You’re a bounty hunter who recently arrived on the planet of Pandora, one massive Mad Max-esque desert wasteland, filled with raiding parties and vile creatures, as well as a few small backwards outposts which barely manage to hold out against the raiders. You are here in search of ‘the Vault’, a place said to be created by a mythical alien race and packed full of riches. It’s this promise of unimaginable wealth which attracts bounty hunters like yourself to the wasteland planet of Pandora.
Borderlands is a class-based FPS RPG, so first up you need to choose from one of the four character classes – soldier, berserker, siren or hunter. The soldier is your typical all-round character and his special skill is the ability to deploy a shielded turret on the battlefield. The berserker is the tank – big on health and melee attacks. The hunter is a ranged specialist who can call on his pet bird of prey to attack enemies. Finally, the siren is a stealth fighter with the ability to turn invisible. Each class is markedly different, but their special skills will almost always be used as secondary attacks to back-up the standard FPS gameplay. There are two key reasons for this: the first is that the special skills often have lengthy cool down periods and can therefore only realistically be used once per battle. The second is that your main weapons of choice (the guns that make up the FPS part of Borderlands) are often sufficient enough to deal with each battle alone, so you won’t necessarily need to make use of your special skill anyway.
Beyond the special skills, each character class also has three different passive skill trees that help to round out your character and let you tailor it to your particular playing style. I’ll use the soldier class as an example to illustrate this. If you find a devastating shotgun then you can pump points into skills which will further increase your effectiveness with shotguns, whilst at the same time maxing out the skill which reduces the damage taken from bullets, since you’ll be vulnerable to gunfire a lot of the time. If you prefer a more distanced approach, however, then you could place points in skills which increase the effectiveness of assault rifles instead. Or maybe you’ll find you rely a lot on your turret special skill, in which case you can put skill points in the passive skills that strengthen the turret, and so on. As well as your character level, you also gain levels for each different weapon type, so you’re rewarded for specialising.
So the skill system tends to be complimentary, rather than game defining. The hunter may very well be the most adept at using sniper rifles and other long range weapons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t equip your soldier with one and also be effective. The class system is certainly enjoyable, adding variety and additional gameplay mechanics to the standard FPS set-up. It’s also extremely flexible, in that it never precludes you from approaching the game one way or the other, and you can also completely re-spec your character for a small fee. However, it’s also not a huge focus of the game - the FPS takes priority over the RPG.
Moving on to the FPS side of the game then, this is where Borderlands really does shine. The gunplay is top-notch and polished, and the controls stand toe to toe with some of the best FPS games on the market. For the most part enemy AI is solid if unremarkable, with each different enemy type acting according to their personality – the slightly insane bandits will charge at you with axes (sometimes having set themselves on fire first), the big muscular ones will plod towards you with shotguns in hand, whilst the cowardly ones will dart around and shoot from cover. Sometimes the AI scripting will go awry and one of your enemies will get stuck on a solid object and be unresponsive as you go about shooting him, but fortunately this doesn’t happen too often.
Loot is a huge part of Borderlands, and it’s one of the best examples of a well implemented loot system in a console game this generation. There are literally hundreds of thousands of different weapon stat permutations, so there’s certainly no lack of weapon diversity. Everything from shotguns, to pistols, to sniper rifles, to rocket launchers is covered. It’s not just guns either, you’ll also find grenade modifiers (ever wanted your grenades to steal life for you? Or to explode and scatter?), shield types (some shields will recharge your health over time, others may fire out bursts of electricity once depleted, and so on) and class modifiers (these can provide huge boosts to your character’s key strengths). If you’re the sort of person who likes to hoover up loot and then sort it out when you return to town then Borderlands has certainly got your needs covered. One word of warning though – the system for picking up loot could have been more user friendly. Early on, you may find yourself seemingly unintentionally picking up weapons and having them automatically replace your current weapon. This happens when you hold down the X/square button to pick up all of the surrounding loot. In order to avoid this you need to simply tap the X/square button instead. Unfortunately this makes it hard to grab all of the loot around you in one go.
The main story has you searching for pieces of the key to the vault, but there are also a lot of side quests for you to complete along the way. Borderlands is generally a well balanced game and this is in large part thanks to the rigid quest structure, where you can easily spot which quests are appropriate for your level. Completing quests is the best way of earning experience and money, doubly so if you kill everything along the way, and because enemies which are of a higher level than your character will be genuinely tough to defeat it’s a good idea to complete these side quests.
Unfortunately, most of the side quests are repetitive and bland, either tasking you to go and kill someone, blow something up, or find and return an item. The one exception is the series of side quests which task with you finding hidden audio files left behind by a scientist who is also searching for the vault, but who is gradually going insane in the process. Piecing together these files and listening to them makes for a decent side story. The main quest path itself is fairly solid, and areas of repetition are offset by some amusing main characters, such as the aforementioned scientist, or the cute and quirky claptrap robots that you’ll come across. There are also some imaginative boss battles. Unfortunately, the ending is extremely abrupt and nothing short of a disappointment.
The game isn’t entirely open world, but as you complete quests (and by extension become stronger) it gradually opens up and you’re given more freedom to explore the entire world. Initially this is done by giving you access to one of two vehicles. Thankfully they’re easy to control, although there are some unnecessary sections of vehicle combat that feel redundant. Eventually you’re able to instantly fast travel to areas already mapped out, which drastically cuts down on the amount of time you’ll need to spend travelling back through areas of Pandora.
There are also some neat features that allow Borderlands to shine. Start pumping bullets into an enemy and experience points will literally pour out of it – this looks great and is a perfect fit for the game’s art style. When enemies die, they will typically drop loot, at which point little beams of light spike up from the ground, colour-coded according to the item’s rarity. Another example is the ‘second wind’ feature. If you completely run out of health you’ll drop to your knees and the screen will begin to fade to black, but if you manage to kill an enemy before you run out of time you’ll get a second wind and climb back to your feet with your shields and some health regenerated.
Another area where Borderlands stands out is with its art style. It has a stylish cel shaded look which helps to bring the post-apocalyptic Mad Max setting to life and gives it personality. Borderlands wouldn’t have been nearly as vibrant or pleasing to the eye without such a bold art direction. There are also strong visual effects which add to the game’s style – there are brilliant flashes of colour caused by weapons that have electrocution, fire or corrosive acid modifiers. You can also combine these modifiers with your special skill, grenades and shields. There are a few technical issues though – distant objects noticeably pop in, and you’ll notice this as you travel around the larger areas of Pandora. At times it can also take a couple of seconds for textures to load in when you enter a new area.
Some of the enemy designs are fantastic, particularly the key bosses, but even the standard bandits are well designed. However, I would have welcomed more enemy variety, since the majority of the time you’ll be fighting just a handful of different bandit variations and pesky wasteland creatures. Towards the end of the story you’ll encounter a host of new enemy threats, and they’re more than welcome, but the game could have done with some additional enemy variation at an earlier stage so that the experience was kept fresh throughout. The voice acting is good, and I really enjoyed the battle music, although the background music is very understated and forgettable.
Borderlands took me 17 hours to complete and that included completion of all side quests. You can skip many of these if you want, but they’re actually the best source of experience, so that’s probably not advisable and I doubt you’ll save much time in the long run anyway. The level cap is 50, and you’ll probably complete the game at around level 36. Once you’ve done that you can opt to play through again in order to complete your character. All of your character’s stats and equipment carry over and you’ll face tougher enemies. Beyond finding even better equipment and maxing out your level there’s not much of an incentive to replay with the same character, however there are 4 character classes in the game, so if you want to experience what they all have to offer then there’s plenty of reason to replay the game with a new character.
Finally, Borderlands also boasts a two player split screen and four player co-op option, which allows you to play through the same campaign with others. Enemies are much tougher in co-op and teamwork is pretty much essential. Money is evenly distributed amongst team members, although items drop like normal, but this isn’t particularly problematic since there’s so much loot being dropped that there’s more than enough to go around. There’s also a small versus element. You can challenge a teammate to a duel at any time by simply hitting them, and if they wish to accept your challenge they need only hit you back. Matchmaking works well, allowing you to join games with a host of a similar level with ease. Borderlands is sometimes considered primarily a co-op game and not especially well made for single player, but I personally didn’t feel that the cooperative elements added anything to the game beyond what I’d already experienced in single player. If you’re only interested in a single player game and you’re worried about not getting the most out of Borderlands as a result, then I would say don’t be - the experience is the same and this is a great game in either single player or co-op.
Borderlands has managed to carve out a space for itself in the HD console library with its lively art style and some neat little graphical touches that bring flare to the proceedings. However, it has much more than style to offer, there’s substance here as well, thanks to a clever blending of class-based RPG and FPS elements. Whilst the RPG elements aren’t as prominent or superbly refined as the FPS ones, they no doubt compliment the game brilliantly. A lot of parallels have been drawn with Fallout 3, and in some respects Borderlands is indeed this year’s Fallout 3 - a little shallower with respect to its RPG stripes and with a less engaging narrative, but with a lot more style and colour, and gunplay which is up there with some of the best FPS games on the market.