Borderlands Review

By Brian Leahy - Posted Oct 19, 2009

Borderlands has undergone a long development cycle and a complete art style overhaul, but the promise of the game remains: "bazillions of guns" in a role-playing shooter. Does the game live up to this promise?

The Pros
  • Tons Of Guns!
  • Awesome Combat That Rewards Skill
  • Four-Player Co-Op
  • Game Scales Enemies For Multiple Playthroughs
The Cons
  • Not Enough Done With Items & RPG Elements
  • Lame Story & Lack Of End Game Hold Back Greatness
  • UI Issues Hold Back Item Management

Do you love loot? Does the thought of items dropping from the blood-spurting corpses of fallen enemies get your gaming juices flowing? If so, I’ve got a game to tell you about. Gearbox’s Borderlands is a four-player co-op “role-playing shooter” that generates guns randomly, much like an MMORPG or games like Diablo. Players will advance through 50 character levels, all the while grabbing new guns and gear.

The playable classes each get a signature ability and three skill trees of passive boosts to those signature abilities, weapon specialization, and buffs. Roland, the soldier, gets a turret he can place that will automatically shoot nearby enemies. Lilith, the siren, can temporarily enter a different plane, doing damage to nearby enemies and gaining a speed boost. Mordecai, the hunter, can send out his pet hawk, Bloodwing, to attack enemies. Finally, Brick, the berserker, specializes in melee combat and gain limited invulnerability while he pummels enemies. Each class also specializes in two weapon classes, but all classes can use all weapons. The only requirement placed on an item is a minimum level to use, but Mordecai, for example, will excel with sniper rifles and pistols as many of his passive skills increase their effectiveness.


The Loot! The Loot! The Loot Is On Fire!

Guns in Borderlands are generated randomly by the game with effectively endless possibilities for stats and modifier combinations. All weapons come with the following stats: base damage, accuracy, speed, and clip size. Beyond that, modifiers can add things like zoom (often manifested as a visible scope on the weapon), elemental damage, increased reload speed, or bonuses to any of the main stats listed above.

During your adventure you’ll snag assault rifles, sub-machine guns, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. You’ll probably even snag some shotguns that shoot rockets or sub-machine guns that fire two bullets at once. Elemental damage will become increasingly important as you progress through the game and you’ll almost always want elemental weapons over vanilla guns. Different elements are useful for different situations and it’s a good idea to keep a weapon of each element handy. Shooting humans in the head and creatures in their various weakpoints gets you critical hits. Skilled shooters will find the game much easier with careful bullet placement for quick kills.

Beyond weapons, you collect shields, grenade mods, class modifiers, and artifacts that add elemental effects to the class abilities. Shields act as a player’s armor and will regenerate out of combat. Health must be refilled through abilities or items. Grenade mods add effects to the all-purpose grenades you’ll pick up in the game. These effects could be the type of elemental damage added or the actual behavior of the grenade: does it explode or contact or teleport to its destination? Class mods add skill points to abilities and increase the effectiveness certain weapons.

Unfortunately, the items stop evolving around level 25. Instead of adding new effects and combining old ones, the stats just get better. Sometimes, you won’t replace an item for upwards of 15 levels. I found an extremely powerful revolver with a good set of stats: fast rate of fire, corrosive damage, and the full six rounds in the chamber. I used that gun from level 22 to 37 and dropped the final boss with it and not much else. I eventually replaced it when I started my second playthrough, but I would have liked the cycle of new loot rolling throughout.

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More Players Means More Loot

Borderlands supports up to four players for cooperative online play with drop-in and drop-out. Furthermore, the console versions of the game sport two-player splitscreen co-op for gamers that have friends in real life. Players can use any character at any level for co-op, but may not be eligible for quests if the rest of the game is of a higher level. You can, however, jump in a game with high level characters and soak up free experience without lifting a finger. It’s boosting, sure, but a good way to help your friends get up to your level if they pick the game up after you.

With each new player that joins the game, the enemies will get stronger and the loot and experience gained will be better. Not only will the enemies gain more health and armor, the game will begin spawning elite units more frequently. These elites frequently have elemental properties and are powerful enough to kill even leveled players in a few hits. Many of the passive abilities gained through skill trees affect the entire team and players will benefit by representing all four classes in a team. My favorite ability for co-op is on the soldier and it regenerates ammo for the equipped weapon for every player in the game.

Despite all of the benefits of co-operative play, there are a few problems. There’s no way to trade safely with other players and all loot drops are free-for-all. Players are forced to occupy the same zone at all times and one player can initiate travel to a new area for everyone, pulling them along for the ride. Gearbox has also thrown in player dueling, which requires both players to agree, but it isn’t that rewarding.


In This One, You Want To Go Into The Vault

You might be asking yourself, why have I waited so long to talk about Borderlands’s plot? It’s because the story is generic, uninteresting, and ultimately inconsequential. The player takes the role of a mercenary treasure-hunter, lured to the planet of Pandora with the promise of finding a legendary vault. Inside the vault is rumored to be a cache of alien technology. Upon arriving in Fyrestone, the introductory outpost, the player is contacted by a mysterious woman known only as “Guardian Angel”. She offers a running commentary on the people you’ll meet and the progress you’ll make.

The actual game plays out a lot like an MMORPG at 4AM. It’s full of kill and fetch quests that take the player through a big empty world that looks like it should be populated with hundreds and thousands of players. Sadly, the quest design never rises above these tried-and-true tropes. You know exactly what to expect from a quest’s description and exactly where you need to go thanks to the friendly waypoint system. Fallout 3 this isn’t.

Tying this all up is a final encounter taken straight from the pages of Game Cliché Monthly and a completely underwhelming ending. After the credits roll, you’ll be dropped back into the game to pick-up the boss’s loot and complete any side-quests you may still have. You can also start a second playthrough with leveled up enemies for a greater challenge and better loot. I completed every quest in the game in about 17 hours, however, much of this time was spent running from point A to point B and not shooting things in the face.

Bring Me 10 Cans Of Food (Actual Quest)

The on-foot gameplay of Borderlands is rock-solid. The guns feel great and the combat is extremely fun. Unfortunately, there are issues that hold this game back from being an instant classic. The user-interface is passable, but has some flaws. Comparing two items is more difficult than it needs to be and using health items requires some menu navigation, which isn’t so bad in singleplayer as it pauses the game, but in co-op you’re vulnerable. Vehicles and vehicular combat handle poorly and have absolutely no sense of weight. You’ll use them to traverse large amounts of terrain more quickly and run over enemies for easy kills (though you’ll get less experience this way). In co-op, a second player can hop in your ride and man the turret. Only two vehicles can be spawned at a time, however, so in a full game of four players, two will have to occupy turret seats or walk.

Visually, Borderlands looks great and the art style change was definitely the right decision, but the game does suffer from texture pop-in and framerate drops, especially when blood spurts or elemental deaths occur. And they will. A lot. The endgame of Borderlands is a bit dubious. As mentioned, the items start to stagnate around level 25, but players are free to start additional playthroughs will scaled up enemies. Gearbox will be supporting the game post-release with DLC that will include new areas, enemies, quests, and items, but there’s no way to judge the quality of this content at this point.


It Could Have Been So Much More

Despite these issues, the game is incredibly fun and still offers a good amount of loot satisfaction for the treasure-monger in all of us. Above all else, the shooting is incredibly polished and would stand on its own in a game without randomized guns and RPG elements. Borderlands is meant to be played co-operatively and should not be enjoyed alone. Not everyone will rush to start their second-playthrough, but it’s definitely worth playing at least once with a few buddies.