Usually when writing game reviews we like to start things off by introducing the storyline and getting potential players grounded in the setting, but we haven’t done that this time. The reason is simply that the story in Borderlands is flimsy and is introduced quite pathetically.
Ostensibly, you play one of four treasure hunters who have come to the world Pandora in search of fortune. Pandora is a lawless desert world which supposedly has hidden riches – so it’s directly analogous to the Wild West setting and that’s a feeling that trickles down through the weapon designs and locations too.
The treasure in question is supposedly some big vault of alien technology and, lo and behold, as soon as you arrive on the planet a blurry picture of a woman contacts you telepathically and starts leading you towards it. Mainly she does this through making you run errands for the local towns for a reason that’s never explicitly put forwards - frankly, it begs the question of why you aren’t just torturing the info out of everyone since you’re a mercenary in a lawless world…
Class of 3001AD
Either way, thus starts the bulk of the game; running errands for Mystery Girl and the local mayors and doctors, thus slowly unlocking new areas of Pandora but being mostly confined to kicking around the desert and scraptowns. The levels are divided up into sections and each one is enclosed either by mountains or sentry guns and impossible drops.
Punctuating these story missions are the other quests that you can choose to undertake via a bulletin board in each of the towns, usually positioned next to a New-U device; Borderlands’ version of a checkpoint. Positioned throughout the landscape, these devices auto-save your game when you wander nearby and if you die then you get automatically restored at the nearest one, sans a couple of hundred coins. We’re not entirely sure what happens if you don’t have enough money, mainly because it’s impossible to take two steps in Borderlands without falling over a fistful of dollars.
The four different characters you can play as all represent a different class and play-style, as you’d expect. There’s Roland the Soldier, Brick the Berserker, Mordercai the Hunter and Lillith the Siren – Borderlands’s version of a rogue. Each one has a special ability and upgrade path, with Brick having a rage mode that makes him resistant to damage and Roland having a deployable turret, for example.
Kill it with fire!
The actual skill system underpinning the classes is very simplistic. There’s a progression bar that charts how good you are with the different weapon types and then there’s a Diablo-esque skill tree with three different paths for you rummage through. It’s all very minimal and the lack of any radical upgrades is a bit disappointing (don’t expect to learn anything beyond the turret and rage skills, as every other skill is focussed on ammo regeneration) but within the context of the game it actually works quite well. The game may have RPG groundwork, but it’s predominantly a shooter.
On the whole the two genres work quite well together in Borderlands, though there are parts of the game which suffer for it. The combat in Borderlands is pretty much a straight up FPS affair, with the RPG only coming in to play when you're managing your kit and your inventory. Combat is perhaps more detailed than a run-of-the-mill FPS though - critical hits are determined by location – so a headshot on a human is always critical and will have an extra effect depending on the weapon. It might destroy their shields, make them explode or just do x15 damage.
Unfortunately though, a disconnect then forms when you face enemies later in the game. Several times we found ourselves drawing steel against bare-chested bandits and empty entire clips of shotguns into them at point-blank range without killing them. While the critical hit system is very effective and interesting when dealing with aliens, where you often have to wait for the right opening before firing, it’s a lot more fickle when dealing with enemies. 90 minute gun fights with single enemies can get tedious.