Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Borderlands Review

My review of Borderlands for Hooked Gamers.

Role-Playing Shooter

On the desolate and lawless planet of Pandora, rumors abound about a mythical vault, said to contain vast amounts of alien technologies and secrets. Some inhabitants are completely indifferent to these rumors and are content to conduct their lives in arbitrary fashions. Other inhabitants are obsessed with these rumors, devoting their lives to the search for the vault while slowly losing their sanity.

In Gearbox's newest shooter, Borderlands, players take on the role of a vault-hunter, following in the footsteps of those Pandora inhabitants in the latter category.

Players must complete a myriad of quests, collect a ton of loot, level-up, and ultimately fire a countless number of bullets. While Borderlands includes a role-playing mechanic more reminiscent of a title in the Diablo series or an MMORPG, the game is a first-person shooter at its core. This combination of RPG and FPS elements creates an experience that is equally enjoyable and addicting.

Customizable Characters

At the outset of the game, four playable characters are available. Along with their varying strengths, appearances, and back-stories, each character also possesses a special ability and corresponding skill tree. Roland's special ability for example is a deployable turret that automatically fires on enemies and provides cover. And Brick's special ability is berserk, a temporary state which increases damage resistances and regenerates health.

The corresponding skill trees provide optional enhancements for the characters' traits or special abilities. Upon leveling-up, Roland can increase his bullet damage for all weapon types or transform his turret into an ammunition dispenser. By spending points on Brick's skill tree, players can increase his maximum health or increase the duration of his berserk ability.

Each playable character provides a vastly different experience. In turn, the skill trees ensure that even two players using the same class have equally varying experiences.

Guns, Guns, and More Guns

Outside of the character customization, Borderlands revolves around two gameplay mechanics: shooting enemies and collecting loot.

Some human enemies essentially stand still, while others run from cover to cover. Insect-like creatures have a simple tendency to run at the player, while other flying creatures attack via dive-bombing.

Regardless of the enemy - type or behavior - the game always provides a multitude of opponents at any point in time for the player to combat. As a result, firefights are always intense, which comes as no surprise given Gearbox's experience in the FPS genre. Players have to constantly take cover, use special abilities, and hit those immensely satisfying headshots to remain alive on Pandora.

The millions of available weapons further enhance the gunplay. The procedural system to generate variations of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and more ensures that no two weapons are the same. Two weapons of the same type can vary in damage, accuracy, firing rate, magazine size, reload speed, and even additional elemental effects.

Each new and improved weapon has the potential to provide a brand new shooting experience from the gun's mechanics and subsequent unique death animations.

Talk More

While the "search for the vault" premise is certainly intriguing, the story's execution is lackluster at best. Pandora is home to some very interesting and well-developed characters with varying motivations. Unfortunately, a lack of voice acting hides such motivations and the resulting plot points.

The majority of dialogue is displayed as text during mission briefings, which makes it extremely easy to skip over and ignore. Thus, it is easy to construe the cohesive main plotline as a series of random and unrelated quests.

The conclusion of Borderlands compounds upon the game's poorly presented story by completely disregarding the main premise. Gearbox leaves many questions unanswered, as if the company simply ran out of time and/or money during the development process.

Not Cell-Shaded

Given the arid and desolate nature of Pandora, there is certainly no shortage of grays and browns throughout the landscape. However, Borderlands includes some vibrant accent colors and an artistic style comparable to cel-shading, but with greater depth and a more realistic feel.

While standard bandits wear clothes mostly in brown, other antagonistic creatures can have skins of bright orange, green, yellow, or blue. Weapons also come in a similar variety of colors depending on the presence of elemental effects from fire, corrosive, explosive, or shock damage.

Beyond the color palette, subtle touches add a great amount of flair to Borderlands' visuals. Gearbox framed absolutely everything in the game - from the environments to the weapons to the characters - in black outlines. As the character moves closer to any object, the object's outline becomes thinner and less noticeable. A hill's outline completely disappears as it lowers beneath the horizon and blends into the surrounding terrain. The effect is subtle yet mesmerizing.

Overall, Borderlands is a stunning artistic achievement. The varied color palette and unique design ensure the visuals never feel repetitive.

Drop-In, Drop-Out

Unfortunately, after prolonged exploration, Pandora can feel like a very lonely place. Vast open environments and aggressive enemies are constants, while friendly faces are non-existent. As a result, Borderlands' drop-in, drop-out multiplayer can increase the game's enjoyment exponentially.

Fighting alongside a friend greatly increases the game's difficulty. Enemies scale to the number of players, which causes firefights to be much more intense, and require an increase in tactical prowess. Multiplayer sessions even improve available loot. As the difficulty of enemies increases, so does the value of the items and weapons they drop.

Despite being one of the game's strongest assets, the multiplayer implementation is also one of its most problematic aspects. There exists no internal mechanic for evenly distributing loot amongst fellow vault-hunters - whoever gets to an item first, keeps it. If Player A wishes to give Player B an item, again there is no convenient method. Player A must simply drop the item for Player B to pick up.

Borderlands' multiplayer implementation is even problematic outside of the game itself. Hosting or joining private games on the PC version is impossible without forwarding specific ports - a bizarre technicality for any software to possess.

Play the Game

Borderlands is a mix of great ideas and inadequate implementation. Fortunately, Gearbox's great ideas far outweigh any of the game's faults. The story and multiplayer implementations could definitely use some improvement, but these are minor concerns compared to the immensely satisfying combat, the addictive looting and leveling systems, and the gorgeous art design.

Oh, and the reference to the Jaynestown episode of Firefly is brilliant.

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