Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Borderlands Review

Borderlands is a First Person Shooter with RPG elements that was made in 2009 by Gearbox Software. In it, the player controls one of four "Vault Hunters," treasure seekers in search of "The Vault," a rumored cache of alien technology. I know I've already covered the style and roleplaying elements of the game in an earlier post, but I wanted to make a full review of it too, so here goes. This is for the PC version, by the way, though that really doesn't change anything.

[Note: For whatever reason, I still can't take screencaps of the game with my computer. Thus, I merely took some from IGN's image pool (rather obviously). These images are from the Xbox version and are on slightly higher graphic settings, but everything looks about 99% identical, so...]

     I'll cut to the chase; Borderlands is best described as a "hollow" game. The gameplay is fun, but it - and the game as a whole, really - lacks a soul. Playing Borderlands has no purpose beyond playing Borderlands. Nothing you accomplish ever feels important, and the result is that it all feels kind of pointless. Imagine, for a moment, if Link to the Past didn't have any puzzles. You would just walk around as Link killing respawning creatures until you reached a certain area, at which point you would advance to a new area and kill more respawning creatures, etc. until eventually you got to Ganon and smacked him until you took him out. Now make that same game a first person shooter, and replace Hyrule with Pandora (the planet Borderlands takes place on), and you've got the basics of Borderlands. Don't get me wrong, Borderlands is quite a bit of fun. But it's also a great example of why just being "fun" isn't enough.

     The gameplay of Borderlands is very smooth and very functional (seriously, except for an awkward melee attack, it controls flawlessly), but ultimately "empty." Basically, the game is a string of quests, which are always "kill this person" or "get this item," or quite often both. You take the quests, then turn them in, usually by going back to where you got them. I guess you don't have to do the quests that take you back to areas you've already gone through. You could just advance the main quest line that has you get through the game in the most expedient manner. But, why bother? This is the whole game. Once you beat it, you get to start a second playthrough, with the exact same quests and the exact same enemies, only scaled for higher levels. Besides, the game actively encourages that you take on side quests by placing them nearby your main quest objectives and making them very lucrative reward- and experience-wise. But the end result is still just "go here, kill some guys, turn in the quest, start the next one, repeat."

See how similar this screencap is to the previous one? Funny thing about that.
     This wouldn't be so huge a problem if it weren't for the fact it gets so darn repetitive. I mean, that seems like the obvious thing that would happen, but the fact of the matter is that most, or at least many games have very similar content throughout. What makes them avoid repetitiveness on a mechanical level is uniqueness in other ways. Warcraft 3, for example, has pretty much the same gameplay throughout, but keeps you engaged by changing the objectives, environments, and story - often drastically - which always makes you feel like you're seeing something new. In Borderlands, though, all the quests mirror each other, there is no real story to speak of, and the areas are all markedly similar. There's never really any real sense of progression; it's like you're caught in some sort of fetch quest limbo. Indeed, after the first few areas (i.e. after you've seen the different types of enemies), the only real indicator of the game advancing is your level. Though I decried the inclusion of RPG elements in my earlier post, I suppose this highlights the one good thing about them in Borderlands.

It's flawed, but at least it has a purpose. Which is more than I can say for other parts of the game.
     Even the items/inventory stuff could have lifted the game up a little bit, but sadly they just serve to make it all the more bland. The problem is that there's so much. And I don't mean so many types of guns, which can actually be a good thing. I mean there are so many guns. I've found probably upwards of 30 in a single area, if not more. The problem is that it's redundant and it makes everything feel...not special. Like, the whole point of having unique items is so that they stand out from everything else. A good example of this is Golden Sun 2 for the Gameboy Advance. The unique weapons in that game, like the Thanatos Axe and so on, feel really special because they're so different. They have cool, unique abilities, can only be used by certain characters, and come in all kinds of forms ranging from swords to wands. They're almost always better than the more generic weapons, and you usually keep them for a while. Furthermore, they're pretty rare, so you aren't overwhelmed by the amount. Borderlands, on the other hand, does this all wrong. None of the weapons really feel special or different from what you've been using, and as a result finding and using them is bland and boring. Yes, there are a few among them that are interesting and sort of stand out, but they often become obsolete within the space of a single play session. To make matters worse, half the time they're worse than stuff you can find in shops.

     While this is a problem in and of itself, it just serves to make the side quests even more unsatisfying. Quite often, your reward for completing said quests comes in the form of getting a gun of some kind (usually along with some experience). The problem is, this isn't really a good reward. I don't know about you, but I don't really feel all that motivated to go complete a quest so I can get a weapon that's either worse than what I have, or will soon become obsolete. Yes, I can always just sell it for money, but all I'll be able to use the money for is buying more equipment that will soon be phased out. The problem is that Borderlands sets its rewards really small (too small, in fact) and gives them to you much too quickly. You never feel like you've accomplished anything worth noting. And that highlights the whole game, really. Borderlands is a very "brain off" kind of game. There is so little thinking involved in it that an animal would be able to understand it. You run up to enemies, shoot them, find the thing for your quest, turn in, and repeat. Thanks to the excellent controls, visuals, and mechanics, it's not boring, but it's just...bland. Imagine getting a bag of potatoes, and just eating them plain. When you look into the bag and you realize that you ate them all, without trying to cook them differently or add any seasonings to change the taste, you wonder what the point of it all was. And that is Borderlands right there. There's no real point to playing this game. It's like a glorified game of Pong in that sense, only without the difficulty.

     That's the last thing I'll talk about with the gameplay; the difficulty, or rather the lack of it. Borderlands is easy. I don't even know if there's a "Game Over" screen because I've never even gotten close to not being able to respawn (I don't even know if it's a possibility). Yes, I've died a number of times...and respawned right away with a tiny fraction of my finances taken away. What's sad is that most of my deaths happened while I was backtracking across massive areas full of respawning enemies and not during boss fights. The bosses aren't particularly difficult, normal enemies are really quite easy (though this is not so much a fault of the AI, which is actually not bad), and quest objectives are just as bad. This is another big problem with Borderlands. I expect games like this to at least challenge me, if only a little. Even if I don't feel like I'm accomplishing something, even if I find everything else bland, I want to feel like I'm improving or doing something in the game. The game has a very constant difficulty; things don't get more or less difficult as you play more, either of which would have been positive. If I can't feel like I'm actually getting a challenge, I at least want to feel like I'm getting better at playing the game. Borderlands provides none of this, completing its lack of purpose, and hammering the final nail into its own coffin.

     I can't say the game is without any redeeming points, however. For one, the graphics are excellent. Seriously, this game engine is just fantastic (I mean, look at the screencaps). Everything is all cel-shaded, but has a really high amount of detail to it on the highest settings. As an added bonus, it's not even that hard to run. I use a laptop, but I'm able to run the game on max settings without a problem on the 640x480 resolution (it hiccups on max resolution, but so little changes that I don't feel I'm missing anything at all). Unfortunately, the visuals as a whole are a little disappointing. The overall aesthetic of the game is...okay, I guess, but the area design feels bland and uninspiring. The color palette is very dull and uninteresting, and after the first few areas most locations start looking the same and blur together. Even if only this had been done right, the game would have been markedly improved. I mean, just look at Muramasa: The Demon Blade. That game was pretty simple and certainly repetitive, but it always felt worth playing because of the amazing backgrounds and areas. Even if some of the locations in main Japan were very similar, for the most part you could remember them. The boss locations like Jigoku or the Tengu Mountain felt unique and new, and at the very least areas always had some variety within themselves. Borderlands? Nothing. Junk piles, rocks, more rocks, dirt, big rocks with dirt. Everything is brown or beige or gray and utterly dull and dreary looking. It's all just so uninteresting and prevalent throughout the whole game that even with the amazing graphics, at the end of the day your eyes will still feel like they were eating potatoes. No, I mean, like that thing I said earlier about the gameplay-oh forget it.

     Probably the only thing about the game that is consistently positive is its music. I'm actually really impressed with the score for this game. No, it's nothing particularly special, but it was one of the few stylistic elements that, well, actually existed. It reminded me a lot of Mark Morgan's music (he's the one that did the music for Fallout), in that it was kind of minimalistic. Without the music (and the game advertisements), I probably wouldn't have even known Borderlands is supposed to be a space western. I feel it deserves a mention for that, at least. Nothing extremely memorable or great (in a "I want to go buy and listen to this soundtrack kind of way), but certainly better and more satisfying than the rest of the game.

     I guess the story needs a section too, though I use the term "story" loosely. See, Borderlands doesn't really tell a story. It has a semblance of a plot, yes, but there aren't really any characters in the game (the player characters don't count because while they advance the plot, they don't really take part in the story), and you can't have a story without characters. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh, but the original DOOM communicated what was happening better than this game did. Freaking. DOOM. From 1993. The game where any semblance of a "story" is told solely through text between levels. I guess the biggest problem is that you never really feel like you're advancing the plot, then all of a sudden at the end the game goes "Here's the Vault" and it gives you one of the most confusing, unexplained, and above all unsatisfying (see a common theme here?) endings I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing. It also didn't help that every ******* time you did something important, the game felt the need to explain to you why what you did was important. It's like, yeah, I can figure out the gravity of what I just did on my own, thank you very much.

     I really don't have much more to say here, so I guess I'll just close on a note about the nature of the game itself. A better name for Borderlands would have been "Broderlands." This game is great for playing with friends or when you have nothing to do on a lazy summer day and you want to just turn your mind off. The co-op is really fluid and smooth, and because you don't have to pay attention to anything that's happening (because it's all bland and tepid anyways), it's basically the perfect "thing you do while hanging out with your friends." Unfortunately, despite that fact, it's not so great as a video game on the whole. Really, any part of a game has the ability to give meaning to its gameplay. Muramasa did it with its art. The Bit.TRIP games (or perhaps Castlevania would be a better example) did it with their difficulty. Bastion (or at least, so I've heard) did it with its sound. Fallout did it with its setting exploration. Deus Ex, with its superb character creation. The list goes on, but the point is that regardless of how "good" these games were, there was something about them that made them feel like you were accomplishing something worthwhile or experiencing something new and cool. There was something to give them a purpose. Borderlands doesn't have that, and that's the biggest problem.

     Borderlands is, to reiterate, a "hollow" game. It's like finding a chocolate truffle, biting through the shell, and finding only a crushing emptiness. Okay, so maybe it's not that depressing a feeling (disappointing chocolate is a crime against humanity), but the fact remains that for all its well-made mechanics and smooth technical aspects, the game itself is extremely unfulfilling.

     Plot/Narrative: I have to give this game points for having a decent setting and an...okay...premise. But the story Borderlands tells - and, much more importantly, how it tells it - is so bland, linear, and boring that I can't find it in me to give it anything higher than "bad." There's no character growth, change, or development, and there are barely any characters at all. Seriously, the whole story amounts to "voice tells you to kill people and find things, kill boss, game ends." It doesn't help that the voice treats you like you don't have a brain.
     Gameplay: The gameplay in Broderlands (yeah, I'm pretty proud of that one, can you tell?) is utterly bland. There's no point to it. It's like Sisyphus' fate: the video game. Granted, Borderlands is probably a lot more fun than pushing a boulder up a hill, but I've definitely seen better "turn your brain off and enjoy games." The main redeeming feature is the extremely smooth mechanics, but they can't make up for its purposelessness.
     Visuals: Borderlands has absolutely awesome graphics and visuals. The amount of detail present despite retaining "that cel-shaded look" (you know the one) is impressive, to say the least. The main thing that stops this rating from being higher is that the visual design of the game is so unimpressive. For most of the areas, I could probably recognize their basic layout, 'cause I played the game not too long ago. But could I point out the differences in the way they look? No way. Overall, though, above average.
     Sound: Good music, pretty darn good voice acting (bland script aside), and great sound effects make the audio the best part of the game. If it added a little more to the game experience, it'd probably be higher, but as it stands my ears still enjoyed this quite a bit.

Overall: Borderlands...you could do worse. But you could sure as heck do better, too. It's a fun game - for a while, at least - but it's not a good game. It lacks the hands to really pull you in or grip you with, and that's a huge problem. If you have a long period of time with no/few obligations ahead of you (read: summer break), or if you're looking for a game to play co-op with someone, then this is a good choice. It's got great graphics, solid mechanics, and smooth controls. But...if you're looking for a good story, satisfying gameplay, or a (positive) memorable experience, avoid.

Got feedback? Complaints, arguments, suggestions, requests, or whatever else, I read it all, so leave a comment!


  1. Borderlands is game I would love to try, since it looks interesting and the RPG elements sounds fun. I might get the sequel if it gets a good reception.

    Don't think it being repetitive is a problem, since I like Team Fortress 2...

    1. I would probably recommend this game if you had people to play it co-op with, since that's a lot of fun. The sequel does look pretty cool (even if I'll never be able to run it), if only because it seems like it might actually have some semblance of a story (though I suppose I shouldn't hold my breath).

      Well, the problem isn't that it's repetitive, it's that it *feels* repetitive. To use Muramasa as an example again, the gameplay is very "same-y" throughout. But because you're going to new areas and unlocking new (unique) swords, it *feels* like you're doing something different. Then again, I've never played Team Fortress 2, so maybe it has the same kind of repetitiveness as Borderlands. If you think you'll enjoy it, yeah, go for it.

  2. You summed up the reason I hate Borderlands better than I ever could. It's like they tried to do Diablo as an FPS... and failed so, so horribly.

    1. Oh, I doubt that. If there's one thing I know about you, it's that you can get your thoughts out clearly. Also, that's pretty funny, 'cause I thought the same thing. I've never played Diablo before (have played a few clones, though), but I was amazed at how much the concept of Borderlands mirrored a hack-n-slash RPG.