Game Review: Borderlands

October 20, 2009

Games blending elements of shooters and RPGs have been on the rise for the past few years, taking a variety of forms. The latest is Borderlands, which brings shotguns and sniper rifles to a massive world filled with quests and loot. Gather up your friends get ready to step over the border.

On the planet of Pandora, there are legends of a fabled vault full of alien weaponry, riches, and all things desirable. As one of several offworld fortune hunters, you arrive in the town of Fyrestone and take jobs from the locals, hoping that they’ll provide clues leading to the vault. From the moment you step off the bus, you also begin receiving messages from a mysterious woman, encouraging you on your quest and insisting that the vault is more than just legend.

Story, however, isn’t a major part of the Borderlands experience, with just a few bits of plot here and there until events start to pick up near the end of the game. The characters you meet have a bit of personality, but mostly serve as bulletin boards, with most of their dialogue taking the form of quest descriptions.


The world of Pandora is enormous, offering dozens of hours of exploration and hundreds of quests. Starting out, though, the pace can be fairly slow. You spend your first few hours retreading the same ground near Fyrestone, killing countless numbers of dog-like skags. It can start to feel a bit monotonous, but once you get away from town, the world opens up, and you soon find yourself fighting through caves, docks, canyons, and scrapyards. Getting you across all this terrain are two-man vehicles with a kick of nitrous boost, and you eventually open up a fast travel network that connects key locations.

Borderlands operates on a quest-based system. You’ll receive new quests from characters or bulletin boards, head to waypoints to complete your goals, and come back to cash in for money, experience, and loot. Quests include minor tasks, like collecting boxes of tainted cigars or turning on windmills, as well as bigger jobs, like boss fights with bandit leaders or overgrown wildlife. Each one has a recommended experience level, and if you try to take them on too soon, you’re taught the hard way to come back later.

The game is designed entirely with co-op in mind. You can play through from start to finish with three other friends, and invite other players to join your quest at any time. If there’s a gap between experience levels, you’ll have to stick to the lower-level quests, but as long as you’re within ten levels of each other, you should be able to find things to do together. Wealth and experience are automatically shared among players, although you will have to communicate to divvy out gear and health. Two can also play via split-screen, although menus don’t quite fit within the split frame.


There are plenty of incentives for playing with others. Enemy difficulty scales up with larger groups, increasing the chance that they’ll drop better items. Working together, you can also heal teammates bleeding out or set someone to man a vehicle turret. If you want to fight each other to prove superiority or claim a rare item, you have two options. You can start a duel with another player anywhere on the landscape, but victory can feel a bit empty as the loser is left with low health. Your other choice is to seek out one of the arenas scattered throughout the landscape, where you can fight in spaces designed for multiplayer without any adverse consequences.

You can easily spend more than 30 hours completing Borderlands, and there’s plenty of incentive to experience the world again and again with friends. The game starts out a bit slow, but it grows on you the more you play.

Borderlands looks and plays like a first person shooter, but with all the crazy augments and abilities of an RPG. Foremost in defining your experience is the class you choose at the start. There are four in all: the soldier who can deploy turrets; the berserker who can go into a bare-fisted rage; the hunter who has a dive-bombing falcon; and the siren who can phasewalk to slow time and flank enemies. As you progress, skill trees, class mods, and artifacts augment these abilities. A high-level siren’s phasewalk can cause fire and electrical damage, while her melee attack puts enemies into a slow-motion daze.


Acquiring loot is a big part of gameplay, and as you pillage chests, lockers, and washing machines, you can hold a button to vacuum up all nearby cash and ammo, or to automatically swap out your weapon with one lying on the ground. Vending machines offer up more wares, regularly cycling in new inventory and periodically offering up special items. You can’t keep more gear than you can carry, though, so you’ll soon find yourself selling off old favorites. Early on, it can be tough to manage backpack space, but you can earn expansions by finding and repairing downed claptrap robots.

Borderlands features an enormous variety of guns and gear, a large part of which are randomly generated using any combination of different attributes, such as accuracy, fire rate, zoom, and elemental damage. There are pistols that light enemies on fire, sniper rifles that deal corrosive damage, and grenade modifications that turn them into bouncy or sticky variations. Instead of armor, you have regenerating shields, and some variations also restore your health. But not all items are random; exploration can lead you to some pretty sweet kit, like an alien sniper rifle that shoots lightning.

Enemy groups are ferocious and tend to get right in your face, and as you level up, an area’s tougher opponents will become more prevalent. You also gain less experience for beating down weaker foes, or running over enemies with vehicles. And when you see a so-called badass variant of an enemy, you’d better watch out, because these vicious monsters can really put you to the test.

If your health is depleted, you’ll have a brief opportunity to kill an enemy before you bleed out, and if you do, you’ll get a second wind with full shields. It’s a cool mechanic and welcome in the sometimes chaotic firefights.

Even if you clear an area, enemies and chests will respawn the next time you return, ensuring that there are no dead patches of terrain when you explore with friends. The AI sticks to its territory until you come too close or attack, which can be a little weird as some enemies seem to be staring right at you as you raise your weapon to aim.

Borderlands’ distinct comic book aesthetic separates it from other games set in desert wastelands, although it can still look a bit familiar at times. The massive landscapes are peppered with some distinct landmarks, like unusual rock formations, or a city built in a landfill, and the enemy death animations can be particularly entertaining. There’s an acute Western theme, with thick accents and ambient music evocative of tumbleweeds and dusty trails.

On the downside, the world can feel a bit stiff in some ways. NPCs and set piece items don’t react when you shoot them, and there are no ripples when you drive through water. Textures take a bit to load in when you enter a new area and some close-up shots reveal pixelated shadows.

Borderlands is a bit of a grind-fest, but that’s part of the fun, as you take on tougher enemies and hunt for bigger and badder gear. The co-op play is integrated seamlessly, and there’s a huge world to explore with friends or on your own.

Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony Playstation 3.

Source: 2K Games