Editor’s Note: This review was written based on the Xbox 360 version of the title. The other platforms should play similarly, aside from the control scheme for the PC version.
I find it rather humorous that the two best Action-RPGs of the year thus far have been titles that stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from each other. Demon’s Souls was an incredibly unique RPG with lots of cool new features going for it. Borderlands is one of the most derivative games I have ever played. I can’t say that there are any new features in the title – everything in this game has been seen before in a plethora of different titles. What Gearbox Software did was take concepts from just about every great shooter or Diablo clone over the past ten years and tossed them into Borderlands. What do you get when you take these features, refine them, and put them together? You get a game that’s equal parts FPS and RPG, a game with smooth controls and great twitch-based gameplay. You get a game with so many pop culture references it’s bursting at the seams. You get a game that’s a blast to play by yourself or with friend and the game that I really, really wanted Hellgate: London to be.
The one thing that may be most off-putting to RPG fans is that unlike most other RPG-shooter hybrids on the market (Mass Effect, Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, etc.), Borderlands really cares about the twitch aspects of its gameplay. Fans of shooters will be right at home because a headshot is a critical hit and there are some armored enemies that require shots to certain areas. Those who are not fond of twitch gameplay – and I know some of our readers number here – will not be impressed with Borderlands. That’s really the only major caveat to an RPG fan; the gameplay is not relegated simply to a statistics system, although every item in the game is bound to a set of them.
The structure of the game is akin to a combination of Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls and Diablo. Players maneuver the overworld and obtain quests like they would in any number of RPGs, level up, and get more gear. It’s the most basic of basics, and while that would normally be a downer, Borderlands’ exquisite control scheme and – most importantly – co-op multi-player are a step above most RPGs’. Those who have played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or any other similar shooter will be right at home with the control scheme. There’s no VATS or pausing or anything of the sort – you shoot a guy, he gets hurt. You shoot a guy in the head or a monster in its weak spot, he gets hurt more. How you’re shooting him and what you’re shooting him with have everything to do with the weapons that you’ve got and the class that chose.
Borderlands offers four classes: the sniping Hunter, the stealthy Siren, the gung-ho Soldier, and Brick, as himself. All four of the classes use primarily guns, but have access to melee attacks as well. Brick has access to incredibly powerful melee attacks as his class power, the Siren can stealth-walk, the Soldier can lay down a turret with some cover, and the Hunter summons a hunting hawk to fight by his side. All four classes feature three skill trees that focus on different weapons and abilities. A lot of these do focus on things that help the team out, so it’s very clear that co-op was one of the key features considered at Gearbox, but there are still plenty of places for soloers to spend their skill points. Each level up gives a skill point, some hit points, and the ability for players to wear bigger and better guns. It’s pretty standard, and like MMORPGs, players receive a bonus to hit and damage against lower level enemies, but a penalty to hit and damage against higher level enemies.
There’s not much depth to the basics of the statistics system, until players start getting deeper into the weapons. Gearbox and 2K have advertised the title as having more than 16 million different guns, but this is all due to the Diablo-style loot system. There are about ten major categories of guns, and each class is proficient with about two of them, though there are no restrictions on who can use what gun, simply the level restrictions for more powerful guns. All of the weapon drops in the game are ranked on the WoW-style color-coded system: White-Green-Blue-Purple-Orange from most common to most rare. These weapons have a range of extra abilities, elemental affinities, and many other statistics such as reload speed. While there may not really be sixteen million different guns in the game, changing from shotgun to shotgun does feel different because of what they do. There are even some unique weapons that feature things like richocheting or spiraling bullets, or the ability to fire multiple bullets with a single shot. The weapons in the game really are quite nifty, and it’s part of the reason the game has massive replay value and a draw to keep playing.
The quest system and the world are, at best, derivative. Players pick up quests at hub cities, run out and do them, and come back. There are stories behind the quests themselves, but much like those in World of Warcraft, I tend to boil them down to their basic “Kill 7 Goats” functionalities rather than taking in the story. There are some that put the story in your lap, as many quests provide audio fleshing out the backstory of the planet of Pandora, but I never felt the need to go out of my way to explore the backstory. Players take control of a mercenary, searching for the lost Vault, which will bestow upon them riches and power, yadda yadda yadda. The plot is pedestrian at best, but honestly, no one is going to be playing Borderlands for its amazing plot. What the game does feature is characters that are very funny – even random enemies are named things like “Badass Midget Shotgunner.” There are also references to anything and everything imaginable. From Mad Max to Die Hard to even Spaceballs (my favorite!), chances are there is some obscure reference here that will put a smile on your face. It makes up a little bit for the mediocre story, but because of the gameplay, it’s not a huge blow that there’s not an amazing plot.
The ambience of the game itself is something that’s ripped straight from the science fiction handbook. It’s a generic post-apocalyptic wasteland – except for the fact that there are vending machines everywhere. All of the environments look fairly similar, as do the enemies. A level 5 Psycho looks like a level 45 Psycho, and there’s not a great deal of variety between enemies. There are a few palette swapped enemies, and it all starts looking the same after a while. The graphics are technically proficient, the entire game being cel-shaded, but still incredibly bloody. Explosions, gun fire, just about everything looks great, although there’s not much customization with the characters themselves, aside from basic color. It’s unfortunate that players can’t really create their own avatar, but it’s a minor gripe in the end.
Along with the story, the segment of the game that has the most flaws is the audio. Sound effects and gunshots are great, but there’s not a great deal of music and the voice acting is pretty bad for a lot of the story audio. There’s not much that’s there, and some of the voices – such as the mysterious woman who is guiding you, work great. Others, such as the female researcher whom players will find audio clips from her diary, are horrid. It’s a mixed bag, but easily ignorable because of the solid gameplay under the hood.
In short, Borderlands is a top-quality shooter and grind-fest. There’s not much that’s new about it, and it’s not without its flaws. If you’re willing to take down a horde of enemies just to see that “Level Up!” icon or for that shiny new drop, Borderlands will be right up your alley. Even if you’re not the kind of gamer that’s fond of the grindy loot-fest, Borderlands’ co-op play makes it great fun no matter what. Unless you absolutely just abhor twitch-based titles, Borderlands should start spinning in your game system soon – unless it’s already there.