What Is Borderlands
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By Charles Onyett

October 19, 2009-
It's that undeniable impulse that pokes at the pleasure centers of the brain when you're looking at that sleek and impossibly flat television at the front of the electronics store. How much better and brighter would life be if only you could bring it home? You consider what's in your wallet, what kind of space rests between credit balance and limit, maybe for a second what your family might think, and perhaps more importantly how jealous your friends would be. It's what drives economies that thrive on consumerism, and that urge to snatch up glittering new toys is what keeps the action energized in Gearbox's Borderlands, a first-person shooter title that caters to the thief, hero, and adventurer lurking in all of us.

For the uninitiated, this is a loot hunting game like Blizzard's Diablo. The action begins and you're flung out into an open world with a handful of quests and legions of baddies who'll do whatever they can to prevent you from killing their leaders, wiping out an arbitrary number of their compatriots, opening drain valves in their hideouts, snatching up important artifacts and documents, or collecting a large number of shiny objects. There's a tale of a secret vault and advanced technology and a snowy image of a female face that pops onscreen when important things are about to happen, nudging you forward and providing additional narrative context, but this isn't a choice and consequence game with morality systems and labyrinthine quest strings. It's the loot that's the real motivator here.

You'll start out with rusty weapons that look as though they've spent a better part of their existence at the bottom of a bog and it won't be long until you find new weapons that not only look better but have improved functionality. As you progress through the game you'll find shotguns, sniper rifles, submachine guns, handguns, and rocket launchers that glow with elemental effects like fire and lightning and can eat enemies alive with corrosive effects or hit with such an impact that it pulps a target into a gruesome mess. There are even more bizarre and powerful alien weapons towards the later stages. Moreover, as you use a weapon, you'll become more proficient with it, further enhancing the sense that your character is gradually but inevitably becoming a ferocious fighter who can shoot, shatter, and burn all obstacles in the way.

As you level and progress through the story you'll be frequently swapping out gear so you're always outfitted with the best, and feel a surge of jittery anticipation every time an enemy explodes into a cloud of candy colored loot. The character class skill trees, however, which are packed with an abundance of passive abilities, are less interesting. Each class gets one and only one primary action skill, which you'll be using frequently throughout the course of the game. The Hunter class tosses out a bird to attack from afar, the Berserker charges forward and smashes foes with his fists, the Siren enters a temporary invisible state, and the Soldier can drop down a sentry turret to help out in a fight.

As you level you'll earn points that can be allocated into skill trees, which can change up how much damage you do, how much damage you can take, and make your action skill a deadlier ability. The Siren, for instance, can add shock damage to her Phasewalk skill, dramatically shorten its cooldown period, and turn into a contagious inferno after every kill. Yet even with all these options for customization, many skills are percentage bonuses to damage or shields that are more difficult to notice during gameplay. Maybe I'm alone on this one, but a greater number of action skills per class and a larger degree of distinction between some of the skill choices would make the tree progression more exciting. While the skills in Borderlands unquestionably do affect how you fight and deal damage, it seems like there was room to do more here. If you do decide you want to switch up how your skill points are spread out across a skill tree, you can easily pay with in-game money to reset it and redistribute points however you see fit.

If this screen isn't interesting to you, you might not like Borderlands.The large variety of weapons does make up for a few forgettable skill options to a degree. Since the game feels, moves, and plays like a first-person shooter and most of what you'll be doing is firing weapons and engaging in fast-paced gameplay, perhaps that's the reason Gearbox chose to build in so many possibilities for passive percentage upgrades, so as not to slow things down too much. Perhaps that's also the reason there's no collection of armor pieces or anything else of that sort. Character customization, aside from the guns, skills and handful of accessories, is limited to choosing a name and clothing colors. That's not meant as a criticism — I think the streamlined character customization works well with the game overall — but it's something you should be aware of before picking this up. Many players will have their hands full juggling guns, class, grenade, and shield mods, to care, but more hardcore gamers looking for more options for bolstering stats might feel something's missing.

Hopefully that gives you a sufficient overview of the types of methods of customization in the game, and has properly prepared you for what kind of experience this is. If you're rolling your eyes at all this information, think it's boring and inconsequential, and just waiting for me to get to the part where I say if the game is any fun or not, then your heart probably isn't in the right place. That's not to say you'll hate the game, but a frenzied, drooling desire to kill, upgrade, kill and repeat is required to really get the most out of this experience. Were this a typical action-RPG loot-driven kill-fest, such a warning wouldn't be necessary, but considering this game is actually a first-person shooter, perhaps not all prospective buyers might be familiar with how it works.

A real danger for this type of game is having all these items, all these methods of customization, and all this content, and then giving you nothing interesting to shoot at. That's not the case with Borderlands. Amongst your enemies, you'll start off against basic bandits who shuffle between cover spots and fire back at you. Some larger bruisers are more aggressive and carry bigger weapons, and others charge directly at you, sometimes while on fire, to hit you with sharp, rusty weapons. Smaller bandits carry shotguns and get thrown onto their backs whenever they fire, some snipe from a distance, some have shields and others don't, and the way they all move around as fights progress keeps the action fluid, frantic and exciting. Occasionally you'll wind up in absurd situations where you're unloading a string of headshots while standing toe-to-toe with foes and still not bringing them down, but such is the nature of games that favor health bars over realism.

Aside from humans, you fight spiky dog-like skags that spit, jump, slash, and generally make your life hell. Winged Pitch Black-like creatures soar across the terrain before tearing down to eye level with malicious intentions. Worms burrow through underground passages and armored insects launch projectiles and spin wheel-like with deadly momentum across the terrain. Factor in some of the more advanced human soldiers who use deployable turrets, shields, and higher quality armor, as well as the more bizarre creatures I won't mention for fear or spoiling things, and there's a nice mix of enemy types and behavior. They also frequently attack in large numbers, which makes the action supremely satisfying if you're powerful enough and able to wipe them all out in one headlong charge, firing and flipping between weapon types and activating action skills in wonderfully violent concert.

The use of style and the environmental designs make for some impressive visuals.From time to time you'll come up against absolutely monstrous bosses, from a fire-spitting flying behemoth to a titanic lumbering quadruped that serve as a welcome change of pace from the standard battles, and some drop unique loot that can't be found elsewhere. Most of these bosses are found in Borderlands' dungeons away from the main hub areas, separated by a load time. The rest of the world consists of large open spaces, beginning with dry and dusty rock formations and ending in snow-capped mountainous terrain.

While it may feel like you're often moving through places that look vaguely similar, eventually you'll come upon swamps and dockyards and more clustered urban expanses that add more of a sense of variety. Within the various dungeons, you'll also be treated to some fantastic views, particularly when entering boss arenas with sunsets illuminating a patchwork of cliffside dwellings bristling with foes or glowing curvilinear designs etched into alien stone. Mixed in with a convenient transportation system with quick-spawn vehicles or a fast-travel mechanic, it makes for days and nights in a detailed, ramshackle world that feels lived-in and that rewards exploration. On the subject of vehicles, though they're in the game, they're in not particularly integral. They do greatly speed up travel, and can be spawned with rocket or machine gun turrets to help vanquish pesky foes, though just ramming things is a far more effective way to kill whatever's in front of you. Up to two can hop onto a vehicle with one in the driver's seat and one on the turret, which leads into one of the game's biggest features, that that's the multiplayer.

It's entirely possible to have fun by yourself exploring the world, taking on quests, and powering up, but it's a far more entertaining and challenging experience with others around. As people join your game, which can happen at any time, enemies will get more powerful and drop more valuable loot. This means you'll want to bring others in for a chance at getting better stuff, and thankfully Gearbox built its multiplayer system so all your character progress, inventory items, and quests completed in someone else's game is carried back into your game. Assuming you and those you're playing with are at the same point in the main story it's possible to quest together, and then when you decide to play again on your own, you can continue on without missing a beat.

Up to four players can venture together, and it's highly recommended that you try this out because of how chaotic and addictive it can be, especially with a mix of character classes at a moderately high level and good equipment. And for console gamers, it's also possible for two players to explore Pandora in split-screen mode. One thing I'll also recommend is that you're going to want to play with people you know. There are no looting rules in Borderlands, so if an item drops to the ground, anyone can snatch it. Should you bring in some random person to your game and they see a neat purple item drop that's just perfect for you, it's well within their ability to grab it and duck out. While it's better if you play with others, it's best if you play with those you can trust.

Each class only gets one action skill, but it can be upgraded in a number of ways.Assuming you are able to get a four-person game together, there's always the question of who's going to get the loot. Sure, one class may have a particular skill build that makes them better with SMGs, but what if a nice shotgun drops and everyone in the party has been building their shotgun proficiency? Here the user interface saves the day. When you look at an item sitting on the ground within a certain proximity, a giant item statistic readout pane pops up onscreen that displays all the stats and special effects and how they compare to what you're holding. Switch weapons and its comparison arrows indicating better or worse quality will adjust accordingly. After everyone takes a look and someone decides to pick it up, you can then easily match it up against all the other items sitting in your inventory, letting you know which might be best to use. Anything you don't want could then be sold at any of the game's vending machines, or dropped back onto the ground to allow others to look at its statistical popup and see if it could be useful. This kind of ease of sharing and user-friendliness goes a long way in making quick pickup games far less of a hassle, pulling off the equivalent of World of Warcraft-style item linking in a handy, accessible manner.

There's also the question of replay value, which Gearbox took into account. After you're finished with one playthrough and have completed all the quests in the game world, you'll likely be somewhere in your mid-30s out of a total 50 character levels. The game lets you start over using the same character, bringing along all your experience, skill setups, items, unlocked inventory space — everything but your quest progress. The good news is upon restarting the world powers up around you, meaning starting level enemies are right near your level and the items they drop are given a boost. This should be a familiar concept to anyone who's been gaming long enough, but it's nice to see it included here, letting friends progress to the cap with their characters by recycling and giving a jolt of strength to the existing content. Even the elite versions of monsters, called Badass in the first playthrough, are upgraded to BadMutha in the second, and bosses will drop the same but more powerful versions of their first playthrough items.

Perhaps after you're all done with that and everyone's maxed at 50, it's time to see who could win in a fight? Well, the game gives you the option to do that as well. At any time you can melee a teammate to try and initiate a duel, and beyond that it's possible to head to special dungeons for some arena player versus player combat. This is a mode purely for fun, but it's nice to see it included since it gives you more of a sense of what all your equipment can do against a human opponent instead of the legions of AI-driven foes you've been melting and dismembering all game long.

In case you've read this far and are still scared off by the game's complexities, it's a surprisingly accessible experience considering all its varying elements. Someone unfamiliar with loot drop styles of games will still have to spend a little while getting acquainted with the game's systems, but overall it's easy to get in to and isn't a game that revels in player punishment. For instance, dying on the field of battle can be circumvented by killing an enemy while in a bleed-out state, and if you're playing with others they can just walk over and revive you with no required special skills. If you do miss the revive window and actually die, the game respawns you at a conveniently located waypoint and only subtracts a percentage of your cash — you don't lose experience, items, or anything else. Though you do have to keep track of inventory space and ammunition counts, nothing like weapon or item durability ever enters into the equation, minimizing the amount of micromanaging necessary while restocking in town before heading out again into the field, keeping the focus on action.

A well-designed user interface prevents the action from getting too bogged down.Through all of this, Borderlands also manages to maintain a strong degree of personality thanks to its sharp, stylized visuals. On consoles the framerate can be a bit jittery in large-scale fights, but otherwise the game's a pleasure to behold, with enemies that actually respond to being pegged with bullets, snapping back their heads, sending them reeling, and occasionally triggering special elemental deaths. It's got nicely detailed open environments, a huge range of weapon models, and though a little more enemy variety would have been appreciated, there's still plenty to take in and admire.

While visuals are one thing, what may surprise some is the game's sense of humor. The few recurring characters are quite funny, mostly due to some solid voiceovers delivering witty, snappy dialogue. The Wall-E-like Claptrap robots, with their penchant for dancing and personalities that draw from seemingly bottomless wells of enthusiasm, consistently serve as a source of comic relief, and you're guaranteed to laugh at the self-deprecating style of Tanis' audio logs. Over the years we've seen so very many action-RPGs lose their sense of mood and character under an avalanche of statistics and magic effects, but that can't be said about Borderlands. It stands out because of its visuals, entertains thanks to its well-designed gameplay, and frequently tickles your sense of humor as foes squeal in pain as lighting shoots from their disintegrating foreheads while your character class jeers and taunts and moves on to the next target. A thumping soundtrack kicks into gear during battles, the game's overworld music tracks lock in well with the tone of the world, and everything in Gearbox's virtual space feels like it fits.

Closing Comments:
Gearbox's Borderlands is without a doubt a slick, satisfying hybrid title for those who know what to expect. If you're a shooter fan curious what the world of Pandora is all about, then you should know that this is a product built on a foundation of statistical progression, character customization, and one that holds item acquisition high above interesting quest structure and narrative. At the same time, it plays like a shooter, requiring twitch skills to dominate the droves of enemies that stand in between you and your search for a mysterious vault. With the opportunity for up to four to join together for co-operative play, four character classes, a dizzying array of firearms, around 20 or so hours of content for a single playthrough and the option to restart with stronger enemies and loot, there's plenty of content here. It's a thoroughly enjoyable journey that offers a steady stream of rewards that remains convenient and accessible. It's something action role-playing game fans looking for an experience more up-close and brutal than genre entries of the third-person variety should have a blast with, and one of the more memorable products of 2009.


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