Borderlands Review

  • First Released Oct 20, 2009
  • PS3

Fun combat and a steady flow of rewards make this journey a massively enjoyable one, especially with some fellow mercenaries along for the ride.

On the hostile, bandit-ridden planet of Pandora, there is one thing that draws off-world attention: The Vault. This mysterious alien structure is rumored to hold treasures of fantastic power and wealth, and so it attracts fortune-seeking corporations and individuals alike. In Borderlands, you are one such individual, but the satisfaction of unlocking the Vault's secrets pales in comparison to the rollicking good time you'll have on your way there. Borderlands is all about the journey, not the destination, and like most trips, this one is much better when you have some friends along for the ride. Solo players can still have a good time, because the bloody and entertaining combat is paired well with rewarding loot and engaging experience systems. But Pandora is a lonely place for a solitary mercenary, and lone wolves will find the pace deliberate and the friendly characters too few and far between. Those who take advantage of the two-player split-screen mode or four-player online cooperative mode will experience the game as it's meant to be played, though PlayStation 3 owners will have a tougher time of it. Getting into a public online game is problematic, and it's next to impossible to invite anyone from your friends list to join you. Yet the core experience still satisfies, and the pleasing rhythm of killing enemies, gathering loot, and cashing in is punctuated by fighting bosses, completing quests, and leveling up. As a solo merc, this rhythm is slow and methodical, but as a team, the pace quickens to an invigorating clip and pretty soon you've spent hours having a riotously rewarding time.

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The world of Pandora has a dusty, run-down feel, yet it manages to be vibrant and eye-catching at the same time. The art style features black-line borders and a colorful palette that give the game a not-quite-comic, not-quite-cel-shaded look. It takes some getting used to, and occasional jaggies and slow-to-load textures reflect its less-than-perfect technical execution. Yet what Borderlands lacks in precision it more than makes up for in style, and hours into the game you'll still be appreciating the thoughtful design touches that bring this world to life. Though the different environments occasionally feel too similar, there is enough distinct detail to keep them from blurring together. Your vanquished enemies also do their part to keep things visually interesting by dying in a variety of gruesome and entertaining ways. Bodies explode, limbs fly off, and burning enemies occasionally disintegrate from the ground up until only the mask of their face is left hanging in midair. It sounds (and is a bit) horrifying, but when the mask drops comically to the floor and finally burns up, don't bother stifling that chuckle. The art design resonates well with Borderlands' irreverent sense of humor, and the game is playful without feeling too goofy.

You travel through this world as one of four characters, each with a unique look and attitude. You don't really get to appreciate the character designs if you play solo because you have no AI teammates, but you do hear frequent quips that give you a little bit of character-specific flavor. The most important difference between characters is the action skill, which is a special ability that can give you an edge in combat. The Hunter can release a vicious bird of prey; the Soldier can throw down an automatic turret flanked by shields; the Siren can turn invisible and speedy, damaging all enemies in the vicinity; and the Berserker flies into a damage-resistant rage and delivers brutal punches to his enemies. You unlock these abilities after playing for a short while, and not only are they all fun to use, but each one can be customized in a couple of strategically distinct ways. You can tweak and upgrade your ability by investing skill points in appropriate skills. So, for example, upgrading the Hunter's bird of prey not only can increase the amount of damage it does, but can make it attack multiple targets, steal health from them, slow them down for easy sniping, and cause them to drop more loot. Expanding your action skill makes you more deadly in combat, and it's one of the most rewarding parts of leveling up. Killing enemies, finishing quests, and completing in-game bonus challenges earn you experience points, which in turn earn you a new level. Leveling up boosts your overall fortitude and grants you a precious skill point to use however you see fit.

You can also spend your skill points on other improvements, and each character has three different skill trees that highlight different tactics and abilities. So the Soldier can essentially become the team medic by developing the skills that allow him to shoot teammates to regenerate their health and that make his turret create a healing radius. Or he could choose to become more deadly, increasing his turret damage and combat rifle performance. Though your weapon proficiency improves based on how much you use a given weapon type, different characters have skills that favor different types of guns, so it's to your advantage to play to your character's strengths. The Berserker can certainly become proficient with the sniper rifle, but his melee-focused action skill and preference for rocket launchers make him a better choice for wading into the fray. Though the branching skill trees offer intriguing ways to specialize, your initial character choice has the biggest impact on how you'll go through the game. Fortunately, each character is fun and deadly in his own way, so you can't choose poorly, and you'll probably want to experience what each one has to offer. Playing cooperatively allows you to enjoy and benefit from the other characters' abilities, something you don't get to appreciate when playing solo, unless you start a new game.

This guy isn't nearly as scary when you have three other mercs backing you up.
This guy isn't nearly as scary when you have three other mercs backing you up.

Expanding your abilities and leveling up is one of the main ways that Borderlands consistently rewards you. Loot is another. Loot can be found in containers, dropped by enemies, or given to you as a quest reward. It includes money, ammo, shields, mods that boost and alter your grenades, mods that boost your skills, and, of course, guns. Guns are classified in familiar categories: pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, combat rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and so on. Each class feels distinct, and the shooting mechanics are well tuned and satisfying, which makes it fun to blast baddies. Base damage, clip size, fire rate, accuracy, and bullet spread are just some of the variables within each class, and some guns have more exotic features, like bladed pistols that increase melee damage or a shotgun that also shoots rockets. They can also do elemental damage, which comes in a variety of flavors that put a special kind of hurt on and can even do damage over time. Equip an incendiary gun if you want to burn flesh, or a corrosive gun if you want to deal extra damage to creatures with tough hides.

You will come across a huge number of guns in your travels, though most are only good for selling back to the many vending machines around Pandora. However, you will continually find better guns throughout your journey, and because a sweet gun or awesome shield could be be found on the remains of any human or animal and in any inanimate storage container, you'll spend a lot of time searching and picking things up. There is a lot of stuff to pick up in Borderlands, and it can be a bit unsettling when you realize just how much of the game you might have to spend looking down at the ground, pressing a button to grab your loot. Initially, it feels like you're looking down and pressing a button far too often. But as you progress, you'll become a more proficient loot-grabber, and you won't be bothered by the action. You'll even grow to love the sight of a battlefield littered with the tiny towers of light that seem to proclaim, "Grab me!" Watching your loot fly towards you and hearing it lodge in your inventory is satisfying, though there is another kink in the works. You can hold the reload button to pick up all the ammo and money nearby (something you'll want to do often), but if you hold the button while looking at a gun, you'll immediately equip it. This can cause you to equip some bogus guns if you're not careful, but this is quickly remedied and rarely too bothersome. You can compare guns within your inventory, and if you've used up your limited space, you can check the specs on a fallen gun easily and drop one from your inventory if you like.

Corrosive skag spit vs. incendiary sniper rounds.
Corrosive skag spit vs. incendiary sniper rounds.

Unfortunately, dropping items is also the only way you can give them to your teammates, and there's no way to exchange ammo or money. If teammates are using the same type of gun, this can lead to some problematic ammo shortages, which is another reason to play to your character's strengths. This can also lead to disputes over who gets that fancy new shotgun, so it's best to have a gentleman's agreement in place over how to handle these issues. Borderlands allows you to resolve disputes by melee attacking a friendly player and challenging him to a duel. If your teammate melees you back, a colored dome pops up and the two of you fight to the death. The loser doesn't actually die, just loses some health, and there's no way to put a wager on the match, so the victor doesn't necessarily receive the spoils. As long as you're playing with a respectful group, you should be able to avoid loot-hoggers and the like, but it's still a bit disappointing that there isn't a better way to pool and equally distribute your collective resources.

Even more disappointing are the serious online issues that plague the PS3 version. After waiting for slow-to-load menus and enduring possible lock-ups, you can get into a public match and play at a good connection speed. However, inviting players from your friends list into a game is nearly impossible, because the game inexplicably populates the "Invite Friends" window with a small, random fraction of your friends who may not even be online. Not being able to play with your buddies is a big problem, and anyone hoping not to play solo is resigned to the luck of the draw. When you do manage to join up with other players, Borderlands does a good job of adjusting enemy difficulty to accommodate you, though the larger the level gap, the easier it will be for higher level players, and the tougher it will be for lower level players. It's worth noting that the story-related missions--that is, the ones you have to perform in sequence--reflect the host's progress, and players who are behind the host may not get credit for completing certain missions.

Having some friends on your side makes things a lot more pleasant, given that about 99 percent of life on Pandora is your enemy. Human enemies range from bandits that are smart enough to wear shields and take cover to psychos that light themselves on fire and sprint toward you, screaming about rending your flesh from your bones. The local wildlife is universally hostile and includes skags (toothy dog-beasts), spiderants (armored insect monsters), rakks (raggedy death bats), and scythids (wriggling prehistoric grubs). Every type of enemy appears in various incarnations, ranging from young and weak to badass and on fire. These variations are generated anew during each encounter, so even when you kill a clutch of enemies in that same gully for the fourth time, it will be a different bad-guy loadout. You'll fight hundreds of each enemy type throughout the game, and the fact that groups are varied goes a long way toward staving off repetition. The two-seater vehicles also offer some locomotive variety, and many of the areas are much more fun to traverse on four wheels than on two legs. You can conjure the lone vehicle type from the many Catch-a-Ride stations. The touchy handling takes some getting used to, and you can run into some exaggerated physics problems when crashing into rocks. However, there's nothing quite like vehicular homicide to stave off bandit-killing fatigue. In or out of a vehicle, the simple act of killing enemies is pretty fun, and since you're constantly reaping loot and experience rewards, even repeated encounters have some incentive attached to them.

The crisp inventory screen makes managing guns, shields, and other items quick and easy..
The crisp inventory screen makes managing guns, shields, and other items quick and easy..

The combined incentives of killing enemies, gathering loot, cashing in, and leveling up are the main driving forces in Borderlands. The various quests you undertake cover a good variety of motivations, but most follow the pattern mentioned in the previous sentence. The 1 percent of life on Pandora that isn't your enemy will often have quests for you, though only a handful of characters are voice-acted. Of these, there are a few standouts, including the bumpkin car-rental mogul and the borderline sociopathic archaeologist, but for the most part Borderlands offers precious little in the way of non-player character contact. This makes playing solo a lonely experience. Though the action is still satisfying and the world is still interesting, solo players will have a slower-paced adventure in which the flashes of comedy also serve to underscore how sparse those flashes are. The main story is thin and the final encounter is pointless and thoroughly unsatisfying, so anyone hoping Borderlands will deliver a climactic conclusion is almost certainly going to be disappointed.

After you uncover the secrets of the Vault, you are once again set loose into Pandora, where you are free to quest on and remember why you enjoyed your previous hours with the game. Borderlands has tens of hours of quests to fulfill, and you'll likely find yourself enticed back to explore new skills, find new guns, and kill more enemies. Though the core action doesn't change drastically over the course of the game, it is woven together in such a way that once it ensnares you, you'll want nothing more than to plunge into Pandora at any chance you get. Combat is satisfying, and upgrading your skills and equipment is engaging. The constant stream of loot and experience is rewarding, and sharing it with some friends makes the experience that much richer and more exciting. Alas, PS3 owners will have to wait for a fix in order to fight alongside their friends. Despite this upsetting issue, Pandora is still a great planet to visit if you want to shoot some stuff and reap the rewards.

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The Good

  • Satisfying gunplay
  • Tons of weapons, shields, and helpful items
  • Four unique and equally fun-to-play characters
  • Distinct, appealing artistic style
  • Great system of rewards

The Bad

  • Online issues at launch, including broken Friends list functionality
  • Lonelier, slower-paced for a solo player
  • Massively unsatisfying "climax"
  • Lackluster loot sharing system

About the Author

Chris enjoys aiming down virtual sights, traipsing through fantastical lands, and striving to be grossly incandescent.