Don’t let title fool you, I immensely enjoy the game and am not outright panning it – I am however going to start off by making a point that the game concepts are extremely unoriginal. On the other hand I will attest to its innovation being attributed the intuitive patchwork layout that brought these borrowed concepts to a focal point is central to the overall, great fluid feel of the game that is Borderlands.
Borderlands is a game who’s art style and direction have one of the central, most talked about discussions (aside from the deodeca-billions of weapons). I however, find the argument that the art being original and new to be false. The art is as far from bland as it is original. Borderlands borrow a lot of the artistic concepts from past titles such as XIII, Silverfall, and Crimson Tears. All of those games have varying degrees of cel-shaded artwork, from tonal comic book style to a texture mapped cel with main outlines to define shape instead of detail. Borrowing these artistic concepts isn’t wrong by any means and serves to greatly set apart the apocalyptic backdrop from other apocalyptic, mutant / demon infested scenarios that Fallout3, PainKiller and Hellgate portray. Additionally, the emphasis on exploding parts and messy finishes are reminiscent of Rise of the Triad, No Remorse, and Blood. Borderlands didn’t bring a new concept, but breathed life into something gamers have forgotten and due to the time at which these concepts were initially placed on screen, gamers were focused on things less cartoony and more lifelike and photorealistic. Tables have turned as photorealism is commonplace and gamers tap their nostalgic roots in search of the old ‘new’.
Alternatively, Borderlands uses a vivid approach to the barren post-apocalyptic wasteland. Games like Fallout 3 use gritty subdued colors, effective use of long creeping shadows to extinguish a sense of safety and the high yellow faded and washed out look to present a sense of veritable slow-death traps. Hellgate used muddy colors, twilight settings, and weathered or slimy concrete textures to blend dangerous objects into obscurity. And, Painkiller was all fire and brimstone – high contrast yellows, oranges, red and black – dark brooding, but intense and fevered. With Borderlands, things may appear bright and shiny or happy and colorful, but in actuality things are not what they seem and I believe this to be an intentional message given to player visually – the appearances are initially disarming as players may feel accustomed to the surroundings as giving a warm(er) safe feeling. Yeah… bet on it and die quickly.
Overall the game felt familiar and reminded me very much of the XBOX title Brute Force, and the PC title Hellgate: London. It is almost a direct re-brand of Brute Force in that it contains four characters thrown together each with a specialty, not quite friends, but working together to achieve a common goal. When Brute Force hit shelves it was one of the best selling games – even beating out Halo, but that waned as players noticed unfulfilled promises and a character imbalance. Where Borderlands gets the concept right lies mainly in the balance of character traits and the skill set of each character earned though playing the game. The skill tree and interfaces are very reminiscent of Shadow Watch in that the trees were specific to the character role rather than what is commonly found in single character control games such as Diablo or Fallout in which the skill selection hashes out the class or classes the character becomes and subsequently the types of actions performed. Unfortunately, like Brute Force, there’s enough imbalance in the character roles that players will have a favorite that is not entirely dependent on the role they prefer to play. For example, Mordechai is relatively weak and his skill tree doesn’t help the character much until later stages of advancement. Players can consider this imbalance as a way of choosing a higher difficulty within a high difficulty, but it will be more likely considered poor character design. Other than that character roles and intended style of play are glaringly obvious but there’s no intent to hide or alter them from a design standpoint, so it works for the game.
Borderlands also strongly mimics Hellgate:London in that it has mixed elements of both an RPG and FPS. With Hellgate, players could choose to be a melee type character, brandishing swords and the like – or be a ranged weapon type of character, casting spells and using guns. Experience points were earned to give players the ability to enhance the abilities of the character as well as the incorporation of a role specific skill tree. Also, Hellgate players were given quests by various NPCs that they could choose to accept or decline with certain quests being integral to story advancement.
The quests in the game are the central story with the side-quests being greater in number than the main story quests, though they often feel more like errands than bona fide quests. Again, nothing new to the FPS/RPG (Fallout3 relied heavily on it without making the game 'bad'), style of games but it does allow players to gain a feel of every play through being different. Players may choose to take on different side-quests with different characters each time they play and may have to play each character a few times to really feel as though they gone through everything the game has to offer in single player mode. On top of that Borderlands will have a large amount of DLC to enhance and encourage replay. A nice aspect of the single player mode is that the work a player does in co-op and multi-player – carries over (but are not transferrable between characters), so players aren’t dealing with the cumbersome feel of having to maintain separate character profiles between modes of play; everything is blended together into and intuitive advancement style.
Players who haven’t played the game or are not familiar with randomization might find themselves a bit disappointed. Prior to release the only thing talked about more than the ‘original’ art work was the ’15 million guns’. This should tip players off on two things – randomization and loot emphasis.
Actually, it’s reported that there are 26 million guns, but only a handful of designs. By that, it is meant that between the 8 or so different weapon classes, there are about 3.2 million iterations of each, and around 150 different visual deviations between the 8 weapon classes. One weapon may have fire damage while the other may have a higher level of accuracy and range, but they’re visually the same gun. Normally this wouldn’t be something to be disappointed about, but the pre-release talk by developers and community alike didn’t differentiate between the random item generation kid of ‘different’ (like found in Diablo or Hellgate) and the distinctly visual and actionable kind of ‘different’ weapons (like an MP5 with a tactical scope vs P90). On the other hand Borderlands isn’t that kind of game and if players assumed that there would be 26 or so million distinctly different looking and actionable guns, then they’re probably going to be too hung up on graphics than gameplay, so it is sort of a moot point but worth at least a mention.
What the massive variety brings however is a unique blend of super weaponry – explosive tipped rounds, phasing explosives, defensive items that go out in a ‘blaze of glory’, and a vehicle that serves mainly as a mode of transportation but with a little imagination can be a mobile blender - all to create a bloody, disintegrated or charred pile of God knows what. If that wasn’t enough, emphasis is placed on finding these items instead of building these items. Something that might appeal to some players is the accomplished feeling of finding weapons and ammo caches while other players might find it redundant – either way there’s something different to be found and tried no matter what the player decides to do. While players can tweak the weapons out, there’s a possibility that they’ll be able to at some point remove them from the remains of obliterated foes.
Borderlands works to satisfy players by tapping into their sadistic side. Acid burns, getting the ‘red mist’ from headshots, and enemies that “matryoshka” (divide into smaller more numerous foes) are all part of the satisfaction and intensity that the game brings to player. The intensity level is heightened periodically during missions in that many missions start out relatively uneventful but can turn into a rampant infestation at a moment’s notice or with none at all. Still the challenge to complete the game is only so-so, even solo. Players will be doing a lot of running and backpedalling… and dying, but there’s a pattern in the not so bright AI controlled enemy movement. Enemies mainly just duck and cover, which makes getting those experience rich headshots a bit of a challenge, but if players are familiar with FPS games then they’ll find the difficulty of Borderlands to be on the ‘average’ side and not much harder than Fallout 3. If Players aren’t familiar with this style of play then they’ll find themselves saying “WTF!” repeatedly.
Where a majority of my entertainment is derived is the variety in repetition. Repetition is usually a negative thing but only when it is repetition on top of repetition, or doing the same things the same way again and again, which usually stems from a lack of tools. The repetition of Borderlands however, can be done in various way, largely dependent upon the innumerable tools in which the players find access. In the end, the fun is contingent upon the massive selection of weapons and the encouragement to find and use them. If that’s not your thing – then you probably won’t like Borderlands beyond the first play through, but if you enjoy toying with new ways to kill aging enemies not only are you a sadistic bastard and my kind of person, you’ll immensely enjoy the game a few times over especially with the onset of the already anticipated DLC.
Overall the game is deserving of favor, but not quite rave. There are enough ‘tired’ concepts executed effectively in context to the setting to only bring the game down from 10 to 7 there is enough entertainment value to take it from a 0 to a 6. Therefore a 6.5 is what I’ll give the game and deem it personally ‘slightly better than just okay but can objectively see and understand the value of the title to a certain audience’.