Review: Borderlands (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Borderlands 360 BoxBorderlands
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Genre:First Person Shooter/Role-Playing Game
Release Date: 10/22/2009

There is a wonderful scene in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves is considering how to effect the escape of Laurence Fishburne from his A.I. captors. Keanu responds to “what do we need?” with: “Guns. Lots and lots of guns.” Gearbox Software must have been watching this scene a lot recently, because their new game Borderlands features just that. Guns, and lots of them. Is there anything beyond the ability to shoot off a near-infinite number of firearms here, or should Gearbox have left this one at the shooting range? Let’s find out.

1. Story/Modes

Borderlands takes place on the far-off, not at all a reference to Road Warrior planet of Pandora. As the game begins, you and three other fortune hunters are riding a bus driven by a smelly, pseudo-Russian man named Marcus. The character intro is actually pretty cool, as each of the four playable characters stands up and preens for the camera. You have Roland, the Soldier, who is a shotgun and assault rifle specialist. Mordecai, the Hunter, specializes in sniper rifles. Lilith is classed as a Siren, which is just another way of saying she’s hot and stealthy. Then there’s Brick, who is the requisite Tank of the group. Everyone has a special skill as well. Roland can drop a turret, Mordecai can use a bird as an ally, Lilith can turn invisible and stun enemies, and Brick is, well, he’s the tank who beats people with his fists. As you arrive and choose a character, you hear the driver talking about some hidden Vault that is full of treasure, weapons, power, and generally anything a man could ever want. Ironically, this description is matched with a bunch of hand-drawn art that features little kids searching for stuff. Considering how adult the rest of the game is, that’s hilarious. While you are getting off the bus, there is a brief interlude with a woman’s face showing up in your view, telling you that she’ll help you get to the Vault if you prove you’re worthy. So, off by yourself to find vast wealth and power, right? Right! However, even better than running around solo is taking to the wastes with three friends in a quick, drop in/drop out cooperative multiplayer. You can bring other character classes in or just play as the same guy across all four players.

The search for the Vault is really just there as a hook. It’s a paper-thin excuse to put you on the planet, hand you a gun, and tell you to go to town. The story in Borderlands is just about as important as the story in Left4Dead. The only thing you really need to know is that there are scumbags, raiders, mutant bird things, and midgets with shotguns running around in the wilderness out there, and they are carrying loot. Loot that you should be carrying. Loot that you deserve to pick up. Get out there and get that loot! To give you just a bit more motivation, there are quests you can pick up from Claptrap, the local robot, or from various NPC’s throughout the world. Most of these NPC’s are hilarious, such as a blind man with a shotgun early on who claims he can smell skags and raiders. Taking time to read the quest descriptions and text should also bring a smile to your face.
Borderlands 5
In fact, that sense of humor is what keeps Borderlands from getting a much, much lower rating in the story department. An early boss fight against a man named 9-Toes kicks off with a movie marquee-style poster that proclaims “He also has three balls!” You can almost hear the running commentary of MadWorld in your head as you play. Your characters will also exclaim when they land a critical hit or find cool gear. In what can only be another nod to Left4Dead, Roland will yell “Heals here!” whenever he finds a health pickup. The pronunciation is almost identical to “Pills here!” that has become a catch phrase online. They also yell out about critical hits and kills. You can turn that off, but that would be depriving yourself of a grin when you hear things like “Elite my ass!”

Story/Modes: Very Good

2. Graphics
Borderlands uses a cell-shaded look, very similar to Crackdown or the recent Prince of Persia. There are no reasons to wish for a more realistic graphics engine, because what’s given to you is awesome. Impressive draw distances, fun character models, wicked weapon effects, and smooth animations are all here. Even some great effects such as fisheye zooming occur, blurring the edges of the screen aside from what you are targeting. While most of the weapon models repeat after a while, they typically have a unique color scheme that allows you to tell them apart. The enemies also tend to have re-used skins and models with a few things to differentiate them, but most of the time you’re killing them so quickly that all you are seeing is death animations. Some of those are great, too. I’ve caught more than a few bad guys on fire and watched them dance and burn. Acid damage weapons? The corrosive juices will melt a strong man into goo. Skags, the requisite rat-like creatures that eventually evolve into a serious threat, will even drop for a few seconds if shot in the back or the legs. Weapon models feature some very cool ideas as well, even if they aren’t completely different. Shotguns and some Sniper Rifles, for instance, use a speed-loader type mechanism to reload. It’s really cool to watch the barrel get breached, the old shells pop out, and the new ones go in. Most of the combat rifles use a side-magazine, which is also neat to see loaded.

Because Borderlands is a role-playing game, stats become very important in a hurry. When you’re shooting enemies, damage inflicted will pop up and bleed off of them. There is a bit of an issue in the menu system when you are trying to read what the stats are and what they mean, but Gearbox included a nice little comparison tool that will help you decide what to keep and what to sell. You will eventually find elemental weapons, and if you put enough fire bullets into an enemy they will catch on fire. The only bad thing about the graphics is that is sometimes very difficult to tell what type of weapon you are using. Each of them have an icon, but it would have been nice to see a written description or a bigger icon, especially when there are two different types of pistol. The weapons are grouped into pistols (repeater and revolver), SMGs, combat rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and alien tech. Since all pistols and SMGs tend to be one handed weapons, it can become hard to tell what you are leveling, but that’s not a huge knock.

Graphics: Incredible

3. Sound
If you’ve seen advertisements, you’ve probably heard Cage the Elephant singing their popular song Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked. That shows up again in the game intro, and it fits surprisingly well. So, too, does the soundtrack for the game. It suits the mood, and that’s all you have to hope for. The music picks up when you are fighting and backs off when you are exploring, and every once in a while it just nails the right feel. Most of the sound design time went into the weapons and enemies, though. Speech is often muddled, but the only things that are speaking that you care about are NPCs. A few of them have good lines, and a few of them don’t. It’s not a terribly important thing though. The gist of most speech in the game is either “Aargh, I kill you!” or “Aargh, you killed me!” Weapon sounds are good and loud, and there are appropriately different sounds for the different classes of weapons. Some assault rifles clatter, some cough, and all are loud and impressive.
Borderlands 4
Special note, though, goes the to Claptrap robots scattered throughout the game. You have to help them to up your inventory, and mostly they are found laying on their backs crying about leaking oil or other precious fluids. Once they’re back up, they start to dance, sing, and occasionally quip with you. They are like surly little ghetto R2-D2 robots. Claptrap’s speech is one of the better aspects of the game. Some of the NPC quest speeches – when they are given – are also hilarious. Scooter’s remarks about his mom’s “Lady bits” made me laugh and cringe.

Sound: Very Good

4. Control/Gameplay
If you took the shooting mechanics of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare and added them to the leveling and questing mechanics of Diablo or Fallout 3, you’d have Borderlands in a nutshell. Some of the early quests are painfully basic fetch quests along the lines of “Carry this fifteen feet over and come back.” Still, they are training quests, and they mostly disappear in an hour or so. You can have a decent number of quests active at any given time, and can choose which one to track. A little waypoint indicator shows at the bottom of your screen to hint to you where to go. It isn’t perfect, but it helps. You can also spawn vehicles at certain locations to speed your travel across the wastes. One of the better features I’ve ever seen gives you the ability to control the turret and the vehicle at the same time. So many times in Halo games I’d want to drive a Warthog but still be able to shoot my turret, but couldn’t unless I had a buddy. That need is covered here. Also, you can hold Y to swap places with the driver or gunner, respective of where you are. This is great if someone is a better gunner or a better driver and got in the wrong seat. Each vehicle fits two people, so in four-player games you can have a pair of cars racing and shooting. The vehicle controls themselves aren’t great, and some of the driving physics are questionable – I got stuck on a guardrail and had to ditch the vehicle, for example – but they are serviceable. I’m willing to forgive that because of the names of these cars. You can choose eight colors, each with a different, punny name. Orange is the General Flee, black is Vehicle X, and so on.

The gunplay, which is where you will be spending most of your gaming time, is near-flawless. Shotguns don’t quite have the spread I want them to have, and a lot of the gunfights turn into close-combat in a hurry, but that is really the only complaint I have. Each weapon type handles differently enough to be unique, and some of them have close combat applications as well. There are also the expected barrels to shoot, but in this game, different colors mean different effects. Green barrels are corrosive, and therefore good against armored targets. Red barrels are fire barrels, and have a chance of igniting your foes. Blue barrels are somehow shock barrels, and can stun survivors. Keeping you alive in this storm of bullets are two things – health and shields. You don’t have an armor system, since Gearbox apparently decided that giving you a million or so guns was enough. But you do have a shield system, and you can swap out various buffs. Some shield items mean that you’ll have low shields, but your health regenerates at a rapid pace. Others are designed so that you have high shields and when they get depleted they release a burst of flame.
Borderlands 3
If there is one serious problem with the controls, it is the looting system itself. You press X to manipulate the environment or pick up things. You can hold down X to “sweep” up a large group of items or auto-equip any weapon. This becomes a harassment when you accidentally pick up a crap weapon instead of the epic you were holding a second ago and have to go into the menu to swap back. Also, if you’ve gotten shot up, you can’t just walk over the health packs, you have to pick them up. Maneuvering the reticle to get those becomes annoying in a hurry, especially if you’re in a pitched battle.

Control/Gameplay: Incredible

5. Replayability
Three words: Off. The. Charts. Borderlands uses a loot system very similar to some of Blizzard’s games. White items are so-so. Green items have a certain extra ability or two, like a higher damage, clip size, faster reload, or something. Blue items are fairly rare, but tend to have an extra effect past green. Purple items are glorious instruments of death. Orange items are epic. There is nothing like running through an underground bunker, spraying lead at some doomed raiders, and seeing a purple or orange item drop to the ground, only for everything to go quiet as you walk over to it and pick it up as the battle concludes. Things only get better when you are with friends. After the fifteenth level or so, you start balancing your current gear against what you might be picking up. Is it worth holding onto a level five purple gun when a level 10 green one might be better? Anyone who has ever agonized over gear changes in World Of Warcraft will know the pain. As fun as everything else is, and as neat as some of the later level content gets, Borderlands might be the most-replayable game I’ve played this year.

Replayability: Classic

6. Balance
Borderlands is gentle, at least at first. There is actually a very pleasant difficulty curve in the early goings of the game. You quickly run out of that though, and will encounter enemies that will, if there is only one of you, utterly destroy you. Playing with friends raises the difficulty of the monsters, but it also greatly increases the output of damage that you will be providing. Fortunately, most of the quests are listed with easy, normal, difficult, hard or impossible based on your current level. There is a bit of an issue where you’ll find yourself up against a massively healthy enemy and just have to pound away at it – in some of my playthroughs I was able to pop out the turret three times during a boss fight. That amounts to more than five minutes of shoot, evade, shoot, special power, evade, etc.

Borderlands also features something very similar to the vita-chambers of Bioshock. For some reason though, they are inconsistent. Sometimes I would pop out of the chamber with my target at full health, like a fresh encounter. Other times I would be facing a half-killed boss. Weird, but since the advancement and looting is more important than a consistent mechanic, it’s not game breaking. This is somewhat leavened by the fact that every enemy will respawn after you leave an area and come back. This resurrection becomes almost laughable later in the game, as you will start one-shot killing anything that looks at you funny. Of course, since this is a great way to see a new weapon effect, I completely encourage it.

Balance: Great

7. Originality
Borderlands is, at the same time, the most derivative and the most original game I’ve played in a while. Almost everything here is cribbed from another game, film, or genre. It looks like a cartoon, feels like Mad Max, shoots like Modern Warfare, does cooperative multiplayer like Left4Dead, and loots like Diablo. Bobblehead dolls from Fallout 3 show up as well, but they just add to the cash you collect. There are even moments that remind me of the movie Doomsday, like when the psychos run at you yelling “Salt the wounds! More flesh for me!” Even with all that, it feels fresh and new. A lot of that comes from the fourth-wall breaking humor. Borderlands is about as anti-politically correct as you get these days. Tougher version of bosses are called “Badass” whatever. Enemies that are on fire are flaming. There are midgets with chainsaws and shotguns that actually knock themselves on their ass if they shoot. You can actually end up facing, because of the procedural generation of characters, a Badass flaming psycho shotgun midget, which is hilarious. Borderlands isn’t very original, but it does a great job of presenting itself as such.
Borderlands 2
One thing that this game features that, somewhat surprisingly, is original is the second wind concept. If you get knocked down, you aren’t actually out. You start bleeding out and keep your weapon in your hand, very similar to the Last Stand perk from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. As the world starts to go dark around the edges, you can keep shooting. If you manage to kill an enemy in this state, you pop right back up and are ready to go, with a full shield and about a quarter health. It’s a great mechanic, and a lot more fun than a quick time event would have been. It definitely keeps the action moving.

Originality: Very Good

8. Addictiveness
In the trend of other games of this nature, Borderlands has a painfully addicting “just one more” aspect to it. One more gun, one more level, one more quest. It becomes very easy to fall prey to the lovely grind. It is a very easy game to pop in for what you mean to be ten minutes, which then turns into two hours. Then, you’ll see a friend pop online, invite him, and it just starts all over. The moment you get a new gun there is an itch to try it out. This usually leads to ten more minutes of shooting things, by which point you have another new gun. The cycle perpetuates itself over and over again.

Addictiveness: Incredible

9. Appeal Factor
Chocolate and peanut butter might be the best example of a combination that just works. You don’t always get so lucky. Action RPG’s tend to fall into the “Do what we tell you, and in two levels you can get a shiny new skill” category. Borderlands doesn’t fall far from that. You’re not going to be able to role-play like you could in a Fallout or a Baldur’s Gate. However, it’s clearly not a pure First Person Shooter either, as evidenced by the item management, skill choices, and quest options. For all that, though, Borderlands succeeds at being fun, and therein lies the appeal. There are so many different ways to kill bad guys, and then once you’ve done that, you’ve opened up new ways to do it again. For people looking to jump online with friends and play a challenging, rewarding game with no spawn campers, rage-quitters, or idiots spewing racist insults, Borderlands is the way to go. The fact that it’s beautiful and plays great certainly helps.

Appeal Factor: Very Good

10. Miscellaneous
It can be hard to say exactly why Borderlands works, but it just does. The world of Pandora is an ugly one, full of raiders, bandits, and worse. To help you out, you eventually start to see advertisements for armories during the (sometimes lengthy) load times. Grin worthy quotes like “Jakobs. If you have to use more than one shot, you’re not using a Jakobs.” start to stick happily in the mind. While the loads do sometimes take a bit, you can install the game to your hard drive to speed this up.
Borderlands 6
So aside from a few very small quibbles, let’s talk about the role playing aspect. Their are four roles in total in the game, and each of them plays differently enough to matter. As the Soldier, Roland fills the Paladin position quite nicely, and he can actually heal teammates by shooting them. After a few points in certain skills, his turret will also act as an area of effect heal. Lilith is the crowd-controlling Mage of the group. Her Phasewalk ability will stun enemies in bunches. If timed right, she can walk away and let the other teammates wipe the floor with the stunned enemies. Mordecai is a little less well-defined as the Hunter, but this is mostly because his weapons don’t stand out. Using his hawk as a fifth party member can allow you to distract enemies and sometimes steal health and items though, which is always worth it. Brick, named as the Tank, is maybe the least fun to play in a group but strangely the most satisfying as well. Once he starts building into his special abilities, he really can go to town. Seeing someone cut in half because they’ve been hit with a lead pipe is gratifying beyond words. Gearbox took the most important roles of a MMO and condensed them into fine shooter form.

Miscellaneous: Very Good

The Scores:
Story/Modes: Very Good
Graphics: Incredible
Sound: Very Good
Control/Gameplay: Incredible
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Great
Originality: Very Good
Addictivness: Incredible
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Very Good
Final Score: Great Game

Short Attention Span Summary

Borderlands is a great example of a game that probably shouldn’t work, but does on nearly every level. Once you get past the paper-thin story and just start wandering the wastes and grinding, you’re in for a treat. It is a fun grind too, offering tons of ways to slay your enemies and lots of surprises to keep you coming back. The game takes it up a notch when you start playing with friends, and turns a very enjoyable gun-fest into something else altogether. Featuring lots of light tactics and tons of tactical considerations, Borderlands is easily the best First Person Shooter I’ve played in a long time. Great graphics, solid sound design, fun quests, and a sense of humor that shows through in some weird places makes this game easy to recommend. Pandora’s an ugly planet, but you can make it cleaner one bullet at a time.

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