The box art for Borderlands kept me away from the game for a long time. I would pass it in my local Blockbuster or GameStop, strangely attracted by its strong yellows and reds but repulsed by the Jason-Voorhees-meets-Tyler-Durden maniac on the cover, losing myself for minutes at a time while I wondered just what he was doing. Was he just miming like a West Side thug trying to scare the yuppies? Was the trail of sand exploding from his head or trailing toward it? What he trying to commit suicide under the weight of all these questions?
Finally, however, I had no choice but to play it. Borderlands arrived in a neat little Gamefly package on a Saturday morning and within moments it was obvious that the game’s developers had long struggled with questions of their own over what it was supposed to be. The story is simple enough: You’re one of four mercenaries out to find the Vault, a mythical stash of long lost alien weapons that will enable a giant corporation to rake in some killer profits. You can play as Mordecai the hunter, complete with a gigantic bird who swoops down on your enemies; Brick the berserker, whose fists are usually more powerful than his guns; Roland the soldier, an all-purpose kind of guy who oddly also turns out to be a healer in multiplayer (while he riddles you with bullets, no less); and Lilith the siren, the obligatory sex symbol who can phase in and out of another dimension. With these four with their scopes set on virtually everyone else in Pandora, the game becomes healthy combination of a first-person-shooter and a role-playing game.
Within seconds of getting kicked off a bus in a backwater town on the planet of Pandora (which looks like Utah with a cityscape that unfailingly resembles a combination of Mad Max’s Thunderdome and the back lot of Sanford and Son), whatever class you’ve chosen to play is already letting bullets fly while a quirky (and quickly annoying) robot gives you a grand tour of the town. Almost immediately, you’ll be picking up one of the game’s advertised “bazillion” guns and trying it out on the locals. From submachine guns and pistols to rocket launchers and sniper rifles, guns are literally more plentiful than grass on Pandora, although once you get your hands on a really, really good gun, the fun of the looting aspect of the game kind of falls by the wayside because it becomes hard to find a replacement. In my case, for instance, I played a siren and got my hands on an amazing incendiary sniper rifle. Even though sirens have no skill modifiers for sniper rifles, I nevertheless found myself using the epic rifle more and more while I approached end game since it kept me out of harm’s way and brought my enemies down fast.
Guns aren’t the only goodies, though. You’ll also get to upgrade your Halo-esque shield with mods that add more power and options to make the shield burst into fire, acid, or electricity once it’s depleted. Also, class-specific mods will drop that allow you to make your character more powerful or buff everyone in your party, ensuring that you can take more or less anything that your many enemies throw at you.
Still, the enemies aren’t much to write home about. The very first NPC I encountered persistently and mechanically fired his pistol so all I heard was a constant “bapbapbapbapbap” as he trotted along toward me in a straight line. Never mind that I ran up and emptied two clips into him. He didn’t flinch. Never mind that he had scores of trash barrels and discarded refrigerators to hide behind. No, this first NPC warned me that I was in for a long ride of dissatisfying AI. Unfortunately, it never really changes. Whether you’re plugging away at Pandora’s alien dogs (known as “skags”) or mowing down the hilarious “psycho midgets,” virtually every enemy will run toward you like a nail to a magnet, never once giving thought to cover or their own well-being. And the ones that don’t run toward you? They stand in place or move slowly back and forth, spraying bullets in your general direction as though they were holding the hose while you frolicked on the Slip ‘n’ Slide. In short, as a siren, I found my “run up and unload” tactic absurdly successful. Sadly, these criticisms largely ring true for the frequently unsatisfying boss battles as well.
At first sight, Pandora’s Mad Maxish landscapes are inviting, and the comic-book inspired graphics work tremendously well for Borderlands where they would have failed in another game. While disputed, I believe this last minute stylistic decision may have bumped up the game a spot or two in the reviews. All too soon, however, the gimmick gets worn. No matter where you go in Pandora, the panorama is essentially the same: hastily erected shacks of corrugated metal claw at the horizon, trash heaps make up much of the geography, and masked marauders jump out at you at every turn. The cities look virtually the same, ranging from the ramshackle lean-tos of Fyrestone to the sprawling garbage heaps of New Haven (leading one to wonder if one of the game’s writers was a disgruntled Yale graduate). A precious couple of levels were so refreshingly different in appearance-including a long battle on the side of a snowy mountain and a descent into a lush excavation site-that they actually compelled me to sit up in my seat in wonder. To be fair, the entire game apparently takes place in a localized area and not over the entire planet, but the repetition of the scenery is occasionally enough that you find yourself mimicking the gesture of the psycho on the game’s front cover.
Finally, there’s the RPG aspect of the game, which becomes apparent not long after you hop off the bus. Taking its cue from MMOs like World of Warcraft and RPGs in general, Borderlands allows each class to add points to separate combat trees as they level up, providing increasingly amazing bonuses to weapon damage and special abilities–quite uncommon for standard shooters. Many of these are actually quite useful, although a respec is often enough to bump the difficulty level from challenging to easy. Pushing the World of Warcraft comparison further, statuesque NPC quest givers rattle off the same broken-record-player voice emotes when you enter the same room, and the quests themselves must be read and added to an (admittedly very useful) quest log. In fact, replace the masked marauders with the Defias Brotherhood and Pandora’s skags with wolves, and you’ve got a post-apocalyptic Elwynn Forest with guns.
But here’s the thing: somehow, someway, Borderlands successfully provides hours of addicting entertainment. This especially becomes apparent when you join a complete jolly band of three other adventurers, and the quality of the loot and the difficulty levels of the NPCs are instantly cranked into overdrive. Deciding on loot itself suddenly takes on a new intensity since there are other people who might want that amazing sub machine gun you just found. Add people you actually know into the mix, and the game suddenly becomes an almost realistic and satisfying experience that you’ll remember for months afterward. Trading, however, is a very awkward affair since you have no choice but to drop the weapon on the ground in order to trade it. Similarly, particularly if you don’t know the players you’re with, there’s always the chance of coming across that one jerk who grabs every item as soon as it drops. (Luckily, this doesn’t apply to money-if one guy picked up 25 bucks, you all get 25 bucks.)
In particular, one aspect of the game called the “Second Wind” becomes enormously useful in multiplayer. When you’re about to die, you have a few seconds in which to kill an enemy before you completely die, allowing you to bounce back on your feet with limited health if successful and gain said “second wind.” When this happens in the single player mode, you’re usually under cover and out of range of any enemies, so instead the sequence seems depressingly tragic while you watch yourself firing aimlessly into that good night and dying all alone behind a rusted outhouse. In multiplayer, however, this is your fellow players’ cue to run up to you, heal you, and get you back on your feet. This alone creates a wealth of additional excitement missing in the single player mode.
In many ways, Borderlands‘ highly intuitive and fluid combat system is more along the line of what I wanted in Fallout 3, and this alone places it high above many recent shooters. If the developers had managed to combine their combat system, the loot drop system, and the exciting multiplayer mode with a powerful and interactive story, I’m quite sure that Bethesda’s recent masterpiece would have had much to fear. But Borderlands never once takes itself too seriously, and Gearbox has thus successfully created an entertaining game with replay value, especially for those who are endlessly fascinated with the game’s millions of weapons. While flawed and technically contributing little if nothing to the industry in terms of individual gameplay mechanics, Borderlands is a big step towards a successful combination of RPGs and FPS games, and I hope that we’ll see better incarnations of this mongrel genre in the near future.