The Sleeper Hit Returns
Gearbox might be rightfully accused of some dubiousness over calling this collection a “Game of the Year” edition; it was given the title by only one website, and that was RPGland for being the Xbox 360 RPG of the year. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that this game, one infamously pronounced by Michael Pachter as “being sent out to die” in late 2009, did manage to surprise everyone by providing a solid, addictive, co-operative gameplay experience that managed to stand out from the crowd. And now it’s back in a new, collected edition, for people that might have missed the hoopla the first time around.
While the story in Borderlands clearly plays second fiddle to the shooting, it frames the actions of the player. In this case, an arid, parched planet called Pandora has been largely abandoned by the corporations that colonized it in times past, finding little to exploit. What few colonists remain have made a life on the harsh world, and spread legends of a mysterious Vault filled some sort of fabulous treasure. You and up to three other friends choose from four unique characters that shoot their way across the Pandora wasteland in search of this fabled Vault.
The graphics, particularly for a shooter, are uniquely presented. Eschewing the traditional “realistic” rendering most games strive for, Borderlands uses a more comic-book, cel-shaded style that gives the desolate, off-world adventure a look strongly reminiscent of famed French artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius. It’s a brighter, more colorful look for an FPS that successfully dodges the “brown and grey palette overdose” issue most games in the genre suffer from.
The audio also manages to make a distinct name for itself, evoking the ambience of the American old west, with guitar twangs in the music, and characters that all speak as if they’ve stepped out of a Western pulp novel. Southern drawl is in heavy—and comedic—effect here, with a collection of enemies and NPCs that give you the distinct impression that Pandora is more accurately labelled “Planet Hick” although its all done with tongue firmly in cheek. The sound effects do a good job of conveying the explosions and gunfire, though the vehicles sound a bit like they’re running off two beanie propellers and some rubber bands. All in all, however, sound and visuals come together to create a unique presentation experience.
It’s Always Better With Friends
This is Diablo with guns. It’s an action RPG crammed into an FPS, but it has all the traditional levelling—and loot mongering—that has become a staple of the Diablo franchise. And like Diablo, it’s not a solitary experience. While Borderlands can be played as a single-player game, the heart and soul of the title is the co-operative multi-player that can be done locally with split-screen, or with up to three other online friends.
The basic experience is the same regardless of the way you play it; take missions, roam the large world, kill things, collect money, experience points and better weapons to upgrade your character. It’s bolstered by some very tight, responsive controls and weapons in which stats are everything, lending a meaningful context to the RPG elements. The game however, is not a casual experience, as there’s no difficulty setting, with Borderlands taking the rather Oblivion-esque approach of scaling the encounters to the number of players present, and their current weapons and level. This guarantees that adventures outside the newbie zone of Fyrestone will usually be tense affairs where victory is far from certain.
Like its obvious Diablo influence, Borderlands manages the delicate trick of balancing both “mindless action” in this case, the hectic shooting of things, with well conceived RPG mechanics. Characters get skills that can affect them both personally and benefit the entire the team, from better gun skills to team boosts that reduce cool down periods on special actions. It’s the weapons however, that are the real star of the show, procedurally generated to guarantee that aside from “named weapons” that bosses drop, no two players, even in the same class with the same skill-set, will ever have identical loot. For the loot-mongering mindset, this sets up an addictive cycle of constantly killing enemies and exploring the area for weapon crates to compare the latest acquisitions with the existing arsenal. It’s fiendish and it works.
The real star of the show however, is the multi-player experience. All games are fun with friends, but in Borderlands, the balance of classes and how they interact with each other means effective fighting and teamwork yields huge results. Whether you’re playing in local split-screen or online, the experience of Borderlands is geared to ensure that everyone has a good experience with little downtime, even allowing for friendly duels for the more PvP inclined.
As far as what’s new in this Game of the Year edition, the only differences are that the game comes with a redeemable code for all existing DLC on your online store, and a new map folded into the case showing the various locales. There’s no new content here, it’s the same game and DLC that’s already available for purchase, but the purchase value is significant in that regard. Each add-on is worth $10, so the combined package offers excellent value for those that still haven’t picked up the title.
In the end, Borderlands: Game of the Year edition is highly recommended for those that have yet to play the 2009 game. It surprised many last year by providing a solid, engaging, frenetic co-op experience. It may have been overshadowed by the higher profile titles of 2009, and that’s likely to happen again this year, but when you take issues of brand recognition away, what you’re left with is a big chunk of quality content that will keep you and your friends happily shooting away from quite some time. If you like playing shooters with your friends, and enjoy meaningful character advancement, this is definitely a game to own.