Borderlands Review: The Border of Perfection

Just in case you didn't believe me, this is a "Midget Shotgunner". They do exist.
As I unwrapped the shimmering plastic shrink wrap and opened the radioactive green and new-smelling Xbox 360 copy of Borderlands, I was beyond excited. I have already written out why Borderlands was to be my dream game design come to fruition. It was time to put the game through my critical gauntlet.

As the opening credits roll, it's obvious that great care was given to the presentation and production value of this game. You're smiling the whole way through, and it makes you want to get into the game as soon as possible. The cel-shaded graphics was a huge risk on the part of Gearbox, and they implemented that style flawlessly. As mentioned by many other reviewers, it gives the game a distinct look and feel that suits its bizarre humor and wit a perfectly fitting stylistic context. It's hilarious when it needs to be. When a Pandoran hillbilly asks you to "please murder the crap out that guy", you can't help but chuckle. It may not break the boundaries of graphics technology, but that was never the point. It looks great, it sounds great, and the setting is just right, but that's just icing on the cake when it comes to the gameplay itself.

Anybody coming from the RPG field of gamers (especially MMORPGs) will feel immediately at home with the progression of the first few hours of the game. It's a slow grind through some rudimentary quests built to get you used to the world, the controls, the characters, and the weapons. Many would call this boring. I call it build-up.Because the moment you break out of the main hub and head out on some side-quests, and the true extent of the destructive possibilities in this world becomes known, you're mind is blown. Some would say that these possibilities should be obvious from the get-go, but I feel like it would simply be too much if the complexities hit a new player all at once.

The complexity comes primarily from the weapon system. The greatly hyped weapon generator is true to the hype, and as you progress through the game, you will indeed collect an eclectic and infinitely varied weapon set that never ceases to amaze. The weapon system basically breaks down like this: There are 8 weapon types: Pistols, Revolver, SMG, Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Sniper, Launcher, and grenades. There are a variety of different manufacturers that produce these weapons, and each manufacturer tends to focus on a certain quality. For example, if you find a Jakobs revolver, it will most likely be more powerful then, say, a Tedior revolver. Tedior makes their revolvers easier to use, so it will have a faster reload time. Some manufacturers focus on rate of fire, some on accuracy, etc. So, already you have hundreds of variations. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much every aspect of your gun is a randomly generated variable, and can all be mixed and matched by the generator to produce some truly amazing and unique weaponry. For example, my level 15 hunter currently sports a quick reloading sniper that shoots incendiary rounds, a revolver that fires 7 bullets at once like a shotgun, and a generic but very powerful assault rifle that has a bigger clip. Each one of the many variations will manifest itself graphically in the gun, so a the gun with the improved clip actually physically has a bigger clip, and the revolver shotgun has a really big barrel. Each weapon has a unique name generated by the aggregation of its parts and its manufacturer. It's easy to understand how Borderland's claim of having more than 17 million guns isn't far-fetched. When all the other aspects of the game can get dull, the weapon generator makes it all worth it.

Like I said, parts of the game can get dull. I was playing this with my brother to get a taste of the co-op action, and he mentioned that the quests are like boring WoW quests, where you are tasked to collect objects and kill a number of enemies ad nauseum, with little variety. This is true in that the quests objectives are pretty generic, but that doesn't mean the gameplay is. The objectives are a moot point when faced with a den of high level spitter skags and a camp full of insane burning midget psychos. When a badass corrosive alpha skag shows up, your focus will not be on the objective, but on how you are going to kill this thing, and what shiny loot it is going to drop. Completing the objective simply acts as an excuse to return to a hub and sell your swag.

The story follows the same formula. It obediently takes a backseat to the action and character progression that the game wants you to focus. The whole story can basically be whittled down into "Find the best loot in the universe, conveniently hidden on the planet you are on right now. The writers understand that the player wants to loot, loot, and loot some more, and sympathetically crafted a story that eschews the normal RPG tones of epic space/medieval soap opera, and made the story fit the gameplay perfectly. The gameplay is about mindless looting, and so is the story. So, in other words, the story sucks, but it makes sense from a game design perspective. Personally, I was hoping for a complex spaghetti western action-epic where the guns are the stars (see the link above), but I will admit that the shallow story design fits the game well.

The character growth system walks a fine line between being too simple and too complex, and therefore has alienated a lot of players. The RPG fans bemoan the lack of armor options and relatively weak skill tree, while the action fans don't want to spend time tactically crafting skills and attributes, and want to start shotgunning badass skags, right this very second. In a game that takes many risks and succeeds in almost all of them, it's a little off-putting that they played it so safe with the skill tree.

The vehicle segments of the game feel like they were meant to be much deeper and more complicated at some point in the development cycle. Maybe they tried to make them as random as the guns or as varied, but somewhere down the line, they simplified it to two types of vehicles, with two types of weapons. The vehicles exist in-game purely as a means to travel faster. But the detailed models and exquisite targeting systems on the vehicles lead me to believe that the designers originally meant for that aspect to be deeper. For now, it's a disappointment.

So, is it my dream game? The short answer is almost. It comes so close to my personal gaming nirvana, and then leaves out one or two dealbreakers that stall the game at the finish line. I love the weapon system to death, but it doesn't let you scavenge for parts (a la Guild Wars), and it doesn't have a gun customization tool to let you build your own dream weapon from salvaged parts. That's always been the basis of my basic design. Don't get me wrong, I love the random weapons, but I really think that a customization tool could be implemented without breaking the balance, contrary to many critics' view. Even a way to add attributes, like gems in Diablo, would be welcome. But the designers left it out in favor of pure looting. In their words, "You're a gunslinger, not a gunsmith." And while I understand the designers' choice to forgo any semblance of a cohesive narrative plot, I miss it nonetheless. It would give the character a context to why he/she is grinding for loot. It isn't needed, because looters loot because it's there, not because they need a context. But I would like to have it.

Borderlands is the best console game I have played in a long time. It's probably the first hack 'n slash lootfest successfully implemented on a console, and it happens to be a great FPS at the same time. The presentation is slick and witty, and the unique attitude shines through and through. The hybrid of FPS and RPG works beautifully, and the hype of the weapon generator is completely realized. There are a few personal dislikes and design flaws, along with some minor technical issues, but they are minor. No other game has come closer to being my dream game, and unless a huge expansion pack addresses those flaws, it will most likely hold that title for some time.

In the meantime, I will gladly smite down the shotgunner midget psychos until they finally drop the gun I've been hankering for. And I will thoroughly enjoy it.


Benjamin said...

Wow... I might actually force myself to use an XBOX controller so I can play you. I hate playing games off the PC.

jesus2.lopez said...

Great review! Now I am so excited to play Borderlands, especially since 2k’s other games really impressed me. I am going to put this at the top of my Blockbuster queue list as soon as possible. As a DISH customer/employee, it's easy to get bored of TV, so Blockbuster helps to change things up. If you make the switch to DISH, you can the 3 months of Blockbuster for free. If anyone is interested, there is more information at http://bit.ly/m86n4Y.

Post a Comment