Borderlands Review

Previously: Ravious’s comments

An FPS with Diablo-style quests and loot set in the weird west. You go to the planet Pandora in search of the mythical Vault. You spend most of your time gunning down bandits. Everything has a bit of attitude.

A playthrough is on the order of 20 hours. You can shave off some time by skipping side quests and being less cautious than I was, but there are limits. First, if your recklessness gets you killed, you lose time. Second, there are levels, and skill will only get you so far if half the map can one-shot you. If you want to keep playing that character after opening the Vault, you can start more playthroughs, starting over with higher level enemies.

I am not a great connoisseur of FPSes, but it gives you fun ways to shoot things. It is neither realistic nor cartoonish, just a bit wacky. You can play 4-player coop, but there is no shooting at your friends beyond dueling. It is fun, although I do not know how lasting the fun will be after you have shot 100 of everything.

For those of you unfamiliar with Diablo-style loot, I mean that every item is a random variation on a template. Depending on the roll of the dice, the next gun might be vendor trash or epically awesome. You have lots of colors, numbers, and chances to keep trying for a slightly bigger boom. Our readers are mostly MMO players, so you know how much you react to “push bar for pellet.”

The quests are mostly kill things, click things, and kill the boss. Some of them have more dramatic visuals, as when “click” means “detonate.” The killing things is why you are here, playing an FPS. The variety of guns makes that more entertaining and diverse than usual. You will find an awesome gun and go wandering just to test it out. Your rocket launcher that fires a volley of fireballs for each rocket? Your gun that empties its entire clip every time you pull the trigger, or never runs out of ammo? Your acid-spewing shotgun? Yes.

The levels are a weak point. Yes, we all love our Achiever fun, but level mods mess with an FPS. As in any MMO, go a little too high, and enemies survive multiple critical head-shots (I got a level 6 quest to kill a level 11 boss, not happening); go back a zone or two, and you trivially one-shot them. Levels also spread your special abilities, so if you really want to see what all your toys can do, you need a second playthrough.

On the other hand, some of the greatest fun is the two extremes. Walking into a bandit camp and lighting it up with a fire-spitting submachine gun is a riot. Fighting a running battle against a big boss with ridiculous hit points is classic. It gets most problematic when you mix the two, shooting down the boss in a few seconds or facing twenty guys who each need half a dozen headshots to put them down.

To note, beat it twice and the level effect goes away. That sets the game to level 50, plus or minus a couple levels. I sometimes found myself missing being able to ignore the skags right outside the starting gates.

There are bugs. The quest helper does not always point to the right spot or area. One-time quest rewards can re-drop on later playthroughs (I have 45 equipment slots). The font size on item descriptions is wrong, so it may not show everything your gun can do. My class mods shut off and reactivate every time I open my map, which is really noticeable when one affects my weapon clip size; every time I check the map, I need to re-load my clip that half-empited itself into storage. There are assorted little glitches, like my weapons skill window where I can mouse-over everything except my sniper rifle skill, which I must click.

Those sniper rifles can be game-breaking or half-useless. When enemies spawn 5 feet away, that sniper scope is not enormously useful. When you see them a long way off, you can shoot them from beyond the range at which the AI knows what to do. You can clear entire camps of enemies that just stand there wondering where those bullets are coming from. Turrets are the extreme case of potentially game-breaking in either direction: they can kill you before you realize they are there, but if you can see a pixel from around a sheltered corner, you can kill them with impunity. Because turrets do not move, you have all the time in the world to find that safe sniping spot.

My biggest complaint is the use of GameSpy for online play. Go get all your friends’ IDs on yet another service! If you bought the game through Steam or something similar, enjoy relying on both services’ being available. Learn which ports you need to open, and is that documented anywhere other than fan sites? It is a lousy thing, and I have only bothered to deal with it once.

On that multi-player, I am shaky on how voice chat is supposed to work. That is probably my fault. Multi-player is entirely free-for-all loot; be aware for public games. For me, multi-player was more active and hectic, less measured and careful. I like the small group feeling, but I am also fond of careful, precise FPSing.

The music is good. It kicks into high gear at most of the appropriate moments, although occasionally I could use it a bit earlier to signal that things are hitting the fan. The same applies to sound: I like my audio cues of what is right on top of me, because I have too much going on to watch the red dots. The assorted guns have their own sounds, and they are both satisfying and helpful. My sniper rifle clicks appropriately when I can shoot again, my SMG really sounds like it is pumping out some serious damage, and repeater pistols sound like angry dart guns. Enemies shout taunts, which makes it great fun to punctuate their sentences with a headshot. They also scream when you set them on fire or cover them with acid. We extend special props on the crazy guys with axes, who charge you while screaming about getting their pound of flesh.

The graphics are somewhat cartoony because of cell shading. They have a lighter version of the character outlines that I hated so much in Champions; I accept it here, and it becomes helpful in an FPS where single pixels can matter. The visuals work better in-game than in the cut scenes, where it sometimes looks like faces are flowing within their outlines.

On the specifics, the visuals can be really great. The badass-class enemies have impressively oversized (and often element-attuned) models. The bugs are things you could see trying to rend your flesh or hug your face. The guns do not all look the same. The bandits, sadly, mostly look the same: the game is good at making things look large and impressive or small and pestering, but the normal enemies are, well, normal. The scenery is another thing you will not be noticing. Wasteland is wasteland, and the buildings are also Mad Max chic. There are also caves. The Descent, however, is a zone with good visuals, using the Z-axis to help with that sense of scale as you head to the end.

Claptraps are cute. “Check me out! I’m dancin’! I’m dancin’!” Scooter is also fun in his clueless/spot-on, sometimes off-color way.

The menu interface is unfortunate. It mixes keyboard and mouse in a way that implies a half-done port from a console. Many screens have an entirely decorative option to “hit enter for OK”; you must click to okay it. You buy ammo one clip at a time, with no “refill” option. Hitting K to open your skills from the map screen will flash your skills then close the menu. Fortunately, you spend little time in these menus, and the normal in-game interface is simpler and better, except for the oddity of using the same command for “pick up all nearby ammo” and “pick up and equip that gun in place of the one I am using.”

Difficulty: low. Keep dialing up your ambition until you start hitting the ground. When you do, the death penalty is tiny; the main problem is running low on ammo when you try again or having enemies re-spawn on you. One feature is that you can win a close fight that you lose. When you hit the ground, you “fight for your life” with about 10 seconds to keep going. If you get a kill in that time, you stand up again. This is great for all those times you almost had him, although it adds a new layer of “almost,” and it makes it really annoying when someone kills you with a grenade from around the corner. The difficulty increases for the non-random set pieces, and enemy grenades are far more common at higher levels. Once you find the right gun, not much is difficult.

The long run limitation is the list of things to shoot. Most of your time will be spent with bandits, with their dozen or so variations. You get a half-dozen other enemy types, most of which have a half-dozen variations. Then you add the super-powered versions of each, which differ in scale and color if not approach. That gives a lot of micro difference, but not a lot of macro. Skags and bandits are skags and bandits, no matter what numbers are next to their names, and the variations often come down to big ones, little ones, and attack types.

Along the way, you do meet some novel variations. There is a Godzilla skag and a Mothra rakk. Rakk Hive is awesome, which is all I will say to avoid spoilers. You may find yourself repeating boss fights because they are great moments that differ from the normal bandit camps and skag nests.

The ending is incoherent. They don’t even try to explain or justify, just roll credits.

I took Roland, the Soldier, to level 50. As with anything level-based, you commit to one character to make any headway, so I have had limited time with the others. The way I play solo leans towards the Hunter, what with the sniper rifles and high-damage ranged attacks, but there is something really nice about being able to toss the turret and soak up healing and ammo. Much of that became moot, however, when my Soldier was running around with an infinite ammo weapon and a shield with fast health regeneration. Reckless Roland charges the front, then hides for a bit when his red and blue bars drop too much. The turret really is like having another soldier on the field, possibly better.

: Zubon

7 thoughts on “Borderlands Review”

  1. “Our readers are mostly MMO players, so you know how much you react to “push bar for pellet.””

    Heh, I was writing about Skinner earlier. Synchronicity.

    Nice review, tenky much Z.

  2. “Our readers are mostly MMO players, so you know how much you react to “push bar for pellet.”

    Crap, he knows his audience.

    with your multiplayer notes, i pretty much noticed the same – public groups are just run&gun, and I’ve taken to only coop’ing with friends so we can play at a speed we all enjoy.

    I noticed the Rakk Hive sound persisted after it ended, as though the “sound bubble” hadn’t shut off properly, which was somewhat confusing.

    I didn’t find the ending too incoherent – possibly because i was a total pessimist though, and was practically expecting it. the satellite bit was awesome though, that was a surprise.

      1. Essentially the satellite bit was just the camera pulling out to orbit showing the satellite. This gives you the impression that the chic who has been talking to you the whole time was just some sort of AI in the satellite.

  3. Another fault of the game is that your game save is local to your PC, which means if you lose it, you lose everything. I am quite tired of games that have large online features, but no online storage of your game files. I lost my saved game file after upgrading to Win7 and just haven’t had the time to get back past level 25 or so. It really killed my enthusiasm for the game.

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