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Review – Borderlands (360)

Borderlands

It’s hard not to enjoy Borderlands.

Borderlands is best described as a mix between two genres commonly associated with Diablo and Halo. Like Diablo, there are quests to complete, levels to gain, and tons of loot and equipment to collect off vanquished foes. Like Halo, the game is a first person shooter with rechargeable shields and everything else one has come to expect in a modern shooter. One of the reasons this game works so well is that both halves of the gameplay is simplified enough so it never feels like the two different genres are competing for the player’s attention, unlike many other hybrid games. The ability to aim precisely is needed to effectively down tough baddies, certainly, and there are tons of stats to consider whenever upgrading weapons and armor, but that’s about as deep as each aspect gets.

And, boy, are there lots of weapons and armor. Developer Gearbox has made a big deal about their random item creation algorithms, and for good reason. Like any good loot-based RPG, each item has its own stats and attributes that determines the amount of damage it will deal or absorb and any of four elemental affinities that allow it to cause or prevent extra damage. That’s normal for the genre, but Borderlands takes it a few steps further. Every equipable item has a manufacturer that changes the basic behavior of the item; one gun from a manufacturer might have a larger ammo clip but be significantly less accurate, while the same gun from another manufacturer will have a smaller clip with a higher chance of causing elemental damage.  Additionally, some guns can be found that have very strange behavior, like a shotgun found early in the game that shoots a Metroid-inspired wave beam instead of the usual buckshot. Finding and trying out new weapons is a joy, and new upgrades appear frequently enough from enemies, chests, or shops that old weapons and shields are constantly being discarded for better-performing ones.

There is four-player co-op, and it’s obvious the developers spent a great deal of time balancing the game specifically for multiple players. While playing alone, it’s hard to shake the feeling that enemies absorb too much damage before dying, even taking weak points into account. But with even one other player this issue evaporates and the game feels more balanced. There are four classes available, and each one has one unique skill and roughly two dozen selectable talents within three distinct skill trees. But Borderlands is not a hard game, even playing alone. While the bullet-sponge enemies are annoying, they’re not much of a problem and death’s only punishment is loss of cash. There are only a few quests that will challenge a properly specialized solo player.

The game allegedly features a story, though it is not interesting enough to really notice. There’s a desert planet called Pandora. There’s an ancient “vault” on Pandora that supposedly contains a wealth of advanced technology. In order to access the vault, you need a key. The key has been split up into several pieces. Each piece is held by a bad guy. You kill the bad guys to get the key fragments.  There is nothing here that hasn’t been done a few thousand times before. Each class has its own backstory, but it is never mentioned in-game and serves only as instruction manual filler. And if it is ever revealed why there are only six different types of boxes throughout the entire planet, I happened to miss it.

On the brighter side, Borderlands’ art style is fantastic. The game employs a beautifully subtle cel-shaded look that makes the game’s visuals pop and stand out from other first person shooters. Most locations look distinct, ranging from the beginning area’s generic desert to a glacial mountain path to an overgrown urban area. Many of the friendly outposts and bandit headquarters throughout the adventure have an interesting trashy and hobbled-together look to them, matching the bleak, apocalyptic landscape perfectly. The characters and enemies feature a grimy and somewhat comedic design with exaggerated movement and behavior. When enemies are attacked, how much damage was dealt sprays out with the blood and behaves differently depending on what kind of damage was done. It’s a surprisingly awesome effect that doesn’t get old even by the end of the 20-hour campaign.

Borderlands does have its faults. The final few missions seem haphazardly designed and eschew much of what makes the rest of the game interesting by eliminating all open-world exploration and becoming little more than a boring corridor shooter against frustrating enemies. Bosses are uninspired; they are either regular enemies with several times more health and tons of buddies or huge hulking monstrosities with obvious weak points. While the co-op is a blast to play, solo-focused players won’t have many choices to make during the campaign since as many as half of a class’ talents are dedicated to helping party members rather than oneself, rendering them useless. The lack of non-weapon character customization is a bummer; there isn’t any armor in the game except for shields and every class will look exactly the same for the entire game.

Performance can be uneven. Load times are outrageous and happen often enough to make traveling annoying, which you have to do way too much in the last half of the adventure. There are a few select enemies throughout the game that cause the engine’s framerate to hit rock bottom for a few moments due to the amount of blood and particle effects. This can make even routine battles against low-level enemies needlessly difficult.

Despite these issues, Borderlands is a blast; it manages to have a compelling mishmash of the best qualities first person shooters and western role playing games have to offer.  There’s enough here to satisfy any fan of either genre for a playthrough or two and should definitely be considered by those lamenting the lack of quality co-op experiences.

  • Developer: Gearbox Software
  • Publisher: 2K Games
  • Release Date: 10/20/09
  • Also available on PS3, PC
  • See also: Hellgate: London (PC), Sacred 2 (360, PS3, PC), Halo 3 (360)
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