Borderlands Review [360]

28 Oct 2009  by
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Borderlands has a lot to live up to. Earlier this year, Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford told us that if you like Fallout 3 “you should absolutely get Borderlands”.  Many hours of gameplay – and a gazillion weapons – later, it’s safe to say that there are elements of truth in his statement.  But only elements.

Borderlands is a “role-playing shooter” set on the planet of Pandora. Once thought to be resource-rich, the gold-rush has passed and Pandora has since become a lawless frontier planet. You play a rogue mercenary in search of the mythical Vault, rumoured to contain priceless alien technology. Your goal is simple; to gain access the Vault and claim the spoils.

So, what’s a role-playing shooter, you ask. Well, simply put, Borderlands is a shooter first and an RPG second. Skill trees are simple yet generous and therefore spur you to level-up at any opportunity, affording you access to better weapons and upgrades.  You are given the choice of playing as one of four characters: Roland (the Soldier) who is fond of rifles and can deploy turrets, Mordecai (the Hunter) who excels with long range weapons such as the sniper rifle, Lillith (the Siren) who is able to slow down time and become invisible and Brick (the Beserker), a dab hand with explosives who can also knock an enemy’s head clean off with his fists. 

Each class has a special ability and, as I played the Hunter class, mine was being able to deploy Bloodwing, my trusty and electrifying dinobirdbat thing which hunts down and destroys any enemies in the vicinity. Bloodwing is also upgradable, along with other perks such as higher critical hit damage rate, and a more accurate aim. Each class has its own specific progression tree and every time you level up you get one point to spend on your progression tree.

Leveling up is a familiar affair too. In classic RPG fashion, you’re given quests to complete which reward you with experience points and money. Experience points can also be gained by killing the many interesting inhabitants of Pandora, such as the Skag – a dog-like, teeth-bearing vagina-mouthed beast. One of Borderlands’ main selling points is the variation in enemies (and weapons, which we’ll get to later) and, for instance, you’ll see a wide range of skags from spitting skags to skagzillas. Or you can take out crazy ants, giant slugs and even humanoid badits (usual wearing a pretty ridiculous set of clothes). Initially any kill helps to boost your level, but after the first few levels it’s really not worth the grind as you gain less XP from non-quest kills. This is by no means a bad thing, and instead of grinding to level up, the game encourages you to work through the quests.

The quest structure sticks to the RPG formula too – the main plot-line can be pursued exclusively, or you can sidetrack with side quests. It’s worth doing a few side quests as they usually offer a fair amount of XP and money which will come in handy, providing access to better weapons and upgrades.

You can pick up quests either at billboards or from specific mission NPCs. And you’ll want to complete the quests because they focus on what this game is all about: the guns and the loot. {PAGE TITLE=Borderlands Review Page 2}

I was concerned the claim of “millions of weapons” would mean we’d see the same guns with a barely noticeable amount of variation. I was wrong. Within the weapon classes, which include the sniper rifle, revolver, shotgun, SMG, rocket lanchers, etc.; there are different weapon types. So let’s take the rifle for example. There is the standard bullet firing rifle, the incendiary rifle, a shock rifle (which can knock an enemy’s shield down) and a chemical rifle. And, of course, some weapon types are more useful against certain types of enemies. More importantly they all feel different and, should you make a wrong decision with your weapon choice, you’ll find yourself in a whole world of pain.

Weapons can be acquired in a number of ways. You can raid the corpses of fallen enemies for loot, you can search weapon cache crates which hide some real beauties, or you can buy your shooters straight from vending machines. Yes, vending machines which dispense ammo and health too. In fairness I never bought any weapon from the vending machine because the weapons I had acquired in my journey were always much better than anything the poxy machine had to offer. I did sell a lot of gear though, which let me continuously stock up on ammo and allowed me to upgrade my clip size or hold capacity for each weapon.

Weapons also have class levels, so you’ll not be able to equip certain weapons until you reach that level. This applies to the other attributes you have: shield and grenade mod. Shields are pretty self-explanatory and can help you protect yourself from different types of attack, such as fire or shock, while others regenerate health over time. The same principle applies to the grenade mods, with additions like transfusion grenades (stealth health from enemies), MIRV grenades (explode into loads of different grenades), shock grenades (disable enemy shields) and sticky grenades to name a few. The higher your level, the greater the effect of the mod. The upgrade system is well-implemented and manages to add a rewarding degree of depth to the game.

Something which, unfortunately, cannot be said about the game’s AI. Decent AI should be tactical, intelligent and aware of the fact that unless it uses cover, oit’s going to get shot. Sadly, in Borderlands, the AI is so witless that occasionally you lose all sense of achievement after killing an enemy.  All too often it feels like you’ve gained the upper hand because you actually think about what you’re doing instead of running around in circles like Usain Bolt with a club foot. It doesn’t help that the Bandits will often stick to their standard pea-shooters when there’s a monstrously powerful gun in the crate they’re standing next to.

But none of that takes away from the sheer fun involved in trying out the new weapons and the often surprising effects they have. And it’s not just the variety of weapons and loot available to you which is appealing, so is the beautifully-stylised game world.  Gearbox made a brave decision to present a colourful, cel-shaded environment and it works well.  Although the colour scheme is by no means the boldest, it’s nice to see splashes of colour in a genre which generally seems to be dominated by a million shades of grey and brown.  The art-style really does give the game an identity and some of the characters, like the claptraps – small talky robots which help you from time to time – are great fun.

Add to this the excellent co-op gameplay and you have an impressive package. You can play the game with up to three other players, drop-in/drop-out with all your gear, leveling up your character the whole time. With more players comes better enemies and, as a result, better loot which you get to keep even when you go back to your single player campaign. There’s also a battle mode and a split screen mode too, so it’s a well rounded game in that respect. Borderlands is a tight, entertaining title which offers great value for money. Those fearing tedious grinding and endless side quests will be glad to know that the emphasis is firmly on the action in Borderlands. It’s not your typical RPG, in the Fallout 3 sense, but if you’re looking for a fun, engaging shooter with RPG elements, Borderlands fits the bill. 

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