Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Gameplay trumps story (and that's A-Okay) in this First-Person Shooter (FPS) with Role-Playing Game (RPG) elements from Gearbox.
I recently reviewed Brütal Legend, and playing it I found that while there were some definite high notes here and there, a lot of the gameplay missed the mark. Brütal Legend's strengths were its story and characters, so much so that in spite of the problematic gameplay I still think it's a good game. The opposite holds true for the recently released Borderlands. By that I mean the story and characters of Borderlands are rather underdeveloped, but the gameplay is just so much damn fun the latter makes up for the former.
Sure, it would be great to have a big slice of cake and chow down too, and the games that do both well (Bioshock and Uncharted 2 spring to mind) garner well-deserved acclaim and win well-deserved awards. But if the option is doing one of the two really well, or doing both poorly (I'm looking at you Too Human), I'll take Door #1. But here's the thing, while I know absolutely NOTHING about the development of this game and the inner-workings at Gearbox, I get the impression that story wasn't a big deal in making Borderlands.
To explain why I think this way, let's compare Borderlands to another, somewhat similar game Fallout 3. Both are FPS/RPG games set in mostly desolate wastelands inhabited by blood-thirsty raiders and monsters, with open-world, progress-at-your-own-pace styles of play that include lots of side missions in addition to the main quest. But I contend that the biggest distinction between these games is that Fallout 3 is a RPG with FPS elements, and Borderlands is a FPS with RPG elements. Make no mistake, the order of importance of these two genres makes a difference. While Fallout 3 played from a first-person viewpoint and relied pretty heavily on guns for combat (there were some melee options but did anyone really use them consistently?), no one would mistake the game for a true FPS. There was an emphasis on character development, story, and dialogue with non-player characters (NPCs), so much so that some of the side-quests (and really, even the main quest to some degree) could be completed solely with dialogue options (assuming one had a high enough Speech skill). If you want further evidence, then I submit the first portion of downloadable content (DLC), Operation Anchorage. This was basically Fallout 3 minus all the RPG stuff, which had the unintended consequence of highlighting just how poor Fallout 3 is as an FPS. In a way, Borderlands can be viewed as Fallout 3's more violent-prone, ADHD-stricken doppelgänger.
Instead of being able to custom-build a character from the ground up, in Borderlands you choose from 4 pre-made characters, which are really just representations of different classes, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. You gain experience in Borderlands and can level up your character, which earns you skill points to spend in a skill tree. This sounds very RPGish, but you'll find no Speech or Barter skills in Borderlands. All of the different options for you to enhance your character are combat oriented. This is definitely a good thing because you'll be engaging in a lot of combat, and this is where Borderlands really shines.
In the lead-up to release there was a lot of hype followed by speculation over how many different guns were going to be in the game. I've played through the main quest once and most of the side missions, maxed out my character to level 50, and I can personally attest that in this case, the hype did not exceed reality. While you will likely have no use for most of the guns you find, there really seems to be thousands of options (I've heard the number to be in the millions, but I seriously doubt I've encountered that many). There are 7 types: repeater pistols, revolver pistols, sub-machine guns (SMGs), assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers. Of course, more is not always better, but in Borderlands all of the different gun types, and all of the many iterations of each type, really do feel different. While you can compare aspects such as the amount of damage dealt, amount of recoil, rate of fire, etc. in your inventory screen, you might still have questions about which is better. That's nothing a little field test can't solve, and and by taking different guns into firefights you'll quickly find that the numerical values associated with the various gun qualities really do translate into different performance. This is most apparent through a genius little addition to the gameplay.
While every enemy you encounter has a health bar floating above them that tracks the levels of their health and shield (if they have one), additionally every time you inflict damage (say with that brand new gun you're trying out) a little number pops out of them and quickly fades away. This number is the amount of damage you just dealt. I realize this is a minuscule aspect of gameplay, but the reason I think it genius is because there's a discrepancy between the amount of damage a gun is capable of dealing, and how much it actually does, depending on the toughness of the enemy, how much armor they're wearing, whether they have a shield equipped, etc. These damage indicators give you rapid, quantitative measures of how effective any particular gun is. Furthermore, every enemy has a vulnerable spot (on humans it's the head) that if successfully hit results in critical damage. There's no doubt if you've scored one because "CRITICAL" will pop out of the enemy in bright, blood red letters. Simply put, it's awesome.
As I mentioned, not so awesome is the game's story. Borderlands is set on an alien world called Pandora, which reminds me of the outer worlds in Joss Whedon's Firefly 'verse. This is not only due to the rugged, outpost-in-the-wilderness feel of the gaming environment, but also because for all the advanced technology such as space travel and teleportation, there's still a reliance on gas-powered cars and gunpowder-based firearms. There is a legend on Pandora of a hidden treasure known simply as The Vault. Believed to have been left by an ancient alien race, it's not precisely known what lies in The Vault, only that (whatever it is – wealth, tech, power) it's highly sought after. The Vault is what brings your character to Pandora, and searching for it comprises the main quest of the game. While this is a very promising start to Borderlands, as you get closer to finding The Vault the story loses steam and the game concludes in disappointing fashion.
Thankfully, that's not all there is to Borderlands, and really you could say the main quest is only the tip of the iceberg. I've completed roughly 120 side quests, obtained from NPCs and "bounty boards" stationed in several of the small towns and outposts around Pandora. There is a decent amount of variety built into these quests, ranging from "scavenger" missions where you'll search for parts to a unique gun that an NPC will assemble and reward you with, big game hunting missions where you'll be tasked with killing particularly nasty specimens of the dangerous wildlife inhabiting Pandora (e.g. skags, rakks, and scythids), assassination missions in which you are hired to eliminate a particular individual, and more. There are some attempts to build story into some of the side quests, but it really doesn't matter and really isn't the focus. In fact, your interactions with NPCs in taking on missions and accepting rewards involves little to no dialogue, and the combination of waypoints on your map and heads-up display (HUD) compass and a mission checklist on the right side of the game screen allows you to skip all the ancillary details and just focus on questing.
The questing, and the loot you collect in reward and along the way is where Borderlands gets nigh-addictive. In addition to all the guns there are various types of shields that will help protect you from damage, grenade modifiers that add all sorts of ass-kicking augments to your otherwise run-of-the-mill grenades such as Transfusion (steals health from enemies), Longbow (instantly teleports your grenade to its intended destination), MIRV (upon detonation the grenade releases several more grenades that then explode), and many more. As you level up you'll gain the ability to equip "class modifiers" that bestow various combinations of bonuses/perks to your character, making you even more powerful. The agonizing part of accumulating loot is the limit on how much you can keep.
There are no locations (like a safe house or locker) for you to stockpile items. You have a limited number of slots in a backpack for you to carry all equippable items with you. When your backpack is full, you either start dropping items or you sell them at the nearest vendor. And don't think you can drop an item and come back for it much later; there is a time-limit for how long dropped items stick around, and then they disappear forever. Also adding to the angst? While there is a buyback option at every vendor, items you sell don't stay in the vendor's inventory for long either. So if you have a case of "seller's remorse" you better hope you get it early if you decide the new shotgun you picked up just doesn't perform as well as the old one you sold. Wait too long and you'll be stuck with your decision. As you progress through the game you'll find quests that involve repairing damaged Claptraps (small, rather annoying robot servants) and your reward for doing so will be backpack upgrades that add 3 additional inventory slots to your backpack. Inventory space is a precious commodity throughout the game, and your ability to manage it well can be a determinant of both your success and enjoyment of the game.
I have to admit that I have not played the co-op portion of Borderlands. It's built such that you and 3 friends can play through the entire game together. Loading screens promise that "more players=tougher enemies, tougher enemies=better loot!" which could be an incentive to play the co-op all by itself. I've read that the mutliplayer co-op is a blast, but I've found that the single-player experience is thoroughly satisfying in its own right, and the nice thing is I don't have to worry about sharing loot.
I have yet to start a second playthrough with one of the other character classes (I'm thinking of going with Bruiser (the beserker) for his more up-close-and-personal/melee combat style, which I think will be an interesting change from the "hang back and fire from cover" style I used with Roland (the soldier). Given that the maps, enemy spawn points, and mission objective locations remain unchanged, Borderlands may lose some appeal in additional playthroughs, but I think the loot will have me coming back for more.