One of Borderlands’ best qualities is its incredibly blunt approach to everything it does. It never tries to explain how vending machines spew out guns, how the economy makes any sense, how bandits repopulate cleared areas without much reason, how vehicles just warp into existence with a press of a button. It all just kind of happens. It’s so fixated on its leveling and loot experience that it forgoes all reason and decides to just be a game about guns, getting stronger, and shooting. It’s a quality I appreciate, and even with its long, winding list of shortcomings, Borderlands managed to pull me in for 35 hours, and I absolutely plan on going back to the no-nonsense world of Pandora.
Shortcoming #1: A paper-thin and wasted narrative. It starts with plenty of promise. There’s an irreverent sense of humor the writing and the game’s art style evoke really well, and then it ditches any plot within the first twenty minutes. Outside of the audio recordings left by Patricia Tannis, which are surprisingly entertaining to listen to, Borderlands’ narrative goes absolutely nowhere before collapsing in on itself by the time you reach the game’s underwhelming ending. It’s a real shame, especially when you consider Gearbox has a knack for developing stories and plots, like in Hell’s Highway or, heck, even Opposing Force.
Shortcoming #2: A lack of interesting quests. This is an extension on the game’s lackluster narrative, but it bears mentioning. Borderlands is billed as an RPG shooter, so experience points are gained for anything you kill and any quests you complete. A bulk of those points come from quests, which usually amount to nothing more than “go here and shoot this” or “go here, here, and here, and press some buttons.” They’re uninspired, and the game barely tries to insert any kind of interesting motivation or background to any surrounding quest. Again, Gearbox can do much better in this arena.
Shortcoming #3: Its multiplayer is a kind of busted. The game uses GameSpy for its online component. Yeah. It’s baffling how this thing still exists. It’s even more confounding how Gearbox has chosen such an archaic and disliked system for the multi-player. Granted, since Borderlands’ multi-player is pretty much all about co-op, the co-op experience only really matters if you’re playing with friends. It’s easy to connect to each other’s games and start playing, while playing strangers can be a pain. There’s no ability to kick players or do much of anything once you’ve initiated or joined a game.
Shortcoming #4: A lack of variety. Most combat situations boil down to shooting bandits or a sparse variety of creatures that inhabit Pandora. There’s very little you’re going to be doing in the game besides shooting. The game’s four classes add a little variety due to their own individual action skills. The Siren’s ability to go in and out of a phasewalk while lighting everything on fire is markedly different than the Hunter’s ability to throw an aggravated hawk at everything that’s shooting at you. They all have their own skill trees, too, but Borderlands makes the smart move of letting the shooting take precedence over the RPG aspects of the game, making the role-playing elements less pronounced.
"The looting and level grinding experience is absolutely sublime."
So, I could go on about all of the many problems, but Borderlands has Undeniable Positive Quality #1: The looting and level grinding experience is absolutely sublime. Borderlands has an innumerable amount of guns – guns that shoot fire, guns with lightning-fast reload rates, guns that deal incredible amounts of damage – so many guns. Their value and differences come from the varied statistics they all carry, always making for neat discoveries. Some guns will mean nothing to you, some will pique your interests, and every now and then you’ll get the ideal gun you’ve been hankering for after dozens and dozens of hours of play. I recently found an incredible sniper rifle that has a high chance of spewing out fire. I never thought I’d find a more ideal sniper rifle until that moment, when the unassuming red container spun its gears and unlocked its treasures to the world. It was a joyous experience.
It also has to do with the action in Borderlands being so good. The game’s very much a shooter at its core, with most of the RPG stuff, while important, sitting in the sidelines. The action feels great, which isn’t much of a surprise considering Gearbox’s resume is filled with shooters, but it’s refreshing to see a shooter/RPG hybrid that puts the action front and center, instead of being like Fallout 3, where the action was mediocre on all fronts. It’s the numbers of enemies you’ll face at once in Borderlands that offers up most of the game’s exciting moments. Individually, a single skag is a laughable threat, but once you multiply that number by 5 or 6 with a couple rakks and a handful of bandits salivating for some your blood, it’s the kind of chaos that’s an incredible amount of fun to participate in, and that’s the kind of mess Borderlands loves to revel in.
That frantic chaos is bolstered by the game’s inspired look. With stark, bold outlines, rich colors, the game has a look that’s very much in line with something like Prince of Persia. It’s a game that’s easy to identify just visually, and, as great as its art style is, it has a lot of obvious technical merits to it, too. The game renders the wide-open areas of Pandora without much of a problem. Pop-in is a non-issue, particle effects are sharp, and the gore model is amusing. It’s definitely one of the better-looking games to come out this year, and considering all the visual standouts that came out and have yet to come out this year, that’s saying a lot.
The game’s audio is also great. The music is understated and really atmospheric, amping up and slowing down when appropriate. Voice-acting is all-around strong, with the screaming being the highlights. When someone catches on fire, you’ll definitely hear it. The only real negative is how most the guns in each respective class sound the same. A Jakobs sniper rifle sounds no different than a Vladof’s. It’s not that big of a deal, but more could’ve been done with gun sounds, considering how much of a focal point guns are in Borderlands.
So, there’s a lot to Borderlands, both good and bad. Finishing the game once unlocks another playthrough, where enemies have been readjusted to your level. The co-op also ups the general challenge, making it a game with a lot of lasting value.
Borderlands has more weaknesses than strengths, but the few strengths it has absolutely overwhelm most of the problems the game has. It taps into the base instinct of wanting to reach that one level, to find that elusive item you’ve been tracking for what seems like your entire life, and, once you do find it, you only want to find more. It’s a dangerous game in the sense that it can absolutely destroy your free time, but it’s also great in the sense that it can absolutely destroy your free time. Forget about spending just a few minutes with the game, and just lose yourself in Borderlands for an hour. Or three.