Borderlands was rather hastily compared to everything from Fallout 3 to Diablo 2 in the months before its release, but the recent slew of trailers featuring foul-mouthed robots and psychotic bandits, along with the colourful and controversial cover art, suggested a wicked sense of humour more akin to the Oddworld games or even Grand Theft Auto. Now that the finished product is here, it’s obvious that Borderlands has indeed borrowed elements from a number of different games but combined them into a stylish and memorable first-person RPG.
The plot is all rather familiar, focusing on a distant planet called Pandora that comes straight out of the Mad Max book of post-apocalyptic landscapes. Buried somewhere beneath the barren surface is a legendary vault that supposedly grants the discoverer unlimited wealth and power (and therefore enough women to fill the O2 arena ten times over). Your task is rather simply to hunt down this vault, under the guidance of a mysterious and nameless guardian angel.
To be honest, the story is almost incidental and glossed over for a large portion of the game. Borderlands is all about the quests, the weapons, and the insane collection of characters you meet on your journey. The first to greet you as you step off a rackety old bus is an eccentric robot known as a Claptrap, which leads you to the first town of the game and gives you a mini tutorial of sorts. This is a great introduction to the controls, and almost instantly shoves you into combat against a horde of abusive bandits.
In fact, compared to most RPGs that spend half an hour customising your character and a week or so setting up the story, Borderlands almost feels like pornography. There’s a two-minute cutscene that explains the set-up, then you choose one of four different characters and you’re away, straight into the action. You still earn experience with every quest completed and enemy killed, but levelling up simply grants you a single point to pump into a limited number of character-specific abilities. It’s rather stripped-down, but fits the general feel of the game and will definitely appeal to action lovers more than hardcore RPGers.
The four playable characters are fairly typical of this type of game. Brick and Roland are the tank and the soldier classes, so while Roland is proficient with heavy weaponry and can deploy turrets, Brick prefers to enter a Doom-style berserk mode and crush people with his fists. Lilith, the sole female of the group, is a siren (basically a mage) who can turn invisible, while the final character Mordecai is a sniper with a killer pet called Bloodwing. All of the characters feel quite different and require different tactics to master, so there’s bound to be one to suit every style of play.
Borderlands’ story plays out through a number of quests – just 30 in total, although there are well over a hundred side-quests to bulk up the game. Each one successfully completed rewards you with XP, and usually cold hard cash and bonus items, so the optional missions are well worth doing. You’re even helped when deciding which to do next by a difficulty rating. The only problem is the lack of variety. Most quests involve walking somewhere, killing everything that’s about, maybe flicking a switch or grabbing an item, then walking back. Practically none of them involve any kind of twist or surprise, but the gameplay is so enjoyable that it’s not a huge concern.
The game essentially plays like a first-person shooter with RPG elements. One feature hyped in pre-release by developers Gearbox Software was the sheer number of guns Borderlands contains, and they’ve certainly delivered on that front. All of the pistols, rifles, shotguns and other weapon types have a number of characteristics such as damage, reload time and clip size, and no two guns you pick up will ever contain the same combination. You can also find a limited number of rare and special weapons with unique features. Some have zero kickback, or come fitted with scopes, or even fire flaming bullets.
The enemies in Borderlands aren’t quite as fantastic as the weapons sadly. The bulk of them fit into just two categories: human bandits, and vicious animals such as the rather grotesque skags. Skags may sound like a term for describing the regular inhabitants of an Essex tavern, but they’re actually slavering dog-like creatures with scary teeth and a violent disposition towards humans (I’m talking about the skags here, not the Essex lot). Both the bandits and the limited variety of creatures come in different flavours, ranging greatly in terms of strength and power, but you’re fighting them so often that you’ll quickly long for a killer android or a zombie to punch holes in instead. Skags are by far the worst in the first half of the game, as a fresh pack of them assaults you almost every five seconds without fail. Killing one often results in another emerging from a nearby cave, so battles can quickly become annoying when you’re just trying to get to the other end of the map. Bosses too are generally uninspired, composed mostly of souped-up bandits and/or more bloody skags.
Variety isn’t the only problem with Borderlands’ foes either. They’re also as dumb as boots, which gives you the clear edge in all but the most confined environments. Most of them, both creatures and bandits, simply run straight towards you when they spot you. Some bandits will bizarrely run back and forth along a random path, firing off bullets. Occasionally they’ll try to take cover, but this happens so rarely that it almost feels like a complete fluke. The rubbish AI is partly compensated for with a plentiful supply of durable enemies, but this feels like a bit of a cheat and no real substitute for intelligent opponents.
The environments suffer from the same lack of variety as the bad guys, with most areas following the same general desert/plains/rocky theme. However, the graphics are pleasing and original, taking a cartoonish cel-shaded approach which fits the feel of the game perfectly and still manages to be ridiculously gory. Some of the levels can be quite sprawling, but the map makes navigation simple and Gearbox were smart enough to include vehicles that can be spawned for free at set locations. Control is a little odd as you\'re forced to steer in the direction you\'re looking, and the damn things get stuck on the tiniest bits of scenery, but at least they come fully equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers.
To make exploring the barren landscapes less lonely, Gearbox have included a co-op mode for up to four players. While playing by yourself is still perfectly fun, Borderlands really shines with others. Some of the tougher bosses that might take ten to fifteen minutes to wear down in solo mode can be quickly despatched with two or three companions, and you really get the impression that some of the levels were meant to be completed in this way. Groups work best with a range of characters – the sniper and the siren are much more effective with a couple of soldiers working to draw fire and lure enemies out in the open. Players can also equip special artefacts that produce group bonuses, such as health replenishment or damage boosts. Online games can either be public affairs that anyone can join or private sessions between friends, but I did experience some issues with timeout when trying to connect at times. Persistence is the key, and eventually you\'ll find a game that works.
One final point is that Borderlands can be rather buggy at times. The worst instance was when I reached the first town, Fyrestone. Your Claptrap guide is supposed to open a gate for you to progress, but the first time I reached this point he got caught on the body of a raider and eventually vanished entirely. Thankfully I was only twenty minutes in so restarting wasn’t an issue. However, Borderlands automatically saves at checkpoints, so a problem like this could halt your progress much later into the game. I also noticed a couple of other bugs, such as my current quest mysteriously registering as complete after I’d actually died a fair distance from the goal.
Overall, Borderlands is a fun action RPG with some surprisingly addictive gameplay despite the pants AI and other issues. Gearbox have injected a lot of style into the title, from the unique cel-shaded graphics to the rather interesting and colourful characters. Despite the fairly short main quest, there’s still a lot of gameplay in Borderlands. As well as the side-missions, there’s a number of challenges to complete for extra experience, and you can also replay the entire game with the same character but harder enemies, Diablo-style.
The system requirements are quite lenient, asking only for a Pentium 4 with 2Gb RAM. This should be more than enough to get a decent frame-rate and bring those dusty desert landscapes to life.
Fans with a little spare cash can check out the first DLC pack, ‘Zombie Island of Dr Ned’, due out for consoles on November 24. The DLC will also be coming to the PC version, but a date had not been set at the time of writing.