Welcome to Pandora: Land of opportunity, plentiful bounty, angry alien critters, oh- and about 17 million different guns. Although Borderlands has been out for a few weeks already, AAG have been diligently power leveling our way through the different maps and missions to bring you the definitive review. For a game that coins the phrase RPS (Role playing shooter) there’s a lot to like and a lot to see so lets lock and load and take a look at the good, the bad- and the ugly.
Borderlands starts off strong, at least in theory. An unlimited number of gun combinations, some basic leveling for your character, skills and attributes and an open- free form world to explore and loot. The execution though is some-what softer than expected. For a 'role-playing game' it leaves a lot to be desired. Developers, Gearbox have opted for the Diablo-esque side of the coin, i.e.: no dialogue options, fixed character classes, linear skill trees and technically more loot and money grinding than you know what to do with. Rinse and repeat spawning with consistent way points and a cash penalty for death not to mention fighting through all the same enemy you just killed. This is all well and good and is instantly reminiscent of Diablo to Gearbox's credit, but role-playing it isn’t. Diablo also had a plethora of character customization options with armor and clothing mods. You could socket items and health was mapped to one button so you could easily heal. Borderlands simply doesn't. For all the different guns there are, you can not modify them; beyond magazine capacity and some elemental damages and there are four very generic classes to pick from. Brick the heavy tank, Lilith the demo and elementalist, Mordecai the hunter sniper and Roland the soldier engineer. You can change the color of clothes but otherwise are stuck with a model the same as your friends with no customization. Dialogue is even less inspired. A combination of written quests and some spoken, Gearbox have again borrowed from Diablo in that it is less about the story and more about collecting as much loot as possible.
So what exactly is there to find on this desolate waste? Guns, guns and more guns, and some money. Two great staples in any RPG, unfortunately, the only two. After Fallout 3 let you pick up anything from plungers and copper wire to teddy bears and glue, having a choice of only money or guns (or ammo for said guns) feels somewhat limiting, and repetitive. People who would otherwise offer quests and sell items like health and ammo have been replaced with vending machines and, although this streamlines game play, also smacks of laziness and the personal touch other role playing games bring. On Pandora- no one can hear you scream. Each character is equipped with a backpack which holds 'more than it should' and yet, until the later levels of the game is extremely restricting. Any RPG worth it's salt will at least offer chests to store loot, which normally you don't have to use because your character can carry so much; but Borderlands 15 odd slots divided into shields, guns, grenades and health, is simply not enough for all the weapons you find. In the end you will resort to selling all but the best of guns just to hold onto that level 40 epic.
It's not all pain and gain though. There are vehicle 'mounts' more similar to Unreal Tournament than Halo, which are both floaty and hard to steer, no dungeons to speak of but 'inside' areas that load separate to the rest of the game, and the occasional mob boss to mix it up. Different grades or levels of guns and ammo and even enemies are color coded for easy understanding and the shooting is at least competent.
So ignoring the pseudo-attempt at role playing, how does Borderlands fair as a shooter? A whole lot more fun, actually.
To some extent, each gun might as well be its own character they are so well defined. As ridiculous as it is, to have a pistol packing flame damage with a 4X scope and 109 damage, it's the 'what if' scenario that keeps people playing. The possibility that inside the next crate might be a bigger badder, more epic gun. Falling into a few categories of shotguns, sniper, smg, pistols, auto-pistols and rifle it is a credit to the marketing that not only are each gun colored and built differently but that even the scopes are different depending on the type and elemental damage. There are also more exotic alien weapons around the game discovered through the course of the story.
The first person controls are mapped well, not unlike those Call of Duty and unlike the spammy Halo, crouching can actually be toggled. Again, in theory with all these guns floating around, going online or co-op with a buddy would invent a trade system where friends drop each other guns and dueling was fun. Online though instead you find no one dueling because of the biased one sided nature not to mention no instances, nothing to do while you are dueling and no one trading guns, because at the higher levels, one gun really is as good as another. For all the choice there is limited storage space and little distinction between which gun is best in any one situation.
Further there is little incentive to have lower level players in your game as it caps the difficulty for higher level players and if you do party up at a low level then you will find yourself instantly leveled beyond your needs so that even at the start of the game you can go back and begin as level 20 or higher. Before the first mission is even complete. These issues shoot Borderlands square in the foot and lower it to the mediocrity seen in Halo when it could be so much more.
Gearbox have drawn heavily, for the story of Pandora on a number of industry staples both familiar and foreign. Openly influenced by Diablo, but also Mad Max, there are also touches of Fallout and even Joss Whedons’ Sci-Fi classic Firefly. Both Mad Max and Firefly saw open deserted worlds where renegade bounty hunters faced off for nothing more than a better gun and few dollars. Depending who you are though, the first character you meet, is either funny or rather annoying. On a bus, for some unknown reason, you offload only to be greeted by a 'sexy', gyrating, beat-boxing robot, otherwise known as Claptrap. There are a bunch of them all over the planet and they serve as a 'humorous' tutorial and guide to all things bounty hunting. As far as setting the tone of the game, straight up you can see the divide between Fallout 3 and Borderlands. The humor is a whole lot more obvious, tries too hard to be funny and otherwise panders to a much younger demographic. Fallout 3 was wholly adult, dark and mature in comparison; and so it continues. You will also, before you even relies it be greeted by an ephemeral blue female, appearing on your screen and talking only to you. As the story progresses she guides and talks to you and bears a striking resemblance to another blue AI- Cortana.
In Borderlands there is a story; it just takes a while to find it. For anyone comfortable with RPGs this is not such an issue as role playing games either fall into two categories of 'too much story' or 'not enough'. For everyone else they will be too busy drooling over the next weapon to even notice. There are suitable twists at the end of the campaign and true to form; the game does have some very violent and gory moments at odds with the slapstick humor and bright colors.
Gearbox software and publisher 2K Games, have made no small noise about the randomly generated content but also the graphics. Unfortunately it was only a year ago that another game Prince of Persia offered the same thing.
The cell-shaded overlay is serviceable and adds a unique quality to what could have been an ordinary game. Underneath though or studying the terrain reveals a more limited polygon count, flat surfaces and a distinct lack of detail. Compared to other games using the Unreal Engine the geometry in Borderlands is low. The black outlines add detail where there were none, but can look messy in small areas like on the face or on guns. Not overly bad, Borderlands relies on color over lighting and shadow to draw attention to detail. Gun classes are color coded as are upgrades and enemies. A lot of npc have their mouth covered as well negating the need for complex animation.
In fact the lackluster AI, where enemies either run at your shooting gun or stand their waiting to die ties in with animation that needs to be refined. This is seen most clearly in vehicles which are floating at best and don't steer round narrow corners. Curiously, what most people don't relies is that these days and with Unreal 3 in particular, most of the information for materials and textures is stored in the material map, for lighting, bump, specular, shadow and surface. When you remove that and replace it with a flat-shaded cartoon, the true extent of the geometry underneath is revealed. On a larger screen there are consistent texture popping and low resolutions.
The sounds of Borderlands are just another area, where it could have excelled but didn't which is unfortunate because the music is excellent for the most, until you hear it for the millionth time.
Entering Pandora the score is instantly recognizable, seemingly snatched from Diablo itself. Falling somewhere between Fallout 3 and sacred 2, it fills the emptiness of wandering alone across the arid wastes. Unlike both those games though the tone seems to repeat it all too often and simply becomes boring. Some of the dialogue lines including the very first conversation with claptrap are repeated verbatim if left alone and for an RPG there is little to no unique dialogue from the AI. Your character will make shout outs based on your action but has no voice of their own per say. There are no dialogue trees or choice in direction and most quests are given through a generic 'bounty board’; again avoiding personal contact.
In retrospect the guns of Borderlands are the glue that hold it all together as 17 million randomly generated guns have some of the best sounds in any game. That said it all falls into the category of 'loud' with not a silencer in sight.
There is no doubt that Borderlands is a fun game. Gearbox have worked hard to combine a sense of role-playing with shooting into an attractive package that will appeal to a wide audience. But pandering to a younger demographic has meant that the humor is hit and miss and the role-playing elements for what there are, are basic at best, but enough to make newcomers ease into upgrading and skill management. The story itself is not too long and although it boasts over 130 side missions the incentive to keep going is dependent on the player. Rather than a whole world we get a bunch of maps, not as large as they seem, strung together with load points. Each area looks similar to the last but incoming DLC hopes to expand and change this.
Multiplayer modes amount to co-op or arena 'battles' which are redundant and only result in stealing other peoples loot. Despite the claim of 17 million different guns, you can't help noticing that they are only guns. Some new armor or melee weapons or better vehicles wouldn't have gone astray. Plenty of games have less guns and more overall content including loot drops other than ammo and cash.
Marred by some technical and gameplay flaws, Borderlands very nearly falls into a similar trap that many would- be role playing games do. So much randomly generated loot equates to hundred of items, but of the same type different in stats and color alone. The uniqueness of Pandora wears off, but the simple fun of loot whoring and shooting with friends should last a lot longer. Gearbox have probably bitten off more than this old skag can chew, but it's still fun.
AAG SCORE 8.8/10
- Unique art style
- 17 million+ weapons combos
- Accessible to everyone
- Limited role-playing elements
- Shorter campaign than it looks
- Online issues and gameplay flaws
Reviewed & Written By Ian Crane