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Review: "Borderlands"

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ANDR01D writes PC game reviews and shares his views on the video game industry.


Developer: Gearbox

Publisher: 2K

Genre: FPS/RPG

Platforms: PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3

Released: October 2009

Gearbox Software is known for quite a few quality games that are out there. There was Opposing Force, the first and best expansion for Half-Life. That was their debut into the game development world. There was Brothers in Arms, the World War II FPS, which spawned two sequels. And let’s not forget that they polished the King’s boots a bit before shipping out the infamous, long-delayed Duke Nukem Forever.

We started to follow the developmental journey of this game two or three years before its release and saw it change from a rather serious looking title into one that wasn’t so serious. This was most evident when one takes a look at the change in art direction. It was popular at one stage a few years ago to have a cell-shaded or more illustrative look in a game, sort of like what you might see in a comic book or even a cartoon, and everyone was getting with. Prince of Persia was probably one of the most well-known examples of this. So the look with Borderlands changed, and not everyone liked it, but it’s gone on to become its most charming and recognisable quality.

Not too long ago, I saw a copy of Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition down at the local computer store. What this is, is the full collection of Borderlands and the 4 DLC packs that were released in 2009 and 2010 respectively: The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned, Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, and Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution. Actually, you get download tokens to get the DLC packs, at least with the PC version – a bit of a cheat. And yes, you still need to activate the game online before it’ll play. I bought it anyway.

Borderlands takes place on the planet of Pandora. The place is rich in minerals, and Dahl, a mega-corporation, decided to settle on the planet and build mining settlements, and eventually profit. They brought along with them plenty of convicts, who would do the actual mining. They, however, weren’t the first or only mega-corporation to do so, seeing as Atlas had been there before, but had left the planet very suddenly.

Dahl carried on with their mining projects, while people started disappearing. But scientists on the planet were looking into these structures known as vaults, which had also been found by Atlas on other planets. Eventually, the location of one of these vaults was revealed, and Atlas found out about it. So they came back to the planet, but this time prepared, having sent their private military force, the Crimson Lance, down to face off against the harsh environments and not to mention the native alien species that drove them off in the first place.

Dahl ended up leaving the planet, much like Atlas did, and left the convict labour force behind. For this reason, Pandora was left in an even worse state than it was found. But stories of this fabled vault persist and attract vault hunters to Pandora, who seek fame and fortune in finding it. But it won’t be easy, seeing as there are others who want the vault for themselves.

In amongst all the noise of full-on combat – gunshots, explosions, taunts and cries, there’s a rather good soundtrack composed by several well-known artists. There's the duo of Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco, known for their work on the God of War series and Dark Messiah, among other titles, and not only that but another heavyweight in the video game music industry, Jesper Kyd, famed for his contributions to the Hitman and Assassin’s Creed series.

The tunes perfectly suit not only the sort of desolate space Western feel but also fit the cartoon-like wackiness of the game.

The game starts with a bus driving towards the town of Fyrestone, with Marcus Kincaid, the driver, sounding curiously like Sidorovich from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., while a rather upbeat and catchy tune plays in the background. You get to choose from four characters while Marcus is making comments about all of them: Lilith the siren, who has mystical powers, Mordecai the hunter, Roland the soldier and ex-Crimson Lance mercenary, and Brick the berserker, who is built like a brick… never mind. Each of these characters has their own proficiencies and a special skill. For example, Mordecai has his pet Bloodwing, which is much like a hawk, which can be upgraded to the point where it can become quite a powerful ally in battle.

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Just like in the Diablo series, characters gain experience as they progress through the world, and eventually reach a point where they can level up and you can select new skills for them from a skill tree. You typically have three different categories you can select from, focusing on different skills, even including your character’s special skill or action skill which is unlocked at level 5. Then within each category you have different tiers and must reach five skill point assignments in a tier before being allowed to select from the next one. You gain experience mainly by disposing of enemies and completing objectives. There are also plenty of challenges which gain you experience upon achievement, much like in Grand Theft Auto, like seeing how much hang time you get in one of the game’s driveable vehicles. This makes for some good sandbox-style gameplay if you don’t feel like doing any quests, and just want to have some fun, or wish to gain more experience so you can level your character up to the max.

But there are one or two more perks to completing objectives, and that is cash and weapons. You get these as a reward in addition to experience points. And that cash will more than likely be spent at one of the game’s many vending machines. But forget about drink and food. Oh no. You can buy medical supplies, class mods (which basically make you better at what you want to do, like sniping for instance)and shields – but what you’ll really appreciate is being able to buy weapons, including grenades, and then from a separate vending machine, ammunition and ammo mods, which increase magazine capacity, including the amount of grenades you can carry.

Of course, all of this can be found throughout the game in trash bins, Skag piles, dropped by dispatched enemies, on the ground, and in chests, if you look through areas thoroughly. You can then either keep items for yourself or sell them for a profit. All items end up in your inventory, the layout of which is probably not what you’d expect. It’s not like most typical RPGs, but then again this isn’t strictly an RPG – it’s a role-playing shooter, or at least that’s what Gearbox calls it. Or a space western FPS with RPG elements, according to Wikipedia. With all those items, it’s a good thing you also get backpack mods, which give you more space so you can carry more items. You only get these by completing side quests which involve repairing claptraps – yes, those little annoying dancing robots that make even C-3PO seem tolerable.

Circle strafing, a tactic that players use to avoid enemy attacks, comes standard and is automatic in Borderlands. A player locks on to a target in attack and circles around it, making it harder for the enemy to hit you in some cases. It's not always that effective, however, to be honest.

You also have a limitation initially on how many weapons you can carry. You can only have two – a primary and a secondary weapon, and you can assign them to which ever slot you wish. Later on, you can extend this to 3 and then 4 weapon slots, so you have different weapons which serve different purposes and have different stats that you can switch to on the fly.

Weapons range from pistols, machine pistols and revolvers to shotguns, submachine guns and combat rifles (essentially just assault rifles and machine guns lumped together in one category) to rocket launchers and even alien weaponry. Usually, pressing the melee button will have your character strike out with a knife, but some weapons also have melee capability, and are manufactured with this in mind, and have bayonets or blades on the underside of the barrel. All weapons have four main stats: rate of fire; reload speed; firepower (damage it’s able to inflict), and accuracy. Five, if you count the magazine capacity.

Weapons may also have additional features such as being able to corrode enemies’ weapons and armour, coat them in acid, pelt them with explosive rounds and possibly set them on fire, or shock them. These are called elemental effects. Grenades can also be modded and once this is done, can have added effects such as sticking to enemies before detonating, teleporting to a targeted destination before exploding, or even raining down smaller separate grenades for a bigger blast radius – sort of like the Banana Bomb or Cluster Grenade from Worms. Nice.

All items are rated according to a colour-coded scale, similar to Diablo, to indicate how rare an item is. White is very common, green is common, blue is less common or uncommon, purple is rare, and orange is extremely rare. Weapons also have different manufacturers and this influences stats, something which you don’t see all that often in games. You can get a weapon that is virtually the same but can be better than another based on the maker.

Jakobs is said to make very accurate weapons, Dahl weapons absorb a lot of recoil, while Hyperion weapons are the rarest to find. Other makes will be cheaper or have higher rates of fire, while others focus only on weapons with elemental effects, etc. Weapons are randomly generated, which is one the game’s main selling points and there are nearly 1 million different combinations you can have, so it stands to reason that you’ll more than likely have different weapons with different stats on every playthrough of the game.

These weapons have to be used on enemies at some point – that’s their chief purpose. Most enemies you come across will be bandits, who are essentially former convicts who were left behind on Pandora by the Dahl corporation when they pulled out years ago. These aren’t the type of white-collar criminals who were in the clink for income tax evasion, however – these bandits are the psychopathic murdering type, some of whom would probably be better off in a psychiatric hospital, never mind prison.

Bandits come in different shapes and sizes, and most carry weapons of some sort. Be very wary of the ones that don’t, however. There are ones referred to as psychos who will run toward you while screaming and laughing maniacally, much like those headless fellows from Serious Sam or John Malkovich as Marvin in Red – but they aren’t coming for a hug. No, some will use melee combat which will actually injure you much more than bullets, funnily enough, mainly because melee attacks not only deplete shields but go straight to your health.

Some of these psychos even carry explosives and will detonate themselves when close enough to you. You also come across mini psychos which almost makes one think there must have been a circus of some sort on the planet at one point. But it probably has something to do with mutation as a result of convicts mining iridium on the planet.

Then you also get the alien wildlife which is native to Pandora, and this includes Skags, which are like dogs except far worse. There are also Rakk, which are a bit like pterodactyls and fly around in flocks, and nest in Rakk Hives, not unlike Cliff Racers from Morrowind. There are also Spiderants, which are these armoured beasts not too dissimilar from the antlions in Half-Life 2, and probably every bit as terrifying too. Speaking of which, there are also scythids, which are like headcrabs, except some of them even explode. All of these species have a social pecking order, as there are different “ranks” of beast, right from say a Skag pup right up to the ferocious Alpha Skag – or even a Badass Skag.

You also get boss creatures, most of which are bandit leaders or commanding officers in the Crimson Lance, Atlas Corp.’s private army – probably among the toughest enemies you’ll face. They are quite reminiscent of the soldiers from Half-Life (remember Opposing Force?) and are tricky to defeat, particularly in numbers. This is because they tend to work in teams unlike the bandits, and have more controlled movements and higher intelligence. This you would expect from military-trained professional soldiers.

Depending on their class, like soldier, engineer, etc., they can also deploy turrets, carry riot shields which negate the effects of most bullets unlike your regular portable shields, which are really just force-fields, and have highly sophisticated weaponry. Enemies are also randomly generated at most times, just like weapons, except for boss characters.

Barrels, the standard first-person shooter obstacle, right from Doom to Half-Life 2 and beyond, features in Borderlands too. But they do more than explode. They are available in all elements, including ones that set enemies on fire, corrosive ones which actually eat away at enemies, and shock ones, which shock them.

At some point in the game, it’s likely that you will be defeated by an enemy. At this juncture, you will fall down on the ground and wait for a fellow player to revive you. That is if you are in co-op mode with friends. If not, then there are two or three ways you can go: either manage to take down an enemy, and you will receive a second wind, or the screen gets darker and darker until eventually, you kick the bucket. You will then respawn at a New-U device, and you will lose a ratio-appropriate amount of credits. So if you have 200 credits, you’ll lose less than if you were to have 20000 credits, quite unlike System Shock 2, where it’s a fixed amount every time.

But there are ways of getting the upper hand on your enemy. Not all combat has to take place on foot. This is a game that is heavily inspired by the likes of Mad Max, so of course, there are vehicles that you can spawn from many Catch-a-Ride stations across Pandora. This makes it faster for you to get around, seeing as sprinting around on foot will quickly tire you out. An even quicker way of getting around is by using Fast Travel, which is basically a teleporter that will get you to whatever destination you have already visited.

What's the Score?


  • Fun
  • Solid gameplay
  • Replayability
  • Unusual graphical style


  • Maybe not serious enough for some people's liking
  • Predictable plot

Graphics: $$$

Sound: $$$

Gameplay: $$$$$

Controls: $$$

Story: $$

Overall score: 8.7/10

Not everyone in the game is out to get you. Yes, most of them are, and mainly for reasons surrounding the fabled vault on Pandora. But there are some characters that will help, and most of these characters will give you quests to complete. Sort of like an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of deal. Nobody’s going to help you for free or do you any favours in this place.

As mentioned earlier, completing quests will earn you experience, money, maybe even some items or weapons, and will, in some cases, even unlock new areas. They aren’t anything special and mainly include the old clichéd “go here, do this, get that, wipe this guy off the map”. There are some quests that are crucial to the plot and others which aren’t. Some characters’ motives are even a bit questionable, and you can never really trust them… or anyone for that matter.

The only one who really seems to be looking out for you is the cryptic character that appears to you right from the beginning, and that it the so-called Guardian Angel, whose presence isn’t particularly necessary, seeing as most of what you need to know is presented to you in your list of quests and objectives. Sort of like Xana from Dark Messiah, but even more useless (but not quite as annoying), then.

Borderlands isn’t a bad game. It has come under fire for its unoriginality, basically being inspired by so many other movies and games, such as Mad Max, Avatar (the name of the planet is Pandora), Fallout, Diablo, Evil Dead (there are a few references in-game to this series – either that or Duke Nukem Forever, which references the same series; hard to tell)… the list goes on. You could argue that id’s Rage should be on the list too because they do seem somewhat similar even though Rage was released two years later.

It’s a solid, and I would say above average title that combines a more modern theme and weapons with the classic questing found in typical RPGs, such as your Diablos or Elder Scrolls titles. Borderlands does a better job of doing this than say Hellgate: London did, let’s be honest and agree on that. But not quite as well as Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas. I rather like it, and there’s a reason why it has sold so many million copies. Because even though it is excruciating in some respects, it is oh so addictive and fun. If you go into this game expecting something more serious and with more substance, forget it. You probably won’t enjoy it very much.

© 2012 ANDR01D

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