The lack of a viable narrative is disappointing, but that's OK
If there’s one thing that we as gamers have proven time and time again, it’s that we all have a collective, insatiable lust for color-coded loot drops and shooting dudes. Mostly, we’ve had to split our attention between two entirely different styles of game to quench the thirst, but a few sporadic releases have attempted to bring these mechanics together. Hellgate: London comes immediately to mind. None of them have managed to get it right, though. Well, until now.
Borderlands comes to us from Gearbox, best known for their work on the Brothers in Arms franchise, as well as a few ports and expansions on Valve’s Half-Life series earlier in the decade. They also co-developed the original Halo, which probably explains just why it is that the shooting elements of this latest project from their experienced hands is just so engrossing. I can only imagine that these guys are either huge fans of Diablo, or that they were so incredibly distraught with Flagship’s dismal failure back in 2007 to include the additional, progression-driving features that they did.
This game does essentially everything right from the beginning. A colorful cutscene introduces the character archetypes to you, and then drops you into a world filled with barren landscapes, poorly-constructed civilian hovels, and initially charming robots that, with time, become undeniably annoying. Of course, the first thing to notice about the gameplay upon encountering that first batch of roving psychopaths is that simply aiming the crosshair and pulling the trigger isn’t quite enough to ensure that these foes are going to plummet lifelessly to the ground. That’s because while looking and generally feeling like a shooter, Borderlands is also an RPG in the truest sense. Experience points, skill trees, health potions, statistics, and loot; they’re all here and accounted for.
And from my perspective, that’s what makes Borderlands so successful. The roleplaying mechanics are deep enough to the point that fans of the genre should be satisfied, but at the same time they do little to detract from what turns out to be some fun and rewarding gunplay. The statistical attributes are limited to increasing the damage of your weaponry or further enhancing your specific character’s talent purchases. You’ll of course have to pay a bit more attention to the spatter of damage numbers rather than blood than you’d have to if this were, say, Wolfenstein or something more to that nature, but that’s just something that comes with the mingling of different styles of game.
What this whole package really amounts to is a grind, one that will test you for addictive personality traits, as well as a certain level of patience. You’re given a ridiculous number of quests to complete as you move forward--the majority of them optional--with all of them being presented through a well organized quest journal. Said quests are to be turned in for experience, cash, and items. This structure that the game takes one is what drives it to the end credits, and will either make or break the entire experience for you. To me, it worked well up until the few hours, at which time the entire game felt as if it was dragging on just a bit too long for my own liking.
The world is split into several zones, both large and small, and you’ll be visiting and re-visiting them many times over through the course of the game. Each one has its own characteristics, but much of the time the landscape is bland, and it feels as if the entire game is relying upon the cel-shaded, stylized nature of its visuals to keep your attention on what you’re seeing. Getting around isn’t difficult; you’re given the ability to sprint with no conventional duration in effect, and the Catch-A-Ride stations provide free and easy transport as well as the ability to engage in some extremely clunky vehicular combat.
Most of your time will be spent either running from place, shooting at anything moving, or collecting loot. The latter two fall in with each other quite well. A good portion of the loot consists of ammunition, and despite that fact, it’s still rather difficult to venture out for any amount of time and not find yourself immediately hauling it to a commerce station to fill out your weapons. You’ll find plenty of weapons and shields hanging around, as well as modifications that trick out your grenades, and all of them convey their rarity through what has become the industry standard: white for common, green for uncommon, blue for rare, so on and so forth. Given only a few allocatable slots for the acute number of drops, this system isn’t nearly as in-depth as seen in other titles, but it adds a defining layer of material satisfaction from start to finish.
There is quite a bit of character to the world of Pandora. The ridiculous level of insanity befalling the criminals and (literally) flaming psychopaths you’ll encounter is exaggerated to the point that makes waltzing down a dark New York alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging from your pockets look like an a move of genius compared to settling down on this game’s imaginative hellhole. Many of the encountered NPCs are alarming in their caricature, but they help bring the world to life.
Or they would if Borderlands had any real plot presentation to speak of. The truth is that after the game’s introduction, the game chooses to convey its plot via quest text, and any seasoned World of Warcraft vet will tell you that forcing the player to read countless paragraphs of wanton lore to gain any in-depth sense of the world isn’t really the way to go. By the end of the game, you probably won’t even care any more, if you even did in the first place.
As far as shooters go, Borderlands is solid and, resultingly, generic. However, with the roleplaying elements tossed in and combined almost seamlessly, it succeeds in ways that most other genre hybrids dramatically failed. There’s enough content to keep you playing for thirty, forty, maybe even fifty hours. By the end of your first play through, you won’t have reached the level cap, and with a second, more difficult round opening up upon the story’s completion, there’ll still be plenty left to do. Borderlands does enough right to warrant the time spent, and though inspiring a slight sense of disappointment, the things it does wrong are inconsequential enough to let pass with a sincere warning.