Good, but very flawed
Borderlands was a game that spent a long time in the making. The idea behind it was always essentially “Diablo: The shooter”, but it was originally a more serious looking game.
I can’t say that I never wonder what Borderlands would have been like if this was what actually came out. I get a very distinct feeling that the project almost “died” and suddenly, someone decided to keep the cover, gut the story, and apply a fresh coat of paint. I have a sneaking suspicion that the story might have originally been far more detailed and complex than the final product was, and there is one of its main problems – it feels like a shell. An empty husk. Oh, it’s a good game, but I don’t think it’s a great one. It’s a game that’s content to sit on its mechanics instead of use them to deliver something greater. The game’s objective list can be summed up with “go kill or gather x number of y”. Sometimes it’s a single thing you need to get or kill; other times, it’s several. Either way, that is literally all you do. A paragraph of context is given to you, maybe one line of dialogue, but otherwise this game’s character is cosmetic only.
Borderlands’ main problem is its repetitiveness, and not just in mission objectives either. By the 10 hour mark, you’ve probably seen all that this 20-30 hour game has to offer you. Luckily, the shooting is fun enough to pull you through that, and it’s some damn strong shooting, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s repetitive. Enemies are quite dumb and their AI almost always consists of either charging you or standing still and shooting you. They take cover sometimes and throw grenades every now and then, but the challenge of this game comes from bullet sponge enemies and tons of them. At no point will they ever surprise you. It’s possible that this complaint could have been softened more by a larger variety of enemies, but that’s not really true. The game has humans (which consists of bandits and the late-game Crimson Lance enemies that are just much harder versions of bandits with a handful of new toys), Skags (basically Cujo repeated ad nauseum, but of varying sizes and sometimes with magic powers), The Rakk (which are birds that swarm and dive bomb you, hands-down worst enemies in the game), and Spiderants (which are giant bugs with hard front shells that you have to shoot in the ass.) Thankfully, enough variety exists in these different types to make it at least seem like you’re not using the same attacks on all of them, but ultimately the player is and does realize it. An Eleventh Hour enemy type is revealed toward the end (and shows up in a midway through quest), but a new enemy for the last hour is hardly enough to justify fighting the same things for a whole game.
But even more repetitive than the enemies is the setting. Imagine Tattoine, only full of garbage and rednecks. That’s… pretty much it. There are different areas, and there is some greenery occasionally, and there’s even an area that’s near an ocean. But even those are simply full of trash. Somehow, even New Haven, which is made out to be an important city but seems like nothing more than a tiny speck, is completely surrounded by piles and piles and piles and piles of trash. Like the enemies above it, though, there’s an end-game area that’s pretty snowy and it’s a nice change of pace, but it’s too little and too late to save the game from this complaint.
I did, earlier in this review, mention that this is a good game. And it is! But I have some more complaints to make before I tell its good points, though these are more minor than its repetitiveness. Firstly, it’s way too easy to get over or under leveled, especially in later parts of the game. If you’re like me and you accept every single quest you come across, you’ll eventually have a bunch of quests whose difficulty is labeled “trivial”; if any game needs the Oblivion style level scaling, it’s this one. Unlike there, though, it would definitely fit here, where level designation doesn’t seem to make a difference in appearance so bandits never wear glass armor.
Along with this issue of leveling comes the issue of nicer guns – I found myself getting a new weapon every 15 minutes or so early in the game, but after I got around level 15 the “new” weapons were almost never better than my old one. For me, at Level 30, I’ve been using the same shotgun since the early 20’s. I’ve found some new guns, admittedly, but not many, and I’ve used the same shield for well over half the game now . In a game whose appeal partly lies in getting nice new stuff every now and then, this is not a good thing. Nice new guns still come along, but sometimes it almost feels like the game doesn’t want you to have any new toys.
In relations to the guns, I get to mention numbers. This complaint is hardly a deal breaker, but if you’ve ever seen a video of this game played you’ll know that numbers play a huge role in it. It’s a loot game, of course they do, but numbers are on your screen at all times. In menus, on your health bar, ammo counter; they pop out of enemies, they pop out of crystals you destroy, and they show up next to your guns. But they’re not always well presented. For instance, sometimes you might get a gun that, by the numbers, should be stronger than what you’re already using. But, alas, it is not! It ends up feeling like a crappy weapon. There’s no DPS here, which makes sorting SMG’s and assault rifles confusing. But, even more confusing than those are shotgun stats. Their damage is most often displayed by a number times another number (i.e. 47 x 11), which to this day I’ve never quite figured out the meaning of. It also means that shotguns should be something like god guns compared to everything else, but even ones that can fire across the room do not necessarily gib something that’s right next to you when the numbers seems like they should.
So… positive things. Oh, yeah, and the UI is shi… OK, positive thoughts.
If you’re playing this game, you’re doing it because you like shooting things. There is a lot of that in most FPS’s, but this particular one contains about 25 hours of you shooting things with no interruptions. There’s something to be said for games where you can write 3 pages (in Word) of complaints and still come out saying that its redeeming factors are good enough to make those irrelevant. Shooting anything other than the perpetually useless pistols simply feels good. Revolvers kick back and hit hard; shotguns blast quite loudly and, if strong and close enough, properly and dependably remove body parts. SMG’s pew-pew with the best of them, and assault rifles feel just right. I guess I never quite got the feel of rocket launchers, but they’re not entirely useless. As for snipers? Well, I’ve never been a sniping kind of guy, but the beautiful opera of a sniper bullet whizzing through air and cleanly killing an unsuspecting bandit is perfectly intact here. Sure, the enemies are repetitive like I mentioned above, but they manage to stay fun to shoot for just long enough. Getting a fancy new gun that makes mincemeat of enemies is a real joy, and finding an enemy that will kick your ass without some skills makes the game feel like less of a grind than it really is.
There is an RPG element to this game, an aspect which isn’t at all the main focus but it is interesting nonetheless. You gain levels, which do the obvious things of making you do more damage and giving you more health, but you also get a skill point or two every now and then. These are, predictably enough, used in a skill tree. These are big enough and varied enough to ensure that no two people will have the same build, but at the same time they’re short enough to make you feel like you’re really progressing. You can put up to five points in each skill and each one has quite a use, though if you’re like me and prefer single player then you would do well to avoid the co-op focused skills. These skill trees add some nice and well-rounded decisions to be made and serve as a good layer under the shooting.
Speaking of single player and co op, this game admirably serves both crowds. I have played this game co op before, and for hours, but at the end of the day I prefer to play games all by my lonesome and I did indeed with this one. If you haven’t bought it because you don’t want to have to play with others, never fear – the loners can have some good fun with this too. It’s a great game to listen to podcasts to or play music to.
To sum this all up, the game is indeed a good one and a fun one if you don’t think about it too much. If you enjoy shooters and, more specifically, shooting, then this game is well worth it. It’s the same sort of thing that Just Cause 2 is – there are many complaints you can bring against it but, at the end of the day, its mechanics hold it up beyond those complaints and make it worth owning.