“So what do you need, besides a miracle?”
“Guns. Lots of guns”
Diablo with guns. That pretty much sums up Borderlands in three words. Dubbed as a role-playing shooter by developer Gearbox Software, Borderlands is one of the most interesting titles to hit consoles and PCs this year. RPGs and shooters have crossed paths many times before, but Gearbox takes it up a notch by making a game that is equal parts Diablo and equal parts Halo with a dash of Fallout 3. On the surface, Borderlands plays exactly like a standard-issue first-person shooter. You can aim down iron-sights/scopes, lob grenades, crouch, sprint, and jump and also use melee attacks. But much like an RPG, by completing missions and killing enemies, you’ll earn experience to advance your character to the next level, granting you more health as well as points to unlock and upgrade various skills.
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Borderlands is neither an RPG nor a pure shooter. It’s an interesting hybrid of both genres. Those expecting traditional “role playing” will be disappointed as you won’t find interesting characters, drawn out conversations or a deep, branching plot here (leave that to Dragon Age: Origins). The role playing element is strictly limited to the character building only. Yes, there are a handful of NPCs who give you missions from time to time but they aren’t any different from the NPCs you’d find in Diablo. The towns are almost lifeless hubs meant solely for trading items and getting missions. The missions themselves rarely deviate from the standard fetch/kill variety. But despite the barebones RPG elements, there is still something that makes Borderlands an amazingly fun and satisfying experience.
Being a huge fan of Diablo as well as first person shooters, I was immediately sold on the idea of the game back when it was announced. Going by the concept of the game alone, Borderlands does everything right. The shooting controls feel tight and responsive. In true action RPG spirit, the levelling up and loot system is highly addictive. It’s one of those games where you play just a little longer and kill a few more enemies just to find out what lies in that weapons crate ahead.
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A lot has been said and written about the 500 bazillion gazillion guns that the game has to offer. Yes, the game has tons of randomly generated guns that you’ll constantly keep finding. However, it won’t be long until you realise that most of them are just the same models with different paint jobs, parts and attributes such as damage, fire rate, recoil as well as elemental damage, if any. Sure it’s a lot of fun the first time you fire a shotgun and rockets fly out or to check out the new revolver that fires shotgun shells. But the novelty soon wears off and eventually you’ll just stick to the ones that do the most damage and sell off the others. With that said, the guns are still amazingly fun to use, and they look and sound great. There’s no doubt that Borderlands is by far one of the best games to satisfy your video game gun fetish.
The game takes place on a planet called Pandora, much of which is a lawless wasteland similar to the post-apocalyptic desert wastelands from the movie Road Warrior. Speaking of which, the game draws some heavy influence from that movie. Right from the psychotic bandits you’ll run into to a boss character named “Mad Mel” to an in-game Achievement appropriately called “Can’t we get BEYOND Thunderdome now?” Anyway, unlike the Mad Max movies, Pandora isn’t facing any fuel crisis; instead it is home to a fabled location called ‘The Vault’, a place of unimaginable riches, booze and women; yeah, pretty much everything that makes killing tons of bandits and alien creatures worthwhile. You play as one of the four “Vault Hunters” – mercenaries who have come to Pandora to find the legendary Vault and also earn some big bucks along the way. It’s clear right from the get go that there are no heroes and no saving-the-world crap here. It’s all about the money and how big your gun is.
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At the beginning, you’ll be asked to pick from one of the four main characters, which is essentially your RPG-style class selection. You get to choose from the standard grunt, the tank, the ranged attacker and the stealthy invisible assassin. Each of the characters plays significantly differently and has their own skill trees, a unique special ability and weapon preferences. However, the game never lets the weapon preference part get in the way of trying out all the fancy weaponry. Your character will also level up in each weapon class the more you use the weapon of a particular type. For example there’s really nothing stopping Mordecai the Hunter, who is typically a ‘sniper’ class character from mastering shotguns. This is a nice design decision considering the heavy emphasis the game places on its guns. You are free to use any and every weapon you find regardless of the character you’re playing as. There are however certain class mods which can only be used by specific classes as they boost specific skills and stats relevant to that particular class.
The game world is divided into many smaller areas with towns and settlements scattered around the map. You’ll typically have to complete some mandatory quests in order to advance to the next area, which generally houses tougher enemies and better equipment. There are a few occasions where the game throws enemies of a higher level than you, forcing you to strategise or turn tail, level up and come back later. There is no noticeable auto level scaling though and the fights are always fairly challenging and fun thanks to the variety of enemies you’ll face.
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Apart from the various types of bandits, including annoying little midgets who love to rush you with melee attacks, you’ll also face Pandora’s consistently hostile fauna such as the dog-like skags, insectoid spiderants and the winged rakk, among others. There are also some unique encounters, which I wouldn’t like to spoil here. Much like Diablo, the game also has some special enemies with upgraded health and abilities generally prefixed by the words “badass” or “badmutha”. These enemies give you more XP and are generally tough to take down. During my playthrough, I also happened to encounter a unique rakk called Rakkanishu. Shows that Gearbox really does love their Diablo!
There is also a bit of vehicular combat thrown in to mix things up. There are two types of vehicles you can use to travel as well as fight. Running over enemies’ results in an instant kill no matter how powerful or big the enemy is. The vehicle controls are quite decent but there certainly could have been more emphasis on the vehicular combat. Apart from a couple of missions, vehicles are entirely optional and hence seem more like an afterthought. Also, the fact that you earn much less XP if you kill enemies using vehicles makes it rather pointless to use vehicles for fighting. Still, the option is there if you want to use it, especially early in the game when you have to resort to vehicles for covering long distances until the fast travel option becomes available.
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Borderlands is no doubt a fun game to play through solo, but becomes an entirely different beast once you try its co-op features. The game supports drop-in/drop-out co-op play for up to four players. The best part is that you retain your character’s experience, loot and skills after dropping out of someone else’s game and continue with your own playthrough with the upgraded character. The enemies scale up in number and difficulty as more players join and, as expected, the loot you find during co-op is generally better than while playing solo. The varied classes also make it quite a fun experience even though the game doesn’t put any restrictions on the class and you could possibly have four players using the same class, which isn’t a lot of fun. It’s advisable to have varied classes during co-op play.
The character classes themselves are tailored for both solo and co-op play thanks to the unique special abilities each class comes with. In a solo game, Roland the Soldier may seem like a typical grunt capable of holding his own, but put him in a co-op game and he becomes the quintessential support member. His turret ability not only spawns a turret and a shield for cover but also heals and dispenses ammunition. Later on in the game you can also shoot your team-mates to heal them! Brick the Berserker can take a lot of punishment and can distract enemies long enough for Mordecai to pick them off with his sniper rifle and his trained alien carnivorous bird called Bloodwing.
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Finally, there’s the Siren Lilith who can perform quick stealthy attacks with her phase walk ability which renders her invisible for a short period of time. The game offers a lot of different ways in which you can combine and take advantage of the individual class abilities to the fullest. Of course, if you don’t want to get into all the strategy business, simply running and gunning also gets the job done. You can also challenge your buddies to duels in the game’s special arenas or simply by hitting them with melee attacks.
Those who had been following this title would know that the game had very different art direction before switching to the current cel-shaded style which isn’t too different from the 2007 sandbox actioner Crackdown. Characters look highly stylised with the huge Brick towering over the other characters and various deformed mutant bandits who are right out of a comic book. The game is also ridiculously gory with heads and bodies erupting into bloody chunks every time you land a powerful shot. It surely gives Fallout 3 a run for its money when it comes to ridiculous gun violence. The visuals, although very good, do suffer from blandness. Most of the areas you’ll visit are deserted mines, camps and junkyards. There are a lot of brown textures and the scenery only changes in some areas. Pandora also has a rather unique rotation cycle which results in some interesting lighting effects depending on the time of day, somewhat reminiscent of the movie Pitch Black.
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The game runs off the Unreal 3 Engine and, as expected, there is a fair amount of texture pop-in on the console versions, especially every time a new area loads. The framerates are a little inconsistent on the console and there were noticeable slowdowns every time the action got a little too frantic. The character models, weapon models and animations however are top notch and look cool in an over-the-top kind of way. Sound effects deserve a special mention as all the guns sound different and pack a punch whether it’s the loud boom of the shotguns or the rat-tat-tat of the sub-machine guns. The music is mostly ambient and kicks up whenever you get into a fight. It’s decent, but I could have certainly used more tracks. There isn’t much dialog in the game and NPCs typically just speak a line or two before the game switches to text. One character however does manage to stand out – the little robot nicknamed Claptrap, thanks to it’s endearing voice, humorous lines and child-like antics. Just leave the game’s main menu open for a while for a few laughs.
Borderlands is a fairly lengthy game. If you do all the side missions and explore every nook and cranny, it should easily take you more than 30 hours to reach the ending. Multiple playthroughs are also encouraged as the level 50 cap cannot be reached in a single playthrough. The game also gets tougher and the loot gets better in subsequent playthroughs with the same character. You’ll also want to try all the character classes since each of them plays differently, especially during co-op. Suffice to say there is a lot of content to go through for your money’s worth.
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Whether or not you’ll love Borderlands largely depends on what you’re expecting from it. If you’re expecting a fast-paced shooter, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting an RPG, you’ll no doubt be disappointed. Instead, ask yourself the following questions –
- Do you love Diablo?
- Do you love first-person shooters?
- Do you love to play co-op with your friends?
If the answer to all of these is “yes”, then you should be on your way to pick this one up ASAP. The game might not have the mass appeal of your next highly anticipated shooter or a Bioware RPG, but it’s a unique new title that manages to fuse various genres and create something that’s highly engaging and will keep you coming back for more.
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Equal parts action RPG and equal parts first-person shooter and an all-around fun experience that’s even better when played with friends. That’s Borderlands in a nutshell.