I’ve noticed that I apparently tend to review games in blocks of genres. Last month, it was superhero games. This week, with Torchlight and Borderlands, it’s Diablo-style gameplay. Oh, there’s no mistaking it – though Borderlands has all the trappings and game elements of your standard FPS, it’s the Diablo style through and through; where your primary motivation is not fame or fortune or revenge but loot – lots and lots of loot.
In a way, that’s the goal of the game’s flimsy story, though: On the wasteland planet of Pandora, there are rumors about a legendary Vault filled with treasure and alien artifacts. Your character has heard the rumors and is out to prove them true. And as your character searches for the shiniest guns in the galaxy, so do you. Gearbox Studios has made quite the deal over how its procedural generation results in literally millions of potential weapons one can acquire, and it’s true – there are lots and lots of guns (and other equipment) in the game.
Borderlands‘ uncanny arsenal is probably its greatest strength, because it goes so very far beyond the standard ritual of FPS games: “Oh, a shotgun. Oh, a bigger shotgun.” In Borderlands, it’s “Oh, a shotgun. Oh, a bigger shotgun that shoots explosions.” You get guns that shoot fire, lightning (haven’t seen any shurikens yet, though), and acid. You get guns that shoot other guns. You get grenades that teleport to their destination, grenades that split into smaller grenades, grenades that explode on proximity, or grenades that do all of the above.
It isn’t just that you get shiny types of ammunition, though. Every time you get a gun, you need to weigh its positives and negatives against your current arsenal: This submachine gun doesn’t do as much damage as my current one, but it has a larger clip, shoots faster, and does extra damage in melee – is it worth taking? It can be hard to discard a faithful weapon that has served you well when you get something more awesome, but the shoot-loot-and-boot gameplay works well.
It had better work well, because everything in the world of Pandora is trying to kill you. Bandits and wild animals all want your flesh, and there’s a wide enough variety of randomly-generated enemy types to keep you entertained (and on your toes). Each of the game’s four classes has their own tools to keep themselves alive: The Soldier can throw down a sentry turret that heals, replenishes, and guns down anything nearby, the long-range Hunter sends his pet bird of prey in to peck out some eyeballs, the stealthy Siren can turn invisible as either an ambush or escape tool, and “Brick” charges into melee and pounds things to dust, Incredible-Hulk-style.
The characters are all representative of the game’s stellar sense of style. For lack of a better word, it’s Westernpunk: It may be in the far future on some far-off desert planet, but the desert wastes of Pandora and hardboiled redneck-ish characters bring to mind a hybrid between Texas, Death Valley, and Dukes of Hazzard. The entire game has its tongue firmly in its cheek, from the snarky remarks your character quips after blowing some bastard’s head off to the way it refers to its “Elite” enemies as “Badass” enemies. The cel-shaded environments and characters look fantastic (though I ran into noticeable problems with slow-loading textures), which is why it’s a shame you’ll rarely see them if you’re playing it solo.
Here’s the bottom line: Borderlands is not meant for a single player. If you’re playing by yourself, the world of Pandora is lonely and desolate, and shootouts with bandits start to feel commonplace and repetitious. Thanks to the game’s rather short respawn time on enemies, constant backtracking got very tedious, and while playing on your own, it’s easy to dread getting into another shootout rather than looking forward to them. There are very few friendly NPCs in the game, and the slow pace of quests and the “main storyline” make it a hard sell if you’re on your own.
But when you play with a friend, on the other hand, it starts picking up. Enemies get stronger, the loot gets better, and it’s just fun to have a companion as you explore Pandora’s wastes. Gunfights feel faster-paced and more frenetic when you’re working as a team, and – though not without its flaws (notably a lack of any real loot-sharing system) – it’s the multiplayer where Borderlands‘ solid core really shines.
You can still play it alone, of course, but be ready for a hard slog getting into the whole thing. It’s not dangerous to go alone; it’s just a lot more boring.
Bottom Line: It’s the core concept of Diablo and the setting of Fallout 3 mixed with the visual style of Team Fortress 2. Borderlands has great style and aesthetic, fun characters, and lots and lots of guns just waiting for someone to come along and loot them. It’s great fun when with a companion or three (though system link or online play is preferred to the view-squashing split-screen), but solo players will probably find it hard to get into the bleak and unwelcoming world of Pandora.
Recommendation: If you like guns and the prospect of hidden treasure gets your blood a-pumping, give Borderlands a shot. But make sure to bring a friend when you do.
John Funk sees purple items when he goes to sleep at night.
This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.