Borderlands is an ambitious role-playing game by the guys from Gearbox who most will know from the Brothers in Arms series, and two original Half-Life expansions before that. A surprising choice as new game maybe, but first person shooter-elements are also anchored strongly in the game. Most of all Borderlands manages to position itself next to Fallout 3: a post-apocalyptic open playing world where mutated animals and local vermin rule the desolate surroundings.
Of make that inhabitant animals as the game is set on Pandora, a remote mining planet that next to digging companies attracts two types of people: criminals and treasure hunters. The latter being you. Drawn by rumours of “The Vault”, an alledged treasure of – yea – invaluable value, you end up on Pandora where a vague blue shadow tells you it’s real. And what does any schizofrenic guy who hears voices? Right… obey. Only, to find the way to the vault some tough guys need to be taken care of. Don’t ask me why.
At the start of the game you get the choice between one of four characters. The choice is important as it not only sets your style – together with a unique “weapon” – but it’s also definitive. The first class, a soldier, is targeted towards using rifles and has an automatic machine gun you can plant somewhere. The hunter prefers long distance shots is start off with a sniper rifle. A bird of prey can also be sent to hostiles to cause damage and rob money. The third class – and only female one – is the siren who can freeze time to walk up to the enemy and attack him from the back. Those that like a more intimiate approach can finally choose for the berserker, a huge guy that prefers to work with his fists.
Once you’ve made your choice there’s no way back. Skill points that can be earned as higher levels get reached cannot be used to for instance give your soldier some magical powers, but only to improve the unique strength (the rifle, the bird of prey, …) or own characteristics; The number of different expansions is large but it’s necessary to go through a simplistic form of skill tree before you can activate the most powerful ones.
The biggest part of the game exists in collecting and solving missions. Next to money and experience points these also deliver often a new weapon. There’s plenty of the latter available in the game. There’s eight different types (going from pistols and revolvers to smgs, rifles and snipers) and they come in all flavors and colors. Special properties can also increase the effect of the weapons like fire-, explosive or corrosive damage. Some are very effective against enemies with a soft skin, while others work better on armoured units.
Next to weapons there’s also plenty of other items to be found. Shields (not the Middle-Age type of course) with diverse specifications are one, but also inventive grenade upgrades and class mods are abundantly available. The latter form pluggable properties for the player, like more XP, temporary skill upgrades and – my favorite – automatic replenishment of ammo. You can see that such a huge array of items needs quite soem inventory space and especially in the beginning this is a bit of a problem. Luckily the inventory gets expanded when you complete the right missions.
Despite all these gadgets the game remains quite hard and sometimes you’ll have to take advantage of the surroundings to seek cover below a roof or behind a door that for God knows why can’t be opened. The high difficulty gets somewhat compensated by the fact that diying doesn’t have a lot of impact except for a small sum of money, and often it’s just rushing back to the place you ate lead. Unfortunately also the enemy gets his health back. Also very nice and original is the “second chance” which gives you about ten seconds after you’re dead to still kill the enemy and if you succeed you immediately get back all your shield capacity and a small bit of health.
An important selling point of this game is the multiplayer, co-op with up to four players, which is quite well worked out. In the middle of your save-game it’s possible to invite a friend or stranger to help you out in your quest, with as minor downpoint that the enemies get a bit more difficult to defeat. Also split-screen is present but when you don’t use two xbox live accounts you can only start from level 1. Quickly playing Borderlands for an hour with a friend on the couch is not possible. Also with friends that are a couple of levels higher or lower over Xbox LIVE makes the game quickly too difficult or too easy for one of you. A level 22 enemy for instance will quickly be double as hard for a level 20 player than a hostile of his own level. A more dynamic difficulty degree would have been a welcome feature and this also goes for the single player.
Graphically Borderlands definitely manages to distinguish itself from the competition. Built on the Unreal 3 engine, but finished with a cell-shaded filter it looks unique, eventhough not very detailed. Just like playing Fallout 3with Prince of Persia graphics. On the sound I unfortunately can’t be so positive: as all missions are presented in text form, the game feels a bit empty, and this gets combined with a number of small bugs that sometimes makes two voice-overs play at the same time or none at all. Also the music feels a bit odd, doesn’t really suit the surroundings, and is too repetitive.