on a ramp, and when we tried to jump out, we got stuck again. After trying for a good 10 minutes to get ourselves free, we decided it was time to take a break. Flaws like this can, and should, be fixed in future patches, but at launch these are major annoyances. Eventually you’ll get the ability to travel from a location to location at the click of a button, facilitating your journey around the mammoth game world considerably.
It may sound like we are being overly critical about Borderlands; however, we feel the game needed a bit more work. Nonetheless, the co-op experience is one of the best we’ve played in a long time. You can play online with three other mates in a drop-in drop-out system, or you can play with a friend locally in two-player split screen action. The truly game shines when you play with others. You’ll split experience points and money, but loot is left open as a free-for-all. You can duel your friends anywhere, but there are specific arenas built for multiplayer dual battles.
Visually the game has a unique cell shaded design, with thick borders, graphic kill shots, and comic book style characters. However, our eagle eyes did spot a couple of niggles, chief among which included the shadows on the faces of characters during cinematic sequences becoming overly pixilated, and some glaring problems in regards to lip-syncing.
Overall, Borderlands is packed to the rafters with adventure and when played with friends, provides one of the most enjoyable multiplayer offerings available this year. Still, the game has some noticeable flaws and likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. However, if you’re into grinding, looking for interesting loot, and searching for that perfect co-op game to play with a small group of friends, you should definitely pick this up. Nonetheless, with DLC on the horizon, we hope that Gearbox sees fit to rectify some of Borderlands flaws and iron out any major issues we experienced.