Shooting my way through Borderlands


— 12:58 PM on November 6, 2009

"Okay, just one more mission..." That phrase usually preceded me going to bed far too late through most of last week. Yes, I was bitten by the Borderlands bug. For a total of around 20 hours across a few evenings, I shot, electrocuted, set on fire, disintegrated, and drove through more villains, mutants, and monsters than I can recall. And it was good.

I was initially dubious of the "role-playing shooter" label Gearbox coined for this title. After all, games that mix together first-person-shooter and RPG elements have been around for many years. Borderlands does it in a peculiar way, though. Unlike, say, Fallout 3 or Deus Ex, this title plays first and foremost like an adrenaline-packed shooter.

You'll find yourself engaging in a metric assload of real-time combat, in which the game expects you to run and jump around, seek cover, throw grenades, and use any other tools in the toolbox to turn bad guys into barely recognizable giblets. Weapons must be aimed and shots led, because bullets don't travel instantly. Not getting yourself killed also involves a modicum of strategy. As the game's Soldier character, I could spawn a turret to keep bad guys busy while I recharged my shields behind cover or tried flanking maneuvers. Enemies, meanwhile, took cover and tried to coax me out with grenades.

Gearbox has thrown many RPG elements into the mix, of course, but it has kept them from drowning out the distinctive shooter flavor. You stumble upon many friendly, non-playable characters, but there's no dialogue—essentially, NPCs act as glorified mission dispensers. Game areas are fairly dense and can be driven through in buggies, so you won't spend hours roaming the countryside slaying various fauna to level up. You can choose a character class at the beginning, but nothing stops you from using other classes' weapons—only a handful of special items are class-specific. The Soldier class seems to do best with shotguns and assault rifles, for instance, but I dealt a considerable amount of damage with sniper rifles and explosives.

Gearbox has also simplified classic RPG item management. Dead enemies barf out goodies and ammo all over the place, so you won't have to inspect each corpse manually. (On the flip side, that system entails pressing E approximately 800 times after each firefight.) All buying and selling happens at vending machines strategically placed throughout the world and at the beginning of dungeon areas, so there's no traveling back and forth between stereotypical shopkeeps, either. At worst, you'll go back to gather valuable items before selling them, since the game limits your inventory capacity. You can get upgrades for that, though.

All together, Borderlands ends up playing like a strange decoction of Fallout, Diablo, and Unreal Tournament, with pseudo-cel-shaded graphics that give it a distinctive grown-up, sci-fi comic book flair. The game borrows heavily from previous works, but the way Gearbox has applied that inspiration makes it unique and original in its own way.

But is Borderlands any fun? That depends on your definition. I would personally say yes, although you'll no doubt disagree if you loathe repetition and enjoy things like immersion and exploration.

You see, Borderlands feels almost like a whack-a-mole game at times. Combat is viscerally satisfying, but you may get tired of having to plow through endless hordes of enemies, especially if they start respawning at the end of the mission (although, oddly, that doesn't always happen). Exploration also didn't make the cut; most missions can be initiated from a central location in each major game area, and the map tells you exactly where to go. Just drive there, walk around, shoot some monsters and/or bad guys, then drive back. Rinse, repeat. The game gives you a fast-travel system a few hours into the main quest, too, although you need to "discover" locations before being able to teleport to them.

Much of the time you don't spend killing bad guys, you'll probably spend comparison-shopping. Borderlands generates weapons randomly, so you'll encounter a plethora of them, all with different characteristics. Which ones will you keep? Which ones do you sell, and which ones do you toss away? Some firearms shoot slower but more accurately than others. Certain guns will randomly deal fire, explosive, electrical, or corrosive damage. And that's not even going into the various weapon types, which span pistols, assault rifles, rocket launchers, shotguns, and sniper rifles. The same applies to grenades, shields, and miscellaneous character mods—Borderlands rarely presents you with the same item twice, often forcing you to examine new ones carefully.

If you're prepared to deal with all of that, then you're in for a treat. Gearbox has really tweaked Borderlands to make the experience fun and addictive, from the amusing character quips and comical attack shriek of "psycho midgets" to the thrill of blowing bad guys' limbs off and hearing their agonizing screams as shots from your corrosive weapon slowly melt them into green puddles. Sure, it's violent and often downright sadistic, but it's also wildly, almost cartoonishly unrealistic. Borderlands isn't afraid to suspend disbelief for the sake of fun.

Gearbox also seems to have striven not to make the game frustrating. When your health bar reaches zero in combat, you get a small time window to kill one last enemy, which brings you back from the brink with full shields. Dying for real merely regenerates your character at the last save point, erasing none of your progress. (There's a fee, though, and it can get quite expensive.) Buggies are magically impervious to flipping, so you'll rarely find yourself walking back to the nearest vehicle station on foot. Nobody seems to mind you looting buildings—not even the NPCs inside. Best of all, certain items allow you to regenerate both health and ammo. Since shields automatically regenerate, too, you can almost turn into an invincible killing machine.

Note the qualifier "almost." In RPG tradition, Borderlands lets you become grotesquely powerful once you've leveled up and gathered the right items, enabling you to bulldoze through lesser enemies with ease. However, it never completely takes the challenge out of combat—you can't always run into a fight with guns blazing. You're still gonna need to take cover and use strategy, especially against particularly mighty foes with equally mighty weapons. Get careless, and you'll find yourself at the last save point a few tens of thousands of dollars poorer. That keeps things from getting dull.

While polishing up Borderlands' gameplay seems to have taken priority over almost all other aspects of the game, Gearbox still managed to make characters amusing, entertaining, and relatable. There's the eccentric female scientist turned mildly insane by months of solitary research and the deaths of crew members, for instance, and CL4P-TP (a.k.a. Clap-trap) a recurring robot character that once exclaimed "Wow! You're not dead?" as I returned from a mission. Even mission screens don't take themselves seriously, many being peppered with Internet memes and pop-culture references. One mission description I came across even included unabashed references to both Firefly and Star Wars.

It's a shame all that humor didn't really permeate through to the game's broader storyline, which feels like little more than a thin layer of glue to hold all of the missions together. The last few levels also weren't terribly exciting, although you do get to keep roaming the game world and take on missions after the final boss fight.

Although I did get to the "end," I unfortunately didn't get a chance to try Borderlands' cooperative multiplayer mode, which my Internet friends assure me is a lot of fun. Missions certainly seem to lend themselves to collaborative gameplay, what with the ridiculous number of enemies you have to fight. Even in the single-player mode, vehicle stations have an option to spawn two buggies (each with seats for a gunner and driver). Also, from what I understand, you can jump into co-op mode with your single-player character, and the progress you make carries back through to the SP mode. I've got to give Gearbox props for implementing a co-op mode to begin with, since those seem to be so rare in games nowadays.

In the end, Borderlands is a fun, somewhat unusual RPG-infused shooter that doesn't take itself seriously and ought to satisfy anyone who enjoys good, wholesome first-person massacre. If you're seeking a deep story, a cinematic experience, or traditional RPG exploration, though, you might want to look elsewhere.

   
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