There’s something rather special about a shotgun that fires rockets. Sure, a normal shotgun is all well and good for dealing with close range foes and packs a mighty punch that can knock lesser enemies off their feet, but it does not match the sheer awesomeness of a shotgun that fires rockets for one very good reason: it doesn’t shoot fucking rockets.
Borderlands is a Role Playing Shooter that puts you into the role of one of four mercenaries with different skills arriving on the planet Pandora in order to search for a promised source of great riches called The Vault. Each of these mercenaries has a different set of skills roughly equating to four typical RPG character archetypes. Each one of these in theory requires the game to be played in four subtly different ways; There’s Lillth, who resembles the ‘Mage’ of the group with an ability to move quickly away from (or toward) danger with her Phasewalk ability encouraging a hit and run style of play. Roland the Soldier with his trusty Turret gun able to be deployed to dispatch enemies or provide shielding and healing as a support class, while Mordecai fufills the long range Hunter role being especially proficient with Sniper Rifles and being the owner of a trusty pet Eagle. Finally there’s Brick, the tough guy rounding out the foursome with his role as a Tank, able to absorb a lot of damage and his berserk skill making his fists as deadly as any weapon found in the game. The four characters can then be further customised in the RPG tradition of skill points, able to be spent on your character to go down certain paths and customize them to your needs like many MMORPGS. This provides some more welcome individuality to your character, and meaning you can really play to your strengths with your character. For example you could upgrade Roland’s turret in order for it’s friendly fire to actually heal your teammates.
So like an RPG, you accept quests from the locals to gain experience and level up your character while killing many bad guys along the way. However like an FPS you’re using shotguns, rifles, pistols and many more weapons to shoot your enemies. These enemies include Pandora’s native dog like creatures known as skags, angry bandits and a hybrid of spiders and ants known helpfully as Spiderants. These are then backed up by the rather tougher versions known as Badass enemies – more resilient emeies which can be tougher to take down and may more than once cause you to rethink your strategy of running and gunning. Luckily, despite these toughies, shooting Midgets in the face as they run towards you with axes in their hand never gets old. Bosses too make regular appearances throughout the campaign, although aside from getting a glitzy intro don’t often offer much in the way of variation. That comes from the weapons. Every container or gun in the game is randomly generated, throwing up awesome combinations such as the aforementioned rocket firing shotgun, or the spectacular lightning gun that makes skulls explode. Elemental effects and bendy bullets are possible and it really makes for some compelling gameplay. For those not used to the RPG staples of looking for guns with bigger numbers, Borderlands will certainly convert you as you face the dilemma of swapping out the gun that fires faster for the one that does more damage, or dissolves foes in a spurt of acid and critical hit notifcations.
Much was made about Borderlands new visual style when it was revealed late into production, many accusing Gearbox of trying to chase on the back of success of Valve’s TF2. Of course these accusations were unfounded. The look fits extremely well with the whole deep south feel and atmosphere to the game. The characters you meet are for the most part certainly kooky in their own backwater way, even if you yourself are never really explored much beyond being an interplanetary mercenary. But special mention has to go to the Claptrap robots, who will certainly provoke Marmite like reactions, especially after being exposed to them for a while. Pandora nails the feel of a harsh desert world, although after a while a slight complaint may be levelled at the fact some later areas feel rather similar with only really certain landmarks providing points of differentiation.
The other double edged sword with Borderlands comes in it’s other much touted feature of co-op play. The game can be enjoyed single player – or if you choose – you may fight alongside up to three other people. It’s rather interesting to note mind, that the game can be played with any combination of the four characters it also makes the game feel as if the characters don’t really have a need to compliment each other that well. While it makes sense on a practical level for this to be the case, it does feel like it’s a bit of a shame that the game doesn’t quite have that sort of reliability on your team mates that a game like Left 4 Dead has, and makes co-op feel more than an optional extra than a truly integral part of gameplay. Of course, your co-op experience is going to crucially depend on the people you play with, which also makes it a bit of a crying shame that, at the time of writing, the technical side of getting a co-op game running on PC can be a major headache. With people reporting having to mess with port forwarding, the inability to turn your microphone off without having to tweak system files and even things as simple using a mouse wheel in the mission descriptions it really makes one wonder what exactly Gearbox/2K were doing with the extra week delay reportedly for ‘optimising’ the PC version. It’s especially frustrating when the core game is essentially so much fun once you’re in there.
Like many games that try to be a Jack of All Trades, Borderlands also falls into the trap of being a master of none. The game simply does not have the storytelling punch to match the best RPGs, and nor is the FPS combat quite epic enough to stand among the best of that genre. It’s certainly better than most hybrids of other genres though, and it’s a very enjoyable game. Obviously the mileage you get from the game is largely dependant on how much you generally enjoy the style of game of killing a lot of things in order to gain a more powerful weapon. If not, one playthrough might be all you really get through. But despite it’s faults, Borderlands is a genuinely enjoyable game with a hint of spark that deserves to be recognised as one of the better games this year. There’s just a few minor flaws in the game’s schizophrenic nature that prevent it from becoming a classic.