Gearbox Software, developers of the acclaimed Half-Life and Brothers In Arms series, teamed up with renowned publisher 2K Games to release Borderlands earlier this month. Borderlands is what Gearbox calls an RPS, a style of gameplay that is best described as an RPG crossed with a FPS. There have been first person RPGs before, but nothing quite like what has been done here with Borderlands. Let's take a closer look.
A Hunting We Will Go
It's important to note that Borderlands is really intended for co-op. You can play the same game in single player mode, but for a variety of reasons the best experiences in Borderlands are going to be had with up to three other players. I spent several hours playing single player, but found it to be pretty boring and repetitive. Still, playing through the campaign by yourself or at least spending a few hours with it is a great idea to get your character established.
The adventure begins by choosing between one of four available characters. As you would expect with an RPG, these characters represent different classes, and are very upgradeable and customizable as you play and level up. Characters include Roland, a soldier and former merc. His special ability is a portable turret and he favors assault rifles and shotguns. Lilith is your typical female action character -- stealthy and quick. She is a Phasewalker and can turn invisible; she prefers weapons with incendiary, shock, and corrosive traits. Brick is a Berserker who is all muscle and loves to use his fists to pound the bejesus out of anything. Not surprisingly, Brick likes explosive weaponry. Finally, the character I've been sticking with (for better or worse), is the Hunter, Mordecai. Keep in mind all these names can be changed throughout the game at any 'save beacon,' but I always thought the name Mordecai was cool so I left it unchanged. Anyway, with Mordecai, revolvers and sniper rifles are the main weapons of choice. As a Hunter, you can also call in Bloodwing, a bird of prey, to swoop down and help you fight.
Regardless of your choice, you start in Fyrestone, a remote outpost in the Arid Badlands, on the forsaken planet Pandora. The Badlands is the first major area of the game, and one that you will spend several hours in questing, nabbing all kinds of loot, upgrading, selling, and buying gear, and killing all kinds of bad guys. Players are first introduced to a friendly and funny, but also annoying, robot named Claptrap, who acts as your guide to get you started. After dispatching some bandits, you'll work your way to what you might call a safe area. You'll meet your first major NPC here, Dr. Zed, who gets you started on questing. Quests, or missions if that sounds too RPG to you, are picked up from NPCs and bulletin boards primarily. Clearly, these give the player a chance to find new loot and level up while advancing the story.
But why are you here in the first place? To some degree, that's a mystery. A vision of a beautiful woman in your mind urged you to stop at Fyrestone and pursue what so many on Pandora have in the past -- a mysterious, legendary vault. This vault has yet to be found, many don't even think it exists, but it was apparently left behind by an advanced alien race. The vault supposedly carries a tremendous amount of power and treasure, and its discovery is your ultimate goal for being on Pandora.
The story is fairly basic, but players are cleverly kept in the dark along their journey. The seamless in game 'visions' or cutscenes with the mysterious girl are nicely done and chime in just enough to keep you attached to the story. All things being equal, it would be enough to keep you going, but the adventure faces several challenges in the single player arena that strongly urge you to pick up the action with friends.
For starters, after about four hours, the experience gets a little routine. I grew tired of fighting Skag after Skag (think violent, mutant dogs that are always eager to eat you), and dealing with packs of enemies with rechargeable shields became a real chore. Completing quests and reaping the rewards never got old, but trudging through the actual quests did. Most quests come down to having to locate an item and then use it to make some mechanism or NPC happy. Overall, there's a good amount of back-tracking which will wear on you, but I will say I am pleased
that respawns aren't a terribly common occurrence. Respawns are, for the most part, kept to a minimum, and I can really appreciate that design.
More On Gameplay
Speaking of design -- if I could even start this paragraph any more vague -- there's a lot of other good ideas and implementations in Borderlands. For one, I liked the HUD, which is concise yet very informative. In addition to the typical indicators of health and ammo, the HUD also has a compass and an XP meter to let you know how far from your next Level you are. I also liked how the HUD would pop up a small "Reload" prompt to encourage you to reload as your ammo got below a certain threshold (which varied depending on the gun in use). This was helpful, although not necessary, when I was engaging foes at distance or close range and didn't want to take my eye off of the action to get a glance at the ammo counter in the corner of the screen. Frankly, other than the compass not always being clear, the HUD works out great. Whenever the compass wasn't making much sense, a quick look at the area map was sufficient to get me on track again. The map is viewable with a press of the Back button.
Controls, another fundamental, was also done very well. Players move and sprint with the left stick (click to sprint), jump with A, crouch with B, interact with X, cycle between weapons with Y, use their Skill with LB, and throw a 'nade with RB. That's the majority of the controls, nothing unusual, except that you can hold X to instantly snap up all the items in your immediate area (rather than having to tap X on each one). The controls work well for on foot and vehicular combat, so kudos again to Gearbox for that.
The Status Menu deserves mentioning, too. When you press Back, the Status Menu appears and this multi-page screen gives you all of the info you need. Players can Equip/Unequip weapons, armor, and accessories, spend their upgrade points, view statistics, read mission info, view the map, and so forth. The Skills page is where you spend those upgrade points. After you reach level five, each additional level nets you a spendable point in your Skill tree that begins with each character's initial Skill (Bloodwing for the Hunter, for example). Points can be spent on a few different branching specialties, which vary depending on the character class you are using. For Mordecai, the Hunter, these include Sniper, Rogue, and Gunslinger. Upgrade points spent under Sniper yield additional accuracy and power; Rogue upgrades increase Bloodwing's capabilities, and Gunslinger increases fire rate and bullet damage. These upgradeable Skills are a big reason why the different classes are as unique as they are, and why a combination of these in multiplayer makes for the most potent force against the CPU.
Upgrading your player is a fun and crucial component to the game that gives many benefits. One of these benefits is an increase in HP every time you level. In conjunction with a rechargeable shield -- of which there are many varieties -- you'd think you could sustain a tremendous amount of damage. That's only partial true though, as enemy AI tend to attack in waves or packs. Using strategy, especially that which involves taking cover, is required as it doesn't take a whole heck of a lot of firepower to get you killed. But rather than just end the game when your HP depletes, Borderlands gives you a second chance, but only if you're able to kill an enemy before you bleed out or get shot down. When this happens, the camera switches to a third person, black and white view and you have but precious seconds to earn this second wind. In my experience, it hasn't worked out that well, but I like the idea. Obviously, in cooperative mode, players can heal and save each other.
Other Mechanics, Presentation, Co-op
Unlike most games, there is a penalty for dying in Borderlands. Players lose money each time they are respawned at the nearest save beacon, and the amount of money it costs varies slightly from use to use. The cost is more of a slap on the wrist than a game breaker, as any average player should have no problem paying for respawns. Cash in Pandora is fairly easy to come by if you search the area, which is littered with storage crates of different sizes. Of course, downed enemies drop all matter of goodies from money to ammo to guns.
You've probably seen or heard by now, but Borderlands boasts a ridiculous variety of guns. Now granted, most of these guns are just slight variations on one another, but it's still cool to come across a shotgun that blasts corrosive rounds or a sniper rifle that can set enemies ablaze. You'll tend to keep only your favorite and most unique weapons, but all of the others can be sold in for hard cash at the nearest vending machine. A variety of vending machines offer items for health, ammo, and weaponry, and all will purchase items from you, too.
Whether hoofing it across the open terrain, sniping from behind cover, or collecting loot from a successful firefight, Borderlands always has a slick, cel-shaded look to it that will please most, and bother others. Borderlands' new look was first revealed in June at E3, and I thought it was honestly one of the best looking games at the show after seeing it played. The graphics aren't, technically speaking, the most tricked out awesomeness you've ever seen, but it's the sense of style sets it apart from your typical first person title. I think the decision to go with this graphical engine was a great choice to fit the attitude of the game, and to help keep framerates very smooth. So far, about the only technical flaw of note is the ability to clip through certain objects -- Claptrap for example, who by all means is presented as a fully tangible object, but players can literally walk right through him. It's more of an oddity than a deal breaker.
In terms of sound, Borderlands uses a variety of voice talent to keep your ears attuned to the many different voices to be heard, and that's a plus. That's not to say there is a ton of unique dialogue, but there is enough to keep it from getting stale. The music is fitting and the sound effects don't disappoint.
Finally, the last point I wanted to make about Borderlands is how much more fun it is with friends than in single player. You can enjoy two player split screen co-op with a friend, or take the action online for 2-4 player support; System Link is also supported. Gearbox was very conscious and did a solid job in making the cooperative mode very seamless. Players can invite their friends, hunt for a game they want to join, or let matchmaking put players together. The end result is a much more rewarding and engaging experience than playing by yourself, not something I can say for every game. Of course, who you play with and how good your connection is has a lot to do with how much fun you will have in cooperative mode, but that goes without saying. That said, you're going to have a hell of time romping across Pandora, so stop reading and get to it if you haven't already.