Review: Borderlands

Gold rush
By MITCH KRPATA  |  November 9, 2009
4.0 4.0 Stars

 

Borderlands | For Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, And PC | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Gearbox Software | Published by 2K Games
It’s tempting, and easy, to describe Borderlands solely via comparisons to other games. Imagine World of Warcraft if World of Warcraft were like Halo. Or Fallout 3 minus an interesting story and plus co-op play. Or picture Far Cry 2 with character progression. The game encourages such analogies, jam-packed as it is with allusions to geek-friendly properties in film, literature, and gaming. Mission objectives quote Pulp Fiction. Weapons name-check Diablo. A ravenous hawk has glided in from The Dark Tower. All these things are true, yet none of them encapsulates Borderlands.

For one thing, none of the game mechanics seems truly original. Borderlands is played from a first-person perspective, and it feels like a pure shooter. No surprise: the developer, Gearbox, made its bones producing Half-Life expansion packs. Gearbox also ported Halo to the PC, and the code for that game’s recharging shield and dual-stick-controlled vehicles seems to have been ported directly. Aiming down your weapons’ barrels feels just right, and most guns kick and rumble satisfactorily.

This is also an RPG, in the dungeon-crawling tradition. Every section of the vast wasteland that makes up the game world is teeming with hordes of foes who, when killed, drop money and gear. Simply crossing the map can take hours: first you plow through enemies, then you inspect their loot. All the weapons and items in Borderlands are randomly generated from a master list of attributes, some of which are rarer and more powerful than others. Since you never know what you’ll find, it’s impossible not to open every chest you see in the hope of stumbling upon some legendary armament. Managing your inventory can be difficult, thanks to a clunky interface. A good piece of advice is not to get too attached to anything. Sell what you can. There’s plenty more out there.

What Borderlands doesn’t have are many of the trappings of an absorbing single-player game. The narrative is barely there — something about finding a hidden cache of treasures in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Non-playable characters aren’t memorable, and mission objectives are rarely more than fetch quests. Despite striking, cel-shaded graphics, the wasteland itself offers little for you to look at and nothing for you to do but churn through foes.

Yet somehow this liability becomes a major asset in multi-player mode. Borderlands supports — practically demands — that you team up with other players to pillage the wasteland. On-line, the last thing you want to do is get bogged down in a story arc, not when there’s booty to plunder and stats to boost. Up to four character classes can be developed, each with its own unique abilities. My favorite touch was the medic skill, which affords soldier characters the power to replenish teammates’ health by shooting them. Each class has its own play style, from the brawler character who deals massive damage with his fists to the hunter who’s more comfortable sniping.

Further customization is available in the form of elemental artifacts, which add devastating effects to your attacks. A sniper rifle might set bad guys on fire, or the brawler’s fists might emit electricity. With so many party configurations and elemental attacks available, multi-player combat becomes unpredictable and endlessly entertaining. Loot isn’t just a reward for using these powers, it’s an incentive to try out new, more powerful attributes.

Hmmm. We’ve made it all this way and still haven’t settled on what, exactly, Borderlands is — how its disparate elements cohere into something new and vital. Maybe it’s a future point of reference for other games. “It’s like Borderlands, except . . . ”

Related: Review: Chrono Trigger DS, Review: Afro Samurai, Review: Street Fighter IV, More more >
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