Review: Borderlands (Sony PS3)

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


I have never been a big fan of the whole ‘Games Are Art’ thing. It does not ring true to me, for reasons I cannot really articulate better than this one sentence: if something is Art, with a big ‘A,’ then it is not going to be more enjoyable with alcohol. It’s true for baseball, pro wrestling, and karaoke, and it is definitely true for video games. The thing is, even if I thought a video game could be art, I do not think I would want it to be. I want video games to be bright and loud and fun, like a clown on drugs. That is what Borderlands is: bright and loud and fun.

Story/Modes:
To say the plot of Borderlands is wafer thin is an understatement. No matter how long you play, the plot does not get more intricate than ‘Hey, there’s a Vault full of alien guns we should loot!’ This means that Borderlands officially has the best story of any game this year. Yes, seriously.

Do you have any idea how sick I am of games shoveling sub-standard romance novellas or half-baked Tom Clancy gun smut down the throat of the player just because games have to be more than just games to appease people who are slightly embarrassed to play video games into adulthood? Very. It is refreshing to play a game that does not insist on guiding me through the sociopolitical struggles of some fictional planet before letting me blow things up. I do not have to know why I am shooting the alien dog monsters. I have a gun and they are alien dog monsters. How complicated is that?

The plot of Borderlands is simple. You pick one of four mercenaries, new to the planet Pandora. Your mercenary, be it the Hunter Mordecai, the Soldier Roland, the Berserker Brick, or the Siren Lilith, is riding on a bus as the game begins. After picking your merc, a blue tinged woman starts talking inside of your head, tantalizing you with the prospect of finding the legendary Vault. Yes, within seconds of starting, you have been bombarded with references to Team Fortress 2, Halo, and Fallout. Oddly, this does not really turn me off.

When details about Borderlands started to surface, there were grumblings about the brazen use of the word ‘Vault’ in what appeared to be a first person role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic world. Thing is, that falls apart once you start playing Borderlands. First off, Borderlands is not a post-apocalyptic game. While Pandora is not a suburban world, it is definitely not a nuclear wasteland. The aesthetic is more space western than anything.

The story moves along via missions. A few missions are key and required to advance, but most are optional. Much like games in the Grand Theft Auto series, NPCs offer up cash and prizes for their side quests, which range from seek and destroy missions to item hunts to the odd car based mission.

The Modes in Borderlands are aimed at the co-op player. This is a major plus. With the increasingly rare Split-screen, a second player can bang around Pandora with you, gathering masses of loot. Online, there is a great co-op mode, allowing for up to 4 players. While teaming up with other players, enemies are stronger, but the loot becomes better. Hell, if you are lucky enough to co-op with people 10 levels above you, the loot is epic. Short of Team Fortress 2, I cannot think of a more fun co-op game on the PS3.

Story/Modes Rating: Incredible

Graphics:
From the moment Borderlands starts, the graphical panache is evident. While it has been called cel-shading, the graphics have a look that more resembles a comic book. The colors are bright and the edges are all black and have an inked look, but the textures are a little dingier than a true cel-shaded game. This look is very attractive and looks great on my HDTV.

The art style is best described as Heavy Metal-esque, with characters and villains being lithe and sinewy or muscular to the point of being balloony, and the women being long and lean. The vehicle design is reminiscent of an Apache helicopter mounted on a dune buggy frame. With NPCs varying from the Hawaiian shirt wearing TK Baha to the uber-cracker Scooter, there is a wide variety of quality design work. The animations are some of my favorites from any recent game. The Midget Shotgunners fly backwards after firing their shotguns, the Psychos look suitably insane as they charge you, and the way the Skags’ heads split open when they roar are all memorable. All of the bosses are super-cool looking and animated, with mad props going to Sledge and his insane welding mask.

The guns are also a major draw. How many games advertise having 87 bazillion guns and mean it? Borderlands randomly generates the guns that you find, and the results can be interesting. With the parts being random, some guns look better than others, but they all look good. From bullpup submachine guns and huge revolvers to combat grip shotguns and automatic pistols with bayonets, the guns are all interesting and cool.

Graphics Rating: Incredible

Sound:
The most notable thing about the commercials for Borderlands is the catchy song playing in the background. That little ditty, ‘Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked’ by Cage the Elephant, plays over the game’s nice opening sequence and sets the tone for the game to come, as it’s fun and a little rowdy. The music that plays over the end credits is even better than that, and is a perfect song to sum up the game. The in-game score is very good, as it’s mostly simple instrumentals that really capture the space cowboy themes of the game.


As far as voice acting goes, there is not much. While there are some notable characters, like the guy who does the opening story and runs the gun vending machines, and Scooter, the car guy, most of the voices have a distinctly Southern drawl, except for off-worlders, who sound more Northern, lending more weight to the feel of Pandora being a backwater planet. The voice actors for the actual player characters are also quite nice. Roland, the Soldier, has a confident tone, while Mordecai, the Hunter, has a great cocky voice. Brick sounds so much like the Heavy from Team Fortress 2 that he must have been either inspired, or actually voiced, by the same actor.
One voice actress deserves special attention. Whoever played Tanna, the self-absorbed scientist, deserves a medal. A sort of mallrat cum Colonel Kurtz, she knows that she is losing her mind and is detached enough to comment on it. Her sniping at the “fat girl” in her party is some of the funniest voice acting I have ever encountered.

Sound Rating: Great

Control and Gameplay:
While I am not a serious FPS player, the Borderlands control scheme was natural enough that I picked it up within minutes. L1 activates the Action, which is dependent on the character you choose. R1 throws a grenade. The L2 button brings up the scope, R2 fires the gun in hand. X is a jump, Square is the “pick things up” and reload button, Triangle changes the selected weapon, and Circle toggles between standing and crouching. R3 is the melee attack, but with guns like Borderlands has, why bother? The controls for the buggy that Scooter provides you with are based on the sticks, with the L2 and R2 buttons firing its weapons.

As your character levels up, they earn skill points that can be used to boost different aspects of their class. Each character’s skills are broken up into three aspects that the class can specialize in. For example, Mordecai can spend his points on making his sniper rifle unstoppably powerful or on making his pet bird, Bloodwing, more dangerous, or even on honing his revolver skills to become a gunslinger. Some skills are aimed at solo play, while others really shine in co-op. As you cross level 20 or so, Mods that alter your character’s skills makes it possible to diversify or specialize as you please, adding some interesting depth to the gameplay.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic

Replayability:
I do not generally plan on playing a game, no matter how good, for longer than 40 or so hours. That is the standard I aim for. After putting 40 or so hours into Borderlands already, I can easily imagine putting in 60 more. Between the four classes and the fact each has three or more variations, and the joys of playing co-op online, there is a lot to do. Taken in stride with the fact each game can be very different because of the randomly generated weapons, Borderlands has about as much replay as any FPS or RPG I have played in years.

Replayability Score: Classic

Balance:
The learning and power curve of Borderlands is nicely balanced. Sure, the random weapons do, on occasion, make your character overly powerful, but that is a rarity. That parties can be composed of members 10 or more levels apart and can still function pretty well speaks volumes about the balance issue. I scarcely wished that things were harder or easier, which is the mark of a very well-balanced game.

Balance Score: Classic

Originality:
I have dropped the names of no less than four very high selling franchises in the description of Borderlands. That being said, I still think that Borderlands occupies enough of it’s own head space to be declared a pretty unique new franchise. Yes, there are references to other games, but they are done with such respect and skill so as to be perfectly acceptable. The aesthetic is so stylish and interesting that I hope with all of my heart that a sequel will be forthcoming. For my money, the Action skills are much more interesting than the VATS on Fallout 3.

Originality Score: Very Good

Addictiveness:
Tying into the Replayability rating, I cannot stop playing Borderlands. The sheer exuberance of the violence in Borderlands makes it much more palatable than many of the more bleak games in the genres it borrows from. The joy of the combat cannot be overstated. Simply put, Borderlands is a pleasure to play.

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

Appeal Factor:
My wife, who does not play role-playing games or first person shooters, took one look at the commercial and wanted to play Borderlands. I was desperate to play it from the almost two years of hype. From the stylish design work to the smooth gameplay, I cannot think of a more appealing game this Fall.
One of the biggest complaints people had about Bioshock and Fallout 3 was the lack of a co-op or splitscreen mode, something Borderlands integrates into its single player mode very well. The ability to move your character from multi-player to single and back again is novel and makes for a great experience.

Appeal Factor Rating: Incredible

Miscellaneous:
Gamestop offered a pre-order bonus for Borderlands: a pack of guns. This pack does little to effect the long term play of the game, as it only takes a few battles to gather an even better arsenal of weapons. Also, this might sound like an arbitrary thing to mention, but I love the case design and the way it stands out on my game shelf.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story: Incredible
Graphics: Incredible
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Classic
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Incredible
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
I have had to shake my head at all of the people comparing this game unfavorably to other games. Borderlands might be a soup of many different pieces, but it is one Hell of a soup, indeed. Borderlands is a fun, exciting game that has enough style and atmosphere for half a dozen games. With its slightly off-kilter aesthetic, hopefully enough people will look past the surface similarities to other games and see an awesome game that will keep you entertained for a solid month, at least.

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