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The GoodI love RPGs. I love FPSs. I love it even more when I can have both of them in one game. Borderlands is just such a game: it's a FPS and a RPG. What's more, it does both parts well.
It's a paradox, but there you go: I don't like this game even though on paper it represents precisely what I wanted from a game for a long while. Borderlands plays like a shooter, with all the moves and all the satisfaction derived from the simple pleasure of pointing your guns at enemies and squeezing the trigger. But it is also a fully developed RPG - at least from an academic point of view, where gaining levels and building up a character is all that is needed. You receive experience points for killing enemies and completing quests, level up, allocate points into skills, and happily watch how you slowly, but surely turn into an indestructible machine of death.
You grow up constantly. Borderlands may be a lot of things, but it is certainly not stupid. It knows how to appeal to our lowest gaming urges. It knows how to lure us, how to trick us into playing it. It keeps feeding us all the time: experience, quests, enemies, guns - everything flows in a steady stream, all you have to do is reach out and grab it. There is no learning curve in Borderlands: you step into the game and you are sucked into a well-oiled machine that grinds and grinds, spitting out more loot, more money, more equipment. Rewarding? I guess you could say that, although playing this game made me think that perhaps there is such a thing as "too rewarding". You always feel how everything is there for you, not because it exists independently, but simply because you need it.
Borderlands has glimpses of humor here and there. I suppose it is a matter of taste, but I don't find it particularly funny that a boss enemy named Nine Toes "also has three balls". As a matter of fact, I found the game's humor juvenile yet too harmless to be entertaining in that politically incorrect, shocking way. It's like a non-offensive, mild version of Duke Nukem. But at least the game throws in a few encounters that break up the monotonous routine for an instant. The story is generic, formulaic, and predictable, but writing and voice acting are both decent.
The BadYou can imagine how much I wanted to love Borderlands. And yet no matter how hard I tried to list, again and again, everything the game does right, I remained cold and indifferent. Once again I realized that good gameplay system means little when it is slapped over a horrible game world. A world where nothing excites, where everything is automated, calculated, and serves the gameplay system alone. A world that is but a receptacle for Lv. 18 Alpha Skags and shields with 130 defense points and 27 recharge rates. A world that immerses so little that you never feel you are on a mysterious planet called Pandora. In fact, I felt I was in my room playing a shallow, uninspired game.
Playing Borderlands made me remember some notable games of the past I didn't like. Loads upon loads of randomized items thrown at you at every opportunity, forcing you to compare stats until you stop caring? Receiving heaps "kill this" and "fetch that" quests from people nobody gives a damn about, following a marker on the map, fighting a boss, losing, automatically respawning, marching forward, leveling up, quick "click-click" skill upgrade, killing the boss, repeating ad nauseam? Hello, Diablo! To be fair, I have to add that at least Diablo had atmosphere. Borderlands has none. It is mind-boggling how such a stylish setting could become the epitome of soulless world design, where nothing feels like a part of the world and you feel how you walk through code, talk to code, fight code, and collect nothing but code. By the way, the cel-shaded graphics don't fit the setting at all; they are there just to make the game look "different", serve no purpose, and their imaginative potential is fully wasted.
Disastrously repetitive, bland environments? Welcome back, Halo. It's hard to believe, but even that game has a more interesting world than Borderlands. At least the world of Halo conveyed the somewhat exotic vastness of an alien planet. Borderlands is just one big desert with junk. If Halo was a collection of repetitive, dull levels, Borderlands is simply one huge repetitive, dull level. You won't even have the dubious consolation of exploring a lavender-colored alien ship or something like that. It's all a grayish-yellowish-brownish cel-shaded wasteland. All the settlements look the same; no location has a personality of its own; it's a world that doesn't even try to immerse.
Every game has the "how" and the "where": the gameplay and the world in which it takes place - setting, atmosphere, everything that translates bits and bytes into entertainment and art. That's why Borderlands is such an unexciting game: it only has the "how", not the "where". Its world gives you no reason to be in it, no reason to explore it, no reason to get attached to it. And in such a world, why should I try to advance to level 32 or get a fire-elemental shotgun to kill another bandit? Why should I do anything if nobody and nothing around me convinces me it is worth doing?
Just before playing this game I played Sabotain. It's a buggy, weird Russian shooter nobody has heard about, with broken gameplay, bad pacing, and plenty of design flaws. It has 20% of gameplay balance and 5% of the polish found in Borderlands. And yet I'll never trade it for Borderlands. Flawed games can be charming if you see the designers' effort, ambition, and care through the flaws. But there is no charm in a game that sacrifices creativity for numbers.