Sunday, November 29, 2009


A good chunk of the way into Borderlands, you get a quest to go kill some kind of fearsome creature called Slither. Judging by the name, you expect to find some kind of huge insectoid or reptilian enemy awaiting you in an epic boss battle. Instead, you fight a small but uniquely colored version of the Scythid type of enemy that you've already killed a few dozen breeding generations of. It's this kind of clever twist on a very typical RPG quest that I wish Borderlands did more often, and in the end, it seemed symbolic of the game as a whole. Borderlands is very successful at what it's trying to be, but it lacks some crucial polish, balancing, and that certain extra level of originality and cleverness--if you'll allow it: je ne sais quoi--that would put it in the top tier of games.

Borderlands is a hybrid of a first person shooter, such as Call Of Duty, and an action RPG with heavy loot mechanics, like the Diablo series. On a cursory glance, the game reminds one a lot of last year's brilliant Fallout 3, from the mix of FPS and RPG to its Mad Max-esque desert/post-apocalyptic scifi setting. Hell, it even goes as far as the fact that you start out Fallout 3 leaving a "Vault" and in Borderlands you're trying to get to a "Vault." But Borderlands is much less story and dialogue focused, instead crafting an experience that feels as much like "a first person shooter with Diablo II loot and leveling mechanics" as you are probably imagining. In fact, it's content to be this and not try for much more.

Borderlands is evidence of the best and worst elements of Western game design in this day and age. I kept thinking of Dead Space while playing it, not for the style of game, but for the accessibility and playability tweaks done to make the experience as streamlined and frustration free as possible. Nothing wrong with that, but at the same time, the game never quite shakes the feeling that it was thought up by a committee clutching a list of influences and other games that it never completely transcends. Off the top of my head, Borderlands takes the recharging shields from the Halo series; the perk from the Call of Duty series that lets you take a few pot shots before truly dying (here, if you manage to down an enemy in that time you get back up with a 'second wind'); the Vita-Chambers from BioShock (though here the penalty is also lost money, not just time); the randomized loot and color coding of the Diablo series; quests that are ripped right out of MMORPGs like World Of Warcraft (you will collect 50 crystals; you will kill 15 of a given enemy); and so on. All of these add up to a game that is, for the most part, smartly designed and aware of the best developments in Western game design philosophy. But unfortunately, this also make the game feel a little less original and daring.
It's a testament to the strength of the core gameplay that I finished Borderlands in what was for me a relatively short amount of time. So while I'm about to dig into the issues and problems that the game has, know that the "Diablo meets FPS" style is just too addicting and well done to not be worth playing. It's more a matter of the game not being as deep, well crafted, or refreshingly original that keeps me from going completely crazy for it and recommending it to anyone who isn't already a fiend for this style of game.

Unlike the aforementioned Dead Space, Borderlands doesn't have flawless technical performance. It suffers from that very characteristic Unreal Engine 3 texture pop-in where every time you enter a new area via loading screen, the world initially appears bland and awful looking until the details are added. Similarly, the framerate will be fine one minute but fall prey to what should be outdated problems the next, such as a huge number of enemies causing the game to turn into a slow motion flip book. Most annoying of all, the load times between the main areas seemed to get longer and longer the further into the game I got. What's more, literally every time I quit out to the main menu, it took so long to load I thought maybe the game had frozen. Even once it unstuck itself, the textures slowly and awkwardly popped in, making the whole thing pretty embarrassing. As a whole, the technical performance of the game is kind of like driving a really great car that, 20% of the time, will sputter or fail to start for a couple minutes. It doesn't make you hate the car, but it doesn't help you love it, either.

Speaking of vehicles, Borderlands plays like a game in which they were a late addition. The vehicle controls are somewhere between the god awful Mako in Mass Effect and the arcadey ease of the Halo series. In truth, though, the vehicles are only really cumbersome when they get hung up on simple rocks or when you're engaged in combat. The vehicles in Borderlands are not balanced at all, to the ridiculous point where you can insta-kill almost any enemy in the game by running them over; meanwhile, the mounted machine guns and rocket launchers do far less damage than your own personal arsenal. I finished a quest by managing to get a vehicle into a town and, I swear, accidentally running over the boss enemy I was there to kill without realizing I had done it or knowing that I even could. Yet it's the parts where you have to fight other vehicles that really cause the whole thing to fall apart. If you're playing alone, it's way too difficult to steer and shoot at the same time, so I'd usually just stop and jump into the turret. But even if I had a second player to aim while I drove, the weapons on the vehicle are so weak that you're better off jumping out and fighting on foot. I understand why they balanced the vehicles for weapon damage and running-stuff-over damage, but it still feels wonky and awkward.
Actually, there's a lot of other things that feel wonky and awkward about Borderlands. The 'jump' in the game is floaty like Halo, but it lacks a sense of precision; combined with no obvious boundaries for where you can and can't get to, the few quests that require you to go bounding around are frustrating. It's even possible to get stuck on or in the game's walls and geometry while trying to get through what seems like a short cut. Thus the game actively discourages you from exploring or attempting to lessen the backtracking for yourself. While the game does have a 'fast travel' system and the aforementioned vehicles, you'll still spend far too much time sprinting in one direction with nothing to do. This problem only gets worse when you're too high of a level for an area you have to get through, since you get virtually no experience from killing enemies at that point. So you end up running straight through an encampment or cave because fighting is a waste of time and resources, getting little needles of damage from the foes to slow you down. Over all of these issues is the fact that while the game's controls are based on the tried-and-true Call of Duty formula, they never feel as precise and exact as they should. Since you spend a large part of combat running backwards or circle strafing, I wish the game had some kind of lock-on, at least on consoles, since hiding behind cover is usually a crapshoot for you while enemies are seemingly invulnerable behind even flimsy guardrails. And, as is usually the case in console games of this type, the menus and shop interfaces needed another streamlining and ease-of-use pass. They're by no means awful, but they're not great, either.

There's a pervasive sense about Borderlands that they didn't do enough to move the game beyond its formula of "FPS meets Diablo." For starters, the RPG elements are very shallow. There are are a mere four character classes, and they each only have one unique skill. While each class is somewhat customizable, the end result is as if you're playing Diablo II and instead of a dozen or more skills and spells to choose from for each class, you merely have one that you can slightly tweak. I beat the game as the Soldier, and while he's easily the ideal for a single player experience thanks to his abilities to regenerate ammo and health, I don't see any compelling reason NOT to use the exact same build in co-op. Many seem to be down on Borderlands as a solo game, but I found it fun and do-able, thanks to things like the 'second wind' mechanic. However, because of this and the way boss battles work, you just as frequently end up in exciting "skin of your teeth" encounters where you barely hold your own by killing off minions to get back up, as you will end up in "war of attrition" situations where you whittle down a boss's health, die and respawn, whittle down some more, and repeat.

These sorts of problems are compounded by the game's lack of balance. Thanks to its randomized items and weapons, as well as the type and number of enemies in each area, the difficulty switches between unfair/cheap and easy/boring. Meanwhile, the AI suffers from similar extremes. It either has Far Cry syndrome, where enemies can see and accurately shoot you from incredible distances, or they take way too long to notice what's going on, standing brain dead in front of you while making no attempt to get to cover or avoid your shots. As for the weapons and items, they never seemed quite right to me. Repeaters are next to useless; rocket launchers don't do enough splash damage; grenades and exploding barrels are comically overpowered; weapons with elemental effects usually even out to be just as useful as those without. The Eridian/alien weapons you get late in the game are pointless since, while they have unlimited ammo, they also have a cooldown. Your regular guns will inevitably be superior and ammo is almost never a problem unless you use SMGs. Anyway, it's all kind of irrelevant because combat rifles are likely what you'll end up using through 90% of the game thanks to their Goldilocks-like "just right" balance of rate of fire, damage, clip size, reload speed, accuracy, and range. The only time I used anything else was if I found something cool I wanted to try or just from the sheer bordedom of using the same style of weapon all the time.
The structure and story of Borderlands are easily the worst things about it. It suffers from that MMORPG problem of dropping too many quests on you at one time and relying on you to efficiently organize what order you'll tackle them in. This wouldn't be so bad if the game's way point system was always accurate, but often it'll just point you in the general area of where you need to be. For instance, there is a type of quest where you have to scavenge the parts for the weapon that you'll get as the quest reward. The combination of the vague way point dot on your map with the utter lack of detail in the quest text makes these needlessly obtuse. You either jump around on top of objects looking for that telltale green light or giving up and finding pictures of the exact locations online. Speaking of the map, I hope you like having to pull it up constantly, because Borderlands has no mini-map at all. This is completely baffling, and it's an omission that I have to imagine was deliberate though I don't know why. Also omitted was any but the most paper thin strands of a plot. In its defense, I do like the world and characters of Borderlands, and the Team Fortress 2-esque cartoony aesthetic looks great (once those textures pop in, anyway). But for every great NPC like the crazy-but-kind-of-in-a-hot-way Patricia Tannis, there's the incredibly irritating Claptrap robots, who are miserable at being funny or clever, and the grating, repetitive voice clips from Scooter that play at the vehicle spawn nodes.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that the game ends with a final boss battle against a big monster. This is symptomatic of the game's frequent lack of creativity. From time to time you'll run up against bosses who get a graphic novel-style cutaway introduction screen, but like the clever Slither quest I mentioned at the start of this review, they don't come often enough. Borderlands seems content to float by on genre conventions of RPG and MMORPG quest types, and the word that comes to mind for a good chunk of the experience is padding. Granted, to most people, the story and characters of Diablo II or World Of Warcraft are meaningless and the entire point is to quest, level up, and get cool loot, but there's more depth, creativity, and personality to those games to entertain you as well. I will admit that I burned through the last seven or eight hours of Borderlands in one day, so it's possible that this colored my perception, but I don't think so. The ending sections of the game in particular drag on and on. You know how in the ending portions of many first person shooters, you end up slogging through these long linear battlefields where there's either a ton of enemies directly gunning for you, or there's two sides battling it out that you have to fight past? Well, Borderlands is both of these at the same time, and as you can imagine, it does wonders for the framerate and texture pop-in. It got to the point where I'd open the map and see that the area I just entered was practically a straight line with some curves, and I'd just sprint through, hoping I'd hit a checkpoint before dying, just hoping to get to the final encounter and get it over with. Since there's no side quests or other things to do for the last hour or two, and you'll probably be over-levelled anyway, there's really no point in not racing to the finish line.

Borderlands offers a "second playthrough" option once you beat the game, but other than higher enemy levels and better loot, there's no compelling reason to do all of the same quests over again. In the end, the game is better in concept than in execution, offering not enough depth in character development and lacking a lot of polish, both in terms of technical issues and gameplay balance, to be admitted to the top tier of games. Its setting and characters end up feeling underutilized and the game isn't as creative as it could be, lacking the spark of originality that similar first person shooters hybrids like BioShock or Fallout 3 are loved for. Borderlands is fun while it lasts, but I think only people who love Diablo-style loot games will be compelled to play.

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