If Black for the Xbox was gun porn, Borderlands is the entire red-light district.
Gearbox Software's sci-fi shooter is not all about the guns, though. It's also about stats, levels and everything else that FPS players may not be expecting from a typical shooter. Bethesda's Fallout 3 had struck many as Oblivion with guns, and Ubisoft's Far Cry 2 and GSC's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl shook up the formula even further with their open-world approaches, Borderlands seems to have blasted a hole straight through to that comfortable middle ground where arsenals rule the day alongside stat-flavored goodness.
This adventure takes place on Pandora, a world whose deserted landscapes seem transplanted straight from from the film that gave us hulking giants, methane and postapocalyptic survival, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," with possibly more than a little of "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" thrown in for good measure (sans Michael Ironside).
Borderlands also comes off as a uniquely quirky, blood-soaked comic thanks to the bold cel shading, an effect that is used in great detail with every bizarre foe, jumping spider and ramshackle neighborhood on Pandora. It's almost too pretty to be gritty — until you see a Bully scream about its face after being immolated, a Furious Stunted Shotgunner's head disappear in a red mist, or a Badass Outlaw's limb take a vacation without the rest of him.
Why is anyone still on Pandora? There are rumors that somewhere on this forsaken lump of rock, a hidden alien relic, the Vault, contains wonders beyond compare. Everyone wants it, but no one knows where it is. The corporations that had exploited the planet have long abandoned Pandora, leaving everything to the criminal labor force and those still determined, or desperate, to carve out a piece of the planet for themselves. That's where you come in, and that's pretty much as far as the story goes.
None of the detail about the protagonists or the backdrop is exploited within the game, which was disappointing. There is no real role-playing here, so you won't see dialogue trees and character development, which might not make everyone happy, but Borderland's subtle blend of WMDs and action-RPG "hack 'n' loot" attributes work together extremely well.
From a choice of four characters (color changes allow for a little tweaking to their appearance), each representing a different class, players can decide how they want to play. One thing that they all share, though, is their ability to use any weapon that they lay their hands on. Anyone familiar with an FPS on a PS3 will ease right into the controls and soon discover that every bullet, every kill and every job rewards them with cash, which can be spent on supplies and new weapons. Most everything you see wielded in the game is up for grabs, unless it's too weird to be pocketed by your limited high-tech inventory.
You can level up your class with earned experience points, which also yield skill points that can be used to improve additional abilities within each class's individual skill trees. While much of the skill still revolves around your own reflexes, these abilities and enhancements provide, among many other things, improved damage, a shorter cooling-off period for special abilities, or speed up how quickly your bullets travel, eventually turning a submachine gun into a mini-gun. If you make a mistake in adding points to your skills, you can always re-spec your tree, but like everything else on Pandora that comes out of a vending machine, you'll need cash. Each weapon class also has its own related proficiency level that automatically improves with how often you use it, lending each a significant bonus, such as faster reloading or improved damage. Practice makes perfect.
Death functions a lot like BioShock's Vita-Chambers, but in this case, each save point acts as your spawn point in case you die (and charges your wallet accordingly). This isn't as bad as it sounds, considering how dense the AI can be. It can occasionally be found standing in place or refusing to pursue you after a certain amount of time, leaving you some breathing room to regenerate your shields or retreat, if you're badly hurt. When you fall to the ground, Borderlands allows you to fight for your life as it bleeds away, and killing an enemy before everything turns black gives you a second wind.
On top of the addictive development system, the variety of loot is probably what will keep many players coming back for more. Gearbox's system does for guns what hack 'n' loot titles from Blizzard's Diablo to Sega's Shining Force Neo have done with fantasy weapons. I have no idea if there are really 87 bazillion guns in this game, but there is so much that finding enough Claptrap robots to fix in order to grow my inventory space became something of an obsession. There is no "storage chest" system to stock any extra items that you might want to keep, and leveled equipment ensures that you can't outfit newbie characters with godlike weapons too soon.
Most lootables have a color-coding scheme designating hard-to-find items and scaling down to more common weapons. The system also works both ways. Enemies are equipped with randomly generated weapons, so for every encounter, you don't exactly know what you might be facing. That lowly bandit ripping apart your shields might have been given a rare and deadly weapon.
In one instance in my playthrough, a heavily armored soldier had drawn the short straw. He seemed stuck underneath a staircase, but to me, it looked like he was hiding there because the game had given him a slow-firing, low-powered pistol to face off against my Siren's corrosive SMG, which I used to turn him into jelly. At least his gun survived, which allowed me to see why he was scared.
It's also unfortunate that the same algorithm could not have been used to mix and match a better menagerie, at least where the human baddies were concerned. After fighting so many Badass Outlaws and SuperBad Bullies, it would have been refreshing to see a better assortment of baddies to avoid repetition. At least Titan Quest and the Diablo series had a large variety of monsters to pick through, and I had expected that kind of diversity here.
The use of leveled mobs and leveled equipment may not be something that everyone is a fan of, especially since the game recycles bandits with new titles and upgraded levels, making it sometimes feel like a mind-numbing slog against tougher rats. Borderlands manages to make it more interesting, thanks largely to their varied loadouts, but it had to grow on me during the first few hours. My worry about leveled weapons wasn't as bad as I feared it might be, though.
Unlike some other games that might tantalize you with a dropped weapon a bazillion experience points above what you are, Borderlands rarely gives you something that you can't use, and if it is leveled higher, it seems to average only one or two levels above your current stats. The good news is that having a higher leveled gun (or a more expensive one) doesn't necessarily mean that it's "better." I've been using a rare SMG that charbroils anything I hit, and it's only in the 20s. The reason for attaching an arbitrary number to a gun becomes much clearer online.
In addition to the Trophy awards, the game also boasts dozens of its own achievements, such as running over a certain number of things with the buggy or getting a certain number of headshots, all of which award the player with even more experience and adding to the already extensive list of what there is to do on Pandora. Going through these also makes the flaws a lot more noticeable.
Load times for large areas can take a while, even though Pandora comes off as a little too barren for a world supposedly sitting on a legendary treasure. You can't chuck 'nades into doorways to get the drop on spawns, and there are occasional bouts of slowdown when the special effects and mobs start flooding the screen, especially when you're zoomed in. The way it handles the pop-up windows for dropped loot can occasionally get in your face, which isn't a good situation to be in when you're trying to line up a shot and suddenly can't see an enemy because of it.
If you're bored grinding by yourself in single-player, Borderlands' co-op multiplayer is great fun, even though it has a few issues and the occasional exploit. For one thing, picking the online option would sometimes hang the game after you've played the single-player mode. Restarting the game fixes it, but it's annoying to have to do this just to get it to function.
The online lobby menu is also bare-bones, with a list of online players, their level and the mission that they are currently undertaking. It would have been nice to see a more complete listing instead of having to refresh the list to discover if there are more sessions. Being able to view the type of character classes in a particular game before jumping in would also have been helpful, especially if you are looking to participate in a more eclectic grouping than one comprised entirely of one class.
As for what awaits online, players will need to keep in mind that there aren't any protections in place to keep greedy players from filling their pockets or driving you off a cliff, nor is there a way to engage a player in an inventory swap, so much of the trading is done by throwing stuff on the ground. As it is, much of the loot sharing will depend on whether other players are nice enough to wait and see what you do with a chest before diving right in, either by walking away or grabbing a new, shiny gun.
Finding any kind of online match was easy, despite the interface nitpicks, and performance was relatively lag-free. When four people are playing at once, those sessions tend to lag a bit more than others, especially when you're driving. It didn't occur with enough regularity to be a problem, though.
Unlike the Xbox 360 version, not every online PS3 owner has a headset, but it was hardly a detriment to play. It would have been nice to have at least a few cosmetic indicators, such as an icon over a character's head to show that they're in a menu, AFK or simply waiting. If the leader knows what they're doing, following them around is all that is needed. Mission objectives on the HUD also help, but it would have been nice to see a clean "tick free" list to avoid confusion about what needs to be done online, instead of seeing the tasks that you've already accomplished.
Mobs will also scale up in toughness depending on the number of players in the game, not levels, and the loot will also scale along to match the added challenge. Another change is that players can revive downed friends before they go down for the count. Character data that's saved online can also be taken into your solo game.
When someone snags that nice, rare weapon that you wanted, you can walk up and punch him for satisfaction. If he hits back, a static-like border drops down from the sky to form an arena for your private match. It would have been nice to wager weapons as a prize to be won or lost in order to make things a bit more interesting, especially for that gun, but it's not a bad way to blow off some steam or test the strength of your class build.
Completing the main campaign on the first playthrough can take around 25 hours or so, especially with all of the side jobs. Opting to go through it again on the second playthrough restarts the game with your character and all of the bad guys at approximately the same level. The challenge is greater, but so is the kind of loot that you can snag, adding another 15 hours to the mix. Some bosses, such as in the first playthrough after completing it, will even respawn to give you another shot at their loot. Levels top off at 50, and despite cash maxing out at around $9,999,999, it still seems to count past it.
Borderlands' bloody comic book has a few flaws in its pitted but pretty exterior, but there is an undeniable draw. The handful of statistical attributes add more of an investment behind every bullet, and when coupled with compelling co-op, Borderlands' seamless take on the FPS/RPG hybrid is sure to keep more than a few wasteland warriors fighting for survival through Pandora's many days and nights.
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