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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Take Two
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: Oct. 20, 2009 (US), Oct. 23, 2009 (EU)


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Xbox 360 Review - 'Borderlands'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 27, 2009 @ 2:46 a.m. PDT

Borderlands is an extraordinary cooperative experience, allowing for multiple players to share the same game experience simultaneously online. Players can freely join or leave each other's games at anytime, or choose to play in the full single-player mode. Borderlands features life-like character animations, impressive real-time physics, and customizable vehicles.

Borderlands is set on the desert hellhole planet known as Pandora, which is a hellish wasteland. There's almost no land to grow crops, the wildlife is deadly enough to kill even heavily armed mercenaries, and the few humans who live there are on the verge of dying out. However, it makes up for this by having vast stores of technology and minerals, which also makes it a popular destination for treasure hunters, pirates and various other fortune seekers. The biggest prize is the mysterious Vault, a legendary storehouse of goods said to be worth a staggering amount of treasure supposedly left behind by an alien race. Players take on the role of a bounty hunter who travels to Pandora, trying to find the secret of the Vault and strike it rich.

Borderlands is an extremely lighthearted game. Every aspect of it is dripping with humor and silliness, and there isn't a single moment when the game takes itself seriously. You'll rarely find a more colorful cast of characters than those in Borderlands, ranging from the inbred redneck who runs the vehicle shops to the borderline-insane archaeologist who is also desperately seeking the Vault. Some of the game's humor falls a little flat, but it has plenty of entertaining moments and amusing quips, which unfortunately come at a cost to the game's story. Borderland's plot is predictable, bland and over very quickly. The ending is sudden and unsatisfying, and it is unlikely that players will grow to care about the characters. Borderlands is about collecting loot and killing bad guys, so it's certainly not a game for anyone who's looking for a memorable narrative.

At first glance, Borderlands seems a lot like a traditional shooter, and it does, in fact, play exactly like most modern FPS titles. The analog sticks control your movement, the right trigger fires, and the left trigger allows you to aim down the sight of the gun. The right bumper tosses grenades, and the left bumper uses your character's special ability. Borderlands also uses a combination health and shield system. Each character has a shield bar that functions very much like the system found in Halo; it will drain if it's damaged, and if you go for a little while without damage, it will regenerate. If you lose all your shields, your health will start to decline. When your health is completely drained, you start to bleed out, but you can still fire your weapon. Kill an enemy while you're downed, and you'll gain a second wind, which puts you back on your feet with some shield and health restored. If you've played any post-Halo first-person shooter, you should have no problem picking up and playing the game. At the same time, however, Borderlands isn't quite that simple.

You see, Borderlands is a first-person shooter with RPG elements so in some ways, it is easier to compare to Diablo than a modern FPS. The damage your gun does is determined by the stats of the weapons you're using. How much damage your shield can withstand varies with your equipment. Your health grows as you level up, and your grenades can be given different effects by equipped special modifications. Instead of going through linear levels, Borderlands uses the MMO style of plot advancement. You find a quest giver, take his or her quest, and kill enemies and complete missions. Doing so will earn you money, items and experience points, and you'll need all three if you want to survive the harsh world of Pandora. Borderlands is not a game for those who prefer the rigid inflexibility of a traditional FPS system. It's unlike any other title on the market, and it fulfills a void in the gaming landscape that many people probably didn't even realize had existed.

When you start Borderlands, you'll pick one of four classes: Berserker, Hunter, Siren or Soldier. On the surface, each class is basically identical; they can use the same weapons, and their unique features are their special attacks. The Berserker can go into a killing frenzy and beat enemies to death with his bare hands, and a Hunter can summon a pet bird to steal health and items from enemies. The Siren can turn invisible and create a damaging shockwave, and a Soldier can drop a turret to blow away enemies.  These abilities only form the character's foundation and define their abilities, but how and when you'll use them depends on your character's skills.

Each of the four classes has three passive skill trees. Each time you gain a level, you earn a single skill point, which can be spent in one of the three trees. For every five skill points you spend in a tree, you'll unlock a new tier of abilities, allowing you to access new and even better abilities. Just because two characters are playing as a Siren doesn't mean that they'll play the same way. A Soldier can invest in Infantry, Support or Medic. A Siren can either be a Controller, an Elemental or an Assassin. The Hunter can focus on Sniper, Rogue or Gunslinger. The Berserker can be a Brawler, Tank or Blaster.

 Fortunately, you're never forced into one role. At any point in the game, you can pay an extremely trivial amount of cash to re-spec your character, so you can alter your build at any time. If you don't enjoy playing as a Tank Berserker, changing over to a Blaster Berserker is only a button press away.  It's a nice feature and does a lot to prevent you from being afraid to experiment with different builds. Even at extremely high levels, re-specing is ridiculously cheap, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000. That may sound expensive, but my character had well over $50 million by that point in the game. Being able to switch on the fly is useful to keep the game fresh and allow you to change between a single-player and co-op build at will. Shortly into the game, you'll also find Class Mods, which are equipped items that modify your skills. They'll add extra points into specific skills, depending on which ones you have armed, and you can even take skills over their usual limit. However, you can only have one Class Mod equipped at a time, so it's important to choose a balance of skills to complement the mod.

Being able to change your Skills and Class Mods is extremely important because your combat style will probably change fairly often, depending on the weapons you find. By far, Borderlands has more variation in its weapons than any other FPS on the market. There are eight types of weapons: Combat Rifle, Eridian, Pistol, Revolver, Rocket Launcher, Shotgun, Sniper Rifle and Submachine Gun. Each corresponds to its usual FPS archetype, with the exception being the Eridian weapons, which are energy-based alien weapons with infinite ammo.

While there are only eight types of weapons, the variation between them is amazing. Every time you find a new gun, it will most likely be different from every other gun you've found. Each weapon has different accuracy, damage and firing rate. Even if you find two nearly identical guns, there is a good chance they'll have minor differences in either effect or appearance. As the game progresses, you'll find guns with even more unique effects. You can find an SMG that sets people on fire, a shotgun that fires rockets instead of bullets, a sniper rifle that stuns enemies, or an Eridian weapon that calls down lightning. Much like Diablo, it's vital that you find the weapon that best complements your character. The good news is that no weapon is restricted to any one class. A Siren can use sniper rifles and rocket launchers just as easily as a Berserker can use SMGs and pistols. Certain classes have skills that are better for particular weapons, but there are no class-specific guns.

While Borderlands has a ton of RPG elements, there are also a number of pure FPS tropes involved. For example, the enemies you face in the game all have weak points. Human enemies are vulnerable to headshots, so if you're good with a sniper rifle, you can play Borderlands like you would any other FPS and go for headshots to get lots of critical damage. Not all enemies are vulnerable to simple headshots, as the "skags" that comprise the majority of your enemies early on are not humanoid. They're strange armored wolf-lizard things, so the only way to do critical damage to them is to shoot them in the mouth when they open up to roar at you. While the RPG elements of the game do a lot to determine if you're going to win or lose fights, FPS skills matter too.

One of the least enjoyable aspects of the game is its (mercifully brief) vehicle sections. Early in the game, you get the ability to summon vehicles from Catch-A-Ride stations, which are located in various locations throughout the world. Each vehicle is a two-seater jeep, which allows one player to drive and the other to use the built-in weapon turret. If you're playing single-player, the turret automatically locks onto nearby enemies. The problem is that the vehicle has awkward controls, so instead of driving normally, you have to point your camera in the direction you want to drive and hold forward. It isn't something you can't get used to, but it never feels natural, and it feels especially unwieldy during vehicle combat.

Additionally, the further you get into the game, the more useless the vehicles become. Vehicles generally allow you to drive over enemies so it's easier to travel across vast areas, but certain strong enemies can destroy your vehicle, probably to prevent you from "cheaply" defeating them. Not only does this blow up your vehicle, but it almost always puts your character into "dying" status. In the later stages of the game, these enemies become much more common and can even spawn directly in front of your car. This leads to situations where you're driving along and suddenly die because the game spawned an enemy immediately in front of your vehicle. Fortunately, you can get almost everywhere on foot, but it's still a ridiculous pain.

Pandora is a gigantic world full of locales to explore, so it's disappointing to see such unimaginative missions. The majority of the missions are simple collection missions, so you go to a location, pick up a few items, and wander back to the quest giver for your reward. There are some stand-out missions, such as the one where you fight a giant monster called Skagzilla, or another where you track down the hidden diaries of a major character, but these are few and far between. Most of your time is spend going to a place, killing some things, and collecting a few items. While there is certainly enough to do to keep the game entertaining, it can start to grind a bit when you're trying to earn enough levels to advance the plot. More variation in the missions would have helped a lot, especially since the combat is a lot more fun than trying to find hidden items.

The title has a fondness for jumping puzzles, which are distinctly out of place in an FPS. A number of the game's missions and hidden items require you to perform tedious jumping exploration through the levels. This wouldn't be so bad if available platforms were more easily distinguishable. There are a number of invisible walls or unstable objects that make it tricky to figure out where to jump. It's entirely possible to spend 20 minutes trying to find a quest object, only to discover that it was on a rooftop that didn't seem accessible. Furthermore, there are a few areas where you can get stuck inside the geometry, and you're far more likely to find those when you're randomly leaping around and trying to find someplace to jump or climb.

Borderlands can be played as a single-player game or with up to four friends at once. It is strongly recommended that you play the game co-op at every possible opportunity because it's just more fun when your friends are along for the ride. Once you reach the midway point of the game, the single-player difficulty level all but vanishes. Enemy strength is skewed a bit too low, and a lot of the later sections become boring due to lackluster foes. This problem is mostly solved on co-op. You may have four people, but you also face stronger and more numerous enemies. You also get better loot while playing co-op, which also makes it a lot more rewarding. Co-op mode also helps reduce the "grindy" feeling of the game's missions because things go by much faster when you have four people collecting items instead of one.  Borderlands is an average single-player game but a fantastic co-op game. Getting a team of four people together to bash your way through missions makes it feel like a completely different, and significantly better, game.

While the multiplayer in Borderlands is incredibly fun, it does come with a warning: You should only play this game with trusted friends, despite the fact that it supports random online partners. For people who want to be complete jerks — and since we're talking about the Internet, there sure are a bunch — the game is full of ways to grief other players. They can join your game and steal any and all good weapons dropped by enemies before promptly quitting, leaving you with nothing but an empty treasure chest. On the flip side, due to the way the game saves, it's also entirely possible for the host to screw over players. If you pick up an item and the host kicks you before the next autosave, you lose the item and anything else you gained since the last time you played. These are just two of the most common examples of ways that you can be griefed in the game, and the list is not short. You can drive cars off a cliff with another player in it, you can shoot exploding barrels when someone is passing by, etc. Anyone who is wholeheartedly looking to troll players is going to have an easy time of it so unless you're willing to put up with the frustration, you're best playing the game with friends or folks who you can generally trust. If you don't have online pals, Borderlands becomes a much trickier prospect to recommend. Fortunately, the game supports two-player local split screen, so even if you avoid the online portion of the game, you can still play some form of multiplayer co-op.

While it's certainly fun, Borderlands is distinctly lacking in polish. In our playthrough, we can across some pretty substantial glitches. Environments would load poorly or incorrectly, resulting in missing textures or game-breaking flaws. I encountered situations where a scripted character wouldn't complete his role, preventing me from advancing unless I reset the entire game. Another area had me and my group fall through an elevator, leaving us trapped and unable to continue the game. Sometimes, the AI gets a bit touchy. More than once, I found myself surrounded by seemingly inactive enemies, who stood around or patrolled like I wasn't even there. A few stood in place regardless of how often I shot them. There were a number of other frustrating minor glitches throughout the course of the game, ranging from weird physics bugs to a few cases where I would find myself stuck in the world geometry or my gun would stop reloading or firing until I switched it around. While none of these glitches were enough to sour the Borderlands experience, they did cast a rather frustrating fog over a lot of the more fun moments. Nothing destroys the flow of a good co-op game quite as fast as a game-breaking glitch to halt your momentum right before the boss fight.

Borderlands is a visually striking game. The cel-shaded art style makes the game feel a lot like a comic book, and this does a lot to help the otherwise bland environments stand out. The characters, weapons and enemies are all memorable. You'll find tons of different-looking guns, even if they have the same basic attributes. Each weapon is made out of a collection of "parts," which is influenced by its stats and the fictional maker of the gun. However, Borderlands is not without its visual flaws. As mentioned above, there are times when textures or environments would load poorly, leaving certain areas blurry or even empty. I had a few weird occasions when a vending machine wouldn't load until 5-10 minutes after I entered the area. There is some noticeable slowdown during particularly heavy fights as well. If someone is playing an Elemental Siren, be prepared to watch your frame rate chug if you get into the thick of things. There is also a lot of repetition in enemies. It's not so bad among the non-humans, but it would have been nice if every single Psycho didn't look identical to the last.

Borderlands is one of the best co-op games on the market. It's fun and easy to pick up, and its unique combination of RPG and FPS elements makes it unlike anything else out there. The wide variety of skills and weapons gives you a lot of freedom in developing your character, and there is very little punishment for experimenting or playing around. However, the single-player doesn't hold up as well, and gamers who are not looking for a multiplayer experience may be best off waiting for a price drop. On top of that, a pretty substantial number of glitches — falling through an elevator, losing the ability to fire your gun, etc. — and design problems mar the experience. These glitches can pull you out of the game at a moment's notice, but if you're willing to overlook them, you'll find one of the best co-op FPSes on the market. Combining the ease of play of a FPS with the loot collection of an RPG, Borderlands has the potential to become one of the most addictive games you've ever played.

Score: 8.0/10

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