There’s a large audience out there that will drop $60 at the mere utterance “It’s like Diablo.” With its addictive gameplay and focus on replayability, Blizzard's influential RPG has inspired gamers and game developers alike. In Borderlands’ case, the promise was “Diablo with guns,” a mixture that has been attempted in the past, but has usually ended in disappointment. However, being developed by Gearbox, the only developer Valve has ever entrusted the Half-Life name to, gives the game a chest full of potential, and it appeared as if the combination could, at last, be perfected.
The game’s opening does a great job at establishing a mood. Set to the sounds of Cage the Elephant’s “No Rest for the Wicked,” a bus speeds through the deserts of Pandora, smacking into a wandering animal. The view shifts inside the vehicle and introduces each of the four playable characters, going through a simple animation describing exactly what it is that each one does. There’s Brick, the Berserker, who brings melee abilities; Lilith the Siren, who can become invisible with Phasewalk; Mordecai, the Hunter, who can access a bird that can take down enemies behind cover; and the Soldier, Roland, who can drop a turret to grant cover and additional firepower. Since it was revealed that the game would feature four classes, it has remained one of the most perplexing choices in the entire game. There’s no real physical customization in Borderlands beyond tweaking some color options. It seems like the obvious choice would have been to allow players to create their character and choose their own stats, and different shields modifying the characters’ appearances would have helped in lieu of some sort of armor system. Instead, the only way to tell characters apart is by what gun they’re using.
When it comes to the way the characters play, it’s a different story. While they can each use every weapon and, on the whole, feel pretty similar to one another, every ability point gained through play can be used to customize the character’s skills. Each of the classes has three skill trees, each with a different path. Roland, for example, can either add points to be a group leader with healing abilities, to enhance his turret, or to enhance his power with weapons. Certain character-specific items can also expand on this, and help push each class further apart.
After choosing a class, the view changes to first-person, where it will stay for the majority of the game, and introduces the “Guardian Angel.” Appearing at the top right of the screen through static and fuzz, it’s impossible not to point out her similarities to Halo’s Cortana, though her role is significantly different. She’s reaching out to the players, asking for help, and promising to lead them to the Vault of Legend. This works out well, since the Vault is the reason the mercenaries are traveling to Pandora in the first place. The Vault is supposed to contain vast amounts of alien technology, making the awful planet a hotspot for perspective treasure hunters.
That’s essentially what Borderlands is: a game about treasure hunters. In a way, it’s reminiscent of a Spaghetti Western, and follows a similar formula to the film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The setting of a lawless, dusty old west is replaced with the unfortunately named Pandora, a near-barren planet that serves as the perfect backdrop for what could have been an epic tale. Each of the three factions trying to get to the Vault even parallel characters from the Sergio Leone classic. The players are the Good, trying to get to the Vault for personal gain, but aren’t about to screw over anyone on the way who is trying to help them. The military wing of the Atlas Organization is the Bad, taking advantage of their strength and ignoring any morals that might stop them from killing and turning on anyone in the way. The Ugly is represented in this case by an insane scientist named Patricia Tannis. Her extended time on Pandora has driven her mad, and she needs to rely on the players to find the Vault, since she spends most of her time arguing with inanimate objects.
This pseudo-Western tale works well for what Gearbox is attempting to do with Borderlands; a valiant attempt at marrying the RPG and FPS like never before. In the past, games have taken elements from each genre, with Deus Ex acting as the catalyst and the more recent BioShock and Fallout 3 continuing that trend. The difference is whereas Fallout 3 was an RPG with FPS elements, and BioShock was an FPS with RPG elements, Borderlands is a true combination of both, pulled off without feeling forced or unnecessary. In order to make this work, Gearbox took the intrinsically attached elements of each game type and bound them together. For instance, even if it’s not actually stated, first-person shooters have “critical hits” just like RPGs. In Halo, a headshot usually kills an enemy, which is not all that different from Final Fantasy using a random number generator to decide whether or not any given attack is a critical. In both types, it’s done behind smoke and mirrors, and usually not acknowledged. However, in Borderlands, everything has a weak point, and hitting it will do extra damage and display the word “Critical!” in big, red letters. In fact, every hit has numbers pour out, indicating the damage taken. It not only aids in the presentation, but gives the same satisfaction and instant gratification that helped propel Modern Warfare’s multiplayer.
Gearbox doesn’t just acknowledge the similarities in the two genres, it revels in them. Borderlands takes away the element of chance from the RPG and gives complete control to the player, which is where it sits as a shooter. Another example is in loot, something usually left out from first-person shooters, right? Wrong. In Call of Duty, dead enemies drop weapons. Some have scopes, some have more ammo in them, and there are dozens of different types. Again, this isn’t really much different than a monster dropping a sword, especially when it comes to Borderlands. Where it borrows most from Diablo II is in the random loot table, which, if the game’s trailers are to be believed, creates somewhere in the ballpark of 87 trillion guns. While that number might be inflated a bit, there’s no question that Borderlands has a lot of weapons. Nearly every weapon drop is unique, sporting different attributes, abilities, and physical appearances. Because of this, every time a weapon hits the ground it’s a mad dash to check it out, compare it to others, and decide which one to use. Keeping a well-stocked armory is essential due to the different types of foes that might pop up, and finding new, powerful loot is immensely rewarding and addicting.
Again, it’s not about finding ways to mix the two genres together, it’s about finding ways they’re already mixed and taking advantage of it. When it comes to this aspect, Gearbox did a wonderful job. The combat is utterly fulfilling, there’s no other way to put it. If there’s ever a section where enemies seem too difficult or are taking too many hits before dying, it means that the weapons being used aren’t powerful enough, and there are plenty of opportunities to get new weapons. This is because of the way Borderlands is set up, which is vastly different from the average shooter. Where it’s more of an RPG is in the mission structure. The game’s missions take many forms, from collecting objects to killing a certain number of enemies. After selecting one from a bounty board, all that’s left is to drive to the waypoint and complete the task at hand. From time to time, NPCs will ask for help as well, moving the story forward and inching the player towards the Vault.
Completing side missions is important to the Borderlands experience because, well, there’s not much else. That’s not to say the game lacks content, far from it; the 150+ missions will take most 20 or so hours to complete, which is significantly more than the average shooter. It’s just that instead of spinning an epic tale, Gearbox decided to create something more akin to a Massive Multiplayer Online RPG, with the mercenaries picking up missions from Bounty Boards and completing them for experience and items. This seemingly simple act is hindered by the lack of a minimap and awkwardly shaped maps, both of which make constantly checking the menu a necessary annoyance. After a little while, fast travel between different waypoints is opened up, but even then it’s still a chore to get from place to place. The issues with travel are also lessened thanks to Borderlands' forgiving attitude towards players' death. After running out of health, players are only partially crippled, and can jump back into battle by dropping an opponent and earning a second wind. If unable to do so, they respawn at a nearby checkpoint, with all of their progress intact.
For many people, the idea of spending more time hunting down miscellaneous items or killing nameless enemies than doing anything that might resemble a story might be a turn-off. Most people will likely be able to ignore the poor enemy AI and frequent glitches, but the minimal story can be annoying at times. Plot should be a driving force to continue playing, and Gearbox, who has a history of creating compelling, character driven tales with the Brothers in Arms series, should have been able to do much, much better. The issue of wasted potential stretches past the story and into the actual presentation of the game.
The problem isn't in the visuals – they’re fantastic (obnoxious texture issues aside). Though it may have been confusing at first, the shift from a realistic look to cel-shading definitely worked in Borderlands’ favor. It presents a unique aesthetic; more like concept art come to life than Wind Waker’s toon-shading. The occasional splash-screen introducing a boss tries to secure a specific mood and style, attempting to be crude and cool at the same time. The first time a strong enemy arrives with “Badass” before his name it’s funny, and the same can be said when a poor quality weapon gets the “Weaksauce” prefix. As the jokes become fewer and more repetitive, however, what was almost an incredibly stylish game slowly slips away to the ordinary. It’s as if Gearbox bought the best darts and made the world’s coolest looking dartboard, and then proceeded to throw each one into the wall. Cities are bland and forgettable, and it feels as though once the unique graphical style was established, Gearbox felt as though it would be enough to carry the rest of the game. It doesn’t. Despite looking wonderful it can feel utterly dull, something that nobody expected when the trailers were first released.
The presentation doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the game, but it certainly feels like a missed opportunity at building a memorable world. While it succeeds in looking unique and appealing, it slowly putters out. In fact, that’s nearly a metaphor for the entire game. Luckily, the ability to play with friends prevents Borderlands from ever falling victim to its own monotony. There’s no question about it: Borderlands is best played with friends, and Gearbox made sure that cooperative play is as simple as possible. Apart from including split-screen play, a rare occurrence these days, the online game is paramount to the experience. At any point, players can join together to complete quests, fighting through the entire campaign with up to four people. With each additional mercenary, the difficulty is ramped up, creating more of a challenge. The ability to duel and fight in arenas should stretch it out a little bit, or at least make fighting over weapon drops more exciting. The lack of a trading system, however, is simply dumbfounding, and something that will hopefully be addressed in some sort of title update.
Borderlands is a fantastic beginning to what will hopefully become a great franchise. While it lacks certain elements that would have made it more memorable, the sleek gameplay and beautiful graphics represent a stellar example of genres melting together, something which too often fails in execution. After completing the game, a second playthough is opened, turning up the difficulty and starting the story anew, something that many gamers will likely end up taking advantage of. It might be hard to find time for Borderlands in this crowded holiday season, but it shouldn’t be ignored, and is something everyone should try out.