Shooter fans have been used to a very ridged structure in their games so far: you progress through levels, you shoot stuff, you move on. Sometimes you pick up different guns, but mostly it’s an aesthetic change than an actual improvement on your previous weapon, barring the rifle-bazooka trade-up.
What first person shooters haven’t had is the in-depth levelling and obsessive-compulsive stat manipulation of traditional RPGs. Enter Borderlands, a first person role-playing shooter from Gearbox, best known for the PC port of Halo and the Brothers in Arms series. Set upon the dismal dust-ball of Pandora, Borderlands has the player choose one of four classes (Solider, Hunter, Tank or Siren) and starts them off on an adventure to find and open a mythical Vault full of alien weaponry.
The four classes you can pick are your basic RPG archetypes each with their own unique skill and specialities. It all comes down to personal preference, and you’ll no doubt find that one of the characters fits your play-style more than the other. For my play-trough, I chose Roland the Soldier and his deployable turret skill. When you reach level 5, you can unlock said skill and each subsequent level after that has you choosing additional upgrades for both yourself and your designated Action Skill.
If you’ve played World of Warcraft, the set-up is very similar: each class has three trees to allocate points into and each tree has unique benefits for choosing it. Each skill can be levelled up to five times and the more points you unlock in a given tree the more skills in that area you have to choose from. It goes without saying that the further down the tree you get the more useful the abilities become, so take time and examine each tree carefully to find out whether the investment’s going to be worth your time or not.
Besides having the trappings of a traditional RPG in a shooter skin, much fuss was made about Borderland’s massive amount of guns which equals up to some incalculable number, if you believe the PR hype. Guns divide into seven categories and even though your character will have a preference for a certain weapon set (combat rifles and shotguns in Roland’s case) you can build up your proficiency in a given firearm by using it consistently. Guns are dropped off of bosses and enemies and have randomly generated stats and effects expect for weapons which drop off bosses; those have fixed stats. Again using a World of Warcraft-like model, the guns are color coded depending on rarity and usefulness and progress from White-Green-Blue-Purple-Orange.
While this sounds like a unique and gratifying way to reward the loot-whore within us all, the problem with the massive amount of guns is that you’ll constantly be doing a ton of micro-managing to ensure that you’re always carrying the best tool for the job. You’ll consistently run across weapons that are a marginal improvement to your current armament and the stat-conscious behaviour that the game enforces upon you will have you trade it out just to gain a small advantage. Now, multiply that over an average play-through of twenty hours and the dozens of guns of every size and shape and you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your inventory sorting out which piece of ordnance you want to equip.
Guns aren’t the only things you need to be aware of either. While you cannot equip any sort of armor in the traditional sense, the game has Shields to provide you with that extra level of protection and grenade mods to beef out your basic models. These all have their own attributes that you need to monitor, and you’ll be switching modifications and Shields just as often as you will guns.
Then, if you weren’t confused enough by the ever-changing dance of equipment the game eventually gives you access to Class Mods which can enhance your stats and provide you with buffs such as increased magazine capacity and ammo regeneration. Each Class Mod will also enhance certain skills in your skill trees but only if you have a point in that certain skill.
All the mind-bending stat tweaking aside, my most serious gripe with this system is that it does not tell you how your enhancements are being applied in any clear way. Say that a Class Mod adds +2 to the Metal Storm skill and you have two points assigned to that skill already. When you look at your tree, it will still say 2/5 and it will not reflect the change given by the mod. The same thing applies to the weapons as well. If you are very adept in using Combat Rifles it will add a certain percentage to your damage and reload speed, but this is not reflected in the weapon’s info pane. You actually have to shoot an enemy to figure out how much damage you’re going to do.
The RPG overlay of Borderlands works well, but there are some serious problems holding it back from totally meshing with the shooter elements. Given that Gearbox has a history of making competent shooters, the actual combat in this game is a lot more engaging than another post-apocalyptic RPG that comes to mind. Combat is a fast, furious affair that lends more of precedent to shooting and lets your character’s stats take a back seat while maintaining an active role. One aspect I want to shine a light on in particular is the “Second Wind” system. When you run out of Health and Shields, your character will drop to their knees but retain the ability to shoot for a few seconds. If you use this time to kill one of your aggressors, your character will hop back up and you can continue fighting. As a total re-spawn can cost you quite a bit of coin in the later stages of the game, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars for that Second Wind.
The art direction of Borderlands has received praise post pre-launch and post and it is rightly deserved. This is the most varied use of the Unreal Engine 3.0 that I’ve seen so far, and it really helps to break the monotony of the ever persistent desert landscapes that you’re progressing through. The design isn’t without flaws though; there are several instances where you may get stuck in the scenery and committing suicide is the only way out. Instead of featuring the whole “slathered with Vaseline” look that traditional Unreal games sport, care was taken by the art team to apply a distinctive cell-shaded style to the game. Each character model for the important players are very detailed and stylized, but the look of unimportant NPCs and various kinds of wildlife starts to repeat itself a few hours into the game.
Like I mentioned way back in the beginning of my review, the basic premise for Borderlands is that you’ve come to the planet Pandora in search of an alien Vault which contains all the necessary items to live out the rest of your life in luxury. That’s about as far as the story goes, though. It’s fairly bare-bones and the ending ranks among the most unsatisfying that I’ve ever experienced. I don’t want to spoil anything for those on the fence about the game, so take this opinion about the final boss with a grain of salt: it’s totally pointless. There’s a fire-breathing bird about mid-way through the game that’s harder by a magnitude of fifty.
It may not seem like I’m painting Borderlands in a flattering light, but the game is an odd mix of things that totally blow your mind and some other parts that are glaring errors. For every hour that you enjoy questing around Pandora and scavenging for rare loot, you’ll spend at least five or ten minutes complaining about some problem or another. It’s a testament to Borderland’s basic mechanics that I want to keep coming back to it despite its short-comings. I’m on my second play-through now with a level 46 Solider, and I want to see it through to the end and start a new Hunter character immediately after.
My advice is that if you like obtaining loot, enjoy shooters and have a friend or two to stick out the fairly lengthy campaign then you should give Borderlands a try. Just be aware that it’s not a perfect experience, especially if you’re playing on the PC.
Right, so that’s what I thought of Borderlands. What do you guys think of it, and do you agree/disagree with my review? Oh, and I should mention that there’s only one right answer. Go for it!
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