Borderlands does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it well
There are a lot of first-person shooters out there on the market, so when I first heard about Borderlands, I was a bit skeptical. “It's just an another shooter, except with more guns that all feel the same.” I was delighted to find, however, that I couldn't have been more wrong. Borderlands is a focused shooter that melds RPG and shooter mechanics together to great effect, and offers a lengthy adventure that can get really addictive and is mostly driven by the player's desire to become stronger. If you're the sort who could obsess over leveling and getting loot, Borderlands may well be the game for you.
The game doesn't really feature any story to speak of. It all takes place on a colonized alien planet called Pandora (which is in no way related to Avatar's setting) where bounty hunters and companies pull the strings. A legend is alive among these people, about a certain vault that is said to contain treasure and alien technology the likes of which mankind has never seen before. You, a bounty hunter yourself, are sent in to find and unlock this vault.
That's pretty much it. Developer Gearbox has gone out of its way to state that the story is not the game's selling point by design, instead feeling that the player should enjoy the upgrades there are to collect and the constant guns and other loot to find. And while there is merit in the statement, I do think it is not necessarily an excuse, as Borderlands might have benefited from a plot that was worthy of the name. As it stands, the lust for more stuff is what makes the player play through the many, many quests that can be picked up over the course of the main game, which I have put about 35 hours into so far (and I'm not that far into my New Game + run either.) It's a bit unfortunate, but perhaps a minimalist tale is still better than one that doesn't feel right or that hasn't received the right amount of attention.
On the surface, Borderlands is also a pretty repetitive game. You meet a couple of flat characters that give you various missions, which consist of killing lots of grunts, getting certain items or killing a particular enemy, and usually a combination of the three. Borderlands tries to keep the game fresh by constantly giving you new equipment. Enemies always hold lots of items that spray out in colour-coded loot fountains and there are chests everywhere that hold weapons, ammo and other jazz. While I won't deny there were times when I was really wishing for more varied mission design after yet another quest that entailed combing an area that was loosely marked on the map for the five components to a special gun, it does work rather well. The “bazillions” of guns tend not to differ so much beyond this one damage stat that has a “x2” rating next to it, but they all look ever so slightly different and it is extremely satisfying to find a new gun that is a big leap in quality compared to your last and absolutely decimates opponents you were having trouble with a couple of minutes before.
The game also allows you to pick one of four character classes, each of which has a special ability. The Soldier can toss out a recharging barrier with a mounted turret on it that can really help with the crowd control if you position it correctly. The Siren can essentially go invisible, move around the battlefield and pop out again, damaging opponent. The Hunter and Berserker have a special attack of their own as well. The differences between the characters appear subtle at first glance, but once you get around to facing off against the stronger enemies (which change their names and titles accordingly with each more powerful version you face), the abilities really come into play. I personally preferred playing the Soldier because it appeared the most versatile and capable of sustaining itself (much like in any game), but you might find one of the other classes more appealing. In that sense, Borderlands does offer a pretty good amount of customization.
The thing that Borderlands probably does best is to make your character really, really powerful if you put in enough work to level them up. When I got my Soldier near the three ends of the skill tree, he gained the ability to regenerate ammo, health, shields and grenades, not to mention the fact that my recharging turret wall throws health items and ammo my way every couple of seconds when I send it out. That feeling of absolute power and immortality is what people play and grind their brains out for in these sorts of games, and Gearbox's shooter pulls it off to great effect. Even when your health is depleted, you have a set amount of time to kill a foe, and doing so gives you a “second wind.” If you think the game is going easy on you, though, you might be mistaken. When you die, a percentage of your total money is taken from you. This is a mere annoyance when you have 10,000 dollars in your pocket, but once you start going into the multiple millions of dollars, dying can be pretty painful. It's a fair system.
A major problem I had with the gameplay lies in the way you pick up loot: the relative worth of each pick-up is demarcated with a specific colour, and they will be strewn all over the terrain after a battle. However, looking at them and deciding which to get is a cumbersome experience. You can either go through them one by one, comparing stats and what have you, or simply hold down the X button to grab everything near to you at once. The catch is that inventory space is limited, and pretty strictly so. Picking up useless guns that only get you about 20,000 dollars in a store is hardly worthwhile, which makes the “grab everything” function less than ideal. It's just a very clumsy system overall.
Borderlands is definitely at its best when you play the game with friends. You can form a posse of up to four guys, preferably with some variety in terms of class between them, and have a fantastic time roaming the deserts of Pandora. It changes up the experience system up a bit and allows you to duel—as well as trade or steal items from one another—which makes the whole game a bit more interesting. It almost seems as though the game was designed with the co-op in mind. It's a fun game by yourself, but having others with you takes this shooter to a whole other level. It's too bad the game doesn't have some sort of marketplace through which player are able to sell or trade weapons. As it stands, whoever picks up an item gets to keep that item, and I've seen items get stolen from people who thought they'd receive something in return before.
Graphically, the game is interesting. It has a cell-shaded look to it that works quite well with the cartoony characters and beasts that roam the borderlands of Pandora. The main game is pretty much entirely made up of desert, which is a bit disappointing, since you'll be spending about 50 hours or more in these grey wastelands if you're dedicated (and Borderlands easily gets you to turn dedicated), it does grow rather stale. The DLC alleviates this issue, but you have to pay for that, of course, which invalidates it as a counter-argument. The game definitely doesn't look bad, but it doesn't look particularly hot either, and the cost of such a huge amount of gun designs also entails guns that don't look as sharp as other first-person shooters', and that their designs get recycled with a slight twist a lot.
Borderlands is a great game. It does exactly what it sets out to do: to allow the player to shoot lots of things with lots of guns in order to gain lots of experience in order to gain the ability to shoot even bigger things with bigger guns in order to gain bigger amounts of experience. The story is practically non-existent, the art design isn't particularly worthy of note and there's only so much you can do with the quest design, but these things are surprisingly easily ignored, as you step out of your car and just shoot some dudes with your buddies. To then find a completely awesome gun that blows everything you've seen thus far out of the water is one of those moments that gamers play games for, and Borderlands has plenty to scratch that primal itch most of us carry inside. I really suggest you check it out, as it might hook you like few games can.