Borderlands from developer Gearbox and publisher 2K has been a long time coming, but it is here and after a massive play-through whilst we waited for our review copy to turn up I can definitely say that for me, this is one of those must-not-miss games.
You are a Vault Hunter, one of four crazy characters who have heard of the Legend of the Vault. Upon the planet of Pandora is a legendary treasure cache that is said to contain wealth, alien technology and so much more. You embark on a wild ride to find this vault and along the way, you're going to meet a cast of colourful characters, do a lot of quests and most of all find a lot of loot, we're talking more loot than any other game before it.
Diablo 2 with guns, a lot of guns, a planet-load of guns and gear that's randomly combined using Gearbuilder, the procedural technology developed at Gearbox for the specific task of making weapons, shields, modifications and even putting together various enemies and creatures thanks to a set of very intelligent design tables that combine things in a pretty believable manner.
Borderlands is a 'hybrid' game that comes firmly from the First Person Shooter space and incorporates RPG elements into it. You have the typical FPS controls: crouch, sprint, throw grenades and shoot a lot. What sets Borderlands apart from the slew of FPS' out there is that it gives you four distinct character classes to explore the open world of Pandora with. Each of the four characters has three separate skill trees and when you reach 5th level you can open up their action skill and start to put points into the three trees. As you kill bad guys and do quests in Borderlands, you'll earn experience points, level up and collect loot.
It's this delicious blend of levelling, looting and progression that allows you to create your own variant of the character and set them apart from everyone else.
The character classes are interesting, based on MMO-style concepts. You have:
Brick: the tank of the group, he has an action skill called Berserk and he can pound enemies into a bloody pulp with his meaty mallet-like fists. He takes a lot of damage and can dish out just as much. His three skill trees allow you to gain extra cash when fighting in Berserk or regenerate his health and so on.
Roland: He's the soldier of the Vault Hunters, his action skill is a turret that provides fire support on the field, has a variety of additional powers unlocked through his skill trees. It can regenerate health, ammo of Roland or his allies for instance or Roland can gain healing bullets from his tree, shooting allies will allow him to heal them.
Mordecai: He's the hunter and he excels at long-distance weapons, sniper rifles and scoped pistols are his forte. His tree allows him to upgrade his pet alien raptor, the Bloodwing (his action skill) to attack with elemental damage, multiple targets and to bypass enemy shields with a single shot.
Lilith: The siren, weaker than the other characters in terms of damage dealt and taken, she has her Phasewalk action skill. Phasewalk allows Lilith to warp into another dimension where she's invisible and cannot be harmed. Her tree allows the player to add elemental damage to her entry/exit and shock damage whilst she's in phasewalk, she can also be upgraded to regenerate health and shields.
These are just examples of the various things that you can do with the three skill trees; there are a lot of options and only 45 to spread around since the level cap for the game is set at 50 and you'll probably be around 35-36th level when you finish it.
Pandora is an open-world, with massive dogleg-like instances where you can spend hours roaming, looting, killing, exploring and questing. There are tonnes of side quests and the core story leads you from one place to the next, where you'll unravel the very secrets of Pandora and have a literal blast. Gearbox has thoughtfully provided you with Runners, vehicles that can make the long journey much quicker and allow you to partner up with a 2nd player as gunner. You can choose the colour and the weapon, from a machine gun to a rocket launcher.
There's also a fast travel/teleport system that lets you visit any previous New-U station. New-U stations are a place where you can respec your character for a cost and be rebuilt should a horrific death befall you, and since creatures/bandits and so forth have levels, you should be wary when going into battle against a superior foe. If you're not up to the task then the game will show a skull icon on your crosshair, this enemy should be avoided until you're equal or greater level. Of course, the rewards are always greater if you can take them down. You will get more xp since it's based on the level difference higher/lower between you and your target.
If you should lose all your shields and health, you have a small amount of time to kill something and gain a second-wind. If you finally succumb to death, well, it'll cost you a percentage of your hard won cash when you are rebuilt at the New-U station. It is a small price to pay really when you consider the reward of the Vault.
As mentioned before, it's the levelling, the looting and the gear that makes Borderlands so much fun. Chests do respawn when you reload the game from taking a break, so do bosses, so it never feels overly grindy. You can always gain some xp from going back and shooting up familiar but lower level enemies. You'll also see that Borderlands features various elite monsters, these Badasses are true challenges and will take a lot of firepower to put down to begin with, they are worth the time and effort though since they often drop a lot of loot and give you a decent chunk of xp. Shooting things in the face has also never been so much fun, since a headshot in this game is a critical and you can get some massive damage numbers rolling up from that.
You can equip shields, grenade mods, elemental artifacts and COM's on your character in Borderlands, and whilst you start out with a limited inventory space, you may earn more by helping various damaged smart-ass robots known as Claptraps, endearing little fellows that need your help. COM's are class mods, they will alter the fundamental aspects of your character, boosting team shield capacity, or your SMG damage and so on. These are combined again, randomly.
One niggle I have is that inventory management could have been a little better, but the backpack does order things by rarity and gives you a decent feedback on what you have. Being able to compare things in the backpack and shops is also a much needed addition that Gearbox have thoughtfully included.
So I decided to give this little devil its own space in the review, since it's worth expanding on. Gearbuilder combines a bewildering array of parts based on manufacturer lists, to create various weapons; COM's, shields, grenade mods and you name it. This random element adds immensely to the fun-factor of the game and provides a huge draw to anyone who loved loot in Diablo 2. Not only does Gearbuilder make the weapons from a set of criteria, but it also builds them physically based on the manufacturer's design and materials. Jakob's guns offer a lot of power, often lack the accuracy of other brands and are made of wood, they look like they stepped right out of the Wild West in places.
Gearbuilder will add scopes, elemental effects, fire, caustic and so on through these lists and provide a nearly 17,750,000 viable weapon/item/gear combinations in game.
This is the game that always surprises us when we boot it; we often see something we've never seen before, usually in the arms of a Badass Raider or Bandit leader.
Gearbuilder also creates the monsters and enemies in the game too, so you never quite know if you're going to be facing a Skag, an alien dog-like creature or a Badass acid-spewing massive corrosive Skag that can tear through your hide like paper in seconds.
You're also rewarded for playing a second time, since everything has been upgraded and the loot is tonnes better on the 2nd playthrough.
Finally, loot is colour-coded rather like in an MMO.
You have white at one end of the spectrum, which is weak and common, with a dark orange at the other end providing the most jaw-dropping loot most of the time.
Borderlands looked fairly generic way back at 2008 E3; it looked like just any other shooter out there. Along came Gearbox's art team and pitched an idea to Randy, who initially wanted to shut them down. Then he saw it, and I'm glad he did, because I am a massive fan of this art style. It's not and I repeat, NOT cel-shading. A similar graphical design was used in the new Prince of Persia and the game: Crackdown. However, Borderlands new style is based on their concept art and adds a touch of the over the top humour and quality into the game that I feel it needed.
It's larger than life; everything is beautifully and extremely detailed texture wise. From the characters to the environments, it's like being involved in a violent comic-book treasure hunt and the environments whilst initially bland and very frontier-like in terms of design, change, as you plough further into the story and unlock more of Pandora to explore. Gearbox has also implemented all the nice shading, dynamic lighting and other bells and whistles into their iteration of the Unreal Warfare engine.
There are a few niggles, textures take a little while to load sometimes, but no where nearly as bad as Mass Effect was for that. So they can be forgiven.
Pandora has a short but beautiful day/night cycle and it's during these times you really get to see the dynamic lighting at work.
The game's GUI is also pretty useful, sparse and giving you just enough information. Damage numbers roll off into the ether as you shoot enemies, giving you a great fun feedback in battles.
Everything about the art is great; the animation is likewise excellently done. Every character has a distinct quirkiness about them that make them more than just cookie-cutter animations. The death animations are wide, varied and some of them are totally over the top. There's nothing quite like punching a guy's head off as Brick and watching it explode like a melon. Or seeing someone electro-shocked by a Siren with a shock-SMG and watching their brain fry. Enemy and monster animations are great as well, with the Skags a firm favourite here.
Unreal's built in physics has been used to a good effect here, bodies fly, they twist through the air from a suitable explosion and react to bullet impacts. All in all, it does what it needs to do and what it says on the tin.
I've seen mixed feeling about the AI in Borderlands; some people seem to think it doesn't really do much. I've seen it suffer a break in morale, run away, come back from a flanking position, snipe you, relocate and shoot from behind cover. I've also seen it run around screaming when set on fire. I'm not quite sure what people want from the game but the AI to me seems to be adequate enough, it provides a good challenge and whilst the boss battles are pretty easy since they don't seem to have as much work in their AI, it's still good fun.
I am a big fan of the sound design to Borderlands; it's packed with atmosphere as you explore Pandora. From the various monster screeches and the ambient noises out in the badlands and other places, it's all recorded and delivered extremely well.
I love the soundtrack as well, it has a very Firefly quality to it and I loved that show. It's part science-fiction epic cross spaghetti western with traces of Gearbox's humour thrown in, a twangy heavy guitar track might kick in when something big shows up to accentuate the battle and then fade off into a quiet melody when all is quiet and serene.
Voice and Dialogue
Borderlands isn't a game about reams of dialogue, nor complex multi-choice speeches in dialogue-trees. It's about getting to the action and shooting things in the face. The voice work is solid and whilst some of the character lines do repeat a lot, there are loads of other non-player-character bad-guy comments and one-liners that let fly during intense battles. However as much as I like TK, Scooter and the other characters, I have to give a massive GOLD STAR to DeaddMan for his portrayal of the loveable Claptrap, its spot on. All the voice work in the game is however great, but Claptrap is my firm favourite.
Borderlands is a game that's built on cooperative play, either split-screen for two people on the same console, system link for LAN parties and online through Xbox Live, you can experience the adventure with up to three other players. It's full drop in and drop out coop, there's no need for game lobbies or waiting to start and game, as long as the host player lets you play you can jump right in.
The more people you add, the monsters get tougher, the loot gets better and the experience deepens for everyone. There are two Runners that can spawn into the game space and they can be manned by two people. Hot-swapping whilst moving is possible and you can seamlessly switch from one position to the other to give someone a chance to be the gunner or driver.
Your character is also persistent, so everything you earn from one game can be taken into the others. A high level character in a low level game may only earn a few xp but can allow a lower level player to catch up, since the lower level player will gain more xp, benefit from tougher creatures and better loot.
There isn't a better cooperative experience to be had on the market, so far. As a cooperative shooter, Borderlands nails it in one and delivers a fast paced, fun and frenetic time for everyone. A balanced group of characters can benefit each other, with Lilith drawing the bad guy's forwards, Roland's turret to suppress enemies, heal allies and cut off a possible escape route, Mordecai for overwatch and Brick, to pound the enemy into mush.
Levelling together, killing bosses and just experiencing Pandora is addictive.
Should your friends desire there's an Arena in most of the instances where you can fight it out in a Deathmatch, setting various options and so on to provide free for alls or team based games for you and your crew.
If someone talks smack in the game normally, you can smack them with a melee attack and if they smack you back, you'll be encased in a protective dome and allowed to duel until one of you is the victor. A fun way to settle disputes over loot, since it's first come first served unless you're playing with good friends who share.
I've played this game through to its conclusion, and then again on a 2nd playthrough. My Siren is now 43rd level and I am not bored yet, no one else that I've played with is bored either and whilst Borderlands might not be everyone's cup of tea or coffee, it's a great game. There are a few issues that I've not experienced yet and the infamous skill reset bug hasn't cropped up so far.
There are a few physics glitches and I've seen AI get stuck for a moment or two, every game has these teething troubles. I've played 4-player co-op with friends, colleagues and even a couple of random groups, everyone has agreed that the pros outweigh the possible cons and for the purposes of this review I can say that I haven't really had a con yet.
So this is a game that gets a definite high score from me.