Review by BloodGod65

"This Is My Rifle. There are Many Like It, But This One Is Mine (Solo-Play Review)"

I've been eagerly awaiting the release of Borderlands since the moment it was announced. It's no secret that Diablo 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, so when Gearbox summed up the concept of Borderlands with the phrase “Diablo with guns” it had my full attention. Of course I've played enough pretenders in my time to know that while such an idea is great, coming up with a successful take on the Diablo formula is a task none have been able to master. There is some intangible aspect to Diablo's greatness that makes it impossible to just plug variables into an equation and wind up with a bestseller. Many have thought otherwise and they've all failed. So while I was rooting for Gearbox from the very start I knew full well that the odds were against them.

The troubled development of Borderlands didn't make me any more optimistic about the quality of the end product either. Numerous delays, extended periods without new information and a complete graphical overhaul mere months before the release date –none of these things bode well for a game. But (and I'm about to ruin the ending for you) against all odds, Gearbox has somehow prevailed and pulled off what they initially set out to do.

Borderlands takes place on Pandora, a sparsely populated backwater cesspit of a planet with almost no redeeming features… aside from a legend that continually brings in ambitious mercenaries. Rumor has it that somewhere on the planet there is a hidden vault containing alien technology and wealth beyond measure, just waiting for someone to find it. As a newly arrived offworlder, it's your job to do just that.

While it isn't surprising, the story takes a backseat early on. After a setup that doesn't get any more complicated than what I've just summarized, players will set out on their journey across Pandora while receiving a few intermittent messages from a cryptic benefactor. Even though the story is neglected, when the ending rolls around it still manages to be disappointing. Without giving anything away, the whole situation feels a lot like the infamous final boss switcharoo that often takes place in old-school RPG's. You spend the whole game being told one thing while chasing some objective but when you finally reach it – poof! – the developers decide they want to do something else. And in this case it's something that makes no sense in relation to what has already been set up. It's an unfortunate blemish that mars an otherwise excellent game, and this is made all the more irritating because it is the last thing that happens before the credits roll.

But I suspect I'm one of the few who even cares about the story (I'm also probably the only one who actually listened to the conversations and read the quest text…), so it won't make much difference to most people. The real concern is the gameplay, which is one of the strangest hybrids I've ever come across. The developers said Borderlands was essentially “Diablo with guns”, and it really is. The game plays out from a first person perspective akin the typical FPS game; you'll even have the usual HUD elements such as shield and health bars, ammo counter and targeting reticule. Beneath that lies the RPG framework. Killing enemies nets you experience points and you'll get to pick out new skills with each level up. The Diablo inspiration is also very apparent – players will take on a variety of quests for experience, slaughter wave after wave of vicious foes and, most importantly, continually gather the loot that drops from their corpses. However the game is a shooter first and an RPG second. Unlike Fallout 3, hitting an enemy is not the result of some hidden dice roll. It's all up to you and your own accuracy with a weapon.

Before diving into the world of Pandora, players will have to choose a character. There are four to choose from and their rough RPG equivalents are warrior, scout, mage and tank (the actual in-game designations are Soldier, Hunter, Siren and Bruiser). This decision doesn't have the same impact as it would in other games. Regardless of which character is chosen, firearms are always the primary method of fighting. Still, it is an important choice which will subtly alter how you progress.

Like Diablo and its many imitators, each character has three skill trees. Beyond that, the trees and skills work a bit different than you might be used to. First and foremost, each character only has a single action skill. Once that skill has been unlocked, players will be able to put a single point per level into a skill in the other trees. Because there's only one actual skill, those in the trees are just passive stat bonuses and augmentations to the action skill. You might be able to put points into a skill that lowers the cooldown time of your action skill or gives it entirely new abilities. Those skills which don't augment the action skill do things like increase your rate of fire or damage with a certain weapon type. One quirk is that the skills are organized on tiers, and to open a new tier you must spend at least five points per tier for that action tree. I'm not fond of this because it means you might have to waste points on something you've got no interest in. I much prefer the Diablo method of opening up tiers as you level up. However, I love the fact that you can pay to have all your points pulled from their assigned skills and then redistribute them as you want.

As I've already said, Borderlands plays out much like any other first person shooter on the market. Hitting or missing an enemy is entirely up to the player's aim and not some hidden dice roll. Thankfully the shooting mechanics are up to snuff and it's not often that the game doesn't register hits properly (though the sniper rifles aren't as precise as one would imagine). The game does use a few RPG conventions in interesting ways. When you hit an enemy a number will appear near them showing how much damage was done. Criticals are also important and again, these aren't determined at random. For each enemy, the player will have to figure out where an enemy's weak spot is and then exploit it (by shooting it, of course).

One of the most talked about elements of Borderlands was the weapon variety and creativity. When it comes to variety, you'll find it in spades (though I don't think it quite comes close to the “bazillions of guns” advertised on the packaging). However it seems like every gun has different statistics, from damage, accuracy, rate of fire and clip size. There are even other things to consider like elemental effects that can set enemies on fire, cover them in acid or shock them. The variation isn't restricted to numerical values either – guns can vary wildly when it comes to appearances. Stocks, barrels, grips, sights and paintjobs also vary from weapon to weapon. All of these things have their uses and it often takes a bit of experimentation to find out what gun you like best. I often found myself forgoing more powerful guns for those that came with long range scopes or recoil reducing parts.

While the variety is mindblowing, I do wish that the special effects were laid out more clearly. These special effects are often described in incomprehensible blurbs that make the player test each gun to figure out what it does. This can take a while if the effect isn't applied constantly. One gun I got had the description of “It rises!”. I spent ten minutes shooting it but never could figure out what it was supposed to do. However a few are pretty clear. Take for instance my personal favorite – “Holy crap! It shoots rockets!”. Nothing ambiguous about what that gun does.

Regardless of whether you know what they do or not, those guns are going to see lots of action during their time on Pandora. There are lots of angry enemies to be killed and there are lots of quests to undertake. So many, in fact, that at times it can feel like you aren't making any headway at all. The majority of the quests are optional and can be picked up at bounty boards strewn across the land. These always give out extra experience and weapons upon completion, so it's a good idea to do as many as possible. While most of them use the basic formula of “collect x number of y” they still manage to be interesting due to the weirdness of the stuff you'll be after. During my time on Pandora I scrounged through trash bins looking for a man's lost pornography and threw grenades into ponds to kill fish.

One of Borderlands unique mechanics is the second wind. Should your shield fail and your health get depleted, you aren't automatically dead. If you can kill an enemy before the screen goes black, your character will spring back into action. This is a great feature for those of us who play alone, as the weight of enemy fire can be overwhelming at times. But even if you can't get that second wind, there are enough checkpoints scattered throughout the game that getting back to where you were shouldn't be too much of an issue.

While most everything in the game is of excellent quality and design, there are a few missteps. The limited enemy variety is the most basic of these. Throughout the entire game there are only around eight enemy types. While there are several different types within each group, it can still get very repetitive. Another basic issue is respawning. In most areas this doesn't pose much of a problem but after a certain amount of time all the enemies in an area will respawn, whether you're still there or not. This usually only happens in large areas where you have to trek to the far side of the map then come back, only to find all the enemies you killed are back again. Finally, the lack of a stash can be an issue if you've got a cool weapon you want to hold onto but just don't have the room in your backpack.

Borderlands excels in terms of technical design, even despite some significant last minute changes. As anyone who followed the game's development will know, the game started out with a realistic style. A few months before its release, Gearbox scrapped the whole thing and started over with a comic book inspired art style. I stop short of calling it cel-shading just because it looks so much better and detailed. If you really need a mental comparison, just think of it as cel-shading on steroids (although living comic book might be a better description). The game looks so good that if you can find a place where nothing is moving, it looks like concept art for the game rather than the game itself.

However there are a few issues. Like Mass Effect, the game has a texture loading problem, but it only crops up when entering a new area. Another problem I encountered on an infrequent basis was my character getting stuck in the environment. This usually happened when I accidentally jumped onto something in the environment and my character got stuck in some kind of invisible barrier.

The game sounds great as well. The game is very funny and the goofy dialog is complemented by the voice actors, who all sound like hillbillies in space (kind of like the Terrans from Starcraft). It's very charming, in a “Deliverance” sort of way. Your character also has a bunch of great one-liners for critical shots but most of them are unsuitable for print on this site. Sound effects, from the many types of gunshots to the bloodcurdling shrieks of the airborne Rakk and the doglike barks and growls of the Skags are all great. The music, while good, could have used a few more tunes to keep things fresh through the duration of the game.

THE VERDICT
Borderlands might sound like a strange concept on paper, but in the end it works out better than anyone could have imagined. If you are a fan of Diablo or just first person shooters in general, you owe it to yourself to check it out. The limitless array of weapons is enough incentive to keep blasting away and the endless discovery of new quests will keep players busy for well over twenty hours. In a nutshell, Borderlands is one of the coolest titles to be released in 2009.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/11/10, Updated 07/06/10

Game Release: Borderlands (US, 10/20/09)


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