Game Review: Borderlands

Gearbox’s Borderlands is kind of a weird bird as far as first person shooters go. In some ways it smacks of a game that wasn’t quite 100% finished, and you get the inkling that its publisher just jettisoned it out into the wild, knowing full well that it might flop to the ground and die. It’s supposed to have role-playing elements like quests and NPCs, but the world of Pandora seems anemic and sterile, lacking in people to talk to, things to interact with, and stuff to do that’s not shooting bandits or local fauna until they die. There are NPCs standing around, but they’re soulless and by and large don’t do anything other than utter the same stock phrase. Most of the “quests” involve murdering bandits or collecting Pandora’s equivalent of Goretusk livers. The nifty sci-fi meets wild West vibe aside, it’s not very engaging.

And yet, somehow, Borderlands manages to be a ton of fun, due in part to funny writing but mostly thanks to the gameplay. The combat mechanics of aiming, shooting, and triggering special abilities just feels right, and it took a long time before it got to feeling old. The leveling up mechanic and 4 character classes also gave you some fun tactical choices to make, with different buildouts and class choices giving you many options on how to approach shooting things in the face (I myself played a soldier with emphasis on building up my deployable Scorpio turret). The “bajillions of guns” loot mechanic where the game randomly cobbles together weapons by combining different attributes is a bit oversold (I found it too mentally taxing to evaluate slight differences in weapons across so many factors), but it does add a nice incentive to keep checking treasure chests and an occasional payoff when you score something clearly better than what you’ve currently got.

One other design philosophy that I feel compelled to comment on is that Gearbox apparently started with a goal of making everything player friendly and then sprinted past that goal line into “crazy” territory. But crazy in a good way. There’s ample fast travel options, for example, and vending machines are conveniently if absurdly stationed in the wilds wherever you need them. Even getting gunned down by your foes barely rates as a minor annoyance, as you just respawn nearby and only have to take a small hit to a bank account that grows to obscene balances early in the game. It’s not very challenging, but it is FUN, and I’m all on board for that.

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