Borderlands Review

Stranded (And Bored) In The Wasteland

Borderlands Screenshot

HIGH Millions of guns to choose from, theoretically...

LOW The "adventure" is pure contrivance, utterly lacking a soul.

WTF Where's the onscreen mini-map? Why do weak guns auto-equip?

Several years in the making, Gearbox's Borderlands has been a highly-anticipated title since 2005. Originally envisioned as a kind of open-world Halo/Diablo hybrid, the developers have combined FPS gameplay with a structure that borrows character-building elements from RPGs. In addition to this intriguing combination, the game sports another notable hook—an absurd number of randomly-spawned loot guns for players to find and employ with deadly purpose.

Set on fictional planet Pandora, the game occurs in a barren wasteland that exudes a vaguely post-apocalyptic feeling thanks to ramshackle settlements, large stretches where creatures and raiders attack, and a serious amount of the color brown. Into this environment, four characters are bussed: Roland the soldier, Mordecai the sniper, Brick the brawler, and Lilith, the token stealthy female. This group is searching for The Vault, a legendary cache of advanced alien technology hidden somewhere on the planet.

Although it has a good premise and seems to have all of the elements necessary for success, Borderlands fell quite a bit short of what I would've expected from a well-known studio with such significant time in development. Primarily, the biggest issue with the game is that it has a painfully narrow scope and ends up being nothing more than one long, extended, totally overt grind. It's more a platform for play than a complete, well-rounded game. Although I'm not a fan of grinding for grinding's sake, I have no problem with it if it's implemented well. With engaging gameplay and sufficient reward, it's entirely possible to have such a structure comprise the base of a successful game. In Borderlands' case, I don't think the necessary tricks have been pulled off.

The first sign setting off warning bells for me were the character interactions, or lack thereof.  Basically, the NPC "characters" hardly qualify as such, being nothing more than personality-free constructs placed to dispense quests. Although I didn't expect hours-long backstories for each one of them, there are a number of games today that at least make vague gestures at spicing this end of things up. Borderlands' missions are presented to the player in we-know-you-won't-read-this text blobs and are never interesting or original, being mostly comprised of kill or fetch-and-kill. The situation might not feel so blatantly mechanical if there were actually some kind of minor plot-based cause-and-effect to show achievement upon completion of tasks, but there's absolutely no concern for this sort of thing.

Borderlands Screenshot

Yet another example illustrating Borderlands' tunnel-vision, there's no effort spent trying to make Pandora feel convincing or deep in any way. Rather than a living, breathing world to explore, the areas created are simply places where quests are fulfilled. There are no citizens to interact with; no ambient energy animating the environments. Why bother exploring the wastes when interesting items and events aren't present or active unless the player has accepted the correct quest? Deserted plateaus become hotbeds of activity once the right switch has been flipped, but remain otherwise unmemorable no matter how many times the player passes by. This sort of old-school design offense completely annihilates the potential value of exploration or discovery that's become fairly common in the game's contemporaries.

In fact, such a choice makes me wonder why the developers were so keen to have such a huge play area in the first place. A considerable amount of time is spent simply traveling between locations over and over again despite players having access to a rudimentary warp system (which only becomes available several hours into the game) and awkwardly-controlled vehicles steered by moving the aiming reticle. The world of Borderlands feels as though there's entirely too much dead space presented to players with nothing significant to fill it. It holds no inherent entertainment value.

With an empty world, empty characters and repetitive quests, what does Borderlands do right?

I have to admit that the variety of weapons is interesting, especially once some of the more exotic things start appearing. Pistols are just pistols, but pistols that set enemies on fire are noteworthy. Sniper rifles that explode enemies into nuggets are even better. I can't say that having this ridiculously robust selection of guns was really effort well-spent while everything else feels so painfully thin, but there is some value here.

Besides being an immense firearm fetish opportunity, the co-op (obviously a main focus of the game given its structure) is also well-done. Players online can drop in and out, and there's even splitscreen for those that need the option. Although it's a fine platform for friends to play together in, I hesitate to celebrate it too heartily since I believe that just about any game is improved by having a buddy or three along for the ride. This title in particular receives only moderate benefit from the company of another living, breathing person. The content's just too transparently grind-happy and dull no matter how many jokes are cracked between partners on a couch or online. When teaming up myself, the most common sentiment expressed was that both of us would have rather been playing something else. Despite being positioned as a mainly co-op title, it lags behind the excitement delivered by titles like Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, or even Resident Evil 5.

Although Borderlands seemed ready to be one of the next big things, the overwhelming focus on grinding and gun-collecting can't carry the entire game, in either co-op or single-player. With only cursory attention given to story, characterization, variety, incidental content and world development, the result is a very lopsided final product that will likely find more favor with the nothing-but-action FPS crowd than those craving more balance in something termed an FPS/RPG hybrid. Borderlands' one-note design and myopic implementation has resulted in a product that's woefully empty, unconvincing, and out-of-touch with current standards. Iit may be brand new, but I think its age is definitely showing. Rating: 5.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3 Approximately 9 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. An additional 3 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore,intense violence, mature humor and strong language. It should be pretty obvious, but this title is definitely not for the young ones. Tons of guns, tons of shooting, and tons of monsters and freaky-looking dudes getting killed. Plenty of salty language, lots of blood... do I even need to say anything else? I think you get the picture. No kids.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You will be at a slight disadvantage when playing this game. Although there is an on-screen enemy indicator that functions fairly well and there are visual cues when the player is under fire, there are still plenty of times when hearing the sounds of growing beasts or gibbering enemies will go unnoticed by players with hearing impairments. In such cases, it's likely that the player will take some cheap hits and be surprised from behind or from the side more than a few times. Gotta stay on your toes with this one, and even then, a few issues during combat will still crop up.