Prior to the release of Mass Effect 2, and as a result of the constant praise I was hearing for the first, I decided to play through the original Mass Effect. I was very surprised at how much I absolutely loved the game. The reason for this is that I had never played a Western RPG, and had actively avoided them up to that point. Mass Effect sucked me in, and with that, I was roped in for the sequel. I was also looking for other, similarly structured, games to play. This is when I came across Gearbox Software’s 2009 release: Borderlands.
Borderlands is a quest based role-playing game played in first person. It showcases a solid shooting system (once you get used to it) and a robust leveling system that will keep you coming back. It also has a tremendous looting system, which produces procedurally generated items for a nearly infinite number of weapons, mods and shields to choose from.
Perhaps the most interesting feature that Borderlands offers is its graphical style. Using a cel-shading technique, Gearbox manages to create a truly unique world and populate it with memorable character designs. The enemies in the game, for the most part, fall into two categories: creatures native to the alien world Pandora, and bandits. The various creatures that are native to Pandora feel fresh and original, while the bandits are, for the most part, just bandits. Saving the best for last, in the latter half of the game, you come upon two groups of new enemies who are among the best designed in the game. All in all, a reasonable amount of enemy variety, which feels right at home on Pandora.
As for the world of Pandora, it’s quite a dirty place. Most of the areas you visit have a distinct desert feeling however there is enough variety among these that they don’t get stale. There are a few towns and tons of little establishments which you’ll come across as you progress through the vast planet. Environments vary from hilly deserts, to fortresses assembled using junk, to icy mountains. All in all, the planet fits the vibe of the game perfectly.
The most surprising thing about the graphical style of this game is that it wasn’t originally planned to be like this at all. From the outset, Borderlands was to have a more traditional graphic style, and early trailers showed this off. As a labor of love, some of the team at Gearbox put in work after hours to come up with the “Concept Art” style of the game that you see before you today. Without this, I feel that the charm that Borderlands manages to maintain throughout would be sorely lost, and could have lead to my overlooking it entirely.
These graphics are certainly not achieved without hiccups, however. While playing through the game on my PS3, I noticed a great deal of texture pop-in, which is most likely the result of the games reliance on the Unreal Engine 3 tech that drives it. The framerate also dips when the action gets intense, but, it didn’t happen too often, and it never interfered with the fun of the game. I also ran into a bug where the graphics engine seemed to be overwhelmed by the awe of the Rust Commons area, and I honestly thought my PS3 was dying (See the bug in action.)
The music, voice acting and sound effects in Borderlands are stellar. With a soundtrack composed by Jesper Kyd, who has a number of video game scores under his belt, such as both Assassin’s Creed games, the often overlooked Kane & Lynch and many others. The music truly fits the atmosphere, with a sort of twangy folk sound with light electronic influences. The intro music is provided by Cage the Elephant, with their 2008 single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”, and the game closes out with DJ Champion’s dance hit “No Heaven”. Both of these choices really fit the world of Borderlands, and both add to the game in their own right.
Voice acting in Borderlands is excellent. From your first interactions with Marcus Kincaid (“Get off my bus”) and Claptrap (“Oh check me out”) you know you are in for a treat. They never let up with this, and throughout the game new characters match their voice actors flawlessly. Truly well done.
The sounds of Borderlands are unlike those of most modern first person shooters, but this isn’t a bad thing. The sounds of gunfire in Borderlands are unique to the game, and the various creatures that live on Pandora always emit appropriately disturbing noises.
Like the graphics in the game, the audio suffers from glitches which prevent it from being completely flawless. From time to time, a voice actor will cut out, leaving you either staring at them waiting for the game to continue, or wandering around the landscape missing a crucial plot point.
The first thing I thought of when seeing Borderlands in action was that it was a First Person Shooter (FPS). Perhaps it was this initial impression which led to me struggling with the aiming system in the game early on. Since it is also an RPG, emphasis is placed on matching the character progression with their ability to shoot straight. Early on, this leads to you painting a target’s head with your reticule, pulling the trigger, and being disappointed when the bullet not only doesn’t kill them, but doesn’t hit them at all. This is due to weapon accuracy, and for someone coming off of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, it was incredibly difficult to get used to, and difficult to tolerate as well. As you progress in the game, however, you get access to better, more accurate weapons, and as such, the game because a lot more friendly to players who are used to the gameplay of an FPS.
Multiplayer is a major focus for Borderlands as well. You can go through Pandora with up to three of your closest friends and experience the game together. The multiplayer also allows you to drop in and out of games easily, and even when you’re character is level 50, you can still go and fight the evils on Pandora with friends who have yet to complete any of the missions in the game, working through quests with them as they go. The game is very much aware of player counts and scales the difficulty accordingly. It also scales the rarity and quality of loot which is dropped by the games enemies, with the best weapons being found with more players present at later points in the game. While I didn’t play very much of the multiplayer in this game, I suspect I will be doing so in the future.
Borderlands has a fairly deep RPG element as well. You’ll start by choosing a class for your character, which also decides how the character looks. The classes you have to choose from are the Soldier (All about Guns), the Siren (Guns and Magic), the Hunter (Guns and an animal companion) and the Beserker (Guns and Fists). It uses a quest system similar to that of many Western RPGs, so you’ll find yourself trekking across Pandora to do the hundreds of main and side quests that you are offered. This is a good system, that could have been implemented slightly better. You are offered the option to fast travel between locations fairly early on in the game, however, the points where fast travel access is granted are too spread out for it to be used easily. This is somewhat alleviated by the presence of a drivable vehicle in the game, but it is still quite tedious to make your 50th trip across the Dahl Headland because you need to turn in your latest quest and there wasn’t a fast travel beacon around.
Borderlands also features an expandable inventory and easy to use character progression systems. You know the drill, skill points are gained by leveling up and you can apply them to various skills. In Borderlands, this means upgrades such as honing your sniper rifle accuracy, or gaining the ability to generate bullets. Inventory that is not needed is sold at one of the many vending machines scattered across the wasteland. You can equip up to four weapons at a time, all accessible using the D-pad. You also have the ability to equip
grenade and class modifications as well as shields. Nearly everything that you equip in the game is procedurally generated. This means that you can have a nearly endless number of combinations for your load-out, which leads to your character playing exactly the way you want him/her to.
Turning in quests can also be a pain. I spent approximately 1/3 of the game trekking between New Haven and the Rust Commons East and West just to complete and turn in the various quests I was doing. Walking all the way back to someone after doing a quest, only to be granted experience and the occasional item artificially lengthens the game, and at later levels, really makes for dull sections of gameplay.
I would have also liked to see a mini-map on the main screen, so I wasn’t constantly going back and forth between the map and the game to navigate the landscapes throughout Borderlands.
Borderlands’ story is nearly non-existent. The basic premise is that you hear a voice in your head telling you to go to the Vault, which is said to not exist, where you will discover vast alien resources and technology. While there is some setup to this, you’re really just going from character to character doing their quests, which more often than not have nothing to do with finding the Vault, or even anything to do with fleshing out what the Vault is. It’s rare for a location in the game to have significance in the story, which is really a shame. The world Gearbox created could have been so much more interesting if there was more attention paid to the history and the interactions between characters past and present.
It certainly could be argued that Borderlands doesn’t need a thought-provoking narrative, but I was left wanting more from the world I just spent 20+ hours in.
Borderlands is a flawed but enjoyable first person role-playing game set on a vast planet with a number of charming characters and environments which truly make it a unique outing. I honestly couldn’t put my finger on any one thing that makes this game worthwhile, but, i can honestly say it is worth more than the sum of its parts. If you like Western RPGs and First Person Shooters, I definitely recommend this.