Review: Borderlands

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Cool guns have become as much a part of gaming’s fabric as health packs and life meters. Whether it’s a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle or a machine gun that fires heat-seeking bullets, many gamers have their favorite brands of fire-spitting, death-spewing hardware. For some, it’s even an obsession.

That’s where the true power of Gearbox’s Borderlands lies. It’s the “Guns & Ammo” of gaming, appealing to our inner firearms enthusiast. Not only does it stroke our urge to search for, collect and play with new toys that go bang, it gives us the ultimate playground. Sure there’s a plot and a story, but who cares when you have a high-powered rifle that shoots electric rounds?

A land called Pandora serves as the playground of death, where you step into the role of a mercenary in search of the legendary Vault, a place rumored to have untold riches and endless power.

Naturally, you’re not the only one who wants the Vault, so you’ll encounter legions of creatures, crazy bandits and other characters who generally serve as either sources for your various missions or food for your weaponry.

I enjoyed the game’s visual tone. A wide-open wasteland like Pandora doesn’t immediately lend itself to stunning graphics, but the game’s hand-drawn art style adds personality to the glut of shantytowns, arenas and landscapes you encounter.

It also adds detail to the roughly 500,000 guns (so I was told at E3) in the game, all with special powers and funky design concepts, such as a shotgun that loads like a revolver. You also have access to tons of mods, shields and other items that can help make your character in a fearsome treasure hunter.

As a fusion between the first-person shooter and role-playing disclipines, the gun-happy nature of Borderlands has a tinge of ambition to it. It’s almost covert in how it weaves it’s load of potentially tedious role-playing elements (looting, character building, exploration, branching side-stories) into the atmosphere of explosive gunplay.

But when a game fuses genres in the hopes of capitalizing on their strengths, it inevitably runs into some weaknesses as well.

For instance, as fun as playing with hundreds of thousands of guns can sound, the action still breaks down into shooting enemies — which can get very boring. The game likes to chuck gobs of bandits and indigenous creatures at you at almost every opportunity, and it eventually becomes less about being engaged in a gunfight and more about leveling up.

Speaking of leveling, I was a little annoyed at the fact that my level determined the power of my bullets. I understand the RPG concept of higher levels meaning more attack power, but the FPS player in me wanted to believe that a combination of skill and timing can overcome any obstacle. Not the case. If someone’s too high a level, not even a rocket launcher could be enough to destroy them if you’re not at least on par with their number. That neuters some of the pleasure you’d take in blasting away at the enemy.

In some ways, it felt like the game was compensating for the fact that some of its enemies moved like lemmings, content to wander into your hail of gunfire.

At least the game has a sense of humor. When in multiplayer, you can melee attack one of your friends and immediately find yourself squaring off in an arena, much like the Thunderdome. The game experience as a whole improves when you play with friends, as the single player experience has a tendency to drag — unless, of course, you enjoy the art of building up your character.

Borderlands at its base can serve as the equivalent of a hunting range or shooting gallery, where you and your pals play with guns and tinker with them to pass the time. But unless you’re really into gun shows, there’s a chance you’ll eventually move on to another obsession.

Xbox 360, PS3
2K Games / Gearbox
Rated M for Mature