Borderlands is a finicky one: at times it feels like it’s neither quite a shooter nor an RPG – it advertises itself on being a mix of both, or a “Role Playing Shooter” as developer Gearbox put it – but on other occasions it feels like a seamless, effortlessly natural combination. There have been RPG elements included in plenty of shooters for yonks now, but what Gearbox manages to nail, with impeccable accuracy, is the genre’s immense love of looting. Stuff drops everywhere, bursts out of crates, falls out of dead things or even finds itself being purchased in shops – Borderlands contains more trinkets than an eBay junkie’s shed and attic combined. It’s literally everywhere.
Understandably, there’s a bit too much for your character to realistically carry. Managing the voluminous quantities of gear you’ve picked up is one of the game’s bigger challenges, and it can be hard to discern what to throw away as weapon stats are generally too complex for the game to declare which items are hands-down better than others. But there’s charm in its rough ‘learn by doing’ philosophy, and some gratification is derived from innately knowing how much elemental damage a weapon needs to do in order to make up for it’s oft-reduced upfront damage dealing capabilities. It also means you’re encouraged to try out new guns on the many, many baddies strewn across its tattered future-Western environments. This is good because the game is, after all, supposed to be a shooter as well. Clever.
It’s also worth stating how brilliant Gearbox’s environments are. They’re detailed, bold and varied, taking the player through a variety of desolate, ruined backwater towns – the hopeless world of Pandora is populated by exclusively desperate scavengers, abandoned machinery, hostile animals, lawless psycho midgets and despicable gang leaders. But the overarching story, especially the ending, is rubbish: the motivation of your character is to plough through the ruins to find something called The Vault, some sort of fabled treasure trove that will bestow unimaginable riches – enough to make it worth murdering a whole load of baddies and juggle a ton of swag.
Weapons, for the most part, are randomly generated, so there are plenty of combinations to play with. They’re all fairly typical shooter fare – pistols, assault rifles, shotguns and explosives – but it’s hard not to take a step back and bask in the glory of finding an automatic rocket launcher. Whilst each class is listed as having its own specialisation, weapon skills are levelled up by usage so it’s entirely possible to disregard the given advice and go with what you fancy – my Mordecai has an assault rifle for a good chunk of the game. The health and shields system is lifted from Halo, but differs in that you have to scavenge or buy your shield – which means, like the weapons, they come in all shapes and sizes. The best ones tend to be the ones that recharge your health as well.
Characters are a varied bunch on paper, and aesthetically, but in reality their individuality is somewhat hampered by the developers keeping a variety of play styles permanently open. All characters, for instance, have skills to competently attack, heal and defend, and whilst each of the four characters gets their own special abilities they’re all designed around the same function – there’s no deliberate holes in anyone’s strategy. This is likely caused by the need to keep singleplayer accessible to the non-online folk, but it’s also compounded by the internal view of the first-person perspective.
Mordecai, owner of a wispy little beard and a sniper rifle, probably has the least useful skill – the ability to summon a bird to temporarily attack enemies. It’s one of those RPG skills that look ace at the start but its usefulness wears off a few hours in. To compare, Roland the soldier has a deployable turret that can heal any allied players in its vicinity and shoot everything else to death. Lilith, the red-haired siren, can turn invisible, sneak up on a pack of hostiles and let off some sort of shockwave when she becomes visible again. By far the most unique is Brick, a gargantuan being with a neck the size of a car tyre. He’s all battering things with his fists, and is resilient enough to make the perfect tank class. Again, they all sound good, and look good, but all too often they seem to become indistinguishable death merchants: I levelled both Mordecai and Roland up to fairly high levels by myself and the experience was pretty much the same both times.
The confusion in its design stems from trying to pander to both single and multiplayer modes. But despite how Gearbox tries to cut it, it’s a game that provides a far better experience when played in a group. The enemies are tougher, so require a bit more teamwork, but drop better quantities of loot. As a singleplayer experience it can be described as competent – I imagine most people will play it on their own for a couple of hours to familiarise themselves – but it doesn’t hold a candle to what the online brings to the mix: it gives you the ability to specialise your tech tree into something far more specialised and unique, more akin to a character you’d play in an MMO rather than the general shoot-kill-heal build you’d make on your own, and ultimately that makes the game far more entertaining.
Borderlands, then: decent by yourself, fantastic with friends.
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