Review by AegisXOR

"It's hard to describe how great this game is without expletives... so I'll settle on "Wow""

Borderlands. Five or ten years into the future, what will the mention of this name invoke in gamers' memories? It's gonna be some serious positive emotion, folks. Coming from Gearbox Software, the company that brought us such classics as Half-Life, Counter-Strike, and Halo: Combat Evolved, Borderlands is one of the most enthralling games I've played in a long while, and with any luck will be staying that way.

Setting - In the distant future, where space travel and quantum computers are making life more awesome by the minute, you find yourself in the shoes of a colonist of the planet Pandora, which lies just at the edge of our Milky Way. To be concise, you came looking for natural resources that weren't there; the frozen planet has thawed after about seven years of your occupation; alien beasts are erupting from the planet's ecology and are making life fairly difficult for anyone without firepower; and you're too poor to leave.

There is, however, a rumor going around, a rumor that's garnered a large following: the Vault. Created by an alien civilization long past, riches and fame await anyone who can find it and exploit the technology it contains.

Gameplay - Borderlands plays.. extremely well. At it's core, it's an FPS, but it makes a big portion of RPG mechanics. Many individual pieces are reminiscent of other titles, yet at the same time, the entire system works so well together it's hard to imagine Borderlands being completely original. This game is greatness inspired by same, however.

You start the game by picking one of four character classes, each with unique looks, personality, skill trees, and playstyles.

The Berserker (named Brick) is a hulking piece of muscle whose special ability drives him into a rage, boosting his movement speed and resilience to damage while forcing him to attack with his fists, which are also rather powerful. His three skill trees are Brawler, focusing on offensive melee, Tank, focusing on survivability and defense, and Blaster, focusing on the use of rocket launchers and other explosive weapons to cause mayhem. His close-quarters nature makes shotguns and combat rifles good weapon choices, as well as explosive weapons with the Blaster tree.

The Hunter (named Mordecai) is a lithe, masked man whose special ability lets him call on a pet falcon named Bloodwing to attack his enemies. Experienced FPS players will probably find this class easiest to play. The three Hunter skill trees are Sniper, focusing on sniper rifle damage and accuracy, Rogue, focusing on improving Bloodwing's damage and abilities, and Gunslinger, focusing on specialization in pistols and revolvers (no, you cannot dual-wield weapons of these types, as cool as it would look). Choice of primary weapon depends mainly on character and player skills for this class, as depending on your preference, accuracy can play a large part in success. Good secondary weapon choices are a submachine gun or a combat rifle.

The Siren (named Lilith) is a 'magic'-wielding woman whose special ability causes her to dimensionally phase, attaining temporary invisibility and a massive movement speed boost, while being unable to attack. Her three skill trees are Controller, focusing on causing detrimental effects in enemies, Elemental, emphasizing the elemental properties of certain guns (more on that later), and Assassin, focusing mainly on offensive power. When deciding what type of weapon to use as a Siren, you may be more concerned for elemental type than weapon type, and as such most weapon types can be used without fear (though sniper rifles and rocket launchers will take considerably more skill to succeed with).

Finally, the Soldier (named Roland) is self-explanatory in description. His special ability deploys a turret for a short period of time, which attacks enemies and can perform other functions through skills. The Soldier's three skill trees are Infantry, improving many aspects of firearm combat, Support, improving the deployed turret's abilities and statistics, and Medic, allowing you to heal yourself and teammates with the turret (and in the case of teammates, by shooting them as well)! Roland's skill trees specialize a fair bit more than the other classes', so choosing your weapon is more accurately a result of choosing your playstyle.

Let's detour into combat for a moment. True to FPS norms, combat is real-time, WASD-and-mouse-controlled, and your character can sprint, crouch, and jump. Pandora's gravity is a bit lower than you'd expect, and you have little control over your trajectory once you've left the ground. A refreshing feature in Borderlands is that you are allowed to reload while sprinting or jumping, which is not allowed in many games and makes retreat (or tactical maneuver) much more manageable in the face of a difficult enemy. You are not allowed to fire from the hip while sprinting, though, and crouching does not effect weapon accuracy or "scope sway" in any meaningful way. All damageable creatures have health bars, whereas player characters and some enemies also have shield bars, which absorb all damage until depleted and recharge after a short period of time without taking damage. In addition to the various firearms you will no doubt be using, each character has a melee attack and can throw grenades, the exact effects of which can be further customized.

Combat is fluid and responsive, even when playing online. Melee attacks generally connect when they should appear to, though once or twice I have wielded something short, like a bladed revolver, and had trouble getting an attack to connect. Damage done "pops out" of your target's head in the traditional RPG style; most, if not all foes have hotspots which can be shot to score a critical hit, which applies bonus damage, and in the case of elemental weapons, an extra chance at producing an effect. For example, most humanoid creatures take critical hits when shot in the head, as in many other FPS games. Animals and other creatures have different hotspots. Half the fun is figuring it out!

Inventory in Borderlands is solved in an innovative, not to mention futuristic, way: each character has strapped to their abdomen a "Backpack" device which appears to dematerialize and materialize equipment and items at will or as-needed. It is unclear whether this device is independent from the "Echo" heads-up display you receive at the onset of the game, or if your character carried it previously. You are given twelve backpack slots initially, and your backpack can be expanded as you progress through the game. Additionally, you are provided equipment slots for weapons, a grenade modification, a shield unit, and a class modification. These slots do not count against your backpack total, and more weapon slots (to a maximum of four) are also unlocked via progress.

Each class gets one "active" skill; it's the first skill acquired, is used by pressing a key, and has a cooldown period between uses. The remainder of each class's skills are either passive (skills which apply all the time) or conditional effects (such as getting a temporary damage boost after a kill). Skill trees are laid out into four "tiers", the first three of which contain two skills with a maximum of five levels each per tree. The last row is the tree's "ultimate" skill, which also has five levels. Spending five points in a tier unlocks the next tier for that tree, and so on. Skills can do anything from boosting your maximum health, to boosting your chance to find items from killed enemies for a short time after getting a kill, to creating a chance for weapon damage to completely bypass enemy shields. Skills are advanced with points obtained from increasing your character's level, which is done by gaining experience points from monster kills, challenge completion, and quests. Skills can be reset (or "respec-ed") at any save point, for a small fee. The maximum character level is 50, and you will have 46 total skill points at that level.

Also, each character has weapon proficiencies in each of the main weapon types: pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, combat rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and Eridian weapons (essentially alien artifacts). These proficiencies increase in level and gain experience as you use the indicated weapon to defeat enemies, and higher levels confer bonuses to accuracy, reload speed, and even damage.

A major feature of this game is its loot system. Weapons have several basic statistics: damage, firing rate, accuracy percentage, clip size, sell price, and elemental type/bonus (if any.) Hidden statistics include reload speed, weapon recoil, firing type, zoom, and burst fire, among many others. Weapon statistics are dependent on several factors. First, the area you found the weapon in will determine the level of the weapon out of a certain range, setting base min/max values for its stats. Next, each weapon has a manufacturer, and each company has its own qualities and rarity. One brand of pistol may be much more accurate and quick to reload than another, at the cost of damage. Weapons may or may not have scopes, which are an improvement in aiming over iron sights, or blades, which add additional melee damage with that weapon. After that, it's mostly random, though there are different "rarity tiers" of items, indicated by the text color of the item name. A blue-text pistol will almost always be better than an equivalent pistol with a white name; similarly, anything with a purple or orange-colored name should be picked up no matter what. Nonspecific item effects are randomly generated and display in a freeform textbox under the item's basic stats, for things like "13% Recoil Reduction", and rare or unique items may even have a text blurb hinting at a hidden effect of the weapon. Weapons and other items drop from enemies, as well as showing up in containers and "chests" throughout dungeons, towns, and the world.

Something that bears further explanation is weapon element. In addition to normal bullet damage, a weapon can have an elemental affinity. There are four elements in Borderlands: corrosive, incendiary, shock, and explosion, though explosion is only periodically referred to as an element. When a weapon possesses an elemental affinity, there will be an icon on its tooltip indicating the type of damage, as well as a multiplier (ranging from x1 to x4) indicating how damage scales (independent of weakness multiplier) when the elemental effect activates. The weapon's description will also contain a line of text describing how often the elemental effect occurs. Corrosive weapons do extra damage versus creatures with armor or tough skin. Shock weapons can stun targets. Incendiary weapons set the target on fire and do damage over time, whereas explosive weapons, true to their name, damage enemies within a certain radius of the bullet impact. Scoring a critical hit on an enemy boosts the chance of the elemental effect occurring, and some weapons will always exhibit the effect on a critical hit. Using elemental weaponry correctly can be the difference between a difficult battle and an easy one.

Progression in the game is quest-based; you are generally required to navigate to certain areas and complete objectives, such as the collection of a specific item or the killing of a specific creature or number of creatures. Some quests break the mold a bit. For example, one sidequest requires you to seek out bait, travel to a cave, use the bait to lure out the cave's occupant, and kill it. While you are free to explore at any time to an extent, areas are restricted by storyline progress, which is mostly linear. Generally the variety in quest objectives is enough to keep the player occupied, but some areas can be grating on the nerves, especially when lots of foot travel is needed. However, I feel that the combat usually encountered on the way to your destination generally makes this a moot point, as combat in Borderlands is engaging and incredibly fun. There is no traditional conversation with NPCs as in most RPGs; instead, think of conversations as being quest descriptions or briefings.

In lieu of Achievements on the 360 version, the PC version has "challenges", gameplay feats that reward you with experience points for your character. These are generally groups of four or five related challenges and a list can be accessed from the quests menu. For example, one challenge (named "I fired every bullet ever") rewards 20,000 experience for shooting 100,000 bullets.

Graphics - The graphics paint a picture of Pandora as a bleak, depressed world. Cel shading brings out the terrain and characters in an interesting way. It's not "cutesy" cel shading, but the game isn't gritty or horribly gory either, though enemies can gib high enough into the air that it becomes a spectacle. Most buildings are made out of corrugated sheet metal and are quite rusty, a la Fallout 3, but Pandora is much more clearly a place nobody wants to be than a place it's not safe for anybody to be.

Guns, especially, each have different (randomized) models, textures and parts, to the point where it's uncommon to find two exactly alike, at least visually. This game is not view-modeled: the gun and hand animations you see are exactly what other people see, so when you reload, it looks realistic to other people (and, more importantly, they can tell when you're doing it.)

Aside from the above, the game is neither spectacular nor terrible in its graphics. It looks good, but isn't hyper-realistic, nor is it aiming to be. Most textures are of good resolution, though honestly I want many of the PC textures to be higher resolution. They seem to be lacking, especially on systems that could handle a little more strain. The game isn't perfectly optimized, but it isn't bad either -- graphics options are applied in-place, so you can see what you're doing, quite literally. I noticed no visual improvement above 4x anisotropic filtering, so left it there -- there's no option for anti-aliasing in the menu, so without third-party tools one of the things you will have to get used to is the edges of things being jagged (and it's especially noticeable with the black cel outlines around everything.)

Audio - The music in this game is great. You get a sense of loneliness from the soundtrack; combat tunes are fast-paced and rhythmic, and if you attract the attention of many enemies at once you may get an example of a wonderfully dramatic throat-singing piece, which remains my favorite track. There's not much to say in the vein of environmental effects, especially as Pandora is so devoid of life, but there is the sound of wind howling in the music somewhere, which is plenty haunting enough.

The voice acting is positively superb. There may be a relative shortage of NPCs during the first part of the game, but every one you talk to is voiced extremely well. The dialogue is very humorous and my friends and I have cracked up numerous times hearing different lines at times (certain places, like shops, will play different lines each time you use them.) It's to the point where you can really connect with some of the characters, where it would feel sad to see them gone.

Also, it's worth mentioning, the sound effects of most of the weaponry is very good. Naturally none of the weapons' manufacturers exist, but any game where it is pleasant to turn the volume up to the edge of comfortable levels and revel in the crack of a sniper rifle firing is a good one to my ears.

Multiplayer - If single player feels methodical, slow-paced or a bit dull, multiplayer is a different beast entirely. As this review is written so closely after the game's PC release, there are currently some difficulties with multiplayer connections, and you will likely have to forward or open ports to connect to other players, because of the peer-to-peer networking model. However, once you're playing with others, there's potential for greatness. It's always more fun playing with friends, but if you can get a handful of players that at least speak your language and are slightly more intelligent than the local rocks, you should be having a blast. Combat and creature difficulty scale up with the number of players, so the experience becomes more cohesive and teamwork definitely becomes required to take out bosses and "badass" enemies. (Toughened versions of normal enemies are usualled prefixed with "badass"; have I mentioned how humorous this game is?)

Replayability - In addition to playing different character types and skill builds, and to what the random drop system can do to influence your playing decisions over the course of a game, completing the main storyline allows you to start a second playthrough of the game, which is essentially a New Game+, letting you keep your character's equipment, statistics, skills and level, but starting you at the beginning of the game where all the enemy encounters and treasure chests are much higher level. I believe a third playthrough can also be done where all enemies are max level (50).

In summary:

Diablo 2 random items/skill trees
+ Boktai 2 weapon proficiency
+ Halo jumping
+ Call of Duty movement style
- laying prone
+ RPG quests
+ 4-player co-op
+ Dialogue and game references to Valve games, celebrities, and other pop culture nuggets
+ Sense of humor
= Hilarious, well-rounded shoot-fest.

I'd highly recommend getting this game. Preferably if you have a group of friends, but certainly for single-player otherwise. It's on Steam, so you shouldn't have any problems finding a PC copy. If you'd prefer it on a console, be aware that there have been shortages in retail stores for physical copies in some areas!

Final verdict: There are a few points on which this game is unsatisfying, but the gameplay is so overwhelmingly fun and addictive I am more than willing to give Gearbox a few months to iron out the technical issues before docking the game itself.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/03/09

Game Release: Borderlands (US, 10/26/09)

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