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Borderlands: The Shacknews Review

by Chris Faylor, Oct 19, 2009 5:11pm PDT

If you've been following Borderlands from the get-go, then you won't need much of an explanation. You won't need a reminder that it has been billed as a hybrid between the first-person shooting of Halo and the addictive nature of Diablo. Right now, all you want to know is if it's worth playing; if Gearbox managed to meet its lofty aspirations.

In short, yes. That's not to say the game is free of annoyances and oddities, far from it. But despite the flaws, Borderlands offers an addictive experience that I can't stop playing.

Above all else, Borderlands really nails the feeling of character progression, of ever-increasing power. It feels like every quest, from gunning down an enemy to gathering the scattered pieces of a revolver, actually matters. Each action, each experience point, brings players one step closer to the next level, to being able to afford that nice rocket launcher sitting in the vending machine. And there's nothing quite like waltzing through an area five levels later and mowing through once-troublesome foes with a shot or two.

Further enforcing the notion of constant progression is a steady stream of new equipment and weapons. Players will regularly come across shields and guns as they explore the world of Pandora, be the loot dropped by enemies, squirreled away in some chest, tucked into the back of a locker or a reward for a job well done.

And because all but a few items are randomly generated, the constant flow of loot and the accompanying sense of discovery represents one of the game's most addictive qualities. After all, a powerful new gun could be a few shots or mere steps away. One of my favorite moments in the game was stumbling across a near replica of the assault rifle that I'd been using, with one very noticeable difference--its damage was doubled.

Treasure Quest

It's good that the lure of bigger and better things provides a clear incentive to keep going, because it makes up for the otherwise lackluster quests. Saying that I burned scripture sounds far more exciting that it actually was--I drove from checkpoint to checkpoint and pressed a button to ignite the sacred text. Then I went back to the person that gave me the quest, got a completion bonus, and was informed of the next one.

In essence, the game's numerous quests can often be broken down as follows: go to the marked point, maybe shoot some stuff and collect an item or two, then return for a reward. But to be honest, I didn't mind. Even though many missions had an air of "been there, done that," there was always incentive to keep going. After all, every little bit of experience helps, and maybe I'd run across some new equipment in the process.

Of course, the higher a quest's recommended level and the more people in a given game, the harder things become and the better the loot. Up to four can can quest together thanks to the magic of drop-in, drop-out online cooperative play.

That's not to say you need to play online--my first playthrough was mostly solo--but there are definitely sections made with co-op in mind. One boss challenges you in vehicular combat, and his vehicle is far superior--were one player to distract him and another focus on dealing damage, well, it would have been a much less frustrating fight.

In the same vein, taking down two turrets a bit later would have been much easier with more players, and I probably wouldn't have had to rely so much on sniping from afar. And that three-on-one boss battle near the end would have been way more fair.

The presence (or lack) of multiple players also presents some interesting choices for character development and equipment. For example, the soldier class skill tree involves an entire healing branch that would made him quite useful in co-op. Of course, the ability to heal teammates by shooting them is useless when there are no teammates. Fortunately, skill point assignments aren't permanent and can be tweaked for a cost.

Likewise, some items, such as one that boosts team experience by 21%, are better suited for team play. On the flip side are items that can turn lone characters into tanks, like the one that boosts ammo capacity by 60% and fire rate by 45%.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the charm and humor that permeates Borderlands. From shooting dried feces off a giant wind turbine or collecting a bunch of dirty magazines after someone's wife threw them away, it's obvious Gearbox was having fun.

Turn the page for a breakdown of annoyances and PC-specific concerns.

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Annoyances, Grievances and Oddities

But for all the things Borderlands does right, there are numerous issues, annoyances and oversights beyond some lackluster quests. And while they don't go so far as make the game unplayable, they certainly detract enough to warrant a mention.

Bosses, even the larger ones, don't stand out as particularly noteworthy or challenging. Some are just regular enemies with more health. Some are just bigger renditions of regular enemies that can be defeated using the same techniques as their smaller brethren. Some may just stand there while getting shot in the face.

A nearly useless compass points straight through obstacles, making wasteland travel far more complicated than it should be. Since there's no on-screen mini-map, I was constantly stopping to reference the full map and figure out the path to my objective.

For a game centered around loot, it's silly that there is not a better method of sharing items. Players simply drop an item on the ground and hope the right person picks it up--there's no trade window functionality. It's likewise silly that players can't gift ammo or money, especially considering that they can't instantly warp to town.

Teleporting isn't nearly as efficient or helpful as it could be. The list of areas and stations is just that, a list. With multiple warp stations in any given area, good luck figuring out which one is closer to your objective. And warping is only possible at specific points--in other words, you're probably coming out of that dungeon the same way you came in, and there's a good chance more enemies will be rushing in while you're trying to get out.

And while much has been made of Borderlands' some "87 bazillion guns," the ultra-rare unique guns are perhaps a bit too rare. Early on, I got a taste of the possibilities with T.K.'s Wave, a shotgun with bouncing pellets that served as a reward for a certain quest. But short of the shotgun with a knockback effect that I picked up from a boss later on, most of the guns I ran across were standard shotguns, rifles, pistols and rocket launchers and the like. Sure, they sported a variety of different firing rates, magazine sizes, zoom rates, but they were fundamentally similar.

PC Issues

Though it's easily the best-looking edition of Borderlands, the late-arriving PC edition also falls short, at least in its current form.

At present, voice chat is ridiculously bare bones. You can chat, but that's it. The most basic of features, the ability to turn your microphone off, is missing. There is no way to adjust the booming default volume of another's voice. They can't be muted.

According to Gearbox, that situation should be resolved by an update soon, but there's no word as to exactly when it will arrive and what functionality it will deliver. For a game built around multiplayer, the lack of proper voice chat, or even the ability to disable the microphone in-game and use an external client, represents a ridiculous, glaring and unbelievable oversight.

[Update]

A patch adding voice volume control and the option to mute arrived November 16--exactly three weeks after the game was released on PC.[/Update]

The PC version of Borderlands is also the only version with an extremely obvious and simple method of duplicating items, which means that those dedicated to cheating certainly will. It will be interesting to see how this affects the online community.

Lastly, it's a bit disappointing that there isn't support for two-player split-screen on the PC. Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions have this functionality, and with the PC version offering both the best visuals and widest range of inputs (fully customizable keyboard-mouse controls and preset gamepad layouts), it's an odd exclusion.

The End

Borderlands is not for everyone. It's certainly not Halo, and it's not exactly Diablo either. Instead, it's a stylish hybrid of the two that may not always represent the best each has to offer, but will leave many engrossed and addicted nonetheless.

And despite all my complaints, I'm still playing. That's got to mean something.

Developed by Gearbox and published by 2K Games, Borderlands hits PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on Tuesday, October 20, with the PC version due out Monday, October 26.





Comments
















  • So... it's like Tabula Rasa, only not a MMO.

    Too bad the crowd that likes this game didn't play TR, instead it somehow attracted all the hardcore MMO fans who just wanted a grind.


    That said, I still WISH and am HOPING (like a lot of people) that eventually the source code for TR gets leaked and private servers will start popping up or they'll re-release the game in a standalone form for lan play.

    I have played Borderlands on the console and it is fun, but I'd have to say if TR was released in a lan version it would be ridiculously fucking killer for lan parties. Last stands with progression are awesome.