Late last October Gearbox software launched a game called Borderlands. I played it quite a bit at launch, and since then there have been a few DLC add-ons and other attempts by the developers to keep the game fresh in the minds of the typically short-attention-span target audience for this sort of game. As I was revisiting the games of 2009 I thought it would be worthwhile to give this one another go.
A sci-fi/action RPG from acclaimed developer Gearbox, Borderlands combines the best in first-person action gaming with elements of a traditional role-playing game (RPG). The excitement of this hybridization is further magnified by the game’s groundbreaking content generation system which allows for a near-endless variety in missions, environments, enemies, weapons, item drops and character customization, making the game’s single player, multiplayer and online campaigns not to be missed.
When I think of the marketing pitch given for Borderlands – “what if a FPS and RPG had a baby?,” I think instead: if Serious Sam (i.e. a mindless shooter with a flimsy plot) and the most mindless and shallow action-RPG from the late 90s got together and had a baby … THAT result would be Borderlands.
I am immediately reminded of two things: first off the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch from Monty Python, as every time I note something critical, something else critical comes to my mind; and also of the Wizard of Oz, as so many discussions I’ve had about the game amount to ‘pay no attention to the flaws behind the curtain, Borderlands is a great game’. And I just can’t do it – the flaws are too many, too obvious and too fundamental – especially in the PC version.
And perhaps surprisingly, the vapid story isn’t my biggest criticism. But let’s start there anyway. For me, the hybrid FPS / RPG goes back to Deus Ex. To me, that remains unassailable as the pinnacle of that hybrid genre. Excellent story, interesting characters, nice choices to make, solid skill-based shooter – it really earned its place as a classic. But more recently we have seen games like Hellgate: London and Fallout 3, and the even more relevant example of STALKER. I don’t know that I can manage another word on Fallout 3, but I had reviewed the other games in the past. I called Hellgate “a RPG that is full of eye candy and as deep as a mid-summer puddle after a sun-shower, but the combat is absolutely thrilling at times”. And for STALKER, I had much more to say … here is a quote:
“Just don’t mistake it for a RPG – because once you start doing that you will become a slave to the traders, to the fetch-and-return missions that serve little purpose in terms of improving your character other than giving you money and ammo you don’t need and forcing you to trek long distances in both directions. The missions are numerous and varied enough that you can take a few and ignore the rest, get plenty of extra items and gameplay and still not miss anything. The shooter elements and open world are where the game come together – you can run-and-gun to a certain extent or focus on tactics and stealth or even try to avoid combat entirely.”
The reason for the massive quote is to put my feelings for Borderlands‘ story into a bit more context. Everyone that is interesting to meet, and everything that is interesting to see you meet and see in the first few hours, leaving the rest of the game as bland trudging – the sort of thing that just gets in the way of the core experience of STALKER. I understand that in a ‘mindless shooter’, which is the only way I can describe Borderlands, you generally need nothing more than a basic motivation such as ‘you on planet. Big vault. You open.’ And that can be fine, but in that scenario I need something else to play the starring role. And I guess I just tipped my hand on how I feel about THAT.
Anyway, so it is clear that the story is total crap, which provides no motivation to actually play the game, and while trying not to spoil things too much, the ending is terrible enough to almost prevent you from wanting to replay to hit maximum level. So let’s move on – I want to talk about the character types, as for me the characters and skill trees were the best part of the experience. But first, let’s move on to the biggest selling point of the game: the guns.
Gearbox claims the game has over 16 million possible weapons, and based on playing every character across tons of hours, I have no reason to doubt them. There are several classes of weapons, each with a few subclasses, and then each type can have a few attributes such as accuracy, fire rate, damage, critical hit chance, elemental damage and so on. Each weapon has strengths and weaknesses of its own and play off your particular character build. Some have scopes, others do not – scopes are not limited to sniper rifles here.
While I’m on the topic of sniper rifles, I just have to touch on the fact that the rocket launcher is fundamentally broken, going straight through people and sometimes not even giving splash damage! Also, my primary character was Lilith, and in my first run I made her a sniper master, so I was annoyed to learn that the hit-box detection for the sniper rifle was also completely messed up. These are some serious fundamental flaws in a core area of the game.
OK, so I have gotten so caught up in detailing the issues I had that I forgot to mention that not only did I have FUN, but I took Lilith through all the way to level 50, completed once as Mordacai and also made it most of the way through with both Brick and Roland, and restarted more than a couple of times with all of them to fiddle with the tech trees.
If you listened around on web forums in the weeks following the release of Borderlands you would have heard generally good things – certainly nicer things than what I am saying. As for the opinions of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the game is, I think that console and PC users present very different landscapes of opinions. Generally opinions of those playing on the PC were much more negative than those playing the console version.
And I don’t mean PC reviews, which fall pretty much in line with the console reviews: at the risk of drifting too far on a tangent, too many multiplatform reviews by the bigger sites involve testing on one of the consoles and then simply confirming things work OK on the PC for an hour or so at most. Heck, the majority of those ‘day of release’ reviews are lucky to make it halfway through the game with a single character, let alone seeing the way to max level or completing with different characters!
Back on target … what I was saying was that the opinion of PC gamers seems to be at odds with console gamers, and I think that tells the basic story that this is a console game with a sloppy PC port. Many of the folks I’ve spoken to have had loads of fun, many saying it scratches that action-RPG itch nicely, but none would dispute that it is a seriously flawed game.
For example: some console reviews call Borderlands a ‘rock solid FPS’, whereas I’d describe it as merely ‘adequate’, and I attribute that to a basically flawed design. Since I’ve already gone on a tangent, now I can get pedantic and say that any FPS that does not work well on a PC is inherently flawed. Look at it this way – all FPS games now are based on keyboard-only and later keyboard and mouse gaming on a PC. First attempts to move to the consoles failed due to control issues, and even after the Xbox came out it took some time to really bring the tight PC FPS experience to give an adequate console experience. This involved softening the ’snap turns’ that made the earlier Monolith games so great, removing leaning and other things that would over-load the controllers, adding auto-aim and hit-detection ’slop’ to deal with the lesser accuracy of the controllers and so on. The result is that games can now be released that can be tweaked by developers to play nice on either control setup, or lazily ported to be great on one and mediocre on the other. Guess where Borderlands lands?
OK, I have now really labored the point, but when you hear PC gamers complaining about Borderlands as a mediocre shooter, that is why.
I had mentioned that not only did I have fun with Borderlands but really enjoyed some elements, so I want to get to that. As we noted, there are four characters, each with a special ability: Roland the Soldier, with his deployable turret; Mordecai the Hunter, who has a pet bird-of-prey Bloodwing as his special ability; Lilith the Siren, with a phasewalking ability that combines super-speed and invisibility; and Brick is the Berserker, with a Berserk ability.
You unlock access to your characters special ability and full tech tree at level 5. For me this was what kept me coming back again and again. Each character’s skill tree has three branches, each with seven skills. Those skills are grouped into four ‘levels’, and you need to put a certain amount of points into a level before you can access the next level. This means you’ll have to dump quite a few points before you can access the highest level skills; and if you have been following along you’ll realize that to completely fill out a single branch you’ll need to be level 40 – which is higher than you will reach in a single playthrough of the game.
However, you will generally want some skills from more than one branch, which makes choices even more important: you will be balancing what you *want* to choose versus where you *need* to put points to gain access to higher level skills. As I mentioned, I spent the most time playing Lilith: I originally chose her as a ‘mage surrogate’ since her skill tree is full of elemental damage. Her three branches are ‘Controller’, ‘Elemental, or ‘Assassin’. My personal choice was a combination of Elemental and Assassin. Elemental gave me increased firing rate and elemental damage, while Assassin gave me increased PhaseWalk damage, better critical hits, and cool kill bonuses. The other characters have similarly diverse and interesting skill trees, and with judicious choices you can do a fair amount of multi-classing – my level 50 Lilith had top skills in two branches.
My general thought on vehicles in an open world game is this: when a game allows me to use vehicles or ‘fast travel’ and I choose to walk instead, there are a couple of possible reasons. Either there is a lot to discover in the countryside in terms of quests or combat, or I hate using the vehicles. Horse travel in Two Worlds is a great example … and let’s just say I did a bunch of walking in Borderlands. The controls weren’t terrible – but they weren’t great, either. I contrast them with those of Red Faction Guerrilla: in RFG they are wonderfully integrated, come in all shapes and sizes and have a decently realistic feel based on the size and type of vehicle. In Borderlands they are all pretty similar, and I was never really able to get a feel for them beyond a merely functional experience with either the keyboard and mouse or my controller.
I also had a bad first experience with the vehicles. Interestingly, they don’t differentiate single player from multiplayer in any way. To an extent that makes sense, but the game has no problem letting you enter the gunner position and just sit there like an idiot trying to figure out how to move rather than forcing you into the driver seat. Yeah, that is what I did the first time, and was looking for the key to switch seats and realized that I had to exit and enter from a different side. Of course, once in a vehicle you have the option to gun folks down or run them down, both of which are quite fun.
One reason I hate just running things down in games like Borderlands or Red Faction Guerrilla is because everyone seems to drop loot, and I am terrible about letting anything slip away. Of course, because there is so much junk dropped compared to your available inventory space, that is a fool’s errand in Borderlands! I was reminded of the recent remake of The Bard’s Tale that had a parody of how creatures like rats and wolves would suddenly have armor and swords pop out of them when killed – but now the joke is on you since you start the game with a dozen inventory slots and the inability to travel more than two minutes without collecting more than enough to top out your backpack!
While I know that over time you can get all the way to 42 slots (I have heard of a glitch that allows more but never got that), and also that eventually you will run out of stuff to buy, but for a big enough chunk of the game I found myself battling with my inventory so I could always have a variety of weapon choices based on elemental damage and ammo type. I guess I am generally of the opinion that inventory in a ‘loot-centric’ game like this should be abundant if not unlimited, but regardless I have no idea who thought that constantly trekking back and forth through respawning enemies to sell off gear or having to drop countless items was ‘fun’ – especially early in the game when you are very limited in both inventory and cash.
Technically the game worked well enough for me. I never crashed, never froze, didn’t have performance issues or anything else. So while I complain about the port, it is not because of how it works, just how it plays. I also like the graphic style, but don’t think it held up over the course of the game. I feel that because this is a made-up world they had the opportunity to inject just about anything they could think of, but apparently mostly what they could think of came in gray and brown. I see that as a lost opportunity, though the DLC seems to be taking advantage somewhat.
As I started out saying, I don’t think Borderlands is a very good game. As I stated later, I have had plenty of fun and put tons of hours into playing it. But then again, I have put over 300 hours into replaying Dungeon Lords, generally considered the worst PC game launch of 2005; I’ve also played loads of Dark Messiah Might & Magic, which is plenty of fun but rife with fundamental flaws. So I don’t think it is incongruous to have a game that is fun but mediocre at the same time – and that is exactly how I’d describe Borderlands.
So will you like it? That depends – if you are a shooter lover, you will probably find plenty to love. If you really love co-op, you will have fun but be better served by Left 4 Dead 2. If you like action-RPGs that are heavier on the action and lighter on the RPG you will also likely have fun with Borderlands. But if you are expecting anything remotely approaching the depth of a hardcore RPG, stay far away from this game – it isn’t remotely what Borderlands is about. Borderlands is meant to be an action-shooter with some lite RPG elements, and loads of weapons and skills to play around with, and that is what it delivers.
DLC Review: Since the original release, there have been three sets of DLC released for Borderlands: The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot, and The Secret Armory of General Knoxx. Each adds new missions, new enemies, and in the case of General Knoxx you even get to increase the maximum level of your characters.
The problem with all of these is that they try to bolt something on to a fairly feeble chassis. The Zombie Island DLC is very short and rather easy, with only eight real missions and some fairly unchallenging boss battles. Mad Moxxie DLC is basically a co-op arena with a loot stash … really a terrible value even if you are a big co-op fan! And since the General Knoxx DLC ups the maximum level to 61, as well as adding cool new weapons and enemies and missions … it is easily the best of the lot and the only one I would say is worth buying. Of course, if you have already made it to level 50, you’ve invested enough hours that the other two would at least provide some variety.
The first two add-ons are also available in a DLC Double Pack at Amazon for $19.99.
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
Price: $29.99 (Currently on sale for $27.99)
What I Like:
+ Detailed, stylized graphics
+ Nice sounds
+ TONS of distinct weapons
What Needs Improvement:
– Vapid story
– Boring and shallow quests
– Broken weapons
– Brain-dead AI
– Console-centric design suffers in PC port