[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.|
|It's flawed, but at least it has a purpose. Which is more than I can say for other parts of the game.|
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.
Overall: 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: 3.5 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: 4/10 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: 6.5/10 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: 7.5/10 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.
Game Rating: 4/10 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!