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Borderlands

Game: Borderlands
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Year: 2009
Reviewed: 2013
Platform: PC
Genre: FPS
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Gearbox have had a rather odd track record. Starting with the expansion packs for Half-Life and the console ports of that game, they went on to create that most tactical of FPS series, Brothers in Arms, before going in the opposite direction with Borderlands. (Their later role in completing Duke Nukem Forever is perhaps best forgotten.) Borderlands is a self-styled “role-playing shooter”. To me that brings to mind games like Deus Ex and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines; in depth story driven experiences. If you go into Borderlands expecting this then you’re going to be very disappointed. The RPG elements are distinctly of the Diablo hack and slash style, adapted into an FPS framework. Taken on its own terms however, the game can provide some entertainment, albeit of the shallowest, most basic type.

Borderlands Surrender
I surrender! Don't make me play this game anymore!

The first thing you have to deal with when starting Borderlands is actually getting the game running in the first place. More often than not the game would freeze to a black screen when trying to load, and when you did get it working you have to watch some annoyingly lengthy company logos at the start which are completely unskippable unless you actually edit a file. The introductory cutscene to the game never actually played when I started the game, with it just throwing me straight into the first in-game scene instead. Yet that same cutscene which initially refused to play would suddenly show randomly when loading the game once every few days, and was again unskippable. And for confirmation that it wasn’t an individual problem, I was playing the game in co-op mode with ValkyrAssassin, who reported every one of the exact same issues.

The storyline of Borderlands is this: shoot things. Sorry, I should have included a spoiler warning, since that’s basically the entire plot. Technically, there’s some very vague story about looking for a vault amongst a Mad Max style wasteland that is actually supposed to be another planet, but the entire thing is told in textual quest descriptions and the occasional audio transmission. The game gives the impression that it just doesn’t care about its story and consequently neither will you, especially as there is so little of it.

Borderlands Sniper Scope
It's like looking in a mirror.

What the game does care about is combat. One of the big things that was hyped before the game was released is the random weapon generation, supposedly capable of creating over 17 million different items if Randy Pitchford is to be believed. It might sound impressive, but the problem is that it’s a fairly meaningless statistic in reality. Imagine I create a pistol for a game and assign it to cause a random amount of damage between 1 and 100, and a firing speed of between 0.1 and 10.0, and a clip size between 1 and 50. By Borderlands standards , I’d now have an amazing 500,000 unique weapons already. The figures I’ve just quoted were made up for convenience but each type of gun in Borderlands has statistics such as a random amount of damage within a given range, reload speed, firing rate, clip size, chance to cause one of a variety of effects, zoom levels, etc. Then there are colour schemes and the like. Ultimately, there are only really about seven types of weapons, mostly in the usual assortment of pistols, sniper rifles and rocket launchers. It’s not a major issue, but the weapons aren’t quite as varied as the developer’s want you to think.

The main RPG element in the game (other than the Rocket Propelled Grenade variety) is the simple experience system. Killing enemies, completing objectives and hitting achievements grants you XP which eventually levels you up. Each time you level up you get a skill point which can be used to improve your various abilities. There are four characters available to play as, each with a unique ability on top of the usual combat skills. These are: Mordecai, with a pet Bloodwing, a type of bird who can help out in battle; Lilith, a Siren who can briefly turn invisible and deliver powerful stealth attacks; Brick, a muscly thug who can go into berserker mode and wildly attack with his fists while being nearly invincible; and Roland, a soldier who can deploy a turret. Once used, the skills have to be regenerated before they can be used again. They add some small variety to the gameplay depending which character you pick, but there’s not a great deal of difference ultimately.

Borderlands Man pointing shotgun
Your gun might be more effective if it had actual holes in it rather than being a solid piece of metal.

As you level up and advance through the game, the weapons available gradually become more powerful to match the increasingly more challenging opponents. (These aren’t the sort of opponents that level up with the player as in the Elder Scrolls games though. Each area has a set level of enemy, you simply advance through increasingly difficult locations.) The weapons can be found in boxes, on enemies bodies, or purchased from vending machines. The levelling of the weapons can be a bit uneven however. There are times when you seem to go for hours without finding a weapon any better than the one you’re using. This means that the combat, which originally feels powerful and kinetic, can at times end up feeling like you’re stood firing a pea shooter at the creature you’re facing as their health bar stubbornly refuses to move. This balances out the fact that if you do all the quests available to you early on, you soon get to the stage where all the later quests are below your level. This doesn’t stop some areas from being hugely challenging, not helped by the fact that enemies annoyingly respawn very regularly.

Graphically, the game features an unusual style that makes everything look a bit like a comic, though it’s not actually cel shaded. Much of the scenery is quite angular and everything has dark black around the edges to give it a drawn appearance. Early images from the game showed it to have a more realistic style before it was changed to this. Despite this, the graphics don’t seem to have changed all that much, and it looks suspiciously like the art style was changed as a way to disguise to surprisingly low quality textures that cover most of the scenery. The new style may fit slightly better though, since it’s thankfully a game that never takes itself seriously at all, and it wears its influences on its sleeves. For example, a gang of bandits riding around in simple vehicles are led by Mad Mel. The humour isn’t subtle, but nor is it overplayed given that most of the time you’ll be engaged in combat.

Borderlands Darts
This is why you shouldn't upset Eric Bristow.

Mad Mel’s gang aren’t the only ones with access to vehicles. Early on in the game you’ll get access to a couple of cars, one with machine guns and one with a grenade launcher. Both of these are two-person vehicles so that in co-op one can drive while the other operates the turret. Driving controls are a little strange at first if using a mouse and keyboard setup, as the mouse is used to steer as opposed to the movement keys, but after a few minutes it ceases to be an issue. The cars are very handy for traversing the levels, and running over the various enemies and creatures usually counts as an instant kill. Most of the areas with quest objectives are blocked off in some way to stop vehicles getting in, to prevent this making everything too easy.

When you’re in combat, there are two things that control how long it takes to die. There’s a health bar, but before any damage is caused, you have a rechargeable shield. You’ll obtain better shields as you go through the game, and if you can get out of the line of fire they will eventually charge back up. Health can be regenerated through health vials that you find and health kits that you can use from your inventory. If you do die, you regenerate at the last checkpoint at the cost of a percentage of your money. To delay this, when your health hits zero you get a few seconds as you gradually black out, and if you manage to kill an enemy in that time then you get a second lease of life. Alternatively, if playing in co-op, another player can revive you within that period if they can get to you and hold down a button for several seconds uninterrupted.

Borderlands Washing Machine
At times the game got so dull we decided to watch some washing going round instead.

Co-op is definitely the way to play this game. The lack of story and repetitive nature of the gameplay means that any appeal the game has can wear off quickly in a single player context. In co-operative play, things become more entertaining simply through the interaction. You can aid each other in combat and revive each other when needed and it makes the game feel a bit more alive. But then again, having company can make working on a production line more tolerable, but it doesn’t mean the task itself is any more interesting in the first place. If it is a single player game that you want, then knock off a star from the final score, since the game is basically worthless played like that.

On top of all the flaws the game has, it’s also far from bug-free. The problems at the start of the game have already been mentioned but there are quite a few bugs during play too. There was one place where we jumped down from a cliff and landed in a section part way down that was blocked in with no way to escape from it, and we ended up having to escape by blowing ourselves up with rocket launchers and then paying for respawn. At one point during one of the arena segments, we killed everything in the arena but the game wouldn’t acknowledge the fact, leaving us trapped running around an empty arena until we restarted the game to reset the quest. In one place there was a piece of curved coastline and I decided to cut across the water rather than walking around, and half way across the game randomly killed me with no option to escape because I’d gone too far out of bounds of the area they’d decided I should stay in, even though I was passing directly in a straight line between one piece of land to another. No in-game reason for the death was given, my character was just suddenly dead. The game is full of things like this, along with more minor things such as the fact that the Claptrap robots have no collision detection so that you can walk straight through them.

Borderlands DLC

There are a few things that apply to all of the DLC in general rather than individual ones. Firstly, there are no new fast travel points. Also, even though there are checkpoints as usual, if you quit the game then the next time you play you’ll be back at the DLC’s starting location, which can lead to having to run through several areas again, and of course, all enemies will have respawned. The installer and online activation of the first two packs is also very badly designed. When you try to run it in game, it starts installing in the background so you can’t see it, and when you alt-tab to get to it to confirm, then the game crashes. Thankfully, the other two DLCs didn’t work in the same way. On the positive side of things, the expansions added another 20 hours on top of the 30 hours of the original game, so the Game of the Year edition is the one to go for if you anticipate spending much time with the game.

Borderlands Zombie Island of Dr. Ned
Borderlands doesn't really do subtlety.

I’m not a huge fan of zombies. They’re a clichéd enemy that have been used far too many times over the years and they were dull in the first place anyway. So it’s a big surprise that The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned DLC is one of the highlights of the game. It involves investigating the titular doctor, who appears to be, though insists that he isn’t, a badly disguised Dr. Zed from the main game with a ridiculous fake moustache over the top of his surgical mask.

There’s more storyline in the few hours of this DLC than in the whole of Borderlands, even if it is silly. In fact, that’s one of its strengths. The humour was one of the few things that could raise Borderlands above its level of mediocrity but it was disappointingly underused and rarely good enough. Zombie Island is not really laugh out loud funny but it is entertaining throughout. It doesn’t wear out its welcome as quickly as the main game and if you’re just travelling through an area to get somewhere else you realise quickly that you can just run past the shambling zombies. As you might expect, your opponents are basically zombified versions of your previous enemies and they’re a diverse bunch, referencing almost every zombie type from classic Romero to ones who look suspiciously like Half-Life’s headcrab victims. You get sections where you have to defend an area while waiting for something such as a lift descending on three separate occasions, which is perhaps too many, but it’s otherwise a fun tongue-in-cheek adventure. And the few hours you’ll get out of it are about the length of most full action games these days.

Borderlands Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot
This is about as far as you should go with this DLC.

Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot, in contrast, is one of the worst pieces of DLC I’ve ever encountered. I think there was more value in Oblivion’s Horse Armour. It’s an arena combat mod, which would be fine, though unimaginative, if it was like the arenas encountered occasionally in the main game, but here it’s a whole new style. Basically, there are three arenas and you have an objective to complete five rounds in each. Doesn’t sound so bad? How about when each round consists of ten waves, each of which swarms you with enemies, and then culminates with a boss? And how about the fact that not only is there no way to save between waves but there’s not even a way to save between rounds? And that if you die during the wave, you have to sit the wave out (assuming you’re playing co-operatively) but if everyone dies you don’t only restart the whole round but have to repeat the entire previous round too, meaning you could potentially have to repeat twenty waves because of one mistake? Sound like fun?

Even without repeating anything due to death, it could easily take an hour and it’s an exercise in extreme boredom since each round is pretty much the same. The combat in Borderlands is already very repetitive. To try to vary things, each round has a randomised special feature, but usually these make things even harder. You’ll get rounds where your shields don’t work or rounds where a certain weapon causes extra damage but other weapons become basically useless. At one point I got one of the latter rules focusing on pistols, and since I didn’t have a pistol it was a complete nightmare to get through. Oh, and there’s no buying weapons during the game between waves or rounds; you get to restock ammo and health but that’s it.

Borderlands Wanted Posters
Apparently there's three men and a pair of breasts wanted. But of course, there's no sexism in the games industry at all.

Worst of all? If you persevere through all three arenas, well, that’s not it. They were just “small” introduction tournaments. The main event is… TWENTY-FIVE FUCKING ROUNDS IN EACH ARENA! At easiest settings you’re talking at least 3 – 4 hours for each one, all in one go with no saving at all. I’ll be open here: I never finished this and I’m never going to. About 10 rounds in and I’d be feeling suicidal. And you don’t even get any XP for any of the combat that takes place in the arena. It’s a tedious, lazily designed cash-in. Unless you’re getting the GOTY edition of Borderlands, avoid this completely.

The Secret Armory of General Knoxx tries to vary things a bit by giving the game a vehicular focus. Over the course of the DLC you gain access to three new vehicle types. There’s a monster truck that fires homing missiles, a small but very fast car mounted with a rocket launcher and a huge armoured vehicle that can contain four people and can lay mines as well as firing a laser. Each of these allows for a different play style, such as the racer being weak but allowing you to evade combat quite easily, where the armoured car can take lots of damage but lacks manoeuvrability. In keeping with the car theme, there are plenty of lengthy road sections. You drive down some long sections of road, and then sown some more long sections of road. It quickly becomes as repetitive as the rest of the game already was since it all looks the same. At times you’ll get to areas with road blocks which need disabling, but the layout of these areas is pretty much identical every time.

Borderlands Claptrap's New Robot Revolution
It's the HAL-Trap 9000!

Along with the roads, the game opens up into some fairly large areas which break things up a bit. The road combat and new vehicles do help vary things a bit but the road layouts repeat too much. It’s also the DLC where the resetting of the player’s locations to the starting area every time you restart the game really irritates, since you could have to cross many huge areas and long roads to get back where you were.

Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution is the final DLC for Borderlands and the one that feels the most like the original game. Your opponents are now an army of malfunctioning Claptrap robots who are rebelling against humans in an attempt to destroy them for previous bad treatment. Fighting the Claptrap’s can be quite fun but it pretty quickly descends into the same repetition as the rest of the game. Where it does improve is in having at least a small amount of variety  in locations as opposed to empty desert, but it’s still rather bland. It’s basically more of the same, no worse than the main campaign but no better either. It’s perhaps the most fun the game has been since the Zombie Island DLC though, but that isn’t really saying much.

Arbitrary Final Scores:

Borderlands:2.5 stars
The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned: 3 stars
Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot: No stars
The Secret Armory of General Knoxx: 2 stars
Claptrap's New Robot Revolution: 2 stars

If you like this, you might also like: Fallout 3, Diablo, repeating the same actions over and over again.

Does the repetition appeal to you or does the gameplay fall as flat as the games graphics. Let us know in the forum!