Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Borderlands

The fourth and final chapter of the "why the hell hasn't Gas Bandit reviewed a game in 4 months" quartet. Next week or so I'll start reviewing much more recent games. Borderlands is a genre-spanning titan of a game, blending RPG elements with FPS action, with the campaign being both single and multiplayer friendly. It had a lot of hype leading up to it, and rightly so, as it was such an ambitious endeavor. I must admit that the hype biased me against it a little, as is usually the case in overhyped games, but I have to admit: The hype was there for a reason.

Borderlands is the story of (up to) four mercenaries of varying origin and motivation, none of which makes absolutely any impact on the progression of events whatsoever. What was Roland's reason for leaving the Crimson Lance? Who is the woman Lilith came to this planet to find? Does Brick do steroids? Who knows? Who cares? The game certainly doesn't, because on a bus ride across the garbage-strewn dystopian planet of Pandora, they have a vision of an ethereal woman calling herself their guide, their guardian angel, and that she will help them find the Vault. The Vault is, apparently, something every child on Pandora heard about growing up - a hidden cache of treasure and alien technology guaranteed to make whoever finds it stupidly wealthy. So, they all completely shed their backstories and motivations, never to be mentioned again, to take up hunting for the Vault.

Pandora is a pretty desolate place, but I'm convinced that half the mass of the planet is made up in firearms. There's so many firearms the local wildlife seems to often attempt to ingest them as food (of course, they spill out for you to pick up once you kill the critter). There's a lot of shooting, a lot of dodging, a lot of reloading, and a WHOLE lot of deciding whether gun A is better than gun B. Most often it will not be, as despite the fact that it was ripping you a new one 10 seconds ago, as soon as you put it in your hand it suddenly devolves into an airsoft pistol.

There are those around the 'net that will tell you that Borderlands is "the next Diablo." In many ways, primarily the good ways, they are correct. The items you get are randomly generated, and the flow of time seems rather arbitrary because at any given time (depending on who is hosting the game) you could be entering the plot either near the beginning or the end of the story. But, like Diablo, Borderlands is a game best experienced with friends, and a diverse group will fare better because the classes compliment each other. Having more people in your game makes the enemies tougher, but also makes them give more experience and better loot.

The game gives you a pretty linear string of quests, along with a multitude of optional side quests. Most of the missions are pretty straightforward - go here and kill this, or go here, kill these until you collect x of those and bring them back. There's also the occasional scavenger hunt. Of course, the main drive of all these missions and rewards is to level up and get better gear. The health bar paradigm is in use here, and healing can often get pretty cumbersome - unless you have a special shield to enable you to do so, you won't heal on your own, and health kits take up precious backpack space and are cumbersome to use in a pinch. Fortunately, you get a personal force field that will take the brunt of the damage, and if you can stop taking damage for a few seconds it will start rapidly recharging itself.

As you level up you will also be able to spend points to get new passive abilities added on to your character, such as rapidly healing or repairing your shield every time you kill someone, better accuracy or more damage with certain weapons, decreased cooldowns for your class-defining ability, and so on. There are also special items called "Class Mods" which are only useable by certain classes and drastically alter how your character performs - it may boost damage by 40% on a certain type of weapon for example, or grant you and all your allies ammo regeneration, etc.

In addition to regular guns, there are many guns all throughout the game that do "elemental" damage - that is, they do damage based on fire, electricity, corrosion or explosion. This damage is considered different from regular bullet damage, and usually these guns have a chance to cause a special damage type, such as setting your target on fire to burn for damage over time, electrocuting to stun, exploding for area damage or corroding to cause damage over time plus take more damage while corroding. Different shields also can have added resistance to these 4 elemental damage types, though electricity always seems to do the most damage to shields and fire always does the most damage to bare flesh. When you start out, you have a small backpack, limited resources, and a sucky gun. As you level up and complete quests, you'll make money, find better weapons, be able to keep up to 4 ready for use and also increase how much you can carry. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that elemental weapons are definitely the way to go - no normal gun, no matter what its stats say, can compete with a similar level elemental weapon of roughly equivalent quality.

The game's graphics are pretty good. I'm sure its performance is augmented by the simple textures used - as the game is going for a "comic book" artistic vibe we've seen in other games such as Champions Online. The textures are a bit on the cartoony side and post processing adds a thick black line to the outline of every model. Even so, there are times (especially toward the end of the game) where framerate does start to suffer a bit, but you can quickly remedy this by killing off some enemies. There's lots of voice acting of good quality, and the game's auditory experience is very pleasing.

In addition to running around on foot, the game provides you an unlimited supply of vehicles (after a few quests enable you to get to them) which let you traverse the areas of the game faster, although the mounted weapons soon become nigh-useless because their damage doesn't scale appropriately with level. In fact, neither does the vehicle's structural integrity (though it looks like it is trying), so that toward the end of the game they're more prone to explosion than a Ford Pinto.

Borderlands blends RPG elements into FPS action, which is a fun way to game, but it also makes for some audaciously dischordant situations... for instance, enemy humans will take more damage if you shoot them in the head rather than the body, but there are some humans so tough that they can take multiple dozens of bullets to the face before they die, despite wearing no visible armor. This is, of course, part and parcel of RPG fare and those familiar with RPGs primarily won't even consider it odd, but FPS diehards might consider it a bit odd, or in some cases, outright BS.

Once you beat the game, which you will do long before you reach maximum level, you are then permitted to go through again from the start on a more difficult setting. Believe it or not, this is funner than it sounds. Also, two expansions have been made available via DLC: The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned, and Mad Moxxy's Underdome Riot. What these two DLC packs do is introduce new areas to the game that aren't connected in any way with any other event going on in Borderlands. As the name suggests, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned is a horror-movie type setting with zombies and werewolves and whatnot, with more quests and such to do. Mad Moxxy's Underdome Riot is an expanded arena system where you (and your friends, if you want to get anywhere in the second tier) take on wave after wave of multiple enemy badguys, culminating in repeat appearances of many of the bosses from the Borderlands campaign proper - all level adjusted for challenge, of course. While the loot isn't as good and no experience is gained on your character, you will get the opportunity to get extra skill points, basically letting you spend more points than you would otherwise have gotten at maximum level. All-in-all, however, I'd say the DLC is primarily for those who absolutely can't get enough of playing Borderlands, because the experience of playing them is supposed to be its own reward.

In summary, this is an excellent multiplayer co-op game. The campaign is designed around it from the ground up, the writing includes a lot of silliness and grim humor, and the dialogue is often hilarious ("He's my friend, and by friend, I mean 'asshole what messed up my mama's girl parts.' You may want to get what you can from him while he's still alive from me not having killed him yet and whatnot.") While I can't say I'll still come back to play it years down the road, for a brief period there was a time where Borderlands was king of the roost, and it wouldn't let me go till I had played it to death 3 times over.

Verdict: B+. And that's the word from Bandit Camp...

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