Thursday, January 28, 2010

Borderlands Review

Care to Open Pandora's.....Vault?

[Note] This review is for the xbox 360 version of the game.

Borderlands in the latest game from Gearbox software, the developer known for making FPS games, namely, the Brothers in Arms series. They have always prided themselves on being just a bit different. A bit more cerebral and thoughtful in their approach. They have brought that mentality of innovation and fresh experiences to Borderlands, which is an FPS/RPG hybrid, that finds the player alone on a vast wasteland of a planet known as Pandora.

Pandora is a hostile place. You find yourself there on a quest to locate the oft rumoured Vault, a place steeped in myth and legend that is said to contain unnamed riches. You are not alone in this search, as many other individuals and some greedy corporations have tried over the years to locate the Vault. So far, none have been successful. Does the Vault even exist? This question haunts you on your quest.

Does that sound compelling? Well, I didn't think so either, but it's enough to drive the action forward. The story is definitely not a highlight in this game, and it's shallowness is definitely one of the few flaws. The emphasis in this game is on gameplay. Namely, combat, looting, and leveling up your choice of one of four available characters. So, is the game compelling enough to succeed despite a paper thin story, and other issues?


This game utilizes an intriguing art style that has been described as a moving comic book. It's really quite stunning in motion, despite a few occasional flaws (jagged edges and shadows, and some minor clipping). It features black line borders around characters and objects, and a very vast colour palette. It's a game who's look speaks for itself (which is likely why the developers changed it midway through development. It really helps differentiate it). There is a small issue with the engine, as texture pop in is evident when loading a new area, similar to games like Mass Effect and Gears of War. I'm not sure if this game utilizes a modified Unreal III engine, but I know that engine is known for pop in so it is possible. Overall, despite the few flaws, this is a game that will, if not outright atop you in your tracks, at least have you acknowledge it's proficiency and uniqueness. The look is also complimented by some nice special effects, including fire and explosive effects, lightning, and exploding limbs. It's really quite beautiful to see.


The game's soundtrack is largely forgettable, and the audio mixing seems a bit off, as I have difficulty finding a balance between audible but not overpowering musical accompaniment, and clearly defined sound effects. It works for a while, but the music has moments where it grows either too quiet or too loud, and, at least for me, needed to be occasionally adjusted. Then again, when playing, I always have a wife and baby sleeping nearby, as I play at night, so it definitely may be a player specific concern. The gun sounds are adequate.
Voice work is good, although there isn't very much of it, which brings us to another one of the game's flaws: largely inactive NPC's. Most of them don't have all that much to say to you, which can leave you feeling even more alone than you already did at times (assuming you aren't playing this co-op). I'll expand upon this later.


As stated earlier, this game is an FPS/RPG hybrid. It plays like a very adequate FPS, and the RPG elements fit right in, and do not feel at all tacked on, although NPC interaction and story are on the weaker side, as I mentioned earlier. What is done right on the RPG side of things is the experience/leveling system and the loot system. Essentially what you have here is a Diablo style game that plays like an FPS. There are an incredible number of weapons and different items to be found, most of which are procedurally generated, giving you almost limitless combinations of things. Enemies drop guns, shields, money, health packs, class modifications, and other items when they expire, leading to the infamous loot drop addiction: What cool stuff can I acquire next? Let's kill something to find out! You also obtain things as rewards for completing quests, and also, you'll find items through chests located throughout the world. All of these are staples of the RPG genre. Take that, but play it from a first person perspective and with guns, and you have the basic blueprints for Borderlands.

Ah, loot. Glorious loot!

The game is structured similarly to an MMO, although an MMO it is not. There are several areas in a huge world, separated into different zones (with a load time between each). In each zone, you'll find people waiting to doll out quests to you, both of the main story and side variety. You accept these quests, and then go forth to kill things, hunt items and people down, repair things, etc. Standard fare, and of course, along the way, you fight enemies scattered throughout the environment. Speaking of enemies, there is a good variety. You'll find yourself fighting human bandits, giant spiders, rat like creatures (skags), giant scorpion like enemies, flying bat like creatures called Rakks, huge bosses, and a few others I won't spoil here.

You start the game with an introduction to the four playable heroes. You have the Soldier, the Hunter, the Siren, and the Berserker. Each of the classes is more proficient with certain weapons, although anyone can use any weapon they like, with no penalty. Each class has specific abilities, which can be unlocked via a skill tree (different for each character). Using this skill tree, you can specialize your character, so, for example, as a Soldier, you can spec yourself to be a medic, or a support character. Or you can go Commando style and focus on damage abilities. You can also mix it up, and refreshingly, you can redo the whole build for a small in game fee, so don't be afraid to invest points, you can always redo it later on.

Each character also has a character specific action skill. The Hunter can release a bird of prey, which hunts down enemies, the Soldier can throw down an automatic turret which provides cover as well as shoots enemies (and can be spec'd to heal the player(s) as well as regenerate ammo, the Siren can turn invisible and run very fast. Activating this also damages all enemies in the vicinity. The Berserker goes into Berserk mode, which is a rage mode that makes him damage resistant. In this mode, you can rush enemies and melee the hell out of them.

So, you do the aforementioned quests, and you collect weapons and armor. You build up an super powerful version of your original character, kill countless enemies, and try to find this Fabled Vault. You can do this alone, or you play with up to 3 other players online, or 1 more in splitscreen. Co-op increases the fun exponentially in this game, as playing alone can make you feel bit lonely in the vast wasteland that is Pandora, and the fear-of-public-speaking NPC's don't help this feeling.

If it helps, just picture me in my underwear

Co-op works very well, and it is drop in/drop out, so no need to wait around in lobbies. People can join and leave mid game. The only negative to co-op is that the loot system does not incorporate rules for loot drops. It doesn't randomly allocate things to players, or take turns giving each person something. It doesn't split up or share the loot in any way. It's totally everyone for themselves, which means, if you are playing with the wrong people, someone may hog it all. If you are playing with friends, or decent people, it's easy to share, even after someone picks something up. You can just drop it for them, or even trade. You can also fight over loot if you wish, as there is a duel feature implemented into the game. Just melee someone, and if they melee you back, it's on. The fight leaves one person close to death, but no one dies. You can also go to various arenas located throughout the world to engage in 4 player round based skirmishes.

The developers hyped up the amount of guns in the game, and they weren't being deceitful. It's almost endless. You can get shotguns that shoot rockets, snipers that do lighting damage, assault rifles that set people on fire, rocket launchers that shoot 3 rockets at once, ect etc. Now, of course, there are archetypes that the guns fall into, and more often than not, you'll find yourself dropping, ignoring, or selling the guns you see, as many of them won't be better or as good as something you are already carrying. The guns fall into the following types: Combat Rifles, Pistols, Shotguns, Rockets, Submachine guns, Snipers, and Eridian Weapons. There is a proficiency rating for each, and this is leveled up as you earn experience while using one of the different kinds of guns.

There are these little robots called Claptraps, and they can be located throughout the world. When you find one, you will have to find a nearby repair kit to fix him, and upon doing so, are given a backpack expansion, which adds to your inventory space. By the end, you can carry as many as 42 items/weapons.

The world is very huge, although it is broken up into zones, as said earlier. To traverse the land, you can walk, sprint (you have an infinite sprint and do not need to hold the button down, it can be toggled). You can also approach any of the vehicle spawn locations and order up a car, which can be outfitted with either a rocket launcher or machine gun. You can also change the colour of the vehicle, but that's it for customization. And that there is another flaw in the game.

One great aspect of RPG's is that they often allow you to customize your character's appearance. In Borderlands, this is restricted to colour, just like the vehicles. It's not a pressing issue, but it is one that demonstrates how the game is a bit weaker on the RPG elements than some may like.


So, to sum up, the combat is fast, fluid, visceral (even with the more ''cartoony'' presentation) and fun. Leveling and loot collecting is very addictive. This game is absolutely recommended for anyone who is into both types of gameplay. This game, despite the few flaws, is a fantastic new intellectual property, and, for my money, is one of, if not the game of the year. If the gameplay hooks you, be prepared for countless hours of exploration and looting. Co-op adds to this replay value, as does a new game mode type mode called ''Playthrough 2'' (inventive, I know) which is unlocked after beating the game for the first time. Boderlands is a fantastic game that should not be overlooked.

Overall score: 9/10

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