Shooting my way through Borderlands

"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.

Comments closed
    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    I just played a few hours of this game after getting it on a sale and I was fairly disappointed by it. Something about the attempt to be “cool” but being dull in doing so really falls flat for me.

    The interface/UI is a mess.

    Art is pretty, but I almost crave realistic styles to see where this game could really go. I really don’t like the cartoonish style of art in my FPS’s, that goes for TF2, as wellg{<.<}g So far it gets a B-. It's just dull so far, but maybe I'll stick with it a while longerg{<.<}g

      • indeego
      • 9 years ago

      OK finished it, after playing three characters up through about level 20, and finishing playthrough one with Roland. I did enjoy it a tad more, I think because I enjoyed Roland’s playstyle quite a bit more than the others.

      I *[

    • fpsduck
    • 10 years ago

    My take :

    – Tons of guns. I love it!

    – It’s 2K game so you’ll never die.
    Remember Prey and Bioshock? Same old spawn thing.

    – Where’s the save options?
    I think it’s a console concentrate
    so you have to reach saving spot just like Dead Space.

    – If you think Far Cry 2 is boring because of enemy spawning.
    Borderlands is number 1 now.

    • lilbuddhaman
    • 10 years ago

    Its too shallow to last imo. it has potential, but it’ll take a year’s worth of DLC to make it worth the $45 I spent on it ( got it on steam preorder for cheaper )

    • Ashbringer
    • 10 years ago

    The main addiction in this game is the constant flow of new gear. Look past that, and the game sucks. It’s a Fallout 3 wanna be game, but Fallout 3 is still better.

    #1 Cell shading in a game that obviously didn’t intend to have it. Saw a lot of games with this technology back in the Dreamcast GameCube era. Good if you wanted a cartoon look. This game really doesn’t have that cartoon atmosphere for it.

    #2 There’s a lack of level design. My peeve is that 95% of the game looks like a garbage dump. It really did give me a head ace.

    #3 Lack of a story. If a FPS ventures a little into the RPG territory, you’d have a decent story. The vault crap, is crap. I knew it wasn’t going to be a treasure vault. Even good FPS have a decent story.

    #4 Homogenization in classes. Only the siren is vastly different, but in the end you still use a gun. I really wish there was a melee class. Something that used a sword. I loved melee in Fallout 3.

    #5 Good voice acting, but a lack of it. I really wish there was more voices in the game, cause they did a really good job with the voice acting. You can tell the game was rushed because there was a lot of talk in the beginning, but it quickly went into text reading. I got so sick of reading useless crap that I just accepted the quests and moved onto the objectives.

    Personally, if you’ve played Fallout 3 then this game is just a waste of money. If you haven’t played Fallout 3, then buy that instead. It’s a better overall game, and it has the best ending in video game history. Liberty Prime is beyond awesome.

      • burntham77
      • 10 years ago

      That would explain it. I want to like Borderlands. I am trying to like it. But after spending several months playing Fallout 3, Borderlands feels boring. I dig the cell shaded graphics and there is a level of fun and humor here, but I guess I am spoiled by Fallout 3. Oh well. I guess once you’ve had a ten, it’s hard to go back to dating sevens.

      • Saber Cherry
      • 10 years ago

      This is a really good summary. I disliked it for all the same reasons you did, and I never even played Fallout 3. But perhaps I will, now.

      Borderlands felt like World of Warcraft with the whole multiplayer thing ripped out, the world made horribly ugly, cramped and repetitive, and without any sort of interesting class advancement. The ugliness is especially important. Giving the game cel-shading and making the entire world an ugly garbage dump may be interesting and creative choices but they are enough to ruin even a decent game, which unfortunately this isn’t (not quite).

      I enjoyed it for a couple days, though, which is more than I can say for Torchlight and Dragon Age. I can’t understand why either of those is getting good reviews.

      The game is not enough of a FPS, or maybe just does not involve enough skill. All the guns have horrible accuracy, and both you and your opponents can absorb a lot of hits and regenerate amazingly fast, so there’s not really much adrenaline in combat. I found that I would occasionally die multiple times in a row to some boss enemy because it was simply stronger than me and there were not really any useful tactics to employ, other than hoping to get lucky and be missed a lot. Other than that, I just never really worried about dying, avoiding being shot, conserving ammo, conserving health, or really anything other than standing next to explosive barrels, since normal enemies are generally weak and stupid. Combat was not like Unreal Tournament, which would be kind of ideal, or even Half-Life; but more like World of Warcraft.

      The lack of interesting equipment was also a downer. You have a gun and a shield. For the shield, you want high capacity and health regen, which means 95% of the shields you find are not even worth considering. For the guns, you want accuracy and damage – and again, 95% of the guns are so inaccurate that they are not even worth considering regardless of other neat aspects like exploding rounds, or a big clip, or (my favorite) a 4x zoom on a shotgun with unusable iron sights. The equipment-seeking metagame is thus horribly boring compared to WoW or Diablo II.

    • Voldenuit
    • 10 years ago

    I must say, first impressions have not been promising. A friend (one of my L4D group) was kind enough to gift me Borderlands on Steam, and after the customary week-long ordeal of animal sacrifice, ritual bloodletting and customer service tickets, Steam finally found the download server and managed to download the game.

    Once I got the game, several things put me off at once. The terrible menu system and lack of vsync and AA controls were not a pleasant introduction to Pandora. Once I was in (albeit with jaggies and tearing), it was even worse to find out that the game was unplayable with my mouse DPI until I spent 20 minutes tinkering with the *.ini file to find a setting that was comfortable.

    Then, having to get a gamespy ID to play online (wtf? what if I don’t want to give them my details and email address?) further soured the already puckered lemon.

    There may be a great gameplay experience at the end of that, but forcing players to wade through a river of excrement to get there is hardly compelling.

    Excuse me while I count down the days to the L4D2 release (sadly, my L4D group is in Australia, and they are getting the gimped censored version, so they’re sitting on the fence until workarounds are available, maning I’ll have no one to play with on release day -_-).

      • Waco
      • 10 years ago

      You can enable vsync in one of the config files. 🙂

        • Voldenuit
        • 10 years ago

        I know. In fact, I’ve had to do a lot of tinkering in the .ini files to even get the game playable.

        Unfortunately, some very stupid decisions on the part of Gearbox – such as multiplayer host overwriting your .ini file (wtf?) – are simply mid-bogglingly inane. Also, not all .ini file settings carry over to multiplayer games (mousewheel, I’m looking at you).

        Moving past the birthing pains, the game itself is pretty shallow and linear. The multiplayer component is pretty half-assed, enemy AI is *terrible*, the “RPG” elements are so shallow as to be irrelevant. I’ve mentioned the terrible UI in the menus and games, but let me do it again: the UI in the menus and in-game is terrible! ^_~

        Points awarded to the atmosphere, but Borderlands is otherwise the worst game I have played this year. It’s finishable in 2-3 days, but doesn’t hold much replay value for me.

          • Waco
          • 10 years ago

          Eh, I’m on my second playthrough already. It reminds me of Diablo II. 🙂

    • Legend
    • 10 years ago

    Not just another shooter for sure. First one I’ve played which had an RPG element woven into the action while retaining so much fun. For the record I never much cared for RPG’s. The reason being I always thought a game’s difficulty should manifest from the design of the game mission or quest scenario; in conjunction with various weapons and tools at the players disposal. But darn it don’t those little XP points jumping off your foes skin like fleas, tics, and gnats at war seem so rewarding?
    Probably some of the most fun to be had before COD4 MW2, especially in Co-op mode.

    • flip-mode
    • 10 years ago

    q[https://techreport.com/articles.x/13375/4<]§

    • yogibbear
    • 10 years ago

    Eridian weapons are pretty cool. I finally found two at level 31… a slow single shot 800dmg sniper rifle and an assault rifle with these weird high fire rate “heat seeking” behaviour….

    • Rakhmaninov3
    • 10 years ago

    Finally a game that just flinkin’ fun!

      • EndlessWaves
      • 10 years ago

      Finally? Did you miss Men of War?

    • ShadowTiger
    • 10 years ago

    I’ve been playing this game with my friend and its alot of fun. Once you beat it, the new game plus mode adds a whole new layer of challenge since the enemies are much stronger. I would say this is probably the best shooter RPG ever, though it lacks some of the appeal found in fallout 3.

    • Jambe
    • 10 years ago

    Saw a few people referring to this as “Diablo 2 with guns”.

    That’s… just about exactly right, actually. Extremely easy to pick up and play, so mindlessly addictive it’s hard to put back down.

    But yes, everything aside from the shootery and gibs-production aspects of the game is of marginal interest (story, character development, etc). But if we’re honest with ourselves… that’s not what we want from this game anyway!

    • d0g_p00p
    • 10 years ago

    I agree with you Cyril. I played a beta at GDC this year and was blown away by how fun it was. I picked up the retail and have been playing it since. No were near the end but I keep coming back to it when I have some free time.

    Borderlands and Torchlight have seemed to take up all my time. I wish I had time for Dragon Age but these 2 games will do just fine.

    • Convert
    • 10 years ago

    Just FYI you can flip vehicles back over again.

    I am level 30 something right now, not sure how many hours I have into it but I think I am getting pretty close to the end.

    So far it’s OK, it does get really repetitive though. I am trying to complete all side quests and it can get really annoying to have new missions pop up in areas you already thought you cleared out. I like to be able to load up on missions and just work my way down the map.

    The weapons are actually pretty limited on the variety. There are some people who are modding weapons and were able to find out how it actually works. The game really could have used more variety in the items and it’s a shame they couldn’t make that work.

    This is really closer to what I think Fallout3 should have been.

    I am however very happy at how well this game is made. I haven’t had a single crash, no corrupt saves even! I don’t get it, I can’t recall the last time that happened.

      • flip-mode
      • 10 years ago

      q[< Just FYI you can flip vehicles back over again.<]q Me likes.

    • Lazier_Said
    • 10 years ago

    I’ve played it for a couple days. Graphics are excellent, the atmosphere reminds me of what Fallout 3 could have been.

    With dismal enemy AI and 100% passive skill trees there isn’t much replayability though. Pulling the handle one more time is only irresistable when the loot keeps getting better, which it doesn’t seem to be doing past level 25 or so. Sure the damage numbers get bigger but the gameplay doesn’t change any.

    I’ve only found one energy weapon yet, maybe it’ll keep me up til 3:00 again when they start dropping more.

    It’s fun for a while which is more than I can say for most games I’ve played lately.

    • PrincipalSkinner
    • 10 years ago

    I played it for a lot longer than I would have liked. In the end I just felt I wasted so much time for nothing. The end is amazingly disappointing.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 10 years ago

    Reminds me of Hellgate London. I may give this a try, based on that impression alone.

    l[http://www.hellgateaus.com/<]§

      • Scrotos
      • 10 years ago

      It’s like a quarter crap-ton, I think.

      I liked Hellgate: London and wished it had offline co-op play. That’s the only thing I think I missed from what I thought was an excellent game. Then again I never got a chance to play it on the MMO side and by the time I got it it had been patched to 1.2 anyway so maybe I missed out on all the problems it had.

      Borderlands does feel like Hellgate but in a Mad Max world rather than demon-whatever-europe thing.

      • Forge
      • 10 years ago

      The qualifier’s funny. There is no imperial assload, so the ‘metric’ part is fully redundant. Imperial measurement systems use the similar ‘f***-ton’ or ‘crap-ton’ for similar measurements.

    • Creamsteak
    • 10 years ago

    I enjoy the hell out of this game in coop when everyone is being challenged. Single player is a little boring. I do like how they only give you four pieces of equipment (gun, shield, artifact, class mod), and they don’t share modifiers. That gives them the freedom to make some ridiculously fun loot without it being too much of a min-max game. The actual enemy AI though is pretty primitive and gets repetitive fast.

    • Jigar
    • 10 years ago

    I don’t know, but Torchlight is another candidate for game of the year… Atleast in my opinion.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 10 years ago

    Sounds cool, wish it wasn’t quite such a huge hit because it means more time before it goes on sale :p I might pick it up if I’m out of games entirely and it’s on sale for $20 or so.

      • d0g_p00p
      • 10 years ago

      Pickup Torchlight. It’s only $20

      • Jambe
      • 10 years ago

      If you have 4 friends who want it, get the 4-pack on steam for $150. That shaves it down to, er, $37.50 apiece.

      Honestly? The amount I’ve played this, and the sort of mindless, easygoing fun it gives… I think it’s worth $37.50. I don’t quite think it’s worth the full $50, though, especially considering you could get Torchlight and the recently-released Earthworm Jim three-pack for ten dollars less than that…

      I can’t say it’s my favorite game of the year, and honestly I haven’t been playing it a whole lot since I bought it. But that speaks more to the barrage of games coming out now than it does to any deficiency of Borderlands; I’m rather spoiled for choice!

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    Been playing Torchlight last three days. Also fun. Miss my Diablo fix. Whole different sort of game than this, thoughg{<...<}g

    • GFC
    • 10 years ago

    Best game of the year period. It’s just SO good and addicting I found myself playing for days non-stop.
    It’s just a good shooter made fun.

    • Scrotos
    • 10 years ago

    Yeah, it’s good fun! The wife and I are enjoying it!

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 10 years ago

    Damnit guys, you’re not making things any easier for me. I got school and a gf, I can’t be buying a game that will suck all my time and free will.

      • Scrotos
      • 10 years ago

      l[

        • StuG
        • 10 years ago

        That made me lulz

        +1

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 10 years ago

        *golfclap* very good, sir. You are the winner.

        • ImSpartacus
        • 10 years ago

        You sir, get a cookie.

      • anotherengineer
      • 10 years ago

      But if you have a GF that means no time is wasted on dating, which means more time for Borderlands, or other games.

      Come pub css with me on toronto WTF server lol

      edit §[<http://steamcommunity.com/groups/torontowtf<]§

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 10 years ago

        In another life, I used to play CSS. That game is the devil.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      get married and buy her The Sims 3. BAM there’s your free time back

        • DrDillyBar
        • 10 years ago

        word

        • vshade
        • 10 years ago

        The World of Goo also worked surprisingly well here to get back some free time. Although I already gave her the sims. Thanks those games were availble for mac.(Nothing better than girly system for a girl, I think 😛 )

    • Jigar
    • 10 years ago

    From Podcast to Articles… I am now sure Cyril, that you have become a big fan of this game… Nice, i’ll give it a shot.

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