Take Diablo 2, make it 3D, then give everyone guns and you have Borderlands in a nutshell. A stellar co-op experience.
Enter Borderlands, a game that shares much in common with those other titles but unlike them has the good fortune of being released at a time when hybrid shooter/RPGs are not only common but also extraordinarily popular.
By now, you've probably been subjected to enough banner ads, commercials, and message board threads about Borderlands that you might feel as if you've played the game without ever having even installed it. While a lot of the hype is due to 2K Game's immensely deep pockets, I feel that if Borderlands wasn't hyped to such a staggering degree, it would have been easily lost in the shuffle. On the surface, Borderlands appears to just be another mindless FPS/RPG hybrid that does nothing new and only contributes to an already stagnant genre polluted by mainstreaming and made shallow by developer's desire to reach the ever-growing casual audience. With its explosion heavy promo videos and frequent comparisons to Fallout 3, a casual observer wouldn't be faulted for passing Borderlands off as yet another "me-too" RPG hybrid.
Unfortunately for them, they'd be wrong.
Unlike Fallout 3, to which it is often unfairly compared to, Borderlands is far more of a shooter than an RPG. Sure, you have hit points, armor (shields), randomly generated weapons, and skills to level up...but you also have a very fast and frantic rhythm to combat that feels more like Halo than it does Fallout 3. To some, this is a turn-off, but to those who put circle strafing on their top ten list of most useful life skills, it's considered a valuable addition to gameplay. Instead, think of Borderlands as a perfect combination of Halo and Diablo. With gunplay and vehicular combat almost identical to the Halo franchise as well as Diablo's insane amount of loot drops and co-op centered gameplay it's almost as if they've split both those titles down the middle and glued them together like some sort of cheaply made video game chimera. While you'd expect such an experiment to blow up in the developer's faces, Gearbox has actually pulled it off rather impressively, though not without a few mishaps.
Borderlands starts you off as one of four explorers (The Melee-centric Tank, the Sniper, the rifle-toting soldier and and a witch-like "finesse" character that specializes in elemental damage) who have been drawn to a small world called "Pandora" in search of a fabled vault that supposedly contains alien technology left behind by an unknown race. Though many dismiss the tales as nothing more than the space-age equivalent of a campfire story, your character thinks differently. Seeking fame, fortune, and a place in the history books, you embark on a hopeless quest to find the vault before anyone else can claim its bounty. Along the way you meet insane locals that give bad Jeff Foxworthy impressions, a morally bankrupt archeologist, and enough gun toting bandits to make Fallout 3's wasteland look like a peaceful resort town.
While Borderlands' story is delivered to you in tiny bits during each quest, I found that it only got in the way of all of the addictive shooting and driving I was doing so I quickly tired of it and found myself clicking through the dialog windows without any concern as to why I was doing each task. The only thing that stuck with me throughout the game was the audio logs, which are often hilariously offensive and sometimes outright disturbing. Though I found the story lackluster, hearing one important female NPC talk about how she swapped her used undergarments for supplies or reveled in the disemboweling of her colleague managed to get me and the guy I was co-oping with at the time laughing at loud.
This brings me back to the Diablo comparison. A good action RPG doesn't necessarily need a story, and while most will fault Borderlands for being weak in this department I firmly believe a strong narrative would only get in the way of the game's outrageously addictive combat. Borderlands manages to still retain its hardcore FPS roots even with the addition of several key RPG features. Unlike Bioshock, which I found far too easy and believed it to be destroyed by its compromises, Borderlands revels in its FPS-centric gameplay. Enemies duck behind cover, throw grenades, run for help, perform perfect head shots, ambush you when possible and one adversary near the end even launches their own shield turrets. Simply put, combat in Borderlands made even a diehard FPS fan like me curse at the screen a few times. It wasn't as challenging as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (Thank goodness) but it was far tougher than any other shooter I'd played in the past five years or so. By the end of the second playthrough, my level 48 soldier had to use every trick at his disposal to survive the constant onslaught of well armed and armored mercenaries that could easily peel away my nearly 1200 point shield in just one shot. I may have cursed loudly, but I was impressed with how deep of an FPS the game turned out to be in the end.
Most enemies require you to learn their weak point and will be nearly unstoppable until you exploit it. Several times you'll find yourself dying on your first trip through the game simply because you didn't know that ant lions require you to circle strafe behind them and shoot them in the abdomen. Each enemy has either an elemental or physical weakness, and the deeper you go into the game the more crucial it is to exploit their Achilles heel. Whether it's waiting for their mouth to open so you can launch a rocket down their throat or their shields being weak against corrosive ammo, each enemy has a weakness that the player needs to take note of. While nothing new in gaming, Borderlands seems to rely very heavily on it.
This isn't to say that the game lacks any standard RPG conventions. With its exaggerated drop rate, randomized weapons, randomly spawned boss monsters and simplified-but-still-fun skill trees, Borderlands shoehorns in just enough RPG aspects to spice up what would be just another so-called "shooter with damage points".
One of the most unexpected RPG features to have been placed in Borderlands is the large, open world. Though there are loading screens and each area is connected to each other by way of a transition, there are no "hubs" the way you see in other action RPGs like Titan Quest or Diablo. Buying and selling can, and often do, occur in every field. Vending machines can be found in several out of the way places, so there is no need to "teleport back to a hub" and restock. This helps the game move along a lot faster than most action RPGs or roguelikes, since restocking is not a persistent problem. It's even less of a problem when you start to discover the items that, when equipped, regenerate ammunition for your entire team.
If there is one downside to the large world, it's that it cna be very exhausting to walk from one quest target to another. Though vehicles help alleviate this, it isn't very fun when something blows up your ride in the middle of nowhere and you are then forced to walk to your destination or walk back to a vehicle platform to spawn another ride. The world may be pleasantly large, but walking around without a ride to travel around in it is a great test of patience. Almost requiring more patience than what is needed to come up with a good set of skills to form a powerful character build.
The skill trees in Borderlands, though almost entirely populated with passive abilities, are still flexible enough to encourage the usual unhealthy amount of obsessive "re-specc'ing". Each of the four main characters receives one active skill that comes attached with a cool down rate and becomes their main go-to attack when fights get rough. Mordecai the sniper gets a pet bird that swoops down on enemies heads, Lilith gets a phase-walking ability that lets her sneak up on as well as explode her enemies, Brick the tank goes into a berserker rage that makes him nearly invincible and Roland the soldier gets an enemy seeking turret that also doubles as deployable cover. Each of these active skills can be modified with passive skills further down into their skill trees, giving a player several different ways to play each of the games four classes. Gamers used to Diablo 2 may miss the complexity of that game's synergy-laden skill trees, but Borderlands seems to have found that sweet spot between complexity and approachability in their character creation system that so many modern RPGs seem to struggle with.
Therein lies Borderlands main strength. It's a game that is easy enough for the average gamer to get into, but challenging enough for the hardcore gamer to obsess over. With the second playthrough being considerably more difficult than the first, skilled gamers will certainly feel rewarded once beating the game the first time. Doubly so if they find a few trustworthy souls to adventure alongside of in the game's online mode.
Like most action RPGs, Borderlands is a game meant to be played online. Though playing solo is a possibility, you'd be missing out on the very elements that make this game so addictive. It's the crashing of each player's vehicle against your own as you race to your destination, the sandbox moments when you both leap over a hill and go back to see who can catch more air, the times when everyone but you dies and you manage to somehow resurrect your partners before an enemy ambushes you and blows your head off, the intensity of a team battle...this is what Borderlands is all about. Cooperative play in shooters is so often overlooked, that you tend to treasure it when you find a game that does it. Borderlands not only does co-op, but it does it perfectly. With a Gears of War style revival system in place, your teammates become important to your survival and finding reliable partners is the only way to defeat the level scaled endgame enemies that enter multiplayer games.
That brings me to one of Borderland's most unforgivable mistakes. The lackluster matchmaking system.
Gearbox, out of laziness or lack of knowledge, decided to leave their online matchmaking in the hands of Gamespy. In a return to pre 21st century PC gaming, gamers must now forward a series of 8 different port addresses in their router and use backdoor techniques in order to achieve anything even remotely resembling a stable online environment. Making this worse is the fact that the ports you need to forward in order to become "joinable" in an online game aren't even listed in the rather thin console-ized manual. I noticed this on my first day with the game when not only couldn't I join anyone's game, but they couldn't join mine either. A couple days of posting in the forums turned up a thread detailing what ports need to be forwarded, which solved my problem. Unfortunately, several other problems, such as the server list taking 15 minutes to refresh and private/locked games requiring a "trick" to get working correctly had broken my good mood. While I played through all 48 experience levels of my soldier online with a buddy, it was annoying having to use a trick to get the private game option to work. I'd have to make a public game, invite him, let him join, exit out entirely then make a private game and invite him again. This process took an extra 5 minutes and though it may not seem like much, it felt like something I'd expect in a game made twelve years ago, not something developed in 2009.
The really sad part about this is that many people don't have access to their router's services. Gamers who are in college, connecting at a cyber cafe or like the guy I played with live at home and have paranoid parents who refuse to give such deep access to their network are out of luck. Not only won't they be able to host any games online, but their connection will be spotty at best. Factor in the lack of any search or filtering options within the in-game server browser and you can understand why the tech support section of the official PC forums was locked down for one day after release. You can't even see the ping of each server in the browser, which means you never know if you've connected to someone who is on a fast connection or some yokel on dial-up who is playing the game on an eight year old Dell.
I chalk this up to the fact that the game was developed on consoles first, and then ported to the PC as an afterthought. Though Gearbox made a point of saying the exact opposite in the month leading up to the game's release, I could never shake the feeling that the game was meant for a console.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the interface itself. The first thing I noticed was that the enter key did not actually confirm purchases made in shops. Even though the game tells you to hit "ENTER" to confirm a purchase, you actually have to mouse-over the word enter and click it to do so. Even the mouse wheel is under-used, since you cannot use it to scroll through quest text in your journal and must instead use the page up and page down keys.
Furthering the insanity, there is no option to make the zoom/sniper button a toggle switch and also no way to turn the toggling for the crouch key off. While you can do this in the game's .ini file, it isn't something your average gamer is going to know to look for.
While I'm at it, I should also mention there are no server-side saves, so cheating and item duplication has become a day-one problem that can only be solved by playing with close friends whom you both know and trust.
Though perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that this game was a console-only title was the fact that they locked the Field of View (FOV) for wide screen PC users. Though you can unlock the FOV and get wide screen back, it resets every time you sprint, making the workaround you have to learn to change it totally useless in the end. This is similar to Fear 2's use of grain and letter-boxing, and helps bring home the fact that while we pump the most money into the industry, PC gamers are being neglected in today's console-crazy market.
Even though it does have a fair bit of console-itis, this shouldn't scare away hardcore PC gamers that enjoy co-op gaming. Borderlands brought me back to a time when I thought playing co-op Quake was the greatest thing in the gaming world and for that I can't really be too hard on it. Borderlands is outrageously addictive, easy to learn and incredibly hard to put down. Each of the four characters play drastically different, and the possibility for obsessive character "builds" is there for the hardcore amongst us to tinker with. Though the cell-shaded graphics may turn off your average Crysis fan, those who can look past (or learn to appreciate) the art style will find an addictive "roguelike" action RPG that combines Halo-esque gun battles with insane loot distribution to form one of the most thoroughly enjoyable games I've played all year.
I think the developers knew what they were doing, and unlike Hellgate London, they didn't sell the Diablo fans short by thinking they'd buy anything that played like it. I think proof of this can be found late in the game when you fight a flying monster called "Rakkanishu" and he drops a "Cracked Sash" when killed. Fans of Blizzard's Diablo 2 will remember that Rakkanishu was the unique fallen imp that you fought as a mid-boss. Often times, these fallen, in the beginning of the game, would drop very poor quality belts..."Cracked Sashes". It was this little Easter Egg that made me realize what Gearbox did right where so many other Diablo-copiers (Like Hellgate London) did wrong.
They made their own game and never deviated from that old-school path no matter what the naysayers said. No compromises, no regrets.
Borderlands may not be the most original game on the market, but it's about the most solid co-op Action RPG you'll ever find either on a PC or a console, and that's saying quite a bit. If you pine away for Diablo 3 but also keep going back to play split screen Halo with your buddies on the weekend, Borderlands is the closest you'll come to a dream game. Though it has some serious design flaws in its multiplayer setup as well as its GUI, the pros greatly outweigh the cons.