I expected a lot of things from Gearbox Software, but Borderlands was not one of them. From the companyís first release and my initial encounter with their work, the expansion Half-Life: Opposing Forces, Iíve known that they were capable of developing solid first-person shooters. What I didnít imagine was that they could take their experience with the genre and fit an action role-playing game into its mold in such a way that Hellgate: London could only look upon with envy. To say that I have spent some time exploring the wilds of Pandora would be an understatement: Pandora has consumed me.
As one of four characters Ė Roland the Soldier, Lilith the Siren, Mordecai the Hunter, or Brick the Berserker Ė you have been tasked by the mysterious Guardian Angel with uncovering the fabled Vault on the planet Pandora. Traveling across the planetís desolate surface, your chosen character is summoned by the guardian to the town of Fyrestone to begin the journey. Once there, you are introduced to the Claptraps, rickety trashcan-like robots that are the battered and chatty servants of the planetís inhabitants; and who also act on the guardianís behalf to in assisting you on your quest. Itís rough going on Pandora, with most of the residents having fled and the remainder a gruff bunch that are plagued by wild creatures, depraved bandits, and the private army of the arms manufacturer Atlas Corporation. And unfortunately for you, two out of three of those factions also want to find the Vault.
What the Vault contains isnít exactly known. The first planet on the outer rim of the galaxy to be colonized, Prometheus, led to fantastic discoveries of alien technology that were reverse engineered for great profit by the Atlas Corporation. The pioneers of Pandora werenít as lucky as those on Prometheus; instead of riches and wonders, they found a lot of rocks, alien ruins, and themselves on the end of a vicious seven-year cycle that marks the end of a hibernation period for some of the planetís most dangerous indigenous life. All of that changed with the discovery of the Vault, a nearly mythic tomb that supposedly houses fantastic alien artifacts. After the planetís abandonment by most of the initial corporations and their staff, characters such as yourself found themselves making their way to Pandora in search of the Vault and its wonders. As the regent of the Guardian Angel, youíre thrust into the thick of things in the fierce struggle to find its location.
Despite the gameís colorful and cel-shaded graphics, Pandora isnít a pleasant place. Some might say itísÖ post-apocalyptic. Okay, that was a failed attempt to smoothly segue into a topic that comes up a lot when I discussed Borderlands with those who had just started or hadnít yet played it: so itís just like Fallout 3, then? The fact is, despite the numerous similarities Ė youíre trying to find a vault instead of leave one, the raiders and bandits, the Brotherhood of Steel and Crimson Lance, the desolate environments, and the mixture of role-playing with first-person shooter elements Ė they arenít really similar at all. A more apt comparison would be the one thatís made almost as often, that of Borderlands being Diablo set in a first-person shooter framework. Those going in expecting Fallout 3 will be disappointed; however, those disappointed by Fallout 3ís near required use of the VATS system, in effect making it a turn-based game and not a more traditional first-person shooter, will find a lot to like. Both titles are near opposites in which genre they focus on and, as a result, become the perfect complements of each other.
Borderlands might have leveling, skills, and quests, but it is far from a traditional role-playing game. Approach it as Diablo set in a first-person shooter, however, and you hit the nail on the head. Instead of the focus being on cause and effect through plot choices, relationships, alignments, or quests, the design is centered on fast, addictive combat, tons of loot, and a skill tree that begs to be tweaked. Gearbox has obviously been paying attention to the action role-playing genre and to gamers, because they have positively indulged players with the one thing that makes us all weak in the knees: stats.
There are so many elements that can be modified and upgraded that there is near limitless customization. Not only does each character have a unique skill, but each skill has three trees made up of numerous abilities and enhancements that can be upgraded up to five times, culminating in an ultimate ability Ė e.g. Rolandís sentry gun firing missiles. In addition to the skills, there are modifications (mods) for shields, weapons, and each class that not only tweak base stats but add elemental damage as well. For example, you could have a strong shield that has a slow recharge rate, a moderate shield that adds 30% to health that also sends out an electric shock whenever itís depleted, or a grenade mod that siphons the health of nearby enemies and transfers it to you. The class mods can do anything from add to the amount of ammo a clip contains to adding weapon-specific damage. Guns can have up to four attributes, which can be anything from increasing melee damage by 50% to adding fire damage per round hit, or be hidden behind an enigmatic description. Many skills and enhancements take multiplayer into account as well, such as mods that give everyone additional experience per kill. If this wasnít enough, weapon skill increases with use as well: kill enough enemies with a sub machinegun and you will find it more accurate, its clips holding more rounds, and reload times significantly reduced. With a wide array of weapon types Ė sub machineguns, assault rifles, pistols, lasers, shotguns, revolvers, etc. Ė and millions of weapon variations, youíre bound to find something to your liking.
The cornucopia of upgrades and tweaks also gives Borderlands a surprising degree of freedom. Not freedom in terms of how tasks are accomplished, since it follows a pretty standard formula of areas unlocking after a boss is defeated, but in how you upgrade your character. While Mordecaiís stated expertise is with sniper rifles and revolvers, you can go ahead and focus on shotguns and rocket launchers and still get the proficiency upgrades that come with regular use. The only way the game tries to steer your focus is with your character-specific skills; in Mordecaiís case, he has skills that affect his competency with sniper rifles, such as increased accuracy and less sway when zoomed-in. There are so many skills, though, that you can work around any that you find uninteresting more than enough to level up with before the end of the game. Itís a clever system, and everything works so well together to the point where your attention is always held as youíre always striving to attain something.
In what I can only describe as Gearboxís flaunting of their understanding of our obsessive compulsiveness and lemmings-like love of rewards, there are dozens of challenges that are routinely being met as you play the game. The challenges arenít a focus of the game, just a sort of sub achievement system built in that rewards with additional experience. Dig through 1,000 stashes of Skag dung for loot, run over a few hundred creatures in a vehicle, get enough headshots, sell enough weapons for cash: experience. The steady stream of rewards is downright intoxicating. Items are also purchased from vending machines that have both time-sensitive deals and offerings; if nothing interests you, then wait a few minutes and you might not only find a strong new mod or weapon but a stellar deal. If you arenít finding some purple- or, be still my heart, orange-level loot, you are leveling up, finding a bargain, increasing your aptitude with a weapon type, or completing a challenge.
To the great fortune of the gaming public, somehow, Borderlands works. It doesnít always work, as there are a few technical and design problems, but by and large it works, and it works really well. Despite the oodles of gun types and modifications, not only do the weapons feel unique, but also the first-person shooter mechanics are fantastic. Accuracy, recoil, area-specific damage, reload times, everything is modeled in such a way that the guns have their own quirks which emphasize their own play styles Ė and far better than I had imagined. Whenever my orange-level revolver kicks back, sending someone flying ten feet into the air, the feeling is exactly what I want; and whenever my shotgun did enough electric elemental damage to a Crimson Lance to cause his armor disintegrate, then his face to melt, eyes to pop out, skull to vaporize, brain to plop out, and then his entire person to fizzle away into the ether, I was downright ecstatic. There is a true feeling of evolution with your character as you become more proficient with a weapon type, and it makes a solid shooter feel even more so; you never feel cheated out of the experience, either through the floatyness of the mechanics (Hellgate: London) or the emphasis being placed on another element of the design (Fallout 3). From the get-go, Borderlands plays like a shooter, feels like a shooter, responds like a shooter, and as you gain experience and skills, it simply becomes a better shooter.
It was only after around 30 hours of play that I decided to go a few bouts online, and I still wasnít done with the story. After a quick chat, fellow Depoter Nick and I burned through four or five hours in our first session alone. This wasnít us continuing our other characters, either, but us starting all over from scratch. The game was so different and enjoyable with another person, and as new classes, that we replayed old quests without any complaints. Despite the criminally inadequate loot-sharing system Ė cash is divided but you have to drop weapons for others to pick up Ė there is so much the game does right that it is an absolute blast. Small features, like the ability to independently turn in and accept quests for the party, go a long way in keeping the pace quick. Then there are the numerous design considerations, such as the team-focused skills and mods, the random additions to goof off (engage in a duel by slapped each other or fight on teams in an arena), and the ability to heal each other to get a Ďsecond windí of full shields and a little health before death (instead of having to make a kill). Itís one thing to race around the desert in a rocket-mounted buggy, but itís another to have a friend mounting the rocket launcher while you do 360s around an enemy. The more players there are, the tougher the enemies there are, but that also means more experience and even better loot.
Within all of these good times, strong design decisions, and addictive mechanics lay several small problems that chip away at the foundation. Some of the technical problems can be serious, such as the skill point reset when leaving some multiplayer sessions (I never experienced this), to simply nagging, such as the bug I have experienced where clip extensions arenít registered when equipping a weapon again, forcing a reload. The 360 seems to be the most stable of the versions, and a patch has already been released that address several issues, so these really shouldnít put you off; as I said, I havenít experienced anything serious, and I donít foresee the patches stopping for what appears to be a surprise hit for 2K Games and Gearbox. One of the biggest dings in the design department has to be the lack of quests leveling with you. By the time I was three-fourths of the way through, I found most, if not all, quests were either trivial or normal; the challenge that I had up to that point was all but gone, save for run-ins with the Crimson Lance. A more difficult mode opens up once you beat the game, but that doesnít alleviate the tediousness of leveling while youíre on your first run. Another irritant was the absence of the mini map, which made for a clean HUD but also the routine practice of me bringing up the map. I wouldíve also liked for the map transitions to have been labeled because, though there are vehicles and fast travel posts, it would be nice to get a better bearing on where I needed to go before trotting off. There is also an auto grab feature that collects multiple items at once, but itís also the button that auto equips new equipment, and it wasnít uncommon for me to inadvertently equip an inferior item while collecting loot. The issues might be small, but they become quite glaring in a game that is otherwise so thoroughly well conceived and executed.
Borderlandsí rough spots shouldnít deter you from picking it up. Maddeningly addictive, Gearbox has found a way to Diablo the first-person shooter, and the results are as awesome as that sounds. The world and characters might not be as rich as a traditional role-playing title, lacking meaningful dialogue and relationships, but the action, skills, and weapons are intertwined in such a unique way that it feels natural and exciting. Grab a friend or two, or go solo, and wallow in the numbers, the hunt, and the rewards.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)