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Fun with guns on the Borderlands

by Lazare Gvimradze

Fun factor: Fun

Worth to: Buy

A fun and powerful mix of two major industry genres along with a playful tone and crazy a attitude. Just try it.

When Borderlands was announced back in 2007, it looked nothing like it looks right now. It’s impossible not to go on about the capital change the game has suffered in the late 2008 -- whole textures, animations and shading techniques re-written from the core. Considering this almost-a-complete-sacrifice of two years’ work, Gearbox still manages to give us a uniquely new experience, something that truly deserves a new abbreviation created just for it. I therefore declare Borderlands as being the first ever RPS, meaning, of course, a Role-Playing Shooter.

Paranoia on Pandora

And don’t think about similarities to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Bioshock, where the RPG element was a mere tick across “bonus diversity” in the what-to-do list. Borderlands is a complex fuse of a standard FPS mechanic and simplified Diablo systems, turning out to be one hell of an experience. An experience that can be boldly declared as being one-of-a-kind.

I’ll say this honestly, the storyline obviously exists as an excuse for the rest of the game, which isn’t a bad thing at all, really, considering the overall humorous mood of Borderlands -- a tale a bit paranoid was just the background the story needed.

On a mysterious deserted planet called Pandora, 200 year-old legends claim that somewhere across the vast wasteland a mysterious alien Vault is hidden, which can be opened only by acquiring certain key segments and combining them together. The Vault is believed to hold enormous power, resulting in an outburst of Vault-seekers across the planet. Obviously, we start out as one of them.

Pandora is filled with colorful and funny characters, which further emphasize the tone of the game. For example, your first friend will prove to be a cowardly bot called Claptrap with a nasty sense of humor, never stopping talking and occasionally feeling nervous regarding his “oil leaks.” The only minus is that this palette of strong characters has zero feedback from the RPG part of the game, since all dialogues are silent in menus, and even that only occurs when someone tends to send you on a mission.

Classy characters and weapons

The gameplay structure is very intricately designed, not overly complicated to avoid frightening the more casual audience, but containing the depth needed for a worthy RPG experience. The open world is divided into sectors carrying characteristic names and housing certain types of missions and NPCs. In each of these sectors, dozens of side-missions can be completed, varying from simple search-and-destroy to guarded object retrievals and boss assassinations (with the latter tending to have extremely tough preludes). After completing a mission and collecting your reward, you are free to visit the community board or another marked character for your new assignment.

But, like any great game, this is just the tip of the iceberg. And like any excellent game, all the marvels lie in the details.

We have four character classes (represented by, well, four characters): a Siren, a Soldier, a Berserker and a Hunter. While most of them handle all basic commands the same, each has a specialty and a unique attack to explore. Naturally, the Berserker is great in hand-to-hand combat and can even enter a rage mode where he becomes unstoppable for a limited amount of time. The Siren can become invisibile, where she becomes super-speedy and starts practicing effective stealth kills. The Hunter can unleash a ferocious flying creature to take care of foes, and the Soldier can easily deploy an automated turret, complete with side shields for cover.

These special abilities, as well as the characters themselves, can be improved in level using XP gained from ticking your assignments and slaughtering enemies. Each hero has a skill tree which contains optional upgrades to various stats that can be bought by acquiring skill points. These upgrades improve either your attack efficiency, your healing capabilities or defense. The Soldier, for example, can turn his turret into a rocket-launching, health-regenerating, bonus-deploying war machine close to the end of the game.

But the spacious worlds have much more to explore than just enemies and missions. As it is widely known, Borderlands uses tricky algorithms to produce unique weapons (an estimated number of possible variations count up to an astounding 17 million 750 thousand) every step of the way, transforming the RPG into a FPS paradise. The levels and attributes of guns (as well as of your foes) are also randomly generated, creating an ingenious motivational element which makes the game run on all fours right to the end.

Apart from guns, you can loot grenade upgrades (some even make them spit out smaller grenades after exploding), new shield generators (some even regenerate health), skill upgrades, and lots of ammo, which is carefully divided into seven classes, sharing them with the aforementioned parade of weapons. This system has proven so successful that you’ll definitely wish for it to become a necessity to any RPG aiming for diversity from now on.

Repetitive but fun

All this complexity is neatly arranged in your inventory, where you can equip, compare, and share various guns, shields and other equipment. And yes, I said share. The cooperative mode present is probably one of the most important saving hands Borderlands received, without it the game would bore out, even with its diversity. Teammates will take up the roles of the rest of the characters, enemies and loot will be tripled, and a much better experience will be guaranteed.

The FPS side of the game is also done with care and love. Every weapon feels true to its generated statistics and handles differently, and the fun of testing another corrosive revolver on a tiny Psycho never goes away. Ultimately, the combat proves well-balanced and fast-paced, and regardless of this, organically fused with the looting and level-ups.

One notable difference is present in the form of transport buggies, which really seemed like a great idea to pump up the scale. At special points in the world, up to two vehicles can be spawned, armed with either a repeater or a missile launcher. It may be a bit rough getting used to the controls (altering camera angles does the same to your direction), but anyone who had the not-so-seldom experience of riding a Halo Warthog will feel themselves at home.

After looking back from the hours you’ve played through Borderlands, you may notice nothing but monotonous journeys across deserted areas, ridiculously overwhelming looting, and an environment as hostile as a game has ever presented. But the little details, extremely fast pacing and the overall ease with which you fall head-in into a crazy mix of role-playing and shooting make this game stand out, and only then it becomes clear that a new genre has truly been invented.

Wild-West inspired humor

As for the graphics, well, from a pure technical side they are decent. Models look a bit edgy, textures are damply stretched across them more often than you would like, and the animations aren’t best in the industry. But one major visual filter saves the presentations from a possible fiasco: the art direction.

The cel-shaded visual style really works well for the immersion (not as beautifully implemented as in Prince of Persia, but still), and is more than superior to the prior version with standard, boring colors. Without Fallout 3’s atmospheric take on retro futurism and unique approach, the earlier build would have literally smelled of boredom and unoriginality. Fortunately, the new comic book look gives the game the exact tone needed for its Wild-West inspired humor and setting to work perfectly.

And it’s also useful in-game as well, as the various visual cues which identify locked safes or collectible items always stand out brightly before the sandy plains. Now that I think of it, cel-shading actually makes the pacing even faster, as well. You can instantly understand the level and importance of a gun by just glancing at the color it’s emitting, or notice a much needed dimly lit green box, which may possibly lead to more money, or even a new grenade upgrade.

In other words, it’s a completely new Unreal Engine 3 for many of us, accompanied by a user-friendly interface and top-notch optimization for PC users. Mouse and Keyboard controls are well-implemented, and corresponding icons are neatly displayed on-screen. The only technical fault are the vehicle physics, which are way too sensitive, and will leave you cursing a tiny rock for spoiling your mission.

The audio part is unarguably strong in places, especially considering that no gunshot can be objectively analyzed, and there’s professional voicework, albeit so little. The music, on the other hand, is excellent, underlining the deserted atmosphere, dynamically intensifying at moments of conflict, and often delivering the humorous notes crucial for the look and feel.


It‘s hard to formulate a whole, single opinion regarding this game -- it’s unique in every possible way (the setting, the presentation, the crazy mix of absolutely different gameplay mechanics). But the fact that all this organically blends together and works, is enough to understand that whatever Gearbox was aiming for, they managed to pull it off. Borderlands if fun, interesting, and delivers both the fun of crazy shooting and the charm of addictive looting in one package. If you’re a fan of either, and wish to painlessly get yourself known with the other, welcome to Pandora.

ESRB M Rating

Publisher: 2K Games

Developer: Gearbox Software

Genre: Action RPG

Release Date: October 26, 2009

Review Date: 28-12-2009

Numbers of Players: 1-4

Players Online: 2-4

Co-op: Yes


All Borderlands reviews



An outstanding visual style succeeds in disguising otherwise mediocre models and damp textures.



A never-before-seen fuse of FPS with RPG provides astounding, user-friendly results: shooting and looting has never been so fun together.



Worthy inspirations and a great sence of style turn the stupidity of the plot into something funny, reinforced by bright characters.



The seldom voice acting it true to the atmosphere, pulling along the thematic score pieces fitting the apocalyptic, yet humorous nature of the game perfectly.



The undying pacing and a constant sence of discovery keep this game rolling hot right to the end, ensuring a worthy open-ended experience.



GALLERY PREVIEW -- Borderlands -- PC