Overdue Review: Borderlands

Word on the street is a lot of people don’t like Aliens: Colonial Marines. The good name of developer Gearbox Software has been dragged through the mud, buried in accusations of poor management skills and an inability to do justice to a long beloved franchise.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, the name Gearbox was a blessing rather than a curse. They’d been involved in six Half-Life titles and launched the reasonably successful Brothers in Arms series. And then came 2009’s big sleeper hit: Borderlands.

Set in the far future on the planet of Pandora, Borderlands follows your chosen character as you set out across a bleak wasteland teaming with settlers, bandits, and vicious wildlife in search of a mythical vault full of alien technology. I couldn’t help being reminded a little bit of some of the poorer, less-developed planets featured in Firefly. Be they evil raiders or hopeful pioneers, the denizens of Pandora make due with what they’ve got, and what they’ve got is a whole lot of junk left over from previous corporate efforts to colonize the planet.

A hybrid between first person shooters and simple role-playing games, Borderlands manages to take two very disparate styles of play and merge them into something that really works. This is a shooter first and foremost, but the quest structure, skill tree, and inventory management are downright Diablo-esque. Boil the game down to its simplest form and you’ve got a series of fetch quests interspersed with bouts of intense gunplay.

The aforementioned gunplay is some of the best in all of gaming. It’s fast, it can be challenging, and cover works naturally–a welcome break from the clunky scripted cover mechanics that plague many modern shooters. Fire rates, damage ratings, cartridge sizes, and even elemental effects team up to create the most diverse array of weaponry I’ve seen in a shooter. Guns come in limited forms–pistols, revolvers, SMGs, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and Eridian energy weapons–but no two are exactly alike, and each has its own legitimate use in combat. See that guy with the energy shield? Drop his protection with a few electrified rounds from your SMG, then switch to a shotgun or a revolver to finish him off. That shirtless dude who thought it was more important to show off his killer pecs than to, you know, protect himself? Light him up with some fiery ammunition. The never-ending stream of masked bandits and giant bugs would feel much more repetitive if the means of sending them to their graves weren’t so varied. Weapons, ammunition, and cash are hidden everywhere, so a sharp eye pays off. I’m not sure why everyone on Pandora prefers to keep their valuables in the toilet, but then again, I’ve never attempted to colonize an alien planet. Had my life played out differently, maybe I’d understand.

At the outset of the game, players are given the choice of one of four vault hunters, each with a unique skill tree and a special action skill. Brick’s a big tough guy with a berserk mode that makes him immune to damage while he punches the daylights out of everything in sight. Mordecai’s a sniper type with an avian pal, Bloodwing, which he can unleash when things get dicey. Roland, the soldier, comes equipped with a deployable turret. Lilith, who relies on elemental attacks, can Phasewalk into another dimension, rendering her invisible and unleashing a powerful shockwave upon exit. Each action skill is limited by a significant cool down period that typical renders them more useful in emergency situations. If Lilith gets cornered, for instance, slipping into Phasewalk can buy a few seconds of shield regeneration, deal damage, and give the player a chance to find a more favorable position. Leveling up grants a single skill point to invest in your character’s skill tree. A five percent bonus to your shields or 10% more elemental damage may not sound like much, but you’ll notice the difference. Character growth occurs at a slow but not tedious pace.

Despite all of the fun, shooty mayhem, Borderlands has one significant flaw: its story is garbage. If you’re looking for character development or dialogue that provokes a thought beyond “I should shoot that,” you’re not going to find it here. Narrative is typically delivered via short paragraphs of quest text or short audio diaries scattered across the wasteland. The primary antagonist doesn’t appear until later in the game and gets very little introduction. Up to that point, bosses mostly consist of just one bandit leader after another, with the occasional large animal tossed in to spice things up.

Given the game’s marketing strategy, comic bookish presentation, and general penchant for pushing the envelope, it’s surprising that most of the scenery and characters are relatively bland. The guy running the arena in which you fight hordes of angry wildlife? Boring. The bandit lord who surveys his realm from high atop a towering intergalactic backhoe? He looks like a homeless former CPA. Patricia Tannis’s audio logs add some color as they tell a tale of a lone archaeologist slowly descending into madness, but otherwise the characters are mainly forgettable. This strikes me as strange; it’s almost like the marketing department got mad because they thought things were getting too weird so they made the writers tone things down a bit. Borderlands feels far too reserved at many points given what it is.

Vehicle sequences make driving fun but surviving and shooting a chore. Beating an enemy vehicle one-on-one in an Outrunner of your own without the help of a second player is nigh impossible. A boss fight with a larger battlewagon left me scratching my head as to how the hell I was supposed to get through until I realized I could just hide in the corner and snipe–a tactic often more useful against enemy vehicles than trying to square off directly, which is unfortunate given how much fun the Outrunners are in non-combat situations.

Despite those nitpicky warts I mentioned, Borderlands is a damn good time. It may not have much in the way of a story, but hey–narrative isn’t really the main attraction here, and that’s just fine. Some games are about nothing but gameplay, and when gameplay is as fluid and fun as that in Borderlands, that’s really all you need.

Positives:

  • Some of the best gunplay on the market.
  • The diverse array of weapons keeps things interesting.
  • Fun comic book style can be very interesting to look at.

Negatives:

  • Narrative could use some work.
  • Enemy types are extremely repetitive.
  • Difficult vehicle combat feels like it was designed primarily with multiplayer in mind.

Score, if you’re into that kind of thing: 9/10

And a haiku:

Unleash the mayhem
With the best guns anywhere
Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot


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