Review – Borderlands

Borderlands

Pandora. I have used the last of my savings to travel to this world. There are no regular transports here and the crew of the tramp freighter that dropped me off seem surprised when I told them I would be staying. And looking around I can see why; the starport is nothing more than a cleared area in what looks to be a junkyard, the local wildlife has already attacked me twice and the place smells like a landfill.

But, if the rumors are true, it is also the location of a vault of lost, Eridian technology. If I can find the Vault, I can sell it’s location and contents for enough credits to let me travel to the core worlds and live the rest of my life in luxury. I just have to find it first. I have used the last of my credit reserves to take a bus to a town in wastelands near where the Vault is said to be located. From there I can start my search.

Borderlands came out around a year ago but I ignored it at the time because I was somehow under the impression that it was a multi-player only game. I have since learned that while it does have multi-player support it is primarily a single-player game and I picked it up earlier this year during a Steam sale. And I am glad I did because I discovered that it is actually quite a fun shooter.

Welcome to Pandora

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I have been taking jobs from some of the locals to support myself while hunting for the Vault. My last job was to clear out a nest of skags near the town. I did, then found a skag pup that had been left behind. I felt bad about killing its parents and so have adopted it as a pet. I have named it Fluffy.

He’s quite a playful little thing and likes to wrestle. Of course, I’ve had to get Doc Zed to patch me up after a couple of our play sessions but I know Fluffy didn’t mean to bite off those fingers or to sever my tendon like that. He just doesn’t know his own strength, the little scamp.

In Borderlands you play one of four mercenaries who have come to the planet Pandora to search for a vault left behind by an alien race known as the Eridanians. The actual contents of the Vault are unknown, but similar vaults on other worlds are said to have brought a fortune to their discoverers. However, in order to find the Vault you will have to collect information from the locals, most of whom won’t help you unless you do something for them first. (Of course.) Plus, there are other groups on Pandora who want the contents of the Vault for themselves.

The four mercenaries you can play each have their own strengths and special abilities which allow for different play styles. The Soldier is a run-and-gun fighter who can summon an automated turret to assist him. The Hunter excels at long-range attacks and has a hunting falcon that can attack for him. The Siren can “phase” out of reality and rapidly escape danger and The Brick is an exceptional melee fighter. All of them have their own set of skills that they can learn as they level up to allow them to be further customized. There are also various “class kits” for each of the mercenaries that you can find or purchase that provide special abilities and allow further customization.

Though they share a name, this Pandora is nothing like the Pandora from the movie Avatar. This Pandora is a wasteland; vast stretches of desert and rocky hills broken only by piles of scrap and burning garbage and populated by hordes of ravenous creatures. Oh yes, and by insane gangs who will do their best to kill you.

The setting is actually very reminiscent of the “Mad Max” movies Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. The gangs would certainly fit right in with either movie and there are actually Thunderdome-like arenas scattered around. (You can fight in some of these in single-player but others are limited to multi-player combat.) All of this is done in a cell-shaded graphics style which gives the game a very unique look.

Into the Mouth of Madness

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My sniper rifle is angry with me; it says that I am spending too much time with the shotgun. I tried to explain that a sniper rifle is just no good for close up work but it didn’t want to hear it. I swear that it missed the last ganger I shot at just to spite me. At least Fluffy and Ms. Shotty still understand me.

Borderlands actually feels a lot like an MMO to me, just one without anyone else around. You travel between hubs where you are given quests by the few non-hostile people on the planet or that you find posted on various bounty boards. They even include the “collect 10 rat tails” type quests that you find in most MMOs. Enemies also respawn after a while so returning to an area that you have already cleared out results in you running into them again.

Loot drops (mostly guns, ammo and health items) even follow the MMO semi-standard color codes of white for standard drops with special items being colored green, blue and purple and on up to gold for the highest quality items. Almost all items have a variety of attributes like damage rating, ammo clip size and rate of fire but many also have other characteristics like health regeneration or special attacks like electrical shock or explosive. These are all random so no two items are ever exactly alike. This can lead to cases where “lower quality” items are more desirable than supposedly higher quality ones. For example, fairly early in my game I came across a blue shield that also regenerated my health at a fairly decent rate. While I later found shields with higher capacity none of them had the same health regeneration rate. I kept this shield the entire game and almost never had to resort to health kits to restore my hit points. I also found a class kit early on that caused my ammo to regenerate, and between the two I pretty much never had to worry about supplies for the entire game.

Gameplay-wise Borderlands is a fairly standard first-person shooter. You have the usual array of weapons (pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, etc.) and run around shooting anything that moves. There is a vehicle that you can drive around and it controls surprisingly well. The vehicle is really designed for two players though, a driver and a gunner. You can “lock-on” the turret in single-player mode and fire it but I found it to be nearly useless (probably because the lock-on function doesn’t lead moving targets) and I usually hopped out of the vehicle for combat.

One good thing about the vehicle is that you can kill anything by just running it over. I took out a few bosses that way. Just don’t do it in a damaged vehicle.

The vehicle does come in handy because there is a lot of terrain to cover. While there is a method of fast travel between areas you have previously visited you do spend a lot of time running around in a fairly open landscape; a welcome change from the narrow, twisted corridors of most FPSs. Crossing the landscape on foot would take forever and the vehicle helps a lot, even if you usually have to get out to enter your destination. And being able to just run over any critters that spawn along the way makes things easier too.

Overall combat is fun. Despite my usual paleogamer lack of skill I never felt that the game was being unfair; the only times I got myself in trouble was when I ran into the middle of an enemy camp and let myself be surrounded. Some of the boss fights were a bit tough (and some of the arena battles) but you simply respawn at the nearest save point when you die (with no penalty other than the loss of a percentage of your money) so even those can be defeated after a few tries.

Be careful if you take too long however. Defeated enemies respawn after a while so there were more than a few times when I had to fight my way through several layers of guards in order to get into an area then had to fight them again on the way back out. I found this somewhat annoying (and it added to the “single-player MMO” feel that I talked about earlier.

The other thing that bothered me in Borderlands (a problem that it shares with a lot of other games) is that I have to wonder how Pandora has any kind of functioning society at all. There are maybe a dozen people on the entire planet who don’t try to kill you on sight and none of them move from the one location where they are standing. While I don’t insist that every game I play be completely realistic, I would prefer to see a greater variety of non-hostile NPCs wandering around about their business so that the game would feel more as if it was taking place in an actual world instead of being just a shooting gallery.

Pandora’s Vault

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I have decided that sniper rifle and I need a break from each other. I was raiding a bandit camp and left Fluffy and sniper rifle up on a ridge line to cover me while Ms. Shotty and I entered the camp. Well, they didn’t provide a bit of cover fire. I was angry and tried to feed sniper rifle to Fluffy but he just bit my arm off instead (that little scamp!). I left it up on the hill while I went back to Doc Zed to get my arm reattached. Let’s see how it likes that!

There is a somewhat thin story in Borderlands, mostly told through recordings you find scattered about Pandora and the occasional radio message. Most of them are from a scientist who was searching for the Vault and who remained on the planet when her sponsor pulled out and document her studies and her slow descent into madness.

One of the things you discover early on is that almost all of the population on Pandora is insane; most violently so. The voice recordings you get from the scientist clearly show her descent into insanity. This insanity is also responsible for most of the “humor” in the game. I put humor in quotes because I actually found most of it to be of the eye-rolling variety instead of the laugh-out-loud variety. There are some funny bits, but I think most of the game was less humorous than the designers intended for it to be.

During the course of your adventuring on Pandora you learn that the reason for all of the gangs running around is that a mining company on the planet used convict labor and that it simply set all the prisoners free when it left. That doesn’t explain why all of them are insane though, but surprisingly there may be a reason. This is a spoiler for the end of the game, so scroll past the spoiler bird below to read it.

Spoiler Bird

During your search you learn that the Vault you are after can only be opened every 200 years and that time is almost now. When you do reach the Vault (just as it is opened) you learn that it contains not treasure or advanced technology but is instead a prison for a tentacled thing that will destroy the world unless you defeat it. The “angel” who has been helping you all through the game turns out to be an AI on an orbiting satellite which was placed there to prevent the thing from escaping.

The concept of a tentacled monstrosity entombed underground by a vanished civilization that can only be released at a certain time is a very Lovecraftian concept. All of Lovecraft’s creations caused madness simply by the mental emanations from the presence. It makes sense that the thing here was influencing the population of Pandora without them even knowing it.

Of course, the name Pandora comes from Pandora’s Box, the myth that all evils were released upon the world when Pandora opened the box in which they were sealed. In this case the Vault is the Box but I personally like my Cthulhu interpretation better.

Overall, I had far more fun with Borderlands than I expected and am quite happy that I picked it up. The original game is fairly inexpensive now and a Game of the Year edition with all of the DLC is coming out soon. I recommend picking this one up and giving it a try.

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