As I was driving to work the other day, I heard Adam Sessler on the radio talking about videogames. He was mostly talking about Uncharted 2, but he mentioned that Borderlands was the "dark horse" of this gaming season. I don't know if he's played it or not, but that's a good way to describe it. It's releasing in a very busy season with a lot of stellar games, and I think there's a real danger it may get overlooked for the likes of Uncharted 2 and Modern Warfare 2. Don't let that happen. It's not a perfect game, and it has a few noticeable problems, but I can't seem to stop playing it.
Hit the jump for the full review.
Borderlands (PC [Reviewed], Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: October 20, 2009 (Consoles), October 26, 2009 (PC)
MSRP: $59.99 (Console), $49.99 (PC)
Commonly described as Diablo with guns, Borderlands can't really be explained by comparing it to other games. The closest you could probably get is Hellgate: London (as long as you were playing one of the gun/first-person shooter classes), but even then there are some pretty major differences.
If you haven't been paying attention to this game at all, Borderlands is a first-person shooter with action role-playing elements. You choose from four classes -- The Soldier, the Berserker, the Hunter, and the Siren. Each has a unique "action skill," which is basically that classes special ability, and three different trees to drop skill points into. While every class can use every weapon in the game (the only limit on what you can equip is determined by your level), most characters have skills in their skill tree that enhance one or two particular types of weapons.
The Soldier is best with rifles and shotguns, the Berserker with explosive weapons and his melee attack, the Hunter with sniper rifles and revolvers, and the Siren with any weapon that deals elemental damage. Luckily, there is enough flexibility that these don't feel like absolute restrictions. If you wanted to make a Hunter that mainly used rocket launchers, that's completely viable. Sure, it won't be the best build for the character, but you won't feel like you have no options other than to use the "recommended weapons" for each class.
You may remember some minor controversy a while back when Gearbox announced that they had scrapped the game's initial design in favor of cel-shaded graphics. I'm happy to report that I believe Gearbox made the right choice in changing the graphical direction of the game. Not only does it make Borderlands look unique, but it's gorgeous on top of that. Looking back at older screenshots of the game, the original art style seemed so generic and bland -- I'm really glad they decided to take a chance and mix it up. Other than some minor texture pop that resolves almost immediately upon loading and some slight screen tearing (VSync option please!), I didn't really run into any other graphical issues.
The game begins with you being tossed off a bus. You meet your first Claptrap who explains the basics of the game, and gives you a short mini-tutorial. After making your way to the first town, you're assigned your first quest and the game really begins.
There's a massive number of quests in the game, and Gearbox has done a reasonable job of mixing them up. While every now and then you'll be assigned a "Kill X enemies" quest, they are few and far between. For the most part, you'll be exploring various locations and recovering different items, usually with a bunch of bad guys standing in the way. Even after completing the game, I was still going back and finding quests that I had missed before.
One of the reasons it's been compared to Diablo is because of the emphasis on loot. The initial stories were right -- there are TONS of weapons in this game. There are seven main weapon types: pistols (this includes repeater pistols and revolvers), submachine guns, shotguns, combat rifles, sniper rifles, launchers, and a seventh that could be considered a minor spoiler.
Every weapon has a variety of stats: accuracy rating, recoil, how much the weapon can zoom, how many bullets the weapon can hold, how fast the gun can fire, how many bullets fire at once, how fast the weapon reloads, and more. In addition, weapons have a chance to have one of four elemental properties: Explosion, Fire, Shock, and Corrosive. You also have slots for grenade mods, your shield, and a class mod that will boost your skills and provide some benefits, each with their own special aspects and variations.
With all of these different stats, you end up with an astonishing amount of potential weapons. Just before writing this, I found a pretty crappy submachine gun that for some reason fired bullets in a ridiculous spiral before striking the enemy. While I've yet to come across anything like a pistol that shoots rockets (and I'm pretty sure things like this don't exist in the game), there's some pretty substantial variety in the weapons I'm finding, and so far I haven't come across any godlike "best weapon."
Weapons with more power tend to hold less bullets, or have much lower weapon zoom. Some guns that fire rapidly also have massive recoil, which means if you're not careful, you'll just be spraying bullets at nothing. While a lot of what you pick up will just end up being trash, I found myself swapping weapons in and out fairly often depending on the situation. In a game that's all about loot, that's definitely a plus.
Combat in Borderlands is a ton of fun. While the game is a first-person shooter at its core, some strategy is needed. Each enemy has a "weak point" that you can attack for critical damage. For humans, its their heads. For Skags (the world's dog-like beasts), it's their mouths (but only when they're open, which is not often). While initially combat will seem relatively simple, once you progress the game will get reasonably difficult, and you'll find yourself very carefully having to manage your cover, your shield/health level, and your surroundings.
Borderlands blends the regeneration aspect of many popular FPSs with health-pack grabbing. You have shields and life, and your shields regenerate, while your life doesn't. While this will give you some leeway to run into dangerous situations with guns blazing, you can't just stand still and blow everyone up. If you're going to make a rush, you'll have to take out your opponents quickly.
Some of the enemies are quite adept at sneaking around behind you, or quietly chucking grenades into your cover while you're trying to aim, and this can result in a quick death. Your FPS skills will definitely be put to the test in this game. You need a constant awareness of your surroundings, knowledge of all the cover available to you, some serious accuracy, and a quick trigger finger.
For those of us who love FPSes, this can make combat exhilarating, especially when you land a headshot on a guy and see parts of his brain fly up 100 feet into the air. If you're terrible at FPS games, you're going to struggle. And, a word of warning to 360 players -- since I haven't played the console versions, I can't confirm it, but some of the enemies take very precise shots to take out, and you often have very little time to aim before they start ripping you apart. Considering it's already difficult with a mouse, I can imagine some people getting frustrated with a controller.
One criticism I do have of the combat is the lack of variety of enemies. Skags, bandits, and spiderants make up the majority of what you'll be fighting throughout most of the game. A few zones have unique enemy types, and the flying Rakk are occasionally around to harass you. But for the most part you're going to be fighting the same enemies over and over again.
One of the ways Borderlands differs from games like Diablo and Hellgate: London is that nothing is randomly generated aside from items themselves. The maps and locations are exactly the same every single time you play, and immediately upon entering an area you're given the entire map of the zone. Quest items will always be in the same spots, vendors will never move, and even the chests, safes, and weapon caches will always be in the same locations in every playthrough.
Enemies will always appear in the same places as well, although to some extent they are "random." Each enemy type (Skags, humans, vehicles, etc.) has a sort of "spawn point" -- Skags come out of small caves, humans will come out of buildings, vehicles will drive out of garages -- and these spawn points are always in the same spots. What changes is what specific enemies will appear. You might see a team of psychotic midgets with shotguns come out of a building in one game, but in the next get a brute, a guy chucking grenades at you, and an armored bandit with an assault rifle. Some slight variety, but after getting a handle on an area you won't find yourself being surprised very often, since you know exactly where all the enemies will show up.
While initially I didn't mind this, on my second playthrough (basically, "New Game+") it became a pretty big issue for me. I had a blast playing through the game initially, but the second time through it's kind of clear the game has lost some of its charm. Don't get me wrong, I still can't keep myself from playing, but knowing exactly where everything is has made the game seem significantly more monotonous. I'm mostly just looking for loot at this point and working on hitting the level cap, but since I know where all the chests are I've just been making the same runs over and over again while grinding for experience.
Luckily, the repetitive feeling goes away quite a bit when you're playing with friends. Borderlands was designed as a co-op game, and co-op is where it really shines. Gearbox has done a good job of adjusting the difficulty in co-op games, in that you'll need to work together carefully with your friends to avoid dying. I actually found myself dying more when I was playing through the game with Nick than I did in single player, because we had to think a lot more strategically and be more careful. Since the enemies have significantly boosted health and damage, if even one or two get through your defenses you'll get taken down pretty quickly.
If you do play co-op (and I suggest you do), I would suggest making a totally separate character for use with your group. Any character you make can be played in single or multiplayer at any time, which means that sticking with one character only will probably result in you out-leveling your friends, unless you only play with them. While the game will do some enemy balancing if you have people with different levels in your game, it's not extreme. Certain zones are pretty much designed for certain level ranges, and this persists through the whole game. Either your high level friends will have to go slumming with the lowest leveled character, or your low level character is going to get destroyed when he tries to enter an area that's 10 levels higher than his own. Get a group of three other people, make plans to play, and make a character just for that group -- I think you'll get a lot more out of co-op than if you're just jumping in and out of random games.
Since this is a PC review (content and gameplay-wise, Borderlands should be consistent across all platforms), I do want to briefly talk about some PC specific things. A while back Gearbox specifically said that they were working very hard to integrate all of the games menus with a mouse. Unfortunately, all it seems that really means is that it merely works with a mouse. There are a few bugs involving scrolling quest text, selling items means opening a dialogue box and hitting "OK" for every single item you want to sell, and it sadly appears that the menu system was designed for controllers with PC support tossed on as an afterthought. It's not the end of the world, and selling becomes easy when you just mash enter over and over, but it really would have been nice to see some effort, even if it was just a "shift click to sell" mechanic introduced. Also, online games will be run through GameSpy, which I'm mostly neutral about. I'm not a big fan of GameSpy, but creating an account in game is super easy and the matchmaking seems very streamlined -- it should be pretty simple to get a game going with minimum hassle.
The final thing I want to touch on is the story. While Borderlands starts out with a reasonably interesting story, it kind of takes a backseat to the action. This is somewhat understandable, since this is an FPS game at its core, but be prepared. The ending of the game is massively disappointing. Think Fallout 3, but worse. It's a shame, because the initial story has a lot of promise, and it's sad to see that potential squandered. This doesn't really affect the gameplay, but I found it to be the biggest disappointment I felt from my entire time with Borderlands.
Luckily, even with these complaints, the first playthrough of Borderlands is an absolute blast, and will provide you at least 25+ hours of gameplay as long as you don't avoid all the sidequests. I'm still finding it difficult to tear myself away from the game on my second runthrough. It's a solid game that provides a lot of enjoyment, and while I don't know if I'll be playing it eight months down the line (although some of the upcoming DLC does look pretty neat), I've really enjoyed the time I've spent with it so far, and I imagine I'll continue to do so - especially once I have more people to co-op with. While the repetition will eventually become an issue for most players, it should keep shooter fans occupied for quite a while. Unfortunately, once you hit the level cap there probably won't be much else for you do to until the DLC comes out besides make a new character. But the level cap takes a decent chunk of time to reach, and you'll have fun the entire way there.
With tons of weapons to find, a great co-op system, fantastic art, and a whole bunch of exploding bodies, Borderlands is worth your money. Even when I feel that the game is starting to get repetitive, there's something about it that keeps me playing. Even my plans to jump into the game for five minutes to grab screenshots would suddenly turn into hour long play sessions without me even realizing it, and even having done most of the quests twice, I still want to head back and try again with a new character class. Despite a few imperfections, the game is simply fun -- and at the end of the day, that's what really matters.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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