“Based on your current stress patterns, I calculate a 94.3 per cent chance that you will encounter an unfortunate death experience.”
– Claptrap, Borderlands, on an inevitability we all face.
“Fun”, in the realms of video game description, is a word used far too oft when the person responsible for the use of the word is uninspired to the point of the exchange of fundamentally meaningless platitudes constituting, for their unfortunately idle minds, something approaching “meaningful comment.” “Fun” is the result of laziness: a way to say nothing about the substance of the object of discussion, but still communicating something positive about it – little more than the content found in “x was good” can be found in the statement “it was fun.” “Fun” is good; everyone likes fun. Nothing disagreeable can be found in describing something as “fun”: it is a fine example of a weasel word in criticism. “Fun” conveys little in honesty, and even less in passion.
For all of this pretext, it has to be said: Borderlands is incredibly fun.
From the gritty cel-shaded aesthetic to the narrative style, everything about the game screams playfulness. There is not a single element of the game that can be said to be taking itself seriously, and the immediacy of the gameplay suffers very little for this. The apparent formula of the game, being a first-person action-oriented RPG, should not imply anything special: Borderlands should be just another Deus Ex, just another BioShock, just another shooter with a tacked-on levelling system.
At its core, this formula does describe Borderlands quite well: the first choice made in the game is that of a class for the player character, and these are roughly what you would expect: from a game of this type – a sniper, a solider, something a bit mystical and a class whose go-to strategy is simply that of “I am stronger than you.” It would be a valid criticism to be levied against the game that its choice of classes of protagonists could have been drawn from any game within its genre, its saving grace in this regard comes from its excellent characterisation of the player character. The game skimps on lengthy, passive exposition, instead preferring to explicate the nature of the protagonists through throwaway lines dependent upon game context. Lilith, the Siren, has her slight mental instability drawn out from her laughs upon the death of enemies; Brick, the game’s tank, has his screams of “BLOOD!” to point to his anger management issues and certain lack of mental acuity. The story itself is told through the gameplay itself: the taking up and completing of questions provides the context of the story, with events within quests and interactions with non-player characters bringing more texture to the game world. The leveling system and skill trees are excellently executed: the balance of the augmentations of the original Deus Ex are aped in the balance of the skills within each class. All upgrades are equally viable, so long as one adjusts one’s playstyle accordingly. This extends into the multiplayer co-operative mode, in which all classes are well-balanced and equally good choices, as well as complementing each others’ weaknesses well for enabling meaningful team play.
From what has been said, it may be assumed that Borderlands is indeed sui generis. This simply isn’t the case. As mentioned previously, the presentation of the game is the first point of departure from its genre. The action RPG is something that has both historically and recently been blighted by a focus on realistic, grim scenarios. Borderlands turns this on its head by creating a world dark not by virtue of its adherence to tropes concerning the portrayal of ‘gritty realism’ in contemporary film, but dark by virtue of its humour. The Pandora of Borderlands is characterised by its brightness and picturesque nature – a stark contrast to the typical dreary, ugly, bloom and brown worlds that delineate contemporary videogame ‘darkness’ – as well as its seemingly inexplicable problem of the permanent residence of bandits. This hyperstylised world shines through in the almost grindhouse-inspired introductions afforded to major non-player characters and the sheer hyperbole involved in all characterisations and modelling of non-human enemies.
When everything is so ridiculous in a manner so departed from the everyday, even in media, it gives writers a chance to play with the massive discrepancies between our world and the game world, and that is something that Gearbox did superbly in Borderlands. In a world of such gratuitous violence, it becomes absurd that one character makes a point of his possession of marijuana being for medicinal purposes; it becomes absurd to think that any sort of face-to-face transaction could be viable, so we are left with vending machines to attend to our needs – these needs being, of course, weapons and defences. Given this disconnect from the everyday, the references made by Claptrap in one of the DLCs for Borderlands to another 2K-published game, BioShock are a playful little reminder that we are dealing with somewhere with very little in common with our own world.
Though the gameplay is solid action RPG fare, the typical problems are also evident in Borderlands: the omni-present fetch-and-carry quests that require one to go to point A to pick up object B to return to agent C. The most infuriating points in Borderlands occur with the “find the parts of x weapon” quests, of which there is one for each class of weapon. The good folk at Gearbox clearly went to a lot of hassle to ensure that these quests would be challenging (in that many of the parts are incredibly difficult to find), but the fetch quests really affect the pacing of the game by slowing it down massively for the duration of the quest. All of these are optional quests, but the type for whom the action RPG usually appeals would be willing to complete these tasks in order to satisfy their need for completion.
The Borderlands game world is huge, and the four pieces of downloadable content available for the game to make it even larger is well worth the expense. In an industry where the concern has been to shovel out DLC such as new costumes for characters for £0.99 upwards per piece (see Capcom’s treatment of Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken), it is refreshing to see something akin to the expansion packs of PC games of old being offered for modern games, and it complementing the extant game world so well.
GAME OVER SCREEN ANALYSIS: Given that the game is premised on the opposite of the concept of permadeath, you’ll never really see a ‘game over’ screen. You’ll see a wormhole of blue light before being restored to the nearest New-U station in perfect health. It is, however, a pretty light show for two to three seconds that you will probable see often over the course of the game.