Review: You must go to the Va... the Vaul... oooooh, shiny loot.
Gearbox Software is known for two things ? porting popular games to other formats, as the PS2 version of Half-Life and PC version of Halo can attest, and their World War II franchise Brothers in Arms. So a loot-driven RPG/FPS hybrid taking place in a barren wasteland full of crazy people, dancing computer-box thingys, and a crazy cel-shaded appearance just might seem a bit out of their wheelhouse. Yet here's Borderlands, one of this year's surprise hits that came out of nowhere. While it's definitely more of a first person shooter than an RPG, it has enough elements of that genre to make the game unique amongst other shooters, and more importantly, it's got so much loot you'd think it was a Diablo game. Whether you play it alone or with up to three friends in a cooperative fashion, Borderlands is a fun game that rewards you in ways few games do ? by constantly giving you reasons to keep playing, as if the game is a carrot on a stick, and you're chasing it, yet enjoying it all the same. It may not get many nods in year-end awards, but this is one of those great sleeper hits that assuredly shall be ?borrowed? from in the near future.
On the wasteland planet of Pandora, there's supposed to be a Vault that opens every 200 years that contains treasure beyond belief. Some people who migrated here for this purpose have resigned themselves to believe the whole thing is fake, designed to lure people to what's basically a hellhole, while others still believe and will do anything to be the ones to open it... one specific person completely loses their mind on their quest. A disembodied voice certainly believes, because after you choose your character class, it tells you that it's imperative that you find the Vault and will lead you in its direction while you work your way through this barely civilized planet of mutated dog-things, bandits, and completely insane non-hostiles. Though the story could be potentially very interesting, there's not much to it. Basically you're doing hundreds of quests and various adventuring to acquire keys to the Vault, and you pretty much rinse and repeat for 20-something hours. This in and of itself is what makes the game great, but if you're looking for a sweeping plot with cutscenes and the like, you won't find it in Borderlands.
What you will find is a class-based action-RPG with easy to manage customization, appealing to the potential shooter crowd that might not be used to in-depth RPG elements. There's four classes, but it's really four different characters ? the from-a-distance attacker in Mordecai, the heavy-duty solider in Roland, the completely crazy berserker class Brick, and the sneaky, conniving Lilith, a ?siren? type. Each character has a different feel and skill tree, and their very own special skill that makes them unique. For instance, Lilith can ?Phasewalk?, which is really an invisibility skill that can become deadly once it wears off, as it counts as an attack. Taking out enemies naturally earns experience, and with each level, you earn a skill point to plug into your character. Even if you hit the maximum level of 50, you won't ?max out? a character, so you have to pick and choose exactly what you want. A nice touch is at the ?New U? station (it's kind of like a Vitachamber from Bioshock in terms of respawning after death), where you also can wipe out all your progression and redistribute skill points, though it costs money to do so. When you complete the game and finish everything, you can start a brand new game using your existing character, with everything scaled up to meet you. Since you'll likely finish the game somewhere in the mid-30s if you're playing alone, you either need to keep playing and just grind, or start over to reach the top level. Or just go online and earn it that way.
Though the RPG elements are nice, Borderlands is really about questing and looting. There are roughly 5 bazillion quests in all the areas of the game, and in many cases, one quest spawns others. Admittedly, many of these are of the generic ?fetch this, kill that, acquire this? variety, but anything that takes advantage of the great gameplay mechanics, the better. At times, it seems like there's an endless supply of adventures (hence the carrot on a stick theory), many of which lead to some nice loot. The loot is the real joy of the game, wandering through a bandit camp, for instance, and coming across one of those lovely boxes of goodies. The loot itself is randomized, and nobody will find the same loot drop twice. It also respawns if you return to an area later, so you never know what you'll come across while traveling through the ?dungeon? areas, which usually are camps and caverns. If you're the kind who likes a more balanced, limited selection of guns, this will only confuse you, as there's frequently dozens of different variations of the same gun, so it all depends on how you want to play. It's possible to buy guns from a vendor, but they're always much weaker than the good stuff you find traveling. Other items like shields and grenades have dozens of modifiers too, so the game is definitely overwhelming at first. At least you can see exactly what everything does before picking it up.
Though it has all these RPG and loot-driven attributes, it's still a shooter. And it's a pretty good shooter. It's not brutally hard; as quest difficulty is tied to a specific level, not the level of your character, it's possible to hold off on a lot of quests, grind a few levels, and suddenly what was once ?tough? becomes ?trivial? and a bit easier. It still maintains a solid challenge throughout, as you'll often be attacked by hordes of aggressive enemies. Raiders, for instance, come in three varieties; the ?psycho? Raider will just charge at you for cheap melee attacks, and usually are just pests to distract you from the midget shotgunners (seriously) and the soldier-types that will pump you full of lead. Getting a shield is imperative to success, since it otherwise leaves you vulnerable to getting torn to pieces. The weakness of the enemies is the real dangerous ones tend to stand around or run in a circle making it easy to aim at them. In fact, it became a personal strategy to equip a powerful shotgun, get close, and pop their heads off in one hit, and if the shield went down, found a place to take cover... and repeat the process. Non-human creatures pretty much just charge towards you, which can get overwhelming in a pack, but easy to predict as well.
Borderlands can be played alone, and though playing by yourself might seem a bit lonely, it's still fun and being alone means you get all the loot without worrying about other people scooping it up. The game does lend itself to playing with others though. If you want to play local cooperative, there's a spilt-screen option for two players, and up to four players if you can hook up four Xbox 360 machines through LAN. Playing online lets you start a game up to four players ? you can join someone else's game or let them in on your own, and your single-player character can be used in multiplayer. Depending on how many players you have in the game, the difficulty scales a bit, as multiple people would make mincemeat of everything if the game used the default AI for the single-player game. There's some competitive multiplayer, but it certainly won't appeal to the FPS fans who prefer hardcore deathmatch action. All you get are duels, which can be fought on the spot by whacking a teammate melee style, and if they return the favor, it's on; or you can hit up the Arenas scattered about Pandora for some more ?official? battles. Regardless, if you want some in-depth multiplayer that's not cooperative, Modern Warfare 2 is almost here.
When Borderlands first showed up, it looked kind of plain; it used the same Unreal Engine 3 genericness that we've gotten used to since it seems like every game uses it. But apparently the art guys at Gearbox started a mutiny and got it changed to something we usually don't see in a FPS game ? cel-shading. You'd have to go back to XIII to find a cel-shaded shooter. The cartoony effect works really well, it gives the game a charm that fits the irreverent attitude on display. Instead of it all looking brown and barren, it's colorful and barren, as if someone took a Crayola to the wastelands of Fallout 3 (as an aside, I've done everything possible to not compare Borderlands to Fallout 3 considering their similarities). The comic effect isn't over-exaggerated, thankfully, and still maintains a look of reality, just, you know, happier... even the brutal amount of gore seems to fit right in, if you're into blowing off entire torsos. Because much of the game is text-based, there's not a lot of voice acting, though it's not bad. There is a lot of screaming and laughing from Raiders and other human enemies alongside a ton of explosions and other solid sound effects. There's not much music either, just background noise, the standard ?middle of nowhere? style tunes. It's a shame, because the game starts with a great tune from Cage the Elephant dubbed ?Ain't No Rest For the Wicked? which perfectly sums Borderlands up.