Summary: Is it an RPG or is it an FPS? Borderlands blends the best elements of both in one entertaining package. Vandy has spent the past week playing the PC version of the game and came away rather impressed. Read his full thoughts on the game in today's review!
You’re a mercenary. You have your reasons for coming to this god-forsaken planet, but those plans changed when a mysterious woman contacted you. She tells you the legendary vault hidden somewhere amongst the wastelands of Pandora is real. Said to contain vast amounts of alien technologies, it’s been hidden and protected by the ancient race for centuries. She wants you to find it. Treasure hunters from all over the galaxy have come and gone, looking to make their fortune. Most have died trying, but you have a guardian angel…
Borderlands is a new breed of shooter from Gearbox, known for their work on the Brothers in Arms series, Half-Life expansions, and the PC port of Halo. It blends fast-paced FPS action with RPG-like character progression and loot collection. The PC version has vastly superior graphics, a control scheme better fitted for the frantic twitch gameplay, and free online multiplayer, all while tugging a bit lighter on your purse strings. You can still detect a faint consoley odor, but is it enough to make you break out the Claritin? Keep reading to find out!
Borderlands plays just like a traditional shooter – you can strafe, jump, point, and shoot to your heart’s content. Aiming down the sights or through scopes will help your accuracy, which happens to be pretty much unaffected by movement. Quake or Unreal-style running and jumping evasion tactics work just fine and won’t artificially hinder your ability to hit your target. Headshots are automatic critical hits, while non-humanoids have weak spots in other places. Littering the environment are explosive barrels adorned with various colors that indicate what type of damage they’ll do when spectacularly ruptured.
You have a set amount of HP that increases as you level up or with bonuses from certain equipment. Personal shields are upgradeable and behave just like they do in Halo, recharging after you haven’t taken any hits in a while. When your health is depleted, you have about 10 seconds before you bleed out to be rescued by a teammate a la Left 4 Dead, or else you may kill an enemy to gain a “second wind” and revive yourself. If neither of these things happens, you simply respawn at the nearest checkpoint location and are charged a fraction of your wealth.
As far as RPG elements go, the most obvious is the 4 selectable character classes: Berserker (tank), Soldier (support), Hunter (nuker), and Siren (utility). Each has its own special skill to be used actively, as well as 3 tiered specialization trees with passive attributes that supplement your tactics. You level up by gaining experience points for killing enemies and completing tasks, quests, and challenges (achievements), at which time you are awarded one skill point to allocate. In addition, by continuously using a type of weapon, you build up your proficiency. Higher levels of proficiency will give you bonuses to damage, accuracy, reload speed, or rate of fire for all weapons of that category.
Treasure hunting is also a major component of the game; you search containers scattered all over the place for bits of loot such as cash or ammunition, and you will find chests with weapons and other items that are usually guarded. Borrowing from the MMO formula, the rarity of a weapon, and thus its power, is indicated by its color, ranging from white to green to blue to purple, and so on. Storage capacity upgrades for items and ammo can be earned via quests and purchased, respectively.
Disposable vehicles are introduced early in the game and acquired at one of many “Catch-a-Ride” stations located throughout the landscape. They are very useful for transportation, as well as extra firepower. Well, there is only one kind of vehicle, a sort of desert buggy, but you can choose the color and whether to arm it with a machine gun or rocket launcher. If you prefer to squish your prey, road-kills are nearly instant, regardless of how strong the enemy is. However, the impact damages the car and you are rewarded much less XP than if you were to defeat the foe on foot. Like the shield, the car’s “health” will regenerate over time when not in combat.
You will encounter many enemy types in Pandora, mainly bandits, but also several types of beasts, bugs, and birds. They emerge from spawn points (huts, burrows, etc.) and reappear after being killed a while later, even if you don’t leave the area. The game’s brand of humor permeates their ranks, as evidenced by minibosses having the title “Badass” and later “Badmutha” instead of “Elite.” Mutant Midget Psychos let out a high-pitched shriek as they run toward you, and then fall on their butt when they fire a shotgun. Fans of Morrowind may have terrible flashbacks when they see the airborne menace called Rakk, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the infamous Cliff Racer.
Tons of weapons variety
Something about Borderlands that has been really hyped up is the huge number of randomly generated weapons you can find. When they appear, they’re chosen from millions of possible combinations, with stats, bonuses, and even visual properties changing from gun to gun. It will be extremely rare to find two of the same exact weapon, and virtually impossible for you to ever see them all. While it is a fantastic concept, and certainly works well for replayability, there are a few downsides that I have noticed:
The standard FPS controls are very responsive, the mouselook pleasantly snappy. (You might find disabling mouse smoothing in the config file useful.) You have the ability to perform an exaggerated jump, not quite a Master Chief moon-leap, but it’s definitely better than the pathetic hop or lack of vertical movement in some games. You can sprint for an unlimited length of time, so it’s good that it is toggled, like crouching is. Vehicles are steered with the mouse, exactly how it is in Halo. Also, the turret can be locked on to an enemy, but it is almost always better to manually aim so that you may lead your target.
Borderlands multiplayer can be enjoyed online or through LAN, and is unique in that the host starts out playing just like he would in single player mode. From there, up to 4 people can join in or leave on the fly. As your group grows and shrinks, the quantity and difficulty of enemies will dynamically scale accordingly, as well as the amount and quality of loot. Quests are automatically shared and any money found is duplicated and given to everyone. In other words, when Player A picks up $25, Player B and Player C will also each receive $25, instead of fighting for loose bills or splitting what is found.
Luckily, what can be blamed on parallel platform development doesn’t really affect the overall experience, but here’s a breakdown of what there is:
Earlier this year, it was announced that Gearbox had decided to make a radical change to the game’s visual style. Going from the standard gritty and realistic look that the Unreal Engine 3 is famous for, they decided to implement a graphic novel-type concept art style. Controversy erupted as the peanut gallery complained about it being “cel-shaded crap” compared to earlier screenshots, as well as bashed it for looking like a cartoon. It’s meant to be a fusion of hand-drawn art assets and 3D rendering/effects, and as you can tell from the screenshots, it’s nothing like previous cel-shaded games XIII or Zelda: Wind Waker.
The liberties that Gearbox was able to take with this new style are numerous. Just look at the playable character models and you’ll see the exaggerated comic influence. This extends to most of the NPCs, as well, such as Crazy Earl, TK Baha, and bandit bosses. Some of the more formidable enemies are larger than life and damn intimidating, not even including the ones that are several stories tall. Something that was really nice is the range of colors that aren’t usually seen in games these days, even if they’re just on a string of flags above the town gate.
As much as I expected there to be lots of blood and gore, the extent of it really sort of surprised me. You have the usual exploding heads with neck gushers and dismemberment from shooting the limbs, but then they can even be separated at the waist, or have their torsos blown off altogether. The elements are particularly unforgiving to your adversaries – flames will turn them to embers and ash, acid consumes them and leaves little but a few bones on the ground, and electrocution literally melts their face off, eventually causing the skull to erupt like a kernel of popcorn. Wonderful!
The sound effects throughout the game are good enough. It is doubtful you will find them lacking, but they don’t really pop out as exceptional, either. Except maybe for the death screams of midgets, or anyone being eaten by acid, for that matter. Musically, the tracks are fitting for the wasteland environments. You’ll hear a blend of western guitar twang and tribal chants and drums, with the occasional bit of rock mixed in. Overall the tunes set the mood well, but the battle song can get annoying when you’ve heard it a thousand times.
The role-playing shooter has arrived. And in a futuristic wasteland setting, too! This is what Bethesda could’ve, should’ve, or would’ve done last year.
Slight balance issues. 100% chance to bypass shields for the Hunter, randomized weapons can be overpowered, etc.
Previously, titles like STALKER and Bioshock have infused a first-person shooter with role-playing elements, but they never went full-blown hybrid. Fallout 3 is the closest thing there is to this game, but an obligation to the IP made the combat suffer. You’ll be happy to hear that, while it’s not perfect, Borderlands does succeed in striking a very good balance. The action is fierce and uninhibited, while character customizations allow for a large variety of tactics and the prospect of really cool gear drives you to fight your way through hordes of bad guys.
It took me just under 22 hours to complete the first playthrough by myself, including all of the side quests I could find and a probably unhealthy amount of scouring for loot. As such, you should expect at around 15-20 hours, depending on your style of play. Not to mention the fact that you’re probably going to try out each character class, at least for a while. I’ll probably end up playing through with all four of them. But wait, there’s more!
Just because the credits ran, that doesn’t mean you’re finished; a harder mode called Playthrough 2 is unlocked when you beat the main quest line. This has you starting the game over with your same high-level character and all of your equipment intact. All the quests are available to be redone, but enemies are tougher and the rewards are bigger. If you’re willing to give it a second go, you can expect to at least double your playtime.
Fast, fun, and unapologetically crass, this is the best game I’ve played in a long time, and is truly deserving of the moniker “role-playing shooter.” I really hope that Gearbox releases an SDK so the mod community can make it even better and give it the kind of longevity that Oblivion and its ilk enjoy. Regardless, if you’re an FPS and/or RPG fan, there is no reason not to give Borderlands a try.
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