The very first thing that Borderlands, from Gearbox Software, creators of the very successful Brothers in Arms series for Ubisoft, gets right are the playable characters. A shooter-style game with role-playing (RPG) elements, Borderlands presents the player with a choice of four characters at the beginning of the game and – hallelujah! – that choice is actually meaningful. Where most games make their main characters different only cosmetically, so it really doesn’t matter which you pick, with Borderlands they each have distinct characteristics that demand you change your playing style if you want to maximise their effectiveness. Even making the choice of character is fun, as you arrive at Borderlands’ lush and detailed game world of Pandora on a bus and first meet a ‘Claptrap’ robot who bears more than a passing resemblance to Wall-E. He’s an endearing little thing, imbued with a quirky personality that’ll make you smile right off the bat.
The innovation doesn’t stop there, and equally exciting to witness is the fantastic art style; a cartoon-shaded approach that is garishly colourful but embodies the Mad Max ethos of a scrappy, dusty, mechanical future full of pioneering types that is technically advanced but rusty and run down at the same time. There are tons of weapons available, for purchase or for pick up as you clear out bad guys and even low-level players will quickly have a wide selection to choose from, positively influencing the way you can approach objectives. These weapons, and all the other goodies you can pick up as you play through the game make Borderlands feel really rewarding.
The RPG elements are fairly flimsy but add an entertaining and quite helpful dimension: each downed enemy rewards the player with points, which fly out of their bodies as they’re hit (entertaining) and weapons are colour-coded by rarity, so you can see at a glance how they rate against what you’re currently holding (helpful). There’s also a decent upgrade system for weapons and tools, as well as three distinct paths for improving each of the four controllable characters. Of these, adding precious points to upgrade your special skill can be most useful – the Soldier’s turret is fantastic, for instance, attacking enemies autonomously as well as restoring your health, and the bird of prey for the Hunter is fun to unleash – and very satisfying!
Borderlands is really intended to be played in co-op, teaming up with up to three other friends either online or off to explore Pandora and fulfill the ‘quests’, taking out all sorts of bad guys, bagging all the loot you’ve ‘liberated’ and spending your resultant points to make your character and gear better. In this way, the gameplay experience is very close to another game type, the MMORG, or online role-playing games, which invariably demand players gang up, find and kill enemies and gather loot and points to ‘level up’. The difficulty level escalates appropriately and a great touch here is that playing with people who are much more advanced in the game than yourself results in you leveling up quicker. The downside there is that you might find it challenging to rack up any kills, as the more experienced guys can kill enemies that you’d find tough in one or two shots! But it’s a great innovation all the same.
Just as with most of those MMORPG games, there’s not much effort spent on the storyline, with only token background and characterisation to add a bit of context – as such, co-op play is a lot more fun than single player, which can quickly feel like a real grind. The game is also littered with glitches, such as the ability to walk inside environmental objects like large boulders, rendering you impervious to attack, but even finding these opportunities can be fun.
So Borderlands is a very interesting proposition. It bucks the norm both conceptually and visually which, in this day and age, with the bigger videogame publishers carelessly canning whole chunks of their workforce, cancelling games in development and slashing development and marketing budgets, speaks very well of publisher 2K games and the creative minds at the developer Gearbox Software. There’s not a lot of fun left in this industry, which is becoming over-run with risk-averse senior management running things from the safety of their plush offices with one eye on the spreadsheets and the other on their golden parachutes. So well done 2K and Gearbox for pressing ahead with a risky proposition and ultimately delivering a captivating, innovative and refreshing slice of videogame goodness. 2K has also scheduled some ‘DLC’, or downloadable content, available from 24 November, called The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned. The new content will cost $12.95 and presents new ‘zombified’ creatures to battle against with, of course, a heap of loot to collect as you bag them!
Borderlands is definitely best enjoyed in multiplayer but however you play it, it’ll be one of your most memorable gaming experiences this year.
Additional pricing information
This review of Borderlands was conducted using the Xbox 360 version, and the price above, $109.95 is for that version. The game is also available for PlayStation 3 ($109.95 RRP) and PC ($99.95 RRP).
About Max Everingham
Max Everingham is the owner of Game State, a B2B videogame software analysis & marketing consultancy. Max is a videogames veteran, having worked in the industry for over 13 years, including brand & product marketing positions at EA and Codemasters.