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Borderlands Review

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Borderlands' blend of first-person shooting and role-playing works because it puts the shooting first, resulting in a satisfying action game with enough depth and skill development to keep you hooked for 50 hours or more.


How do you reason with a guy that sets himself on fire? 
Mashing together different game genres is risky business. For every game that manages to do it correctly, three or four more seem to miss out on key pieces of the different genres they're attempting to combine. The end result has been a lot of games that feature really unsatisfying first-person shooting because they're trying to focus on too many different genres at once. With that in mind, perhaps the most exciting thing about Gearbox's new FPS-meets-RPG, Borderlands, is that the action is actually quite fun on its own, offering loads of different guns to try out and a lot of different ways to eliminate anything and everything that stands in your way.

Borderlands is a loot-driven first-person shooter with a lot of different role-playing game hooks throughout. The game is structured a bit like an MMO, with the world broken out into different zones and a very handy quest log that feels like it fell out of World of Warcraft. There are plenty of critical story-related missions to complete, but there are also a lot of side-quests that send you across every zone, usually to kill or collect something. It's easy to see the influence of games like Diablo on Borderlands, as well, because the game is constantly dropping procedurally generated items for you to collect. This is how the game's box is able to claim that it has "bazillions" of guns.

Of course, "bazillions" is a pretty high (and pretty made-up) number, and you'll probably never see the exact same gun twice. But much of the variety in the guns come from slight statistical tweaks to how much damage they do, their rate of fire, their reload speed, whether or not they have a scope, and so on. But the weapons still break down into a handful of traditional classes, like combat rifle, sub-machine gun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, pistol, revolver, and so on. And as you start finding better weapons and becoming proficient with them, it quickly feels like 95 percent of the guns you're finding are nothing more than vendor trash that only exists to be sold off for more money. Still, it's cool to see how the different fire rates for different weapons makes them feel. Finding a rocket launcher that automatically launches its full magazine of three rockets and quickly reloads, for example, is a real thrill, especially considering how sluggish most of the other launchers are. The thrill of never knowing when you're going to find a useful or rare weapon is very substantial, and it's more than enough to keep you coming back to wade through the endless avalanche of common junk.

Each character comes with a preset look, but you can define the clothing colors. 
The way that Borderlands' guns are varied also applies to the rest of the game's equipment. Though you don't equip actual armor, characters can be outfitted with a Halo-like recharging shield. Each shield comes with a different number of shield points and a different recharge rate. Many of them also have bonus effects, rendering you more resistant to specific types of elemental damage or even recharging your health as well as your shield power. If there's one thing I've learned over the 50+ hours I spent with Borderlands, it's that shields that restore your health are the only worthwhile shields in the entire game. Grenades can also be altered via items that modify their damage and their effect. So you can equip MIRV grenades that split apart when they land, damaging a wider radius. Or you can equip transfusion grenades, which steal health from enemies and give it back to you. Not to tell you how to play the game or anything, but I recommend you stick with transfusion grenades whenever possible.

The other big deciding factor in how you'll play Borderlands comes from the four character classes you'll choose from at the beginning of the game. Though there aren't any meaningful item restrictions that will prevent you from playing any class however you please, each class has its own skill tree that will build your character in a variety of different ways. You get one skill point per level once you hit level five, and stop getting them when you hit the level cap at level 50. The soldier class has skills that can make him something of a medic, such as cauterize, which lets you heal other players by shooting them. He also has skills that help him further specialize in the use of combat rifles and shotguns, but specializing in specific weapons doesn't seem like a great idea, since you never know what the next amazing gun you're going to find will be. I spent most of my time with a soldier and probably used a sub-machine gun for most of the game.

The other three classes feel like they want you to specialize your play style in a much more dramatic way than the soldier through a mix of weapon specialization skills and class-specific action skills. The Hunter has a bird that can be called out to attack enemies. Plenty of skill points can be spent making the bird more effective, and plenty more can be spent specializing in sniper rifles, which are only really useful in specific situations because most of the game's enemies are all about closing the gap and getting right up in your face. That doesn't leave a lot of room to snipe.

The siren has a "phasewalk" action skill that lets you avoid damage for a brief period of time. You also explode into and out of the phased state, which damages nearby enemies. Most of the siren's other abilities deal with either causing or preventing elemental damage, which comes in four forms: fire (good for burning flesh), shock (good for depleting shields), corrosive (good for armored targets), and explosive (good for... exploding).

The berserker class has skills that help him specialize in rocket launchers, which, like sniper rifles, aren't so hot in close quarters situations. His action skill is a berserk state that makes him a two-fisted brawler, which is a lot of fun to use, especially once you've spent some skill points to trick it out.

Flynt's not happy to see you. 
But what about the world that all of these guns and skills have been crammed into? Well, Borderlands takes place on an alien planet called Pandora. It's overrun with convicts and psychos, but there's also word that it's the resting place of a secret alien vault, rumored to be filled with all sorts of technology. So the player characters are vault hunters, new to the planet, but hoping to get rich quick. At the beginning of the game you start receiving video messages from some kind of guardian angel. She guides you here and there as you play, but you're really guided by the game's on-screen compass, which tells you where to go next to work on your currently selected quest. Though there are some interesting characters and some well-written dialogue in Borderlands, the story is paper-thin. Some will say that it's nice that the story doesn't get in the way of the action, but it's hard not to feel like you've accidentally skipped some cutscenes or something by the end of the game. Once you do complete the story, you're dumped back into the world, letting you finish up any remaining quests you may have.

Completing the game also unlocks "playthrough 2," a sort of New Game Plus option that lets you take your existing character and start over in a world where the first enemies you encounter are around level 34 or so. It's certainly more difficult the second time around, but if you take the time to do more than just the critical story missions and complete a good chunk of side-quests, you'll be a few levels ahead of the opposition most of the time, giving you a distinct advantage. There is no playthrough 3, and there doesn't seem to be any way to replay quests that you've completed, either. This seems like it'd eventually lead to a situation where your character is unsuitable as a host for a multiplayer game, since the host determines which quests are active.

The enemies in Borderlands break down into around eight different types, including the wild, dog-like skags, sizable enemy crabs, humanoid bandits, spiderants, flying creatures, and so on. A lot of the enemy AI is very predictable, and just about anything that isn't a human will usually just rush in your direction and start doing as much damage as possible. Human enemies will occasionally take cover, but they still aren't very bright. That also applies to boss battles, as well. The game's two largest, coolest-looking boss fights can be summed up by the following strategy: "stand still and aim for the thing that looks like a lady's naughty bits." On my first playthrough, I beat the final boss without even moving. It's a shame that the enemy AI isn't more wily, but in most cases, they make up for their lack of smarts by outnumbering you by a wide margin. So you might want to bring some friends.

You can certainly play alone and solo your way through the entire game, but it's a lot more interesting if you engage in cooperative play. Borderlands lets up to four players band together, and the game's difficulty slides up as you add players, making everything a bit more exciting. A lot of the game feels like it was built for co-op play, from the two-man vehicles that let one guy sit on a turret to a dueling system that lets you fight one-on-one against another player to a full-on arena that lets all four players engage in round-based battles against one another. Players can revive their friends, too, which is added on top of a neat "second wind" feature that brings a downed player back to life if he can shoot and kill an enemy while he's bleeding out. The game also claims that you'll find more and better loot when you play with others.

Finding and fixing robots out in the wastes gets you more inventory slots. 
The downside of the game's online play is that it feels like it's missing a few key features. There's no trade interface at all, so players who want to exchange items are forced to drop them on the ground, a "system" that is easily exploited by unscrupulous players. Also, there's nothing stopping any one player from running around and grabbing every item that drops. Lastly, there doesn't seem to be a way to drop money, so there's no way to buy items from other players. The lack of MMO-like looting rules or a proper trade interface means that playing with strangers can get a little risky, as you never know when someone's going to dust off their old, Phantasy Star Online-era tricks, screw you over, and quit the server. The only thing that mitigates this a bit is that there's so much loot dropping all the time that it's hard to care too much about any one item... chances are, if you keep playing, you'll find something even better within an hour or two. Speaking of hours, I completed a first run of Borderlands in around 18 hours, completing almost every quest I could find. Getting one character up to level 50 took around 35 hours.

Though there are a few too many spots in the game where the frame rate noticeably drops, Borderlands is a great-looking game. It's the art style that makes it stand out, with a lot of awesome texture work that makes the entire game look like it was drawn by hand. It makes the environments, most of which have the look of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, really catch your eye. Effects, such as the way enemies burn up when they die from a fire attack, are also really great to see... and hear. The game's got some terrific screams to go along with watching a man burn alive. Terrific screams.

The structure of Borderlands makes it feel like an MMO game that doesn't require you to rely on groups of other players to enjoy. Though it's probably better when you're playing online with friends, playing alone is still perfectly fine. It's also one of those games that's so strong in parts that its shortcomings become almost glaring by comparison. As such, the game's barebones story, lackluster AI, and insufficient player trading options are real disappointments that prevent the game from reaching its full potential. But when you're frantically trying to stay alive while getting swarmed by an angry horde of gigantic spiderants, chances are you won't care much about that other stuff. Borderlands strongly succeeds where plenty of other Diablo-inspired games have failed miserably. Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
187 Comments
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Edited by Hitchenson

Yay, I've been waiting for this review all day. 
 
EDIT: Great review, I seriously can't wait until Friday.

Posted by eroticfishcake

4 out of 5 stars sounds about right.

Posted by MattBodega

4 stars is good, right? 4 stars means I SHOULD play, right? Or does it mean we need to ramble and ruckus?

Posted by empfeix

woohoo can't wait for this game!

Posted by ZeroCast

4 Stars! F Yeah Jeff! Now my bet is complete.

Oh and great review ;).

Posted by Track

Why only 4 stars Jeff?

Edited by Eurobum

After the Quick Look and the review, there are still a ton of open questions.
 
1. Will each area spawn the same monsters every time? Will those monsters drop the same type of loot? 
2. Is there any way to "power level" low characters, by bringing them to higher difficulty areas? 
These games are all about beating the system...
3. With no trading interface <ouch!> is there an easy way to show off your equipment or transfer stuff to your "alt"?
4. This would be a better game if it was an open world, however most 3D Diablo clones are structured like corridors. Is this the case here?
5. So how many templates for guns are there? - pistol, shotgun, SMG, RPG, LMG, rifles, grenade, energy weapon ... eight'ish and that's it?
6. Only very difficult bosses make co-op really worthwhile for these games as well as the "division of labor" between tanking, (de-)buffs and DPS.  
It seems that only the most boring cooperative skill, healing, was mentioned so far.
7. Do the guns show a DPS stat?

 "That also applies to boss battles, as well."  - Nice way to emphasize the genre typical repetitiveness. =)

Posted by Yummylee

oooo that was quick. Aywhoo that score just furthers my decision on leaving it out of my collection a little longer after released. But its still a game i hope to own before 2010 hits.
Posted by jim_dandy

Eh, not sure I want it anymore.

Posted by Buttmonk3y

At last, 4/5.. thats what i thought it would be getting. Now do i order now or wait  a while?

Posted by Snail

When I read it it kinda looks like a 5/5 review. But eh, whatever.

Posted by Metal_Mills

Awesome. I'll probably pick this up instead of MW2.    
Posted by Hitchenson

Wow, why do people seem to care about the score so much? It's the actual review that counts...

Posted by Chokobo

Pretty much what I was expecting.  Looking forward to this game with subdued excitement.
 
Why are people bitching about it being 4 stars?  Fucking baffling.

Posted by TwoOneFive

good review. im still not interested

Posted by Scooper

Been waiting for this review from Jeff, thanks mate!

Posted by Meteora

Sounds about right, but the review length seems like 5/5.

Posted by TwoOneFive
@Track: how about you read the review ya douche
Posted by Vorbis

Sounds pretty much like I expected, will still pick it up at some point.

Posted by turbomonkey138
@Hitchenson: People don't  like to read that much .
Posted by Death_Burnout

Woot! 4 days to go!

Posted by Wunder

Seems Jeff tried to put in a very positive review but ultimately had to give it a 4/5 due to large disadvantages to the online play; which is where the game really shines. I believe if you have an ideal situation like the Bomb Shelter where you can have two spilt screen 360s running next to each other then the game would be a ton of fun. However, for an actual gamer, it's more probable that they will only have 1 or 2 friends to play with, leaving a class or two out of the picture which would probably kill the fun factor alot. I think where Borderlands shines is in the complete 4-player co-op where each character has unique abilities that help support the team as a whole. Ironically however, Gearbox seems to have neglected the actual multiplayer functionality of the game. The fact that there is no trade interface at ALL and coupled with a loot whore can effectively take all loot, is far too annoying for me. Plus, I have noone to play with!

Posted by Snail
@Track said:
"Why only 4 stars Jeff? "
Dude. It's the review itself that counts..
Posted by Kohe321

Great review. I will pick this up

Posted by PeasForFees
@Snail said:
"

When I read it it kinda looks like a 5/5 review. But eh, whatever.

"
Not really, it sounded like a 4
Posted by Driadon

Sounds like what I was expecting, I can't wait for my Steam version to unlock.

Posted by Dustpan

I'm surprised Jeff reviewed the game i thought someone else was do to him being super excited in the quick look.

Posted by Hoshnasi

Well I'm in, missed my chance to buy a copy on Friday at the local good game store. Going to probably play this till it melts in the drive.

Posted by Almeida69

I really want this game....too bad there are so many good games this fall so i probably wont buy it until next year.

Posted by Pie

What about the arena Jeff?
Looks awesome

Posted by Death_Unicorn

Is there split-screen?

Posted by JellyFish_Gsus

Very good review Jeff, cant wait to get this and play online with my buddies.

Posted by Hoshnasi
@PeasForFees said:
" @Snail said:
"

When I read it it kinda looks like a 5/5 review. But eh, whatever.

"
Not really, it sounded like a 4 "
Yep, notes like the AI has problems and some dropped frames coupled with the awesome parts pretty much guarantees that 4/5.  Still a buy for me though.
Posted by Moridin

Great review, Jeff. Can't wait to pick this up tomorrow morning!

Posted by chipmaga

so it stops you from playing a third time, nice...Once your 50 the game is over?

Posted by MCXCI

Stand still and aim for the part that looks like a lady's naughty bits.

Posted by Cross

Hey, I thought he was to review it on PC!

Posted by rosebud04

is there any co-op matchmaking or is it like halo 3 odst's firefight mode?

Posted by ch13696
@Track said:

" Why only 4 stars Jeff? "

Quote from Jeff: 
 
"the game's barebones story, lackluster AI, and insufficient player trading options are real disappointments that prevent the game from reaching its full potential."
Posted by ch13696
@Chokobo said:
" Pretty much what I was expecting.  Looking forward to this game with subdued excitement.  Why are people bitching about it being 4 stars?  Fucking baffling. "
Actually I see a lot more people giving compliments to Jeff about his review.
Posted by FrenchFriedFool

I'm really unsure whether I want this, it seems like a mix of Fallout 3 and WoW, both of which I have...

Posted by ahab88

I'm so glad I have the next 3 days off.

Posted by Damian

Seems in-line with my expectations, with the exception of one bit, " there doesn't seem to be any way to replay quests that you've completed". I was under the impression that many missions could be replayed on the same play-through, certainly when online... 
It's not a deal-breaker, but it's disappointing. Doesn't make a lot of sense to lock-off missions for the sake of story continuity when I've never heard anyone every say they were playing this game for its story.

Posted by TooWalrus

This is kind pretty much what I expected the game to be like. I don't think the cash for this game is in the budget right now, unfortunately.

Online
Posted by Tikicobra

I'll read it in a minute, but a 4/5 seems about right. That's the equivalent of an 8/10, which is what this game had been getting a lot of so far.

Posted by Evilsbane

I am just really surprised that even after everyone kinda went... Eh.. about the whole no trade system thing that Gearbox didn't put it into the game.

Posted by DarthB

Now that I found out that my local Wal-Mart up here in BC, Canada is selling this game for $39.96 for launch week I'm for sure going to pick this up tomorrow!!
Enjoyed the review Jeff.  Thanks for justifying my purchase before my purchase.

Edited by empfeix
@FrenchFriedFool said:

" I'm really unsure whether I want this, it seems like a mix of Fallout 3 and WoW, both of which I have... "

Are you saying you can only play one game per genre?
Posted by tullingen

HELL YEAH!
Posted by Sticky_Pennies

Yeah, I don't really care about the whole no-trade-system thing since I'm only going to play this game with people I know most likely anyway. :D
Great review, getting it tomorrow!
And @Death_Unicorn: There is two-player splitscreen co-op, which is a welcome addition, since most games nowadays don't even have that.

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