WORDS BY: Paul Curthoys
When you’re the latest slab of fresh meat to arrive in a brutal alien wasteland, you need a little time to get oriented, and that’s definitely true with Borderlands. It looks vaguely like Fallout 3 and it brims with BioShock’s black humor, but it doesn’t play anything like those two famous shooters. But if you add Diablo’s level-grinding and loot-collecting into the mix, you’ll have a great mental picture of the intensely frantic combat in this gigantic and often impressive game.
Just make no mistake: Borderlands is a hardcore-gamer’s game. It won’t be fun to those dudes whose two major purchases this year were Transformers and Madden 10. For starters, there’s no difficulty setting whatsoever, so when you’re getting pummeled — and you will get pummeled — you can’t bop down to Easy and race ahead through the story missions. That thrashing you’re getting is Borderlands’ way of telling you to take your time and properly level your character. Side quests are usually optional in games, but the only optional part of them here is which ones you do. The story missions won’t level your character enough to let you survive, so you’ll need to linger in each location until you’ve built yourself up appropriately. (Thankfully, the missions have tags that clearly display this info.)
Case in point: We took a Level 19 Hunter out into Rust Commons to fight some Level 22 beasties and were instantly devoured…20 times in a row, until we surrendered to what the game was telling us. And that message was clear: Take your time, enjoy the incredibly rich landscape that Gearbox has created, and don’t fight enemies who are more than two levels higher than you or we’ll cut your head off.
With that word of caution out of the way, let’s rewind to the beginning. Borderlands is gorgeous! Gearbox’s decision to delay the game to layer in a cel-shaded art style was a stroke of genius. While it initially looks like the cartoon version of Fallout 3, that surface impression is quickly scrubbed away by the edgy beauty of everything from the vast landscapes to the ferocious monsters to the lethal armored vehicles.
The game’s humor never loses its edge, either. We always got a laugh out of fighting enemies with labels like Mutant Midget Psycho or **** Brute, and so much of the dialogue drips with dark, dark humor. Our favorite was the stranded, deranged scientist who pretended that the vomiting death throes of her last surviving companion were a lovely conversation because she wouldn’t have another one for a while. But when she tired of it, she simply killed her friend and fed her to the alien wolf-like skags. Yee-ouch!
It’s a shame, though, that most of the talking and story progression happens in text and audio-only segments. True, the story is pretty standard fare — you’re tracking down a legendary alien vault full of primo loot that opens only once every 200 years…and a mysterious holographic lady has picked you to open it. But it would’ve been nice to have some cinematic conversations with dialogue trees and all that jazz.
Mostly, though, you’ll be too busy reveling in Borderlands’ greatest accomplishment — frenzied, balls-out combat — to care. The gameplay isn’t really about taking carefully planned shots (though well-placed ones score nasty critical hits); it’s about spraying a big gibbering mess of bullets in every conceivable direction to take down ravenous enemies. Half the fun comes from the ridiculously big assortment of weapons at your disposal — you’ll find everything from pistols with fire bullets to sniper rifles with corrosive rounds to alien ray guns. Picture a weapon, and it’s in here somewhere. You find new ones constantly, and rather than cherishing a few precious ones that you lovingly upgrade (which you can’t do), you’ll be constantly equipping the latest cool gizmo to see what kind of heat it packs.
So at its core, the action feels very old-school, a vibe that’s matched by the constantly respawning enemies. Annoyingly, the exact same foes respawn in the exact same spots with shockingly rapid frequency. If you return to an area you just left, you’ll have to kill everything all over again — and by everything, we’re usually talking about a demented horde, not just a lone soldier or two. We often just bailed and sprinted past to load the next area.
Throughout it all, you’ll also build up your special power — each of the four character classes has their own. We dug the Hunter’s Bloodwing, which is basically a falcon from hell that ravages your enemies, but the Siren’s phase walk is pretty handy, too. It’s hugely important to use your preferred weapon classes in combat as much as possible, right from the start. That’ll build up your skills with that weapon type at the pace necessary to keep you alive. So yes, you need to choose your character class carefully, and that’s where one of our disappointments with Borderlands arose. We played the game mostly as a Hunter — a small, light sniper who also carries a pistol. We stuck strictly by that for the first 10 levels, but as we progressed, we really had a hard time with some of the tougher enemies. So, channeling Halo multiplayer, we switched our focus to shottys and snipers, and after building up those skills, we could hang in there for most battles. But we were left with the feeling that the Hunter character is impractical for solo play, and it’s a shame that the classes aren’t better balanced for that. If you’re playing alone, definitely be a Soldier — you’ll suffer less.
But really, Gearbox hopes that most of you will play Borderlands in co-op, and as a party member, our Hunter was hugely useful at taking overwatch and providing covering fire while the more tank-like characters mixed it up. This game is definitely merrier the more you have (up to four on Xbox Live), and it’s tons of fun to work as a team — it pays off very sweetly.
Despite our love for co-op in this game, we take issue with some of the design decisions behind its setup. For starters, ammo isn’t pooled as a group resource, and that leads to the arduous chore of watching what you pick up so everyone gets what they need. Why not just hoover everything into one shared community pool — which is exactly how money and XP work? Since you can’t share ammo with friends either, manually picking up each individual instance of loot becomes a chore that you have to handle carefully, rather than the moment of happy scavenging and reward that it should be.
The other coop misstep comes from the fact that character level matters so much. If you take your Level 7 Berserker into your friend’s Level 37 world, you’ll be utterly annihilated. Because mission availability is determined by the host’s progress, your friend could hop into your Level 7 world and grind you up with his godlike Level 37 powers…but who has friends that selfless? To get the most out of Borderlands’ coop, you need a group of committed players who show up every time and work together to stay at roughly the same level. While that’s a great thing if you can arrange it, it’s also a pretty severe limitation for many gamers.
And that’s really why Borderlands is great but not for everyone. It’s narrowly aimed at a certain type of player, and if you love fierce combat and the kind of group level-grinding that Blizzard’s PC games specialize in, you’ll feel right at home.
+ Gigantic game packed with weapons, loot, and quests.
+ Ferociously over-the-top combat.
- Enemy spawning and co-op should be better implemented.
? Would it have been that hard to build in save-anywhere and difficulty levels?