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Friday, December 10, 2010

Borderlands (8.3/10)

I remember when I first read about Borderlands; it sounded cool, if not a little ambitious. Over one million guns?! Sign me up! A massive shooter/RPG? That’s right up my alley! And what’s more, apparently it was best played with others. While I don’t play games online too often, I had been looking for a game to co-op with my girlfriend. Borderlands fit the bill and without further ado we set off to Pandora…

... a cracked desert wasteland shimmers in the background. From behind a broken billboard creeps a Skag. It looks like a cross between a lizard and a dog, until it's muzzle splits vertically and it emits a roar... Fortunately it gets squished as a bus hurtles down the faded pavement. Catchy music plays in the background as it's carcass bounces on the bumper. Sound bizarre? It is. But it’s pretty cool, I'll say that. On board, four strangers prepare to set out on a quest that will determine the fate of this world...

You play as one of these unlikely cohorts, a Vault Hunter. There are four characters on the bus that you can choose from, each with his (or her) own unique skill tree and specialty. Mordecai the Hunter's special skill is his pet bird thingie named Bloodwing that you can sick on enemies. He likes pistols and sniper rifles. Lilith the Siren can travel to an alternate dimension and sneak up on enemies invisibly with super speed. She then reenters our dimension with a flash that does damage. She’s good with elemental weapons. Roland the Soldier has a deployable turret, which can do everything from shoot enemies to drop extra ammunition. He's partial to assault rifles and shotguns. Lastly there is Brick: a huge, hulking brute whose "fists are as powerful as any gun." He specializes in using his mitts, and explosives (in case his mitts aren’t enough). You’ve heard the colloquialism "built like a brick sh*thouse?" He personifies it.

After you select your character, you are dropped off at the bustling metropolis known as Fyrestone. No sooner do you step off the bus when a vision, blurry and indistinct, appears before you. A feminine voice tells you that you must trust her. Somewhere on the wasted planet of Pandora there exists a 'Vault.' This Vault can only be accessed every two hundred years, and only with a special key. Legend says that the treasures found therein are beyond compare: alien technology, weapons, and wealth. You must get to the Vault first, and she will guide you on your quest. As instructed by your new ‘Guardian Angel’, you quickly befriend a Claptrap who unlocks the gate to Fyrestone.

A quick aside here… Claptraps are essentially a cross between Number 5 from Short Circuit and R2-D2 from Star Wars with dash of WALL-E thrown in. If I may be permitted another Star Wars reference, they are the Jar Jar Binks of the robot collective. While they would occasionally elicit a chuckle, I quickly grew tired of their pseudo-robot voices repeating the same stupid phrases ad nauseum. Fortunately, after the initial section they are much sparser, just popping up from time to time to open doors and, apparently, annoy me some more...

Anyway, once you set foot in Fyrestone the shooting starts… and doesn’t stop for about 25 hours. Boasting over 1.7 million different weapons, Borderlands should have been sponsored by the NRA. You have the standard loadout of assault rifles, SMG’s, pistols, shotguns, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles. Different manufactures build variations on the same setup. One company might make elemental weapons that deal electrical or fire damage (or blast damage or corrosive damage, again the possibilities are astronomical) while others might cause more damage at the cost of accuracy or a larger clip size. Want a shotgun with a sniper scope that shoots acid? Or an incendiary automatic with a 90 round clip? They exist; you’ve just got to find them!

But what makes Borderlands fun is not just this vast array of armaments, but the fact that the controls make using them a joy! While it's standard FPS fare, the gunplay is smooth and responsive. It’s been done to death, but it’s nice to find one that works so well! Oh, and I didn’t mention this yet, but the vehicles control pretty well too, although they are quite sensitive. Pandora is a big place, gotta get around somehow...

So now you have this virtually unlimited supply of awesomeness and excellent controls to play with you'll need targets! Fortunately, Pandora isn't lacking in willing cannon fodder. Those intent on stopping you in your quest for the Vault are various gangs of roving misfits under the leadership of loveable cretins like Nine-Toes (He has 3 Balls! Or so the game would have believe...). Mostly your standard ‘bandit’ stereotype, they come in different sizes and strengths. Aside from regular, gun-toting goons there are others. Bruisers are big, ugly brutes with automatic weapons. Psychos charge you banzai style. Midgets are… midgets, although some have shotguns.

Apart from the post-apocalyptic Mad Max style marauders, there is plenty of indigenous wildlife to make Pandora even more miserable. Skags are the main nuisance early on. Some of them spit, others are elemental, and some are ‘Badass,’ which is pretty much what the name implies: much harder to kill. As you travel to more areas of Pandora you’ll have to deal with other pests. They all follow the same basic progression (as do your human enemies): normal, then bigger, then elemental, then ‘Badass,’ then ‘Badass’ elemental, etc. Simply sight, shoot, and repeat...

The nonstop gunplay and large world to play in makes Borderlands a fun game, especially with friends. The cel-shaded anime graphical style works well, it's certainly effective. Gearbox deserves credit for their imagination and implementation of the extensive armory. But despite good times spent mowing down endless hordes of bad guys with a veritable smorgasbord of firepower, there were a number of technical issues and design decisions that held it back for me.

The abundance of weapons can be overwhelming, you'll spend a great deal of time ‘in menu’ comparing what you have collected and trying to figure out what to stick with… or in my case arguing with my girlfriend over who got the new shotgun or shield upgrade. This leads me to another quick aside… or rather, b*tch session. No, this is not about my girlfriend getting the good gun. It’s the menu situation in local co-op. The menu you use to access your inventory, maps, quests, etc is fine, unless you are playing splitscreen. For some reason it was decided to split the screen vertically for local co-op. As a result, the window to view the menu has been cut in half… so you can only see half the menu. What... the... hell!? You actually have to move the menu back and forth to see where you are going on the map or to compare weapons stats because it won’t fit on your half of the screen. You get used to it but that doesn’t make the initial idea any less moronic.

Another issue with the staggering number of weapons is that occasionally you'll can get lucky and find a particularly effective weapon that will give you an advantage. I literally used one shotgun for the final half of the game because, despite finding literally hundreds of other options, none could compare to what I already had. I was constantly disappointed every time we found a weapons crate. I couldn’t find anything better to use, just more and more stuff to sell. Both my girlfriend and I ended the game with millions in the bank because there wasn’t even anything worth buying in the vending machines… didn’t I mention that the vending machines sell guns on Pandora? Couldn’t get a nice cold beer to save my life though...

Sadly, a beer would have made the story go down easier. The plot is pretty much non-existent after it’s promising initial premise. Borderlands does a great job of splitting its attention between being a shooter and a role-playing game. There are a ton of side quests to do from various NPC’s and bounty boards (these are generally either boring collection or fetch quests, but they are still pretty entertaining). But for me, a big part of any RPG experience has to be the story. Borderlands falls short in this regard. There is so much random running around between plot points that you forget what you were doing in the first place. When the response is "Go find another piece of the Vault key," you think to yourself "Oh yeah, we’re trying to get to the Vault. Okay, I’ll go get another piece… maybe there will be something interesting to do on the way…"

I also had some technical issues with Borderlands. There are texture loading issues (at least on the PS3 version), and towards the end there was some lagging. However, my main gripe is about allowing the game enough time to save. There is a symbol that pops up in the corner whenever you are near a save point. You’ve already heard me bitch about the poor splitscreen menus. Well, you need to make sure that the icon appears on BOTH screens (it won’t do it at the same time, in fact it saves the second player first). If you’re not paying attention and you turn off the system then you can get a corrupted save file that will not load. This is severely annoying to say the least. 

Borderlands has been a pain in the ass to review… because despite its annoyances there is a lot to like on Pandora. The graphics are effective; a clever choice. The sound effects are great on the weapons and the opening and closing soundtracks are awesome! The breadth of weaponry is a dream, almost too much so! The gunplay is fast and frantic, but the great controls make it a blast! While I have had a lot of gripes about Borderlands as a whole, it really is a fun game. And, if you have the option of playing the game with others (either online or locally, despite the crap menu debacle), that’s the way to go. There are definitely some good times to be found hunting for the Vault if you are playing with friends!

I’ll leave you with this… one of the funnier things that happens in Borderlands is the loot drops. When you finish an enemy off they fall in a shower of dropped goodies be it ammo or guns, or occasionally, health. For some bizarre reason when a health pack is dropped it looks suspiciously like a rubber phallus. There is something magical about your girlfriend shouting "Dildo here!" or me inquiring if she’s in need of "the dildo at my feet." It’s good to know that things aren’t all bad in Pandora…


Score = 8.3 / 10

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