Pew Pew Pew
"Roleplaying Shooter" is the moniker Gearbox Software came up with for their new game, Borderlands. It pretty much says it all. Take the fast-paced, twitch gameplay of a modern shooter and combine it with levelling, skill points, co-operative play, and thousands upon thousands of guns. If that sounds like it would make an excellent game, it does. There's a definite addictive quality to Borderlands' well-paced questing and good looks, and people who have any interest whatsoever in this synthesis of genres should check it out. There's a lot of really obvious additions missing that would have made perfect sense to include, and although there's not one major downfall in the game, it doesn't quite reach its full potential. It's still a hell of a game, however, one that I expect to be playing for some time into the future.
The game's four character classes ride into Pandora on a bus, and it's up to you to choose one. Borderlands pretty much covers what's expected in an RPG; there's an all-around Soldier, heavy-hitting Berserker, long-range Hunter, and finally the Siren, an elemental class. You can use (almost) any weapon and item you find across all classes as well. You can further shape your character by using skill points earned from levelling, and each class has pre-dispositions to keep in mind while playing. For example, any class can use, say, a machine gun that causes electric damage. But while playing my Siren, the elemental damage from those types of weapons was greater, and the effect would trigger far more frequently.
There's a smart balance going on in Borderlands, and these rules allow the game to include numerous RPG elements without bogging down the shooting. For example, while guns have different accuracy ratings, your character's level has nothing to do with your aim, so you don't have to deal with annoying point-blank "misses" just because you're a low level character. And although there are numerous skills for each character, many of them are passive, tweaking your stats and abilities without requiring you to constantly select skills or manage cool down times. In fact, you really only have one active skill which differs by class. Each one is useful, and you'll probably find that they'll save your skin more than you'd think.
To find your way to the vault, you're going to need to make powerful friends, help them on account of their torpor, and consequently move up the ladder of important people. That means questing, and lots of it. Borderlands controls just like a shooter, but it's structure takes more than a few queues from games like World of Warcraft or Diablo. Talking to characters marked with an exclamation point on your map will give you quests that rest on the side of your screen. Usually you'll need to kill a certain tough monster or collect a sum of an item before the quest is done, at which point you turn it in for experience points and more quests. You'll start out hunting the wild dog-like Skags, and eventually work your way up to some impressive (and tough) boss encounters, as well as an end-game threat that goes a long way to mend the fact that the regular enemy variety is a bit sparse.
Of course, a whole lot of loot finds its way into your lap during all of this, and this is probably Borderlands' greatest strength. Guns are constantly dropping at your feet, and it's fun to compare stats, deciding if you should stick with what you have or try out the new stuff. In addition to guns, you'll be equipping shields, mods that change the behaviour of your grenades, boosts to your character's stats, and more. Just like an MMO, loot is colour-coded according to rarity, and I found myself running through areas time and time again searching for the best purple and orange items I could find. Of course, I was also honing my shooting skills as well, as scoring critical hits on an enemy's weak spot requires some serious precision shots. It really is a mash-up of two very popular but disparate gameplay styles, and it's a pleasant surprise to see how well they work together.
My Siren character, Esme, played through the vast majority of the campaign solo, and I'm pleased to say that Borderlands generally works very well as a solo experience. I didn't find it to be lonely or boring on my own, and the monster difficulty is toned down to suit a single player. A few instances did come up where the level design was clearly designed for co-op, though, and getting through some of them was a real pain in the ass. Overall, though, Borderlands is successful as a solitary or social pastime.
Although it's great to see Gearbox succeed so thoroughly, a number of annoyances do crop up frequently. You can play the entire game in co-op with three other friends, but it feels pretty tacked on in some respects. For example, you can't trade with other players, so a sense of economy really doesn't exist at all. This seems like a pretty huge oversight. A number of interface issues also crop up; you can't display multiple quests on screen at once, which is a shame, since objectives frequently overlap each other, or at least take place in the same area. A few of the game's waypoints also seem to be misleading, and there were a few times where I was being lead in the complete opposite direction until I deactivated - and then reactivated - the quest. Perhaps most egregiously of all, there's no mini-map available for the HUD - you'll need to pause the game and open the big map each and every time you need to find your bearings (which, for me, was frequently). Technical problems crop up too; you might get stuck in the geometry a bit, left to frantically jump for freedom - or in the worst case, reload a quick save.
But such issues are expected in a large, open-world game like Borderlands, and honestly, it's hard to let these faults weigh too heavily on you. Above all, this is a fun game, and one that's pretty much unlike anything else before it. It took me well over 20 hours to get through the game the first time, and once I finished it, I immediately loaded up the second playthrough option to tackle the game again with a high-level character, and made a few new characters of different classes. Even after hours of shooting, looting, and questing, I'm still hooked, and with batches of DLC coming along soon, I don't think that's going to change for some time. If you're a fan of either shooters or RPGs - or if you're a shooter fan that wants to know what all the fuss is about Warcraft - then this is a concoction well worth playing, minor blemishes be damned.