Borderlands lacks the charm of Fallout 3, Mass Effect, or Half-Life 2, but it does offer a crap-ton of ‘roided-out bandits, effed-up dog things, giant spider demons, and screeching pterodactyl beasts to shoot with a crap-ton of guns. And that’s really what it’s about – finding weapons and shooting things with them. You have to assign a skill point now and then, and there’s kind of a story, but those things don’t matter much. You can skip the text description of every quest in the game, because they will always consist of the following steps:
A. Go somewhere.
B. Kill some shit.
C. Flip a switch or something.
D. Kill some more shit.
It’s a bit like an MMO in that respect. Quest-giving characters yammer like schizophrenic cassette players, barking out the same few lines every time you enter or exit their domicile, and vacantly assign you quests which you will not read the descriptions of. The bulk of the game is a combat grind, and everything else just exists to offer a modicum of structure. And if this all sounds horribly negative, keep reading – Borderlands is not a bad game, and for some, the heavy focus on combat and loot collecting will be a plus (it’s not as if it hasn’t been done before…talking to you, Diablo).
You’re one of four vault hunters on the wasteland Pandora. Naturally, you’re looking for “The Vault,” a legendary location packed with alien technology and riches and stuff. Oh, and there’s a grainy, scan-liney woman trying to help you find it. That’s about it. This is all explained in a stylish and very cool cutscene at the start of the game.
And then the excitement takes a hit as hard as the dog beast in the screen above. After the character selection and gameplay introduction are over, the once promising characters are reduced to a few catch phrases, your robotic guide quickly becomes annoying (and thankfully leaves you alone, mostly), and the devious Doctor Zed, who is introduced with great style, turns out to be a cardboard cutout (and so do the rest of the NPCs you’ll meet).
And what of the grainy, scan-liney woman?
She just reappears throughout the game to let you know that you’re playing it correctly. Which means befriending the locals by killing bandits and performing errands for them which also involve killing bandits (and sometimes dog beasts). The excitement level does ramp up again, but not thanks to any more examples of the style displayed in the first ten minutes of the game – it’s a shame that such a cool feeling fades so quickly. After the opening, it’s entirely the gun collecting and combat that make the game worthwhile, so we won’t even mention the story again.
It’s all about the guns: combat rifles, machine guns, sub-machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, revolvers, pistols, rocket launchers, and many that can’t be categorized or that we ought not to spoil. And of each type, there are multiple manufacturers, models, bonuses, and elemental modifications. Seriously, there are a lot of guns.
Above: Discovering a quality weapon stash is a very satisfying feeling
Your skill level in a certain weapon type will rise the more you use that type of weapon, and you can use any weapon with any character (though your character’s skills are geared toward certain weapon types). All of the weapons have merits, and you’re best off not constraining yourself to any one or two weapon types. You could try getting through the game purely with sniper rifles and pistols, but you’d probably get frustrated and pick up an SMG or shotgun eventually. But that’s not a problem. As you progress through the game, you gain more inventory space and weapon slots, and you should have room for roughly one weapon of each type. Plus, you’re pretty much forced to try new weapons, as you’re very likely to run out of your favorites’ ammo eventually.
Above: Choosing what to keep and what to toss is the most difficult decision in the game
Ammo is actually pretty plentiful. Everything drops ammo, and there are lockers and crates full of it. But when you do run out, it’s a real bitch. Certain long firefights will definitely deplete your supplies, leaving you to search around for crates (while being shot at), or retreat to a vending machine to purchase more. This isn’t a huge detractor, as these situations are only momentarily frustrating, but it will probably irk you at some point.
Above: Some weapons have been modified to deliver extra damage and effects, like this static shotgun
And weapons aren’t the only loot. There are also shields, some of which offer special resistances and healing properties, grenade mods, which drastically change the way your grenades behave (bouncy, sticky, teleporting, health leeching…whatever you want, there’s a mod for that), and class mods, which boost specific skills and introduce new ones. There’s a lot of stuff to collect on the barren world of Pandora.
Borderlands’ enemies are all variations on a few themes. For example: effed-up dog thing puppies, effed-up dog thing adults, effed-up dog things that spit acid, giant effed-up dog things, giant effed-up dog things that breathe fire, and so on. Alright, they’re actually called skags, and you’ll fight a ton of them, along with various form of bandit, psycho, Rakk (the aforementioned pterodactyl-beasts), antspiders, and more (spoiler: sentient aliens).
Above: Effed-up dog things…or “skags,” if you like the name they chose better
Enemies always come in groups, and the attack strategies are pretty standard. Stay back and take out the group patiently with ranged weapons, or sprint in and decimate several enemies at a time with shotguns and SMGs. Try to score critical hits (headshots for most humans, any part of the body not armored for animals), use cover to allow your shields time to recharge, and utilize your character’s special ability.
Above: A typical bandit, just before the head vaporizing
The ranged approach can be advantageous because the enemy AIs are sometimes a little busted. Animals will always chase you down. Certain bandits, however, are constrained to their areas, and won’t leave for any reason. Instead, they’ll just pace back and forth and spray bullets in your general direction. In that case, you’ll have all the time you need to hide and recharge between volleys (though enemy shields do recharge over time, so keeping the pressure on is important).
Despite that and a few other nitpicky bugs, the AIs are pretty successful, and there’s enough behavior variety to keep the fights interesting. Regular bandits stay back and take cover. Bruisers walk forward as if your bullets are made of rubber. Psychos sprint straight for you, clutching live grenades, lighting themselves on fire, or tossing axes in your direction. How fun for them.
Above: This guy doesn’t look very scared of us
The game’s difficulty is mostly self-regulating. If you’re stuck on a mission or boss, you can keep at it over and over, and you’ll eventually level up and have an easier time. There’s very little penalty for dying – you’re set back to the last “New-U” station you passed, and pay a fee. Recently-killed enemies stay dead, and quest objectives stay checked. All you have to do is get back to where you were and keep fighting. And you can always enlist the help of friends (or strangers). Four player co-op is really the game’s shining moment.
Above: When your health is depleted, you’re given a chance to revive yourself by scoring a kill from the ground
Most importantly, the combat is fun. Shotgunning, detonating, and knifing waves of ‘roid-raging bandits, squashing skags in rocket launcher equipped buggies, bringing down absurdly massive bosses with bouncing grenades and rocket launchers – it’s all enjoyable enough that the repetition is forgivable. But you must realize that this is all there is. It’s wave after wave of the same enemies, then waves of slightly more difficult enemies, and so on. It’s a bit of a grind, but grinding through a hostile wasteland with three friends can be a lot of fun. And it does feel nice to level up and discover new, more powerful weapons.
Above: With each level comes a skill point to assign to one of your character’s specialties. If you regret your decisions, you can always reset your skill points for a fee
Above: This video is representative of a large portion of the game
Borderlands is bold looking. It’s not quite as bold as MadWorld, but it’s prettier, and looks just as much like a playable comic book. You’ll be pressed up against the scenery just to get a good look at the textures. It doesn’t disappoint with the gore, either.
However - and it’s not a huge “however,” but it has to be said – the environments do feel samey. They all have certain distinguishing features, but after a while, they start to blend together into a mush of deteriorating shacks and rocky landscapes. Still, Pandora is a well-imagined wasteland, and is worthy of at least one long trip.
Above: The very first town you enter
Above: 22 levels later, and looking just a little similar
Is it better than…
Halo 3: ODST? Signs point to yes. We swear we’re not reviewing games with a Magic 8-Ball - this is just a challenging comparison. Borderlands is bigger, more complex, more diverse, and is generally a newer experience, but ODST is built on an established and already well-liked universe, whereas Borderlands’ Mad Maxey, Tank Girlish planet and non-story become a little “meh” after a while. Though so do Halo’s, depending on who you ask.
Fallout 3? Don’t be ridiculous! …Though it might be nice to mash them up. A game with all the charming layers of Fallout 3 and the weapons and combat of Borderlands might work very well. But as it is, Borderlands is a game with excellent mechanics and not a lot of soul, so despite its entertaining combat, it’s far from a challenger to Fallout’s status.
Red Faction: Guerrilla? Maybe. They’re both open-world shooters with vehicles, but they’re immensely different. Red Faction is about gameplay variety, choice, action, and Borderlands… isn’t the opposite of all that, but it’s much more calculated and paced. Your missions in Borderlands are accomplished by going to a marker and killing some bandits, not crashing through buildings, rescuing hostages and then blowing some shit up just because it seems fun. It’s difficult to say if one is definitively better than the other, so we’ll just say that if you like instant gratification, pick up Red Faction: Guerrilla.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Borderlands is a very entertaining shooter and a rather bland RPG. It rewards dedication with new guns and new things to shoot at, which is all kinds of fun for players who enjoy MMO-style progression. But if its charm and depth hadn’t been abandoned so quickly, it may have been absolutely brilliant.
Oct 19, 2009