Home > Gaming, Opinions (Gaming) > Gaming: Borderlands is much better than it should be

Gaming: Borderlands is much better than it should be

Lilith and Mordecai

Wikipedia quote: "Borderlands includes character-building elements found in role-playing games, leading to Gearbox calling the game a "role-playing shooter"."

It’s easy to come up with reasons why Borderlands shouldn’t be such a great game and I’m going to list those reasons below. Boiling it down like that suggests the game shouldn’t work but in actuality I found Borderlands to be a lot of fun and one of my favourite games of 2009 (at the time of writing it’s fourth in my list), so in this list I’ll also try and explain why I enjoyed it so much. So without further ado, the game shouldn’t work because:

It was promoted as the result of the FPS and RPG genres having a baby but the RPG side is a light version of Diablo‘s, itself already on the lighter end of the RPG genre (in a way showing how vague a term RPG has become).

As a first-person Diablo game though it works really well (certainly much better than Hellgate: London, which tried a similar approach). It also helps that the shooting works so well, thanks to Gearbox Software really knowing their way around shooters (and in some respects makes it the opposite of Fallout 3, which was a combination of FPS & RPG that prioritised the RPG side).

While weapon stats and enemy levels do alter the damage they inflict a lot of it is still based on player skill, so there’s no sense that you’re being undone by behind-the-scenes stats. Each successful hit tells you the damage inflicted and upon hitting a weak point (such as the head on a human enemy) a big ‘critical’ pops up with it, giving you instant feedback. It practically makes it an open world FPS with a lengthy campaign and co-op for up to four players.

The environments are repetitive, all essentially different versions of Wasteland, Bandit Camp, Town and Cave.

The planet of Pandora is mostly a huge wasteland and in some respects this would make it an even more desolate place than Fallout 3‘s Capital Wasteland, which was  a large plain of dull greys, browns and ruined buildings. However, Gearbox wisely made the decision to completely revamp the art style fairly late in the development process, giving it a stylised comic-book feel similar to that of Crackdown. It really makes a difference, making it look somewhat unique and adding a lot of style and colour that would otherwise have been lacking.

There are only a few enemy types throughout the game, most of which you fight in the first areas, and even then it’s primarily bandits all the way through.

This is mostly an RPG criticism as RPGs generally have a wide variety of enemy types, making it unlikely that you’ll finish the game fighting the same enemies you were battling at the start. In a shooter it’s much more common to mainly face the same enemies all the way through (especially if those enemies are something like Nazis or terrorists, limiting the possible escalation). It could be argued that Borderlands has more enemy variety than a lot of shooters just as easily as saying it has less enemy variety than an RPG. Crucially, I never found the bandits (of which there are actually quite a lot of different types) to be dull enemies to fight, thanks to the escalation in levels, weapons and numbers.

The story mostly gets put on hold almost from the start, with you primarily doing minor quests and odd jobs for the entirety of the game, some of which just about tie into the main quest by having them eventually lead to people you need to kill.

This is a common problem in open RPGs, setting up a big conflict that threatens the land/world/galaxy/universe and then letting you spend tens of hours on sidequests instead of doing anything about it. Borderlands doesn’t quite do that as the central hook is simply a vault full of treasure that can only be opened at a set time and requires a key to do so, a key that (naturally) has been split into multiple pieces that have been shared among multiple villains. Rather than just kill each villain there are various things that need to be done to grant you access and undermine their operations, so a lot of the time you are technically working towards the goal even if it doesn’t feel like it. Both main and side quests are mostly just reasons to go somewhere new and kill absolutely everybody there for experience points and loot, scratching that same kind of grinding itch that has kept people playing Diablo 2 for a decade and which are a major motivation in online-only games like World of Warcraft, games that Borderlands sits alongside comfortably.

One of the game’s big selling points, that there are over seventeen million guns in the game, is considerably less impressive when you realise that we’re mostly talking minor variations in stats.

This isn’t in any way a surprise as there obviously weren’t going to be so many unique weapons as manually programming them in would have taken many years and most people wouldn’t see even one percent of them through their time with the game, but it’s still a little disappointing. Anecdotes of people finding a shotgun that shoots rockets made it sound like a wild, random system that could sometimes come up with something outrageously broken and wonderful, but then upon playing the game you learn that ‘shoots rockets’ is just a random stat that’s a carefully balanced part of the item’s stat budget, and even then is only available to shotguns.

Much like Diablo though Borderlands is a game about loot (I’m quite fond of using the term loot-em-up to describe them rather than RPGs) and it’s another system that Gearbox have pulled off well, as finding a weapon that’s better than what you’re using generally feels like a little treat and is a key motivation driving you forward.

There are some other pluses and minuses that didn’t quite make the list: It uses Halo’s vehicle controls (Plus!), other than one special ability and unique perks there’s not a great amount of differences between classes (Minus!), the game doesn’t take itself too seriously (Plus!), you can use your solo character in multiplayer (Plus!) and the game scales the difficulty well to take the extra players into account (Plus!).

That’s the best case I can make for why I found Borderlands so much fun. Playing through it really was a blast despite the lack of variety, deep plot or meaningful choices and I’m incredibly pleased that it sold well enough to make a sequel seem like “a no-brainer.” More please, Gearbox!

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  1. August 14, 2010 at 21:30

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