It seems like quite a while since the day Borderlands was first announced back in 2007. It probably feels like that because Borderlands went through an aesthetic makeover that commonly only games that have been in development for a long period of time go through. Somewhere during the middle of the game's development cycle, Gearbox took a step back and decided it'd be a good idea to ditch the realistic look of the game, for a cel-shaded cartoony look, which we haven't seen in a first-person shooter for a while. Last I recall seeing a cel-shaded FPS was Ubisoft's XIII. But beyond changing aesthetic designs, the game also incorporated aesthetic-presentation cues very similar to games like Bioshock and Fallout 3. That's all fine and dandy, but how does the game play?
Well, aesthetics aren't the only similarities that Borderlands feels like its borrowed from Bioshock and Fallout 3, as the game boasts mechanics very much like Fallout 3, particularly those relating to the game's RPG elements of gaining experience, leveling up, statistics, upgrades, and so forth. Furthermore, just like Fallout 3, you are thrown into a desolate wasteland where human presence is very low. Additionally, quirky and traditional technology, vending machines, and the like are what you'll rely on to keep you up to par throughout the journey. There is even a hit chart for enemies, so getting rid of an enemy quick all depends on where you shoot - headshots, of course, being the best and often leading to instant kills. Remember, as opposed to traditional FPS games, having RPG elements means enemies have health points (HP), so they don't just go down after a few shots - some can require quite a bit of attention.
Now, don't think for one second that this is a Fallout 3 rip-off, because it isn't. In fact, Borderlands does a good job of distancing itself from Fallout 3 by offering much more intense gameplay, as opposed to Fallout 3 which had a focus on other things. In Borderlands you'll encounter very aggressive enemy A.I. that'll often rush you, or play their cards and play a game of hide-and-seek by running, shooting, hiding, running elsewhere, and repeat.
The game starts off with a voice over introducing the story of a secret treasure hidden in the wasteland that is Pandora. This voice over introduces himself as the bus driver, and then introduces you to the cast of four in the game. Your four characters are Roland, Mordecai, Lilith, and Brick. Roland is the soldier of the group, who specializes in rifles and shotguns, with an action skill called Scorpio Turret. This skill gives Roland numerous different abilities, such as healing, spawning ammo, and multiplying damage. Mordecai is the hunter of the group, boasting long-range preferences, his specialties are sniper rifles and revolvers, and a special skill called Bloodwing. Bloodwing is the name of Mordecai's pet, which he unleashes, and it mauls nearly everything in sight.
Brick is the tank of the group, and is classified as the berserker. His preferences are close range combat with his fists, and explosive weaponry, with a special skill called Berserk. When Berserk is activated, Brick is temporarily invincible and significantly more powerful. Lastly, Lilith is the siren of the group, with a specialty in incendiary, shock, and corrosive weaponry. Her skill is the Phasewalk, which is her ability to cloak and become temporarily invisible, allowing her to sneak around enemies and kill them with a massive shockwave. Each one of the character's skills have a few layers to them, as variables affect various aspects of a character and his actions - you'll understand this more as you progress through the game. There are tons of guns and gun variations to be had - millions, actually - complete with elemental attacks and much more.
Now, while all four characters have a backstory, they still share more-or-less the same path throughout the single-player mode, so you aren't getting vastly different experiences with different characters. Furthermore, I noticed a number of significant gameplay issues that have caused not just an eyebrow raise, but also some frustration. One such problem is the game's long distance shooting: there is a serious limitation or collision detection issue here. Being that I have a knack for sniping, I chose Mordecai as my character. I was hoping to enjoy the stealthy aspects of the game, but unfortunately I didn't. Spotting enemies and letting off headshot after flawless headshot from a distance with my sniper rifle was pointless, all it did was cause attention to myself and the bandits started running towards me. None of my bullets made any contact with them. As they neared, I kept shooting them in the head repeatedly...and still saw no result. Now just a stone's throw away the enemies have drawn near, and I began shooting their torsos...no response, not even a flinch, their health bars are still full. I'm aiming at the heads again, and simply cannot achieve contact despite my aim being right on the money. Thinking the sniper is at fault, I try my hand at a revolver, to no avail. So finally, I just whipped out my knife and began hacking away with the melee button.
Thinking this issue was some sort of fluke, I actually managed to experience this numerous other times, albeit not to that extreme. For example, when confronted with enemies, one shot would be a total miss, while the other one would connect. And even though contact is based on the statistical strength of a weapon's accuracy, the sniper rifle I was using has an accuracy of nearly 98%. I've also come to realize that because the game seemingly doesn't allow you to pick off enemies from a distance, or at least that it has some sort of problem related to it, it makes a character like Mordecai and his preference for snipers totally pointless. And, having asked a few others currently playing the game, some have agreed that there is an issue with the sniper hunting. I can't say that I've noticed the same issues when I'm using shotguns and machine guns, but they are there for some of the handguns and sniper rifles. Also, why is it that after a near 3GB install, Borderlands has loading screens? Not to mention a number of which are fairly lengthy. It's sort of confusing.
As far as value goes, there are 160 missions to complete, most of which are actually side-quests not pertaining directly to the core story. Playing the game, I couldn't help but shake the feeling that it felt too much like a collect-a-thon. In addition to that, picking up items off the ground is even more annoying than it was in Uncharted 2, seeing as how in order to pick an item up, you have to be actually looking at it and I hate that. You can't just walk over it and press a button (like Uncharted 2) or have the game automatically collect it for you. This becomes an issue particularly when you need some replinishment, and you have enemies all around you. If you try to pick the items up, you'll most certainly get roughed up, because you have to be fairly precise at what it is you're pointing your sights at. Honestly, this kind of stuff just needs to be automated.
Once you're done with the single-player, you can try the multiplayer, which comes in the way of two-player split-screen co-operative gameplay, or four-player online co-op that supports on-the-fly drop-ins and drop-outs. That's a lot of hyphens, isn't it? Furthermore, you can initiate a duel by slapping your co-op player, which will allow you to engage him/her in a battle.
Visually, I think a number of people will find themselves disappointed. The cel-shaded visuals aren't very attractive, especially considering how nice the game looked originally. More importantly, and perhaps this is limited to the PlayStation 3 game, but the game engine isn't very good. First there are the long load times, but beyond that are the framerate hitches the game endures when there's some action on screen. It takes about three or four enemies to get near you for the framerate to take damage, and it's pretty annoying. On top of that, the game isn't exactly good looking to begin with, boasting lackluster texture quality that exhibit washed out properties. To add to that, the game engine isn't quick enough to draw-in the textures, so often times you'll find yourself looking at a flat texture-less object, only to see it get rendered in front of you. Again, why does this occur when the game installs so much data on to the system? Things like grass are pixelated and flat, and there's quite a lot of aliasing to be seen all over the screen, so if you don't like jagged lines on your screen, you won't like looking at Borderlands. I'm honestly quite shocked that Borderlands looks so bland, considering that the game isn't exactly pushing any envelopes here. At the very least, better texture detail surely wouldn't have been too much to ask for out of a cel-shaded title.
On the other hand, the voice acting is pretty good. Most of the humor comes from either the ClapTraps (the game's little helper robots), the narrator, or some of the random cast of characters you'll encounter along the way. A decent soundtrack that resembles what you'd hear in either a motion-picture or a Metal Gear game can be heard in the background on occasion, in addition to a number of other sounds. Because the game places such a heavy emphasis on weaponry, you'll be happy to know that the guns sound pretty good, for the most part, with the occasional revolver perhaps sounding a bit too weak...but perhaps it's intentional. All in all, not much to complain about here.
Borderland is not for those who are looking for the next blockbuster game. While it may feature a number of similarities with Fallout 3, it isn't as polished as Fallout 3 was, seeing as how Borderlands suffers from a number of awkward and unexplainable gameplay quirks, in addition to a graphics engine that can really be annoying. If you can get past the bland visuals, there is a very deep and solid gameplay experience, overall. But if you're the type of gamer who wants the complete the package, Borderlands may fall short of your expectations. A good game for the hardcore Fallout 3 fan, but one in need of a lot of polish.
10/20/2009 Arnold Katayev