One of the most noticeable trends, in this current console generation seems to be the convergence and merger of genres. Sometimes the combination of mechanics from different genres is natural and makes for a unique gameplay experience. Or more often things are tossed in which don’t do much for the game, and only contribute to push terms like “RPG elements” beyond the point of meaninglessness. Borderlands definitely fits into the former category, combining a first person shooter core with, action RPG conventions, in a meaningful way.
Borderlands is a shooter first, no question about that. Which is not surprising considering Gearbox’s extremely solid pedigree in the FPS genre. The control layout is extremely similar to the scheme in both Modern Warfare 1 and 2, which works very well within the context of this game. The shooting feels good, the controls are responsive and accurate, with auto aim being very subtle and not so noticeable when it’s turned on. Its only flaw seems to be the occasional invisible walls that will imperceptibly block shots when you attempt to hit a NPC that’s close to a part of the environment.
Playing sidekick to the tight shooting controls is a nicely paced leveling system which increases maximum health, some under the hood stats like damage, and allows you to add to and customize your chosen class’ skill tree. Each class has a hierarchy of tiered skills to choose from, divided up into three sub-trees. The perquisite for all but the first level of skills, is five points invested between the pair of skills in the above level. It’s a simple approach and it works well. Character skills take a variety of forms, upgrading ammo storage capacity for a specific weapon type, to upgrading your class’s action skill.
The action skills are Borderland’s characters’ “special powers” and are the primary way the classes set themselves apart. Throughout leveling up, the Action skills don’t change much in their core functionality. And if you choose to add earned skill points into Action related skills, then you can add more damage or additional effects. One such effect makes the Soldier’s turret Action skill regenerate the health and ammo of any player standing around it. Though the action skill is conveniently mapped to the Left shoulder button, I found myself rarely using my Hunter’s bird of prey companion Bloodwing, until the later levels. Not to say the action skills are not helpful, because they certainly can help turn the tide in a battle you’re at a disadvantage in; the lack of action skill use probably speaks more to how the shooting can get the job done by itself.
Besides the ability to clear areas solely by pulling the trigger of your current favourite weapon, your shooting prowess plays a big role in the unique death system. When your character’s health goes down to zero, they’ll be floored, but will have the opportunity to continue shooting from the hip. If you can take someone down within 30 seconds, you will be given a “Second Wind” which gets you back on your feet. If the time passes without body bagging anyone, you’ll respawn at the last save beacon location and have a percentage of your total money deducted. Despite not having much of a death penalty, the “Second Wind” mechanic really helps ramp up the intensity of the game play. It’s always a good feeling when you’re initially overwhelmed, but through one or more “Second Wind” comebacks you end up clearing the room. The Second Wind mechanic really helps to limit instances of frustration.
Besides some of the boss fights, there are not many controller tossing moments in Borderlands. There are not many challenging encounters either, probably due to the enemy AI being fairly simplistic. It’s definitely not the worst, but it’s fairly common for an enemy to not immediately react to you when you’re in plain sight right in front of them. The challenge is usually ramped up by tossing large amounts of enemies at you, sometimes adding a “Badass” variant (which has more health and does more damage then the regular version) into the mix. It certainly doesn’t make for much of a dynamic feeling war zone. But the shooting is so fun, with the variety of death animations also making things a bit more interesting, that the straight forwardness of the enemy encounters does not detract from the experience.
The more simplistic enemy design does turn the boss fights into somewhat non-events. Most of this game’s boss battles and boss arenas, are each fairly unique, but they each end up playing very similarly to any of the other enemy encounters, just with a lot more health to chip away at.
Bosses in Borderlands might not be able to create the feel of an epic encounter like the best game boss battles, it does help that they all end up exploding into a bunch of colourful loot! Nearly every enemy will randomly drop loot, in the form guns, shields, grenade modifications and class related modifiers. The tempo of the game definitely revolves around clearing the area, then going around checking out what loot was dropped. Exploring is rewarded with finding a variety of loot filled boxes and chests strewn about the world. The crown jewel of loot in Borderlands, is without a doubt the guns. As was touted before its release, there are literally an infinite amount of different variations of guns in the world. The guns are created on the fly, with different stats, zoom ratios, and even different status effects sometimes.
Serving as the primary prize in the loot hunting game, it’s always satisfying to find a new and better gun, especially if it comes with added benefits like constantly regenerating ammo when it’s in use. Unfortunately firearms are the only worthwhile loot. It is certainly understandable with how the game works, why there is no armor. It still would have been nice to be able to attain loot that changes the look of your character. I think it was a bit of a missed opportunity to not have a class of loot that could change the character’s appearance. As in other games, a lot of the fun in loot hunting, is had by visually showing off what you’ve obtained.
It would have been nice to set your character apart when playing with other players via co-op, especially since co-op is the most enjoyable way to play and replay this game. The core of the game doesn’t change much, the number and strength of the enemies will scale up depending on the number of players. The balance usually feels bang on when compared to the solo experience. Besides being able to revive each other, there are not any new gameplay mechanics when playing co-op, but that intangible feeling which comes from playing alongside a few friends is definitely present.
Level grinding and loot hunting becomes more fun and less tedious with a friend or three joining you. Playing over Xbox Live, things are usually smooth and in my experience, the network code was very solid, with latency not being noticeable. Co-op split screen while present as an option, it’s a bit weird in that when you bring up the menus. Parts of each menu will be off your screen segment, and will require you to scroll from side to side to access it all, which makes the well designed and streamlined menus a pain to use. As often as the menus will be accessed, it makes the split screen mode not as enjoyable as the online co-op.
However you choose to play Borderlands, one thing is certain, the game’s look and art style really makes it stand apart from other games. From the characters, to the environments, the world looks like it came out of the pages of a comic book. The art style has been described as “cell shaded”, but to me there’s far too much detail to be classified as cell shaded. Different objects in the world have a hand drawn and inked look to them, and that look is consistent throughout the game.
As great as the environments look, and fit the theme, sometimes the environments can be a bit adversarial. Play the game enough, and it’s not uncommon to get stuck on rocks or other objects with an unlucky jump. There was only a single instance that forced me to restart the game. Still, even the more common occurrences that can be escaped via a combination of meleeing and jumping, can put a frustrating dent in your enjoyment.
Another visual stylish touch happens each time a key character is introduced. Whether it’s a quest giving character or a boss, the scene is frozen briefly creating a momentary tableau. The character’s name is displayed, with some character related one-liner, and the freeze frame is overlaid with film grain and a colour filter that makes it look like a comic book panel, and helps to highlight interesting character details like a codpiece made out of a Stop sign.
Aside from some occasionally interesting details, the visual design of the characters, are fairly run of the mill, post-apocalyptic Mad Max. There's also not much story driven dialog, with most of it coming from one character. Most of the quest description are not even given voice overs, instead there are a handful of phrases NPCs will say as you read the quest text. It doesn't hurt things really, as this is not a story driven rpg, but it does make things a bit more mundane.
Likewise the story isn't very captivating, even with some of its more ridiculous aspects. The good thing is, Borderlands approaches its exposition very tongue in cheek, never taking things too seriously. And this makes for some funny moments, where the game dialog will poke fun at the game conventions at work, like not being able to negotiate prices on gear you sell.
Quest objectives are pretty standard, kill this character, fetch this item. But they’re livened up with the occasional quest which asks you to bring things back like a prothsetic leg that a giant wild dog is using as a chew toy. Some of the places you end up are fairly interesting visually, like battling your way into a giant mining machine, and then proceeding to take on a boss and his henchmen on top of it. The humorous touches help to inject entertaining moments not usually found in other quest driven games.
Despite them usually not standing out, the quests do the job they need to do, and the way they're set up, you're naturally led from one quest to another. So there's always something queued up to do. Adding to the functionality of the quest system is a pretty decent waypoint system and fast travel.
The waypoints are displayed much like Fallout 3's or Oblivion’s, marked on the compass. There's only one waypoint at a time, and usually they lead you right where you need to go. The only blemish on this system is how depending on the quest, sometimes it'll be marked exactly where a quest item is and other times the marker will be in the general area. This inconsistency can at times slow things down as you try to figure out what the deal is. It should be said though any hang ups due to waypoints, is negated and then some by the fast travel system. Once it's made available, travel is sped up considerably. Quickly, it can become the preferred travel method
Borderlands can be a very entertaining and enjoyable action RPG experience. The first person shooter gameplay is up to the quality of most top tier shooters, and the leveling up and quests will have you hooked. It's definitely not a game for everyone. A fan of FPS's and loot driven RPGs will love it. As well, this seems like the perfect game to introduce a FPS playing friend to, and open them up to the RPG genre. For those that do enjoy the game, there's 50+ hours of play that will fly by in the first play, and an infinite amount of game time if you have a few friends to go loot hunting with.
This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of Borderlands.