One Day in the Borderlands

I’m still not sure if I’ll ever do proper reviews on this site, but I want to branch out a bit from only covering other people’s coverage. So this is my first shot at a “quick look” style article.

Although I’ve known about the game for many years now, it wasn’t until the last few months that I’ve started to get really excited to play Borderlands by Gearbox. I’ve long been appreciative of the workmanship Gearbox puts into their titles. They’ve made expansions for Valve’s Half-Life series, adapted Bungie’s first Halo game for the PC and shipped three high quality tactical shooters in the WWII set Brothers in Arms games. Despite this impressive resume, Borderlands seems set to be a breakout game for Gearbox. They’ve stepped out of the shadow of Valve and Bungie, left the well-worn fields of World War II Europe behind and created an original sci-fi setting with eye-catching visual style for Borderlands.

Lighting bandits on fire for fun and profit!
Lighting bandits on fire for fun and profit!

The game starts out on exactly the right foot with a pitch-perfect opening video. No, not the animated exposition that sketches out the back story about a mythic “Vault” filled with riches somewhere on Pandora. I’m talking about the sweet bus-ride into the first town set to the song “Ain’t no Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant which introduces you to the 4 possible player characters.

When the Bus rolls up to the stop at Fyrestone some mysterious woman hacks your eyes and tells you to get off the bus and look for a little robot with further instructions. Clap-Trap is his name and he sounds exactly like your droid co-pilot from X-Wing Alliance. It was kinda distracting at first, but you won’t have to talk to him much after you make it through the tutorial and into the town of Fyrestone.

Elemental effects are special.
Elemental effects are special.

I played on the PC and had to turn the sensitivity on the mouse way down initially, but after that the mouse+keyboard controls feel great. The game is also gorgeous at 1680×1050, my monitor’s native resolution. A lot of virtual ink has been smeared across the intarwebs about the change from the original next-gen generic brownshaded look to this vibrant, graphic novel inspired direction. No, it’s not too cartoony. It is in no way “less gritty” than it might’ve been. People who criticized the change were doing so with a misconceived notion about the game’s ultimate character anyway. It’s violent, but it also has a sense of humor. After playing for 30 minutes you won’t even think about the fact that it’s “cell shaded”.

My one day playing is like 140 days in game (possible exaggeration). The day/night cycles is pretty fast. You don’t think about it until it’s suddenly a little darker than you want for your mission, but not so dark you’d actually try and wait it out. My first character, a Soldier, made it to level 10 in that amount of time. That’s high enough to have found some pretty sweet guns, moderately upgraded one or two abilities and unlocked vehicles.

The grinding/looting/shooting gameplay is a lot of fun. Experimenting with different weapon types drives a lot of my interest, but you also have that age-old Diablo problem of getting attached to a weapon you’ve long since leveled past. You’ll also be prevented with the occasional Sophie’s choice in the field when your inventory gets full and you have to decide which guns to drop. My method of keeping at least one of each kind of gun on my person at all times means the discretionary space isn’t high to begin with.

The Soldier class has the special ability to spawn a turret when needed. It has a long cool down time so you can’t use it very frequently at low levels, but it’s extremely useful for drawing enemy attention away from you. It also has an energy barrier you can use for cover. The Soldier’s skill tree allows you to upgrade the turret’s damage or create a healing or ammo regeneration effect for nearby allies.

Short characters have a clear disadvantage on Pandora.
Short characters have a clear disadvantage on Pandora.

I haven’t had a chance to check out co-op multiplayer yet, but the game is clearly inspired by MMO game organization in a lot of ways. The first town has a couple characters offering story related missions, but there is also a mission board and a number of vending machines for weapons and supplies. Some missions are very much in the “go kill X monsters” or “collect N bear asses” variety. The story mission have you solve the town’s problem with local bandits and open up more of the game world, other staples of RPG design.

The conventions are familiar, but it’s great to see a game that successfully combines RPG tropes with great FPS gameplay. Too many that have tried fail as shooters, undermining the whole project. Early in the game, Borderlands has struck a great balance. In fact, I’m having so much fun I literally dreamed about the game last night. I’ve dreamt about games before, but never after only one day playing.

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