The debate over the function of video games–sophisticated works of art or pieces of entertainment–recently received some fuel called Borderlands, Gearbox Software’s FPS/RPG hybrid. Borderlands undeniably favors the video-games-as-games viewpoint: the game is fun, addictive, and features full multiplayer capabilities. Maybe it’s lacking in other areas, but isn’t a fun game all we can ask for?
Not necessarily. We can ask for soul. And that’s something Gearbox hasn’t learned yet, or doesn’t care about because Borderlands has no more spirit than a defunct television.
Borderlands concentrates on gameplay, but does provide a dash of backstory for those who care. Players select one of several mercenaries sent to the planet Pandora to seek out the mysterious Vault, allegedly bursting with powerful alien technology. Or so the legend goes. Once planetside, the chosen merc receives guidance and support from an enigmatic young woman, transmitted into his or her interface from an unknown source. Through periodic contact, she denounces the rumors of the Vault’s nonexistence and promises a payoff for its discovery.
The storyline is insultingly derivative, juvenile, and meager: a cipher that culminates into one of the most offensively disappointing endings in recent memory. Clearly the developers put no thought into the plot and little more into the characters and setting. Several non-hostile NPCs inhabit Pandora, most of them irritating and few of them as comical as the developers intended them to be. The humor, which often involves pop culture references, degenerates into crass remarks more often than not. The one exception is a female researcher, whose dialogue provides the most genuine humor in the game.
As for the setting, even as derivative as it is, players might expect a little flesh on its bones, but instead Gearbox treats players to a pretty, but hollow world. Pandora is a wasteland through and through, piled high with refuse, industrial buildings, and arid cliffs and canyons. There are a few people, a lot of bandits, and some alien beasts. The end.
Gearbox utterly fails to create a believable world with Pandora. If the player could scratch away at the pretty cel-shaded surface, he’d uncover a void beneath. Pandora’s reality is only superficial; at times, the game world feels like an imitation, a virtual replica of a virtual world, reminiscent of Fallout 3’s Operation: Anchorage. Pandora barely exists.
If story, setting, and soul aren’t important, however, plan to fall in love with Borderlands. And even if they are, Borderlands still offers a fun experience thanks to excellent control, fairly quick leveling, and addictive gameplay overall. Players begin their find-the-Vault campaign by selecting one of four characters: Brick the fist fighter, Lilith the weird one, Mordecai the sniping thief, and Roland the soldier. Each comes pre-programmed with a special ability and unique skill trees. From then on, it’s the player versus the denizens of the trash heap called Pandora. Players meet a few NPCs, gather a slew of quests, and turn them in upon completion for loot and experience, all the while gaining levels and exploring the planet inside and out.
Rapid questing and near-perfect FPS gameplay proves to be an addictive combination, if not a profound one. The control is fantastic, and the game encourages an action-oriented approach to combat instead of a more tactical one. There’s no such thing as ammo conservation on Pandora if you want to stay alive. To aid in your survival, Gearbox includes a “second wind” feature: kill an enemy in the fifteen or so seconds after collapsing and earn a second chance at life. The majority of players will be most thankful for the guns, however–the hundreds of guns, varying in strength, ammo capacity, and other qualities, as eloquently advertised by Gearbox. Borderlands proves to be fun, even with a weak narrative framework, but that’s not to say a few things go wrong.
Beyond the great gunplay, the developers didn’t work or think hard enough. The skill trees are impotent and largely biased toward the multiplayer experience. Quests are repetitive and typically consist of murdering the locals or collecting items, which requires the murder of locals anyway. Finally, despite a near-limitless number of guns, most offer only diminutive variations on the core weapon types. In the end, one or two guns do all the slaughtering, and entire classes of firearms come up useless. These elements, combined with shoddy world building, do little for the player’s satisfaction.
Worst of all, however, Borderlands just gets old. Firing a billion bullets into the gray matter of the same hordes of numbskulls time and again under the same looming cliffs gets tiring after even twenty hours. The meager quest types only add to the problem. The derivative nature of the game’s constituent elements no doubt aggravates the problem as well. Players might even recognize the final boss from a few other games this console generation. Borderlands pulls ideas straight from other games, and endlessly repeats the core gameplay elements to an almost soporific point. The lack of variation even spills over into the beautiful graphics.
While the cel-shaded graphics are spectacular much of the time, Pandora largely consists of only two things: rock and garbage. Most environments are indistinguishable from one another, although different size piles of garbage and slightly different varieties of rock provide some contrast. Enemies are frequently palette swapped as well, although generally the art design is competent. It’s no help though that music is almost non-existent and voice acting is often infuriatingly annoying. Gearbox is proving to be a master of wasting potential. Thankfully, there’s a strong multiplayer component to balance out this mediocrity.
For the increasing population of multiplayer-loving gamers, Borderlands offers an experience geared toward multiplayer and co-op. Although this damages the single player facet, it can possibly be forgiven considering that multiplayer was Gearbox’s focus with Borderlands. If one can choose between co-op and multiplayer, make it multiplayer. The split screen co-op mode is hampered by a ludicrous design choice: the menu doesn’t fit the screen. Instead, it must be moved around within the split screen frame. This inane choice complicates even the simple task of browsing the inventory to compare weapons, something that needs to be done almost constantly in a game like Borderlands. At least there’s multiplayer.
Borderlands is a commodity and nothing more, and that was precisely what Gearbox intended. That sort of soullessness drains the industry of half its worth, it compromises the artistic dimension, and I’m not okay with that. Borderlands is a decent game, greatly fun at times, but I don’t respect it. I’ll never respect a game made to cater to the public, a game packed as full as possible with mechanisms designed solely to create an addiction in as many gamers as possible. But, that’s not to say Borderlands isn’t worth playing for a few hours when you can’t help but desire some mindless fun. Just keep an eye on your brain cells.