|Platforms||Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows|
|Genre||Delicious FPS RPG mash-up|
|Buy from Amazon|
So it's been a while since I've written about games. It's actually been a while since I've played more than a few minutes of one. A crazy summer of children in the hospital, surgery, putting our dog to sleep after a nasty month-long illness, and planning a family reunion has meant that gaming has taken a back seat to lots of other things the last few months. My wife and I have made a name for the summer of 2010. It is, “The Summer of Suck”.
So that explains where I've been. But what is the reason I'm back? Well, to write a Beyond the First Hour review of course! But what game could be significant enough to get me out of my pitiful stupor of gamelessness? That game would be a little FPS that takes place on a planet called Pandora. That game would be Borderlands.
If you've been around The First Hour long enough, odds are good you've seen me comment on Borderlands, either from my First Hour review of the game, or via the comments section where we've discussed it several times. If you haven't, let me get you up to speed; I really enjoyed it. Ok, sure, that's a bit of a spoiler of the review you're about to read, but at this point in my life, I'm willing to do that. The reason is because the fourth and final DLC installment was just released on Sept. 28th.
I've been waiting for this ever since I finished the 3rd DLC back in March. So enough about me, let's get to the review.
Borderlands is a first person shooter at its core, with all the controls and mechanics you'd expect in a post Modern Warfare world. That is to say; it's smooth and predictable. What makes it somewhat unique and allows it to stand out in a heavily saturated market is the heavy dose of RPG that found its way into Borderland's genetic code. While I think that statement is entirely accurate, it bares clarifying.
Gearbox Software, the developer behind Borderlands did a great job of combining the smooth simplicity of a solid FPS with the depth and options that make RPGs what they are today. As you play through the mission-based structure of Borderlands, you'll have the opportunity to level up wholesale as a character as well as in a more granular way vis a vis your weapons, skills, ammunition and inventory. (Note: For years I've tried to write something that used “vis a vis” naturally without forcing it and I've finally done it. I really hope I used it correctly.)
The story of Borderlands is enough to set it's hooks in you without being burdensome. The intro cinematic is truly inpired. You are on Pandora as a treasure hunter, in search of “The Vault.” The Vault is the subject of Pandoran myth and legend. It's said that whoever finds it will unlock an unlimited cache of wealth, power, and fulfilled desires. Ok, so it's not the deepest storyline in the world, but the way Gearbox plays it (tongue firmly planted in cheek), it's not supposed to be. I've seen it called “light on story” and I have to say, that's more or less accurate. A lot of what you get from the story will be determined by how you handle the quest structure. Many of the missions include audio and/or texts left by people who came before you, both good and bad. These messages are often humorous and generally feed you clues to the story. If you're one to listen, read, and pay attention to this sort of thing, the story can be fun, funny and downright entertaining. If you prefer to turn your quests in, grab the reward and immediately jump to the next thing, you'll probably find the story loose, lax, and even a bit messy. If this is the type of gamer you are, I highly recommend the multiplayer, as the single player can seem to drag a bit if the story loses your interest, particularly when playing solo. The missions will start to blend together and the characters will seem silly rather than poignant... and silly.
Speaking of the multiplayer, it's good. You can play with up to three of your friends in co-op story mode, or hop in a randomly matched game online. Both set up and tear down pretty easily. There is even an option to “dual” where you can temporarily take a break from the mayhem to see who is top gun on Pandora. If you really feel provocative, there are several arenas around Pandora where treasure hunters can test their mettle against opponents in arena-style matches in various yet traditional modes.
What was awesome: The lewts. That's Pandoran for “the loots”. Borderlands is Diablo-esque in it's loot design model. Part of the joy of playing this game is constantly upgrading a wide variety of weapons, grenades, armor and even your skill tree. You'll find nearly endless combinations of shotguns, revolvers, repeaters, snipers, SMGs, rocket launchers and more. Each weapon type has advantages and disadvantages and each of the 4 characters classes have benefits with specific types. The four character classes are based on iconic representations of action heros. You have the giant tough guy, the silent tough guy, the wiry tough guy, and the seductive tough guy lady. Each has completely unique skill trees, weapon upgrades and play styles. They are well-balanced and equally fun to play.
The environments of Pandora are desolate, post-apocolyptic, hell holes, which is to say, they are amazing. The pseudo cell-shaded look of the game is incredibly evocative and engaging for this type of game and for the art style they used. It's one of those games where it's just fun to drive around and look at things.
What I liked: The shooting is rock solid. Each type of gun has a unique feel. There is an incredibly wide variety of sounds, recoils, animations and models. This is probably one of the most amazing aspects of the game. I've read there are literally millions of combinations of guns available, all based on a randomization procedure that generates weapons based on where you are in the story. There are varying degrees of quality and rarity and you'll find yourself looking through weapon stats to decide which gun to use in which circumstance. And you better make a good choice, because it really makes a difference.
What I didn't like: There are a couple of things that nearly reduced my scoring of this game. First and foremost is the bizarre structure of game completion. I've pored literally hundreds of hours into this game and STILL have a hard time explaining how beating the game and multiple playthroughs works. Once you add in the way it handles DLC, you've got a complete nightmare of relational calculus required to figure out the most beneficial means of leveling up and beating the game. For more info on this, you can see Greg's review of the Borderlands DLC. Speaking of the DLC, I've not really included it as a means for scoring the main game, but something needs to be mentioned. The problem exists in the main game, but becomes completely unmanageable in the DLC.
That's the way the game starts, finishes, and awards missions in multiplayer. Depending on where you are in the story mode, you may or may not get credit for completing missions in multiplayer. That's all well and good, but in some cases, you'll be given quests you've not been offered yet, and you'll get credit for completing things that you didn't do (because they were in someone else's quest log). Ultimately this leads to an inability to get certain achievements. Perhaps a minor quibble, but upsetting none the less. My last gripe is that the game has been pretty heavily hacked by online players. There are bugs (some say they are not bugs) that allow you to duplicate rare items. This means that pretty much everyone online has all the best gear. And in some cases, they have gear that's impossible to get in-game. Honestly, this wouldn't bother me were it not for the fact that these people pass off the gear as legit, thus confusing the innocent people out there who have no idea they're using a wildly overpowered weapon or shield. I could go on about this topic, but I'll leave it at that.
Borderlands is as good a FPS as I've played. The shooting has just the right mix of silky smooth and twitch control. Once you get a feel for it, you'll be headshotting left and right. The metagame of going through your stats and loots is probably every bit as fun as the actual shooting. The bosses are generally tough at your level, but never frustrating. The fact that there are four characters that play vastly different styles is a huge bonus and adds a great amount of replay value to the game. The multiplayer co-op is a fantastic feature and takes this game from good to great in this category.
Fun Factor: 10
One of the things that Borderlands does perfectly is hit-points. Hit-points are a staple in RPGs but not something you associate with shooters. The beauty of the Borderlands hit-point model is that as you injure an enemy, you actually SEE the hit-point numbers leaping out of their bodies. This gives a fantastic level of feedback to know how effective your weapons are and how accurate you're shooting is. Add to that the bright red “CRITICAL” that pops out of their heads with every headshot (every enemy on Pandora has a “critical” spot, usually its head, but not always) and you've got a shooter that really makes shooting fun. Another big boost to fun factor comes from the goofy sense of humor the developers have infused the game with. The characters are somewhat generic but the roles they play are good ones and they say things that will make you groan, make you laugh, and even make you think at times.
Graphics and Sound: 10
The graphics really work well in conveying the beautiful art design of the game. The environments are really fleshed out and impart the feeling of a world abandoned as well as any game I've played. The sound effects for the guns really make you feel like you have that type of gun in your hands, whether it's the heavy hitting revolvers or the ratta-tat-tat of a super cheap SMG.
This is definitely the outlier score for this game. This rating is also me trying to be objective. Personally, I enjoyed the story, but stepping back, I recognize it's a bit light considering the vast number of missions. I do like however, that many of the missions simply introduce you to characters in the world, even though they have little or nothing to do with the plot. It makes sense to me that no matter how heavy a plot is, there would be lots of people in an area NOT involved with it.
Ok, so you may be thinking that only two of the individual scores were 10 so how does it get an overall 10? Well, this is a game that proves that some games are more than the sum of all their parts. The overall package of Borderlands is truly impressive. From the beautiful world to the fantastic shooting to the large quantity of game content on the disc, this game really gives you back more than what you put into it. I don't buy many full price games, but this is one I would buy full price in an instant.
Final Thoughts: I LOVE this game. There, I said it. I'm stoked to get the next DLC and will download it the MINUTE it becomes available. That's incredibly high praise from a guy whose summer has been so messed up that I've not even thought about games in weeks. I have a rental from Gamefly that's been sitting next to me on my desk for over a month. Poor little copy of Just Cause 2 will have to wait a few more weeks I'm afraid.