Borderlands

9.0 Overall Score

Written by on February 11, 2010 in

Borderlands opens up with a guitar twanging in mono, tinny notes playing from a cheap radio.  The riff plays again.  This time against a backdrop of a white-hot sky over a dusty, dry landscape reminiscent of The Road Warrior.  As the camera pans down to show a dilapidated billboard, you see a four-legged creature with a spiny back and triple-hinged mandible.  At this point, the game is sending you a clear message:  No, this is not Earth.

As the opening cinematic shows, Borderlands mixes the familiar and the fantastical to give the player a unique shooter experience. In terms of presentation, it was an interesting choice for Gearbox Software to paint an alien world in the style of Earth’s old west or the post-apocalyptic desert.  However, you’ll see from the opening scene and the rest of the game that it totally works.  On the one hand, visuals are predominantly made up tans and browns.  On the other hand, intermittent splashes of color lend visual character to an otherwise drab backdrop.  While the  characters lack the technical detail we’ve seen in games like Gears of War or Metal Gear Solid 4, the inhabitants of Pandora are crafted as caricatures given life through cel-shading and clever dialogue.  Lines are delivered with an overstated Southern drawl, but with a sense of humor befitting the game world.   Kudos to Gearbox Software for taking what could have been an awkward aesthetic, and making it into a memorable setting. Of course, that’s all just the outer layer to mechanics that, like the rest of the game, blends old ideas into a combination that feels fresh.

At its core, Borderlands is a throwback to dungeon crawls and loot drops that made Diablo so addictive.  There are four character classes to choose from, each with a unique set of skills, including a deployable ability.  Mordecai, the Hunter, can summon his bird of prey, Bloodwing, to attack his enemies.  Roland, the Soldier, can deploy a turret.  Lilith, the Siren, can enter an alternate dimension where she can move faster than her enemies can react.  Brock, the Berserker, can enter a state of rage to pummel the opposition with fists and feet. At their disposal are a wide variety of pistols, combat rifles, sniper rifles and shotguns.  While some of them do regular bullet damage, others have elemental effects that can burn, shock or corrode.

So we have the “where”: another world that’s part Tatooine with bits of the OK Coral and a smidge of Mad Max for flavor.  The “what”: characters with unique abilities and a planet filled with fire power and nasty critters. That leaves the “why” and the “how”, both of which are interwoven in a way that brings everything else into focus. Why exactly would you want to spend time on Pandora?  To be honest, the story is minimal.  At times, narrative is so threadbare, it almost leaves me wanting a plot with more meat on its bones.  My knee-jerk reaction when I started playing was that this was a detriment to the game.  However, as I played on, the minimalistic story became a blessing.  What little story exists in Borderlands provides just enough context to keep me progressing through the string of missions given to me along the way.

This brings me to the “how”.  How do you interact with this world that Gearbox has crafted?  The answer to this question is the game’s biggest strength and the reason why I’ve left the Borderlands disc in my console’s tray for the past few weeks.  The spaces you traverse are an open-ended landscape divided into sections that are opened up to you as you complete a string of objectives.  While many missions are optional, the required ones reveal a loose plot the ultimately leads you to boss-type battles and a grand finale. Along the way, your enemies will drop weapons and cash when they finally succumb to your barrage of lead.  Therein lies the hook.  It’s a mechanic any gamer worth his or her salt is familiar with.  Kill an enemy.  Collect the loot he drops.  Borderlands has a pacing and a progression of difficulty that few games do very well.  As I played along, visions of Diablo‘s combat-heavy dungeon crawls came to mind.  My two priorities in Borderlands are largely the same: 1. Kill baddies for their loot; 2. Level up to gain powers and abilities.  This mechanic loses none of its potency in multiplayer, more so in four-player co-op than in its one-on-one duels.

All in all, the setting and the characters of  Borderlands is a clever marriage between Tarantino’s spaghetti Western action and Guy Ritchie’s cinematics.  Beneath that memorable presentation are mechanics that keep me coming back for more.

Borderlands is rated M for Mature and is available on store shelves now.

Married Gamers Grade: A-

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Author: John Catuira View all posts by

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