Set on the wacky world of Pandora, Borderlands has a simple premise; arrive on Pandora, kill everything that gets in your way, and find the mysterious vault. It won’t be easy, though, because you’ll need to battle your way through hordes of bandits, psychotic midgets, overgrown insects, and a myriad of other hostile lifeforms. This is a shoot first, ask questions later kind of world in which your gun is your most trustworthy ally. Anything else either wants to eat you or turn your corpse into a contemporary art piece.
Gearbox has described Borderlands as a ‘role-playing shooter’, and, to an extent, this is true; however, don’t expect to have any control over how the story unfolds. It is a meager narrative that strings players along with the help of the wholly contrived ‘Guardian Angel’– a blurry human semblance who communicates with you throughout the game. What she has to say will wash over you with little impact, and her presence is entirely incongruent with the rest of Pandora. Just nod your head and do as she asks if you want to get to the good stuff. Players will meet a few interesting characters in Pandora, but they aren’t really given a chance to make their mark. This is unfortunate, because Borderlands quickly establishes a dark and comical tone with its raw, cel-shaded violence and loud-mouthed characters. More bizarre dialogue from the game’s colorful characters would have been welcome, but instead, much of what they have to say must be read via the mission log.
Players take control of one of four characters of varying classes, like Mordecai the Hunter, for example. He is a long range specialist, skilled with sniper rifles and revolvers. Each class also has a special skill they can unlock at level 5. Hunters can spawn a vicious bird of prey, suitably named ‘Bloodwing’, who can swoop down to attack distant foes while you continue sniping from afar. The other classes include the Soldier, Siren, and Berserker, which all offer a variety of unique skills and abilities that enable players to customize how their character develops.
The real substance of Gearbox’s shooter is in the gameplay, and thankfully, it is good enough that the constant laundry list of jobs will rarely feel like a chore. You’ll be far more focused on the minute-to-minute battle to stay alive, anyway. Pandora is a dangerous place, akin to Fallout’s wasteland, only the inhabitants aren’t on the verge of insanity: they are completely and utterly psychotic (barring a few harmless fellows you’ll meet along your journey). This means that you’ll need something to defend yourself with if you’re planning to take more than a few steps before receiving a sharp blade to the face by a wailing lunatic howling “Time to pound…some meat puppets!”.
Guns are what you’ll need to survive in this wasteland, and if Pandora has an abundance of anything, it’s guns. Rifles, revolvers, rockets, shotguns, and machine guns are everywhere, equipped with an assortment of elemental ammo types that can be used to incinerate, shock, liquefy, or merely reduce enemies to a bloody glob of entrails. The hyperbolic gore is present throughout, and once you acquire the explosive rounds, you’ll feel like you’re playing Fallout 3 with the ‘Bloody Mess’ perk. The shooting packs a real punch and is definitely the strongest and most enjoyable aspect of the game. The strength of the gameplay helps to alleviate the generic feel of the game’s missions, many of which amount to traveling to a specific location, killing a particular number of enemies, collecting items, or simply finding a new character. The real fun to be had is the time you’ll spend in between all of these obligations.
Whilst on Pandora, players are constantly leveling up, acquiring new skills, and collecting new weapons. Enemies also level up as you do, so the game remains challenging. There is a tipping point, however, where the game does begin to feel very easy. Playing as the Hunter, the key skills to acquire are called ‘Deadly’ and ‘Trespass’. The former increases the damage inflicted by critical hits, which is something that is a common occurrence when sniping, and the latter ignores enemy shields. Once you fully upgrade these skills, your sniping will become ridiculously powerful; arguably, too powerful, with most enemies being annihilated with one critical hit to the head.
Initially, the game can feel like a bit of a grind. You don’t have much equipment or many skills, and you’ll have to rely on health kits before you acquire a shield or class-mod capable of gradually restoring your health. Playing as a Hunter, it felt as if there were certain early story missions that Gearbox specifically designed to be very difficult, meaning that you probably won’t be able to beat them right away because of certain, high-level enemies (Bone Head). Instead, you’ll need to take on several side-missions in order to gain additional experience, enabling you to take on tougher foes. Again, it is the core ‘shoot and loot’ gameplay that will help with your apathy towards the missions.
One of Borderlands’ most appealing qualities is its graphical presentation. The cel-shaded look isn’t a particularly new concept, but Gearbox nailed it here. The characters, weapons, landscapes, and architecture all look brilliant, and the dark and funny nature of the game fuses perfectly with its physical appearance. The decision to avoid using realistic textures makes perfect sense once you get a taste of the game’s explicit humor. Pandora is a distant world that feels almost plausible, hanging by a thread on the edge of reality. It’s situated in a nebulous middle-ground between real and cartoon.
The biggest negative to speak of is the game’s narrative. It is paper-thin throughout, and there’s no other way to describe the game’s ‘climax’ other than awful. The few bosses you fight are quite underwhelming, and things are only made worse by the lackluster AI. A couple of bosses can be defeated rather cheaply with the Hunter class; if you just keep your distance and let them stumble about erratically until they become stuck on a piece of scenery, you get the opportunity to casually fill their heads full of sniper rounds. However, this is nothing compared to the abomination which is the final boss. The game’s ending really is atrocious in every way: the boss is terrible, the narrative outcome is basically non-existent, and it all feels very rushed. It is a stain on what is otherwise a very well-executed IP. Once the credits began, the only feeling that arose was one of bewilderment. How could they end their game like that? For a project Gearbox has been molding and refining for years to end it the way they did seems odd. It conveys a lack of respect for their work and is a real shame.
Borderlands is a long game, and Pandora is quite a substantially-sized world to play in, too. Gearbox offers hardcore players a plethora of side missions to complete, if they so desire, but they do become tedious relatively quickly. Unless you’re a completionist, there isn’t much of a reason to finish every side-mission in the game. There is plenty of replay value, however, as players are given the opportunity to play through the game again with their original character, and the quintessential feature for some will be the ability to play cooperatively online with up four players. Do expect to be challenged if you decide to enter Pandora with friends, though, because the difficulty ramps up the more players you include in your party, and it can become quite ridiculous at times, with the reward being better quality loot.
Gearbox has created a likeable world with Pandora that can be a joy to explore and a real challenge to survive in. It has an odd charm that won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but with greater attention given to its quirky characters and greater imagination applied to its selection of missions, Borderlands could have been a hilariously insane adventure. Even with its shortcomings, it executes its most fundamental element (shooting) very well. Gearbox just needs to work on their storytelling. Let’s hope that with the sequel they can maintain their brilliant gameplay mechanics and give players a story with a deeper cast of characters able to take advantage of Pandora’s hilarious potential.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PC version of Borderlands for Steam, developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games.