Discussion Review: Borderlands

Borderlands.jpg

The concept of a “role-playing shooter” has been tried plenty of times before, most recently by games like Fallout 3 and even Hellgate: London to an extent with its attempt at being a third-person/first-person hybrid, but I can’t think of any of late that have pulled it off better than Borderlands. That’s not to say the game isn’t without a few problems, but all in all it’s one hell of a game, and I’ve been surprised by just how much it has sucked me in. Let’s find out if Mike agrees!

Matt: If Diablo was a FPS it would probably play a lot like Borderlands. For me, Gearbox’s latest production embodies everything I love about hack-’n-slash action-RPGs and stuffs it into an FPS package, from its addictive questing and character progression to its rewarding loot system to its frenetic combat to its massive game world to its successful combination of solo play and co-op.

The weakest part of the game, for me, would have to be its storyline, because, well… there really isn’t one of any great significance, and what little there is isn’t all that special (the last boss and ending sequence are particularly “meh”). You choose one of four different character types and set out to explore the planet of Pandora — by yourself or with up to three other players online — in search of keys to access a mystical alien ruin known as The Vault, and that’s about it. Basically, the plot serves as nothing more than a starting point to get you running, gunning, questing and looting.

And honestly, that’s all good by me. While I would have appreciated a more in-depth story with real choices and consequences, the game is so much damn fun I didn’t need the motivation of some epic narrative to keep me going.

What are your thoughts on this, Mike? I imagine the lacking story is something that stood out for you as well.

Mike: I think this will be an interesting discussion because when I think of the marketing pitch given for the game “what if a FPS and RPG had a baby?,” I think instead: if Serious Sam (i.e. a mindless shooter with a flimsy plot) and the most mindless and shallow action-RPG from the late 90s got together and had a baby … the result would be Borderlands.

I am immediately reminded of two things: first off the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch from Monty Python, as every time I note something critical, something else critical comes to my mind; and also of the Wizard of Oz, as so many discussions I’ve had about the game amount to ‘pay no attention to the flaws behind the curtain, Borderlands is a great game’. And I just can’t do it – the flaws are too many, too obvious and too fundamental – especially in the PC version.

And perhaps surprisingly, the vapid story isn’t my biggest criticism. But let’s start there anyway. For me, the hybrid FPS / RPG goes back to Deus Ex. To me, that remains unassailable as the pinnacle of that hybrid genre. Excellent story, interesting characters, nice choices to make, solid skill-based shooter – it really earned its place as a classic. But more recently we have seen games like Hellgate: London and Fallout 3 as you mentioned, and the even more relevant example of STALKER. I don’t know that I can manage another word on Fallout 3, but I had reviewed the other games in the past. I called Hellgate “a RPG that is full of eye candy and as deep as a mid-summer puddle after a sun-shower, but the combat is absolutely thrilling at times”. And for STALKER, I had much more to say … here is a quote:

“Just don’t mistake it for a RPG – because once you start doing that you will become a slave to the traders, to the fetch-and-return missions that serve little purpose in terms of improving your character other than giving you money and ammo you don’t need and forcing you to trek long distances in both directions. The missions are numerous and varied enough that you can take a few and ignore the rest, get plenty of extra items and gameplay and still not miss anything. The shooter elements and open world are where the game come together – you can run-and-gun to a certain extent or focus on tactics and stealth or even try to avoid combat entirely.”

The reason for the massive quote is to put my feelings for Borderlands‘ story into a bit more context. Everyone that is interesting to meet, and everything that is interesting to see you meet and see in the first several hours, leaving the rest of the game as bland trudging – the sort of thing that just gets in the way of the core experience of STALKER. I understand that in a ‘mindless shooter’, which is the only way I can describe Borderlands, you generally need nothing more than a basic motivation such as ‘you on planet. Big vault. You open.’ And that can be fine, but in that scenario I need something else to play the starring role. And I guess I just tipped my hand on how I feel about THAT.

Anyway, so we agree that the story is total crap, which provides no motivation to actually play the game, and I see we also agree that the ending is terrible enough to almost prevent you from wanting to replay to hit maximum level. So let’s move on – I want to talk about the character types, as for me the characters and skill trees were the best part of the experience. But first, let’s move on to the biggest selling point of the game: the guns.

Gearbox claims the game has over 16 million possible weapons, and based on playing every character across tons of hours, I have no reason to doubt them. There are several classes of weapons, each with a few subclasses, and then each type can have a few attributes such as accuracy, fire rate, damage, critical hit chance, elemental damage and so on. Each weapon has strengths and weaknesses of its own and play off your particular character build. Some have scopes, others do not – scopes are not limited to sniper rifles here.

While I’m on the topic of sniper rifles, how did you feel about the fact that the rocket launcher is fundamentally broken, going straight through people and sometimes not even giving splash damage! Also, my primary character was Lilith, and in my first run I made her a sniper master, so I was annoyed to learn that the hit-box detection for the sniper rifle was also completely messed up. These are some serious fundamental flaws in a core area of the game.

So how did you feel about the guns, and what characters did you try out – and who was your favorite?

Matt: Wow, I am truly surprised to hear you had such a lousy time with Borderlands, as beyond my own personal enjoyment of the game I’ve only heard positive impressions from others. Yes, the game has some flaws, but I don’t think they are nearly as pronounced as you seem to, nor did I find the game as shallow and mindless as you.

Fundamentally, Borderlands is a rock-solid FPS. The shooting mechanics are superb from my experiences – the sniper rifle works perfectly for me as far as hit-detection is concerned and I haven’t noticed any issues with the rocket launcher either, though I don’t use the rocket launcher all that much — and while the enemies definitely have the one-dimensional “suicide bomber” AI mentality like those in the Serious Sam games where most of them just kind of run at you mindlessly, you do have to put some thought into your actions to survive many of the tougher battles. I played as Roland the soldier class and found myself dying often if I tried to mindlessly run and gun.

As you say, the huge assortment of guns is the game’s main selling point, and the weapons are all incredibly fun and satisfying to shoot. I also love how all the weapons have a unique visual look and varying stat boosts and elemental effects, so there is much more to weapon selection than simply choosing the one that does the most damage — things like rate of fire and clip capacity are very important factors to consider, as are the varying benefits to elemental attacks (electricity damage is great to take down enemies with shields, while fire damage burns unarmored enemies to a crisp). I only wish Gearbox had built in some sort of customization system for the weapons, as I think it would have been cool to be able to go to some sort of workshop area in the towns you visit and build your own personalized guns rather than having to rely on random loot from enemies and chests.

Another complaint I have beyond the flimsy plot, however, is the lacking enemy variety. Throughout the entire game there only seem to be like maybe five main enemy types, with a few variants here and there along with the occasional boss. The virtual landscape of Pandora is as diverse as it is massive, but unfortunately its population is not. Therefore, playing through the game solo can feel pretty lonely, though personally I had just as much fun playing by myself as I did in online co-op.

Mike: I got so caught up in detailing the issues I had that I forgot to mention that not only did I have FUN, but I took Lilith through all the way to level 50, completed once as Mordacai and also made it most of the way through with both Brick and Roland, and restarted more than a couple of times with all of them to fiddle with the tech trees.

As for the opinions of how good or bad the game is, I think that if you heard more from PC users you would see a different landscape of opinions. And I don’t mean PC reviews, which fall pretty much in line with the console reviews: at the risk of drifting too far on a tangent, too many multiplatform reviews by the bigger sites involve testing on one of the consoles and then simply confirming things work OK on the PC for an hour or so at most. Heck, the majority of those ‘day of release’ reviews are lucky to make it halfway through the game with a single character, let alone seeing the way to max level or completing with different characters!

Back on target … what I was saying was that the opinion of PC gamers seems to be at odds with console gamers, and I think that tells the basic story that this is a console game with a sloppy PC port. Many of the folks I’ve spoken to have had loads of fun, many saying it scratches that action-RPG itch nicely, but none would dispute that it is a seriously flawed game.

For example: you call Borderlands a ‘rock solid FPS’, whereas I’d describe it as merely ‘adequate’, and I attribute that to a basically flawed design. Since I’ve already gone on a tangent, now I can get pedantic and say that any FPS that does work well on a PC is inherently flawed. Look at it this way – all FPS games now are based on keyboard-only and later keyboard and mouse gaming on a PC. First attempts to move to the consoles failed due to control issues, and even after the Xbox came out it took some time to really bring the tight PC FPS experience to give an adequate console experience. This involved softening the ‘snap turns’ that made the earlier Monolith games so great, removing leaning and other things that would over-load the controllers, adding auto-aim and hit-detection ‘slop’ to deal with the lesser accuracy of the controllers and so on. The result is that games can now be released that can be tweaked by developers to play nice on either control setup, or lazily ported to be great on one and mediocre on the other. Guess where Borderlands lands?

OK, I have now really labored the point, but when you hear PC gamers complaining about Borderlands as a mediocre shooter, that is why.

I had mentioned that not only did I have fun with Borderlands but really enjoyed some elements, so I want to get to that. As we noted, there are four characters, each with a special ability: Roland the Soldier, with his deploy-able turret; Mordecai the Hunter, who has a pet bird-of-prey Bloodwing as his special ability; Lilith the Siren, with a phasewalking ability that combines super-speed and invisibility; and Brick is the Berserker, with a Berserk ability.

You unlock access to your characters special ability and full tech tree at level 5. For me this was what kept me coming back again and again. Each character’s skill tree has three branches, each with seven skills. Those skills are grouped into four ‘levels’, and you need to put a certain amount of points into a level before you can access the next level. This means you’ll have to dump quite a few points before you can access the highest level skills; and if you have been following along you’ll realize that to completely fill out a single branch you’ll need to be level 40 – which is higher than you will reach in a single playthrough of the game.

However, you will generally want some skills from more than one branch, which makes choices even more important: you will be balancing what you *want* to choose versus where you *need* to put points to gain access to higher level skills. As I mentioned, I spent the most time playing Lilith: I originally chose her as a ‘mage surrogate’ since her skill tree is full of elemental damage. Her three branches are ‘Controller’, ‘Elemental, or ‘Assassin’. My personal choice was a combination of Elemental and Assassin. Elemental gave me increased firing rate and elemental damage, while Assassin gave me increased PhaseWalk damage, better critical hits, and cool kill bonuses. The other characters have similarly diverse and interesting skill trees, and with judicious choices you can do a fair amount of multi-classing – my level 50 Lilith had top skills in two branches.

What did you think about the skill trees for Roland, Matt? And what did you think about the cel-shading and the environments? Did you find the world nicely detailed post-apoc world or a bland Fallout 3 wannabe?

Matt: Cool, I’m glad to hear you did ultimately enjoy the game. I was a bit worried there after the overwhelming negativity of your initial comments!

I really don’t know what to say about the PC port woes. I’ve long since given up PC gaming when it comes to most modern FPSs due to my inability to keep my PC hardware up to date on a consistent basis, so I haven’t seen the decline you (and obviously many other hardcore PC gamers) have seen and become so frustrated with. I just know that as a console game Borderlands plays exceptionally well, with smooth, precise controls, punchy weapon fire and a generally efficient interface.

One small gripe I do have about the interface, though, is the inventory system. Early on your inventory space is way too small, especially for a game that revolves so much around “loot whoring” as this one does. The inventory situation clears up over time as you discover Claptrap repair quests that upgrade your backpack and eventually realize about halfway through that you don’t need to loot EVERYTHING since cash is pretty easy to come by and there isn’t much to buy once you’ve upgraded the ammo capacity of all your weapons. But in the beginning of the game you constantly feel at a disadvantage by not being able to loot the bajillion guns, shields, and grenade mods you so frequently come across.

As for the skill trees, I’m definitely a fan as well. They aren’t too incredibly deep or complex, but they allow you to tailor your avatar in many different ways, and with each skill point you earn you gradually feel as if you are becoming more powerful. I think Gearbox did a good job balancing the skill trees equally for solo and co-op play as well. Like with Roland, he’s got cool team abilities like heals and ammo/health regens that can be useful in solo play but are an even better choice if you want to spec your character as more of a supporting character for co-op. But he also has a bunch of skills that boost his combat prowess and make him a better solo character. I spent most of my points building up the effectiveness of his turret and weapon abilities, occasionally sprinkling a point or two into his health and shield recharge rate. There are certainly a lot of options to experiment with no matter how you choose to play the game.

Moving on to the graphics, I really dig the cel-shaded “concept art style” look of the game. Before the graphical change was made I thought the game looked like a pretty generic Mad Max wannabe in its original state, but the shift in style really caught my eye and enables the game to stand out in the crowd. The game world is absolutely huge, and for the most part the environments are nicely detailed and varied enough to keep you engaged. Comparing it to Fallout 3 is like comparing apples and oranges if you ask me. While the two do have a similar post-apocalyptic vibe about them, Fallout 3 was depicting a real place — Washington, D.C. — and thus was a more harsh and depressing environment to explore. But Borderlands is more colorful, exaggerated and humorous, and to me comes across as more of a goofy post-apocalyptic playground. Both are great in completely different ways.

What about performance? Is the PC version technically sound or another shaky port? Initially the PS3 version launched in somewhat of a rough state, with some terrible Unreal Engine 3 texture load-in glitches and load times so long they even bothered me! But thankfully Gearbox was very quick in getting the game patched, so a lot of the bugs and performance quirks have been touched up. The game could definitely use even more polish, though, as texture bugs and other random glitches continue to pop up here and there.

Any other topics you’d like to hit on? Any thoughts on the quest system, vehicle controls and/or DLC expansion? My thoughts: the quest system is very typical of what you’d find in any modern MMORPG with lots of fetch and “kill ‘X’ number of creatures” type quests, and thus is fairly shallow yet oddly addictive; the vehicles handle well enough to get by, but I generally avoid driving around whenever I can; and thus far the first DLC add-on, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, is great fun (will follow up with more in a seperate review soon).

Mike: My general thought is this: when a game allows me to use vehicles or ‘fast travel’ and I choose to walk instead, there are a couple of possible reasons. Either there is a lot to discover in the countryside in terms of quests or combat, or I hate using the vehicles. Horse travel in Two Worlds is a great example … and let’s just say I did a bunch of walking in Borderlands. The controls weren’t terrible – but they weren’t great, either. I contrast them with those of Red Faction Guerrilla: in RFG they are wonderfully integrated, come in all shapes and sizes and have a decently realistic feel based on the size and type of vehicle. In Borderlands they are all pretty similar, and I was never really able to get a feel for them beyond a merely functional experience with either the keyboard and mouse or my controller.

I also had a bad first experience with the vehicles. Interestingly, they don’t differentiate single player from multiplayer in any way. To an extent that makes sense, but the game has no problem letting you enter the gunner position and just sit there like an idiot trying to figure out how to move rather than forcing you into the driver seat. Yeah, that is what I did the first time, and was looking for the key to switch seats and realized that I had to exit and enter from a different side. Of course, once in a vehicle you have the option to gun folks down or run them down, both of which are quite fun.

One reason I hate just running things down in games like Borderlands or Red Faction Guerrilla is because everyone seems to drop loot, and I am terrible about letting anything slip away. Of course, as you noted, that is a fool’s errand in Borderlands! I was reminded of the recent remake of The Bard’s Tale that had a parody of how creatures like rats and wolves would suddenly have armor and swords pop out of them when killed – but now the joke is on you since you start the game with a dozen inventory slots and the inability to travel more than two minutes without collecting more than enough to top out your backpack!

While I know that over time you can get all the way to 42 slots (I have heard of a glitch that allows more but never got that), and also that eventually you will run out of stuff to buy, but for a big enough chunk of the game I found myself battling with my inventory so I could always have a variety of weapon choices based on elemental damage and ammo type. I guess I am generally of the opinion that inventory in a ‘loot-centric’ game like this should be abundant if not unlimited, but regardless I have no idea who thought that constantly trekking back and forth through respawning enemies to sell off gear or having to drop countless items – especially early in the game when you are very limited in both inventory and cash.

Technically the game worked well enough for me. I never crashed, never froze, didn’t have performance issues or anything else. So while I complain about the port, it is not because of how it works, just how it plays. I also like the graphic style, but don’t think it held up over the course of the game. I feel that because this is a made-up world they had the opportunity to inject just about anything they could think of, but apparently mostly what they could think of came in gray and brown. I see that as a lost opportunity, though the DLC seems to be taking advantage somewhat. Since it just finally came out for the PC, I have just gotten it and started up again so I don’t have much to say yet.

As I started out saying, I don’t think Borderlands is a very good game. As I stated later, I have had plenty of fun and put tons of hours into playing it. But then again, I have put over 300 hours into replaying Dungeon Lords, generally considered the worst PC game launch of 2005; I’ve also played loads of Dark Messiah Might & Magic, which is plenty of fun but rife with basic flaws. So I don’t think it is incongruous to have a game that is fun but mediocre at the same time – and that is exactly how I’d describe Borderlands.

So will you like it? That depends – if you are a shooter lover, you will probably find plenty to love. If you really love co-op, you will have fun but be better served by Left 4 Dead 2. If you like action-RPGs that are heavier on the action and lighter on the RPG you will also likely have fun with Borderlands. But if you are expecting anything remotely approaching the depth of a hardcore RPG, stay far away from this game – it isn’t remotely what Borderlands is about. Borderlands is meant to be an action-shooter with some lite RPG elements, and loads of weapons and skills to play around with, and that is what it delivers.

Mike-TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Detailed graphics
+ Nice sounds
+ TONS of distinct weapons

Cons:
- Vapid story
- Boring and shallow quests
- Broken weapons
- Brain-dead AI
- Console-centric design suffers in PC port

Matt: This is exactly why I love doing discussion reviews, particularly when it comes to multi-platform game comparisons across PC and console. I find it fascinating to see how a game can be viewed as great on one platform and mediocre at best on another.

And really, this is the first discussion we’ve done where I think we both have drastically different views of a game. While we both enjoyed the game, it seems like you had to force yourself to enjoy it, while I was hooked without inhibition from the moment I put the Blu-ray disc into my PS3 and haven’t stopped playing since.

Whereas you found the PC version to be too fundamentally flawed to forgive, I’ve found the PS3 version fundamentally sound across the board, only suffering from minor blemishes and perhaps a lack of 100% polish and a complete fleshing out of what could have been an even deeper, richer game experience.

In the end, I go back to my Diablo comparison from the beginning. Borderlands has the mind of an old hack-’n-slash, click-fest action-RPG and the body of a guns-blazin’ twitch FPS, and for me the combination is pure magic. While I wouldn’t put Borderlands in the class of Game of the Year contenders like Uncharted 2, Killzone 2, Demon’s Souls, Dragon Age, etc. in terms of sheer quality, it has become one of my favorite games of the entire year, and as long as you know what you’re getting in for I think you’ll have a blast with it too.

Matt-BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Excellent shooting model
+ Great combo of FPS and Diablo-style action-RPG
+ Balances solo and co-op play well
+ Tons of interesting weapons
+ Addictive loot and quest systems
+ Nicely balanced character classes and skill trees
+ Distinct “concept art” visual style
+ Huge game world to explore

Cons:
- Thin plot; closing moments are particularly weak
- One-dimensional AI
- Not enough enemy variety
- Can’t customize weapons
- Some nagging technical issues
- Inventory system not exactly ideal

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC and PS3, also on Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: Console – 10/20/09, PC – 10/26/09
Genre: FPS/RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is a 28 year old from-the-womb gamer turned video game reviewer/blogger and current editor/owner/operator of VGBlogger.com. Matt got his first taste of gaming as a youngster on the NES and Atari, and the rest is history from there. In 2004, three years removed from high school and still looking for a career direction in life, Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com, and after a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez Matt turned his attention to VGBlogger, and to this day is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary.