RPG and FPS made a baby...and it's a damn awesome one too.
For those of you who have never heard of Borderlands, it can best be described as a loot gathering and RPG experience not unlike that of Diablo, mixed with standard FPS gameplay mechanics from popular games like Halo and Call of Duty Throw in a strong co-op focus, and you get Borderlands. Gearbox, the developers of the game, has made it clear that the blending of genres was their focus for the game. In fact, the first half of this review title is a quote straight out of one of their previews. The blend of RPG and FPS, dubbed "Role Playing Shooter" by Gearbox, is a concept that has been explored in the past, in games like Fallout 3 and Bioshock. However, I would go as far as to say that Borderlands outshines any other game attempting this fusion.
The most basic difference is that Borderlands definitely focuses more on the shooter gameplay than an RPG experience. Those coming for a deep story and involved character building are going to be disappointed, as Borderlands has neither. The story involves finding an alien vault full of treasure, and basically exists so that you can run around the world of Pandora shooting as many things as possible, and the skill trees are basically only there to augment the shooter experience. However, the little story that Gearbox chose to create is done quite well. All of the characters in Borderlands are each distinct and funny, from the hyperactive Claptrap robots you meet to the insane scientist also in search of the Vault.
The RPG elements in the game are done quite well. At the start of the game, you pick one of four classes- the Soldier, the Hunter, the Siren, and Brick. Each has one distinct action skill (again, just enough to augment the shooter experience), and a distinct skill tree. The Soldier has a deployable turret that can be upgraded to do more damage, give ammo, and heal other players. He also has one of the more notable skills in the game, the ability to shoot other players and heal them. The Hunter is a sniping focused character that has the ability to summon a bird, called a Bloodwing, to attack his enemies. The Siren has the ability to speed up and turn invisible, allowing you to sneak up behind the enemy and deal massive damage. Brick is the tank class character, with a berserk mode that allows him to pound on the enemies in the world with his fists. In addition to their unique skill trees, each character also has class mods that allow for even more customization. Borderlands does an excellent job of making all four character classes seem distinct, so that the character you choose really is meaningful.
Another gameplay point that Gearbox is fond of showing off is the game's weapon system. The game has over 17 million guns, randomly generated by an in-game AI. For those of you who are unsure if Gearbox fulfilled this promise, well, they did. Although some guns may look similar and have the same names, their accuracy, damage, recoil rate, clip size, and more are all randomly created so you'll never get the same gun. Even guns that drop from bosses every time have different stats. All the different guns are a huge reason that you'll want to keep playing Borderlands, in search of that Legendary Sniper Rifle or alien weapon.
That's not to say that the combat isn't fun, however. In contrast to Fallout, where shots are hit or miss based on stats, Gearbox feels like a real shooter. If you aim down the sights and shoot an enemy in the head, he'll get shot, accuracy skill or no (the accuracy in the game seems to affect bullet spread, rather than a hidden dice roll)
The graphics in Borderlands are amazing as well. About a year into the development process Gearbox decided to change the art style from realistic to a comic-book/cel-shaded art style. It definitely works here, turning what would have been endless miles of generic looking desert into something vibrant and fresh. It also allows for awesome moments like shotgun blasts that tear enemies apart, and a corrosive bullet blowing up heads in splashy acid-and blood filled glory.
The game is highly replayable. After your first playthrough, you probably won't have hit the level cap of 50. The game offers a Playthrough 2. where all the enemies are tougher and you find better guns. In addition, I feel that the characters are different enough to warrant their own playthroughs. I expect that I'll spend hundreds of hours on the game, and I won't get bored of Borderlands for a long, long time.
Buy or Rent: Definite buy, it'll stay in your xbox/playstation/PC for a long, long time.