An overhyped, overblown mess of a game
The GoodNOTE: I am reviewing only the single-player portion of this game, as I never exposed myself to co-op multiplayer. If you must take the following review with a grain of salt as a result, awesome, because you should probably be doing that anyway.
- To begin, Borderlands has an impressive (if not fully-realized) scope. The world of Pandora is huge, with tons of locations to discover and explore. In some ways it reminded me of the Capitol Wasteland from Fallout 3, although the overall effect was much different, and not nearly as dramatic.
- The game demonstrates an interesting blend of genres to create something new and refreshing. Although FPS/RPG hybrids are nothing new, the focus on finding and collecting treasure is something that, up until this point, was almost completely connected with old PC hack-n-slash titles like Diablo. In adding this treasure-hunting, loot-hoarding element to the game, it sucks in people like me who obsess over opening every box, checking every locker, and killing every enemy to get whatever reward they can. It's almost a dirty trick - most gamers, I think, exhibit this trait, and I'm sure the developers knew this when they were building the game. But damned if it doesn't work exactly like it's supposed to; in my case, this was the main element of the game that kept me playing to the end.
- Borderlands is incredibly fast-paced, especially considering the kind of game it is. There's a shallow learning curve, especially for those of us familiar with how modern FPSes usually play. The game is simple and makes no attempt to be anything other than simple. Although I will come back to this in the section below, this can be a good thing from time to time, and ultimately the rapid-fire nature of the game was refreshing, especially as the game wore on and its many faults started showing through.
- The basic gameplay mechanics are well-integrated and the game plays very fluidly. The RPG elements too fit in well and are pretty bare-bones - in this case that's a compliment, as this is not meant to be a cerebral game and the simplicity of the RPG system (you gain experience, you level up and apply points towards special abilities) works well in that context. Also worth noting and praising are the in-game menus, which are easy to navigate and well-organized. From a technical standpoint, the gameplay is actually pretty top-notch, given the game's style.
- The voice-acting, where there is any, is solid. Although story and character development are lacking and almost non-existent (respectively), when voice acting is needed from NPCs, it's done superbly. Scooter (one of the more commonly-heard NPC voices throughout the game) is hilarious, and the dialogue always feels off-the-cuff, much like the rest of the game.
- I'll tackle one of my more minor complaints first: the game's story is pathetically lacking. What's most annoying about this is that it has every opportunity to be thoughtful, engaging, and memorable. It is none of these things. All the pieces are there, too: a mysterious, desolate planet, alien life, trans-solar mega corporations...instead of fitting these things together to make something interesting, the story takes a back seat to everything else. It feels half-baked and skeletal, and squanders every chance it gets to grow into something that's not completely trite. Although it's clear that the story was never meant to be the driving force behind Borderlands, all I can think of is the embarrassing number of missed opportunities here.
- One of the things that seems to be frequently cited as a success with Borderlands is the Procedural Content Creation System, which has the potential to create several million different weapons, armor, and other items. To anyone who has not played this game and considers this to be the selling point, let me dispel your notions that this is some awesome miracle of coding that will make this game literally endlessly replayable. Although it's true that, technically, this system can generate a huge number of random items, the differences in these items and weapons is largely in the numbers, not in anything else. You can have two "different" revolvers, for example, that look identical or nearly so, but do a different amount of damage. The novelty of this system wears out, and quickly. It actually gets to be a nuisance, because later on in the game weapon drops get to be a common event. You'll be constantly checking to see if a dropped weapon is worth picking up by comparing numbers. There's a system which color-codes items by how rare they are (similar to Diablo 2), and while this is useful the more OCD among us will be looking at everything and checking it against the items we already have. I suppose that's more of a fault with the gamer than the game, but I think the whole "more is better" principle that the PCCS system seems to be based on is fundamentally flawed, in that it minimizes the fun and satisfaction that would otherwise be found in obtaining a more powerful weapon or item.
- The gameplay, while solid in a technical sense, is annoyingly repetitive. Each quest you do will probably be one of two things: (a) kill this guy/these guys or (b) fetch these items. Although you could probably make a convincing argument that most FPS/RPG hybrids that have open-ended gameplay like this have quests which can be boiled down to these two objectives, in this case it's so much worse because...
- The environment is so horribly bland. This is, perhaps, my biggest complaint about the game. Pandora is just one of the most incredibly boring video game worlds I have ever played in. Pretty much much the entire game is desert. Yellow and brown is the dominating palate. There are no weather effects of any kind. Every city, settlement, and outpost looks exactly the same. In short, although the in-game world is objectively huge, it feels tiny, cramped, and painfully dull. I get that Pandora is supposed to be bleak and desolate. Like I said earlier, in that sense, it reminds me a lot of Fallout 3. The difference between the Capitol Wasteland and Pandora is that the Capitol Wasteland had a certain richness to it, an underlying theatricality. Pandora, on the other hand, is empty and soulless, and, to put it simply, much less fun to be in.
- Similarly, there is a distressing lack of variety throughout. Not just in the quest construction, as I've already mentioned, but just as importantly in the enemies you fight. You can probably count the number of different types of enemies on two hands (maybe three); in a world so huge, I felt like I should have come across many more. The vast majority of the enemies you encounter are human bandits or some derivative thereof, and you'll get sick of seeing (and killing) them. Mix this with the aforementioned repetitive questing and the drab world, and what you get is a game that, unfortunately, fails to be nearly as engaging as it could be.
The Bottom Line
When I was playing Borderlands I really just could not help but notice the enormous amount of wasted potential that was simply everywhere in the game. You are able to conjure up an all-terrain vehicle to help you get around Pandora, for example, but why stop there? With the item excess displayed throughout the rest of the game, it's surprising that there were no flying vehicles, no slow-but-powerful tanks, no really-speedy-but-unarmed motorcycles. Another example: the intro cinematic for this game is pretty stylish, with a tongue-in-cheek comic book feel. You'd think that the designers would want to capitalize on this look, but they really don't. There are a handful of other times (usually when encountering a Big Bad Boss) that this style shows itself again, but that's it. They could have integrated this look into the HUD or in pop-up messages throughout the game, but they didn't. Along with the story, the droll setting, and the lack of variety amongst enemies I already discussed, the game just feels incomplete. It leaves me wanting, but not in a good way.
That said, though, for everything it does wrong, Borderlands can be a stupid-fun game. It satisfies my basic desire as a gamer to shoot stuff and kill stuff. If I could look past everything else that core truth would still remain, and for that reason I will probably, at some point in the future, play it again (whether I finish it again is another question entirely). For the skeptics out there, who are wondering if this game is worth it, my answer would be...probably not. The thrills are cheap, and I'd be lying if I said that I felt the designers didn't exploit my shallow, intrinsic desires to collect stuff and pull a virtual trigger to make a quick $20 off me. Borderlands satisfied precisely none of my desires for the deeper things I look for in a video game, and, as far as I'm concerned, that's the stuff that matters.