What is it about the Old West that so captured the imagination of artists? Was it the perception of unfettered freedom, of untamed nature, or maybe it was the gritty opera of cowboys, outlaws, and lawmen? Whatever the reason, we’ve gotten used to games set in the Old West and then games set in far futures that also resemble the Old West. This is one of those games.
Borderlands is a curious amalgam of narratives, genres, and settings that makes for a unique, if at times, uneven, experience. (I reviewed the OnLive version of Borderlands. A full Mac version of Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition is available from Feral Interactive.)
Borderlands’ post-apocalyptic sci-fi alien world resembles Mad Max and the Thunderdome more than Firefly, but it’s unique art style is perhaps its most distinguishable characteristic. The cartoonish visuals are due to a unique cel-shading technique that makes the game seem like a living graphic novel. If you’re going to do something as cliché as sci-fi western, 2K Games deserves credit for at least making the game visually distinctive.
Role-playing games and first person shooters rarely blend well together, with notable exceptions like Bioshock and Deus Ex. On the other side of the spectrum, you get Daikatana. Borderlands for the most part maintains the balancing act well: role-playing fans will enjoy the wealth of customization and depth to the game, while FPS fans will enjoy the unfettered gunplay.
Like any good RPG, there are classes to choose from: Berserker (a melee expert with a specialty in explosives), Hunter (who prefers sniper rifles and revolvers), Soldier (who uses a rifle and shotgun payload), and Siren (who specializes in elemental weapons and invisibility). Similarly, like an RPG, there are loads of randomly generated weapons and loot to find and equip as well as different skills to unlock, customize, and levels to gain.
There are also dozens of missions to play that can be gained from various hubs that tie loosely to an overall plot about unlocking a “vault.” Basically you’re going to be tromping around the post-apocalyptic Wild West and killing a bunch of Thunderdome psychos. The missions vary, but are essentially your typical boring RPG errands (fetch me several of this thing and return to me) and (kill this thing and return to me).
So if you’re an RPG fan, you’ve seen this all before. But instead of merely hacking, slashing, and spellcasting your way to success, you actually have to aim and shoot at things. Which makes level-grinding a very different experience.
You’ll still be seeing the same enemies again and again, but certain foes (like Burning Psychos) can take you out pretty quickly even though you’re at a higher level. So you can’t expect to sleepwalk through encounters. First person shooter fans are used to dispatching waves of enemies, but having to retread through the same areas again and again means you’ll be firing that many more bullets, shells, and rockets and getting bored that much quicker.
That is to say, first person shooters all rely on a very predictable pattern: you see guy, you shoot guy. From Doom to Halo, that hasn’t changed much. FPS have tried to alter that formula by giving you more weapons, incorporating vehicles, or giving you super powers. Borderlands does all three, and it has to: first person shooters are meant to be played in short spans because combat quickly becomes repetitive.
But due to the game’s length and the need to level grind in order to take out some of the bosses, you’ll be finding yourself shooting at enemies long after it’s become interesting. You know that if you leave an area and return, you’ll be doing it all again soon.
The game provides plenty of loot in the way of guns, grenades, shields, and money. You’ll constantly be checking your inventory and checking the abilities of your weapons. The rarity scale is also easy to understand and well-implemented. That said, the vehicles in the game never felt needed nor wanted. The segments I had to use them were some of the more frustrating moments in the game because they handled so poorly. Rather than being a major asset of the game, the vehicles once again prove that combining first person shooters and car games doesn’t work. Even Half Life 2 couldn’t make me enjoy dune buggies, so Borderlands sci-fi buggies had little chance.
This is unfortunately true despite the various classes you can play as. From solider to berserker, you’re still going to be shooting at your enemies, strafing, running-and-gunning, and tossing grenades. Your tactics change slightly depending on the range of your weapons, but the behavior of your enemies (and their annoying ability to find cover) means that no matter the class, you’ll be playing the game similarly.
That’s not to say the classes aren’t different, it just remains to be seen how much weight you put into the different voices, skins, and special powers of each class. I played as Mordecai, the Hunter. This meant I was aiming for the head, watching my enemies burst into flames, and sending my pet bird Bloodwing to take down errant enemies. The Bloodwing power was helpful at getting loot and taking down charging enemies, while I tended to focus my other specialization points on increasing my proficiency and power with a sniper rifle.
I later restarted the game as the berserker Brick and enjoyed switching to melee when I wanted to and likewise enjoyed the Siren’s ability to flank and disappear from your enemies. That said, after investing over ten hours with Mordecai, it was frustrating to have to go back to the exact same areas and play the game over again. Often RPGs offer incentives to players to play the game again in a different class by giving players more of the story, a different start hub, and even different missions. But Borderlands basically throws you into the same world regardless of the class you’re playing.
OnLive boasts that cooperative play is available, but I’ve yet to find a game on a public server. For all intents and purposes, I considered the merits of the game based on the single-player campaign and the downloadable content.
Both episodes I managed to play (The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned and Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot) were fun diversions, contained some completely different looking terrain, and offered some funny, challenging situations. But they’re not as well integrated into the game as you’d like. Borderlands is essentially spent in the most part in the desert and in various underground bunkers, eventually leading to a futuristic city. The Zombie Island area, in contrast is swamp-like, full of zombies, and frankly feels uninspired. Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot is simply the Thunderdome you’ve been waiting for—you go in and battle gladiator style why Mad Moxxi grandstands and lionizes your killing prowess like a video game version of Laura Ingraham. It’s also not abundantly clear what level your characters should be at before embarking on these episodes, and this can also be jarring.
I managed to make it pretty far in both episodes before I hit a brick wall of a boss that revealed I was way underpowered for the area I was in. That problem isn’t unfortunately unique to the DLC. Borderlands doesn’t hold your hand with where you go. If you’re clever, or lucky, you can end up in some pretty advanced areas even as a low level character. You’ll know you’re over your head when you quickly get turned into ground beef in seconds and not have any idea why. Some guidance, or better narrative pacing, would lead to a more organic and natural progression of the game. As it stands, the narrative gets so lost among the side quests that its tough to determine where you’re supposed to be focusing on next and why it matters.
Macworld’s buying advice
I enjoyed Borderlands’ art style and was especially impressed with how it looked through OnLive. I played the game both on my iMac and with the new OnLive Game System ( ) on the office television and was impressed with the resolution. This is also a game that I really feel compelled to return to and keep playing, which is always the mark of a good game. I say this despite wandering around the desert for days like Moses with an uzi. So, the lack of direction, terrible plot, and redundant gun fights were definite drawbacks, as was the lack of incentive to switch classes, but there’s a lot that 2K Games got right here: good art direction, memorable sense of humor, strong RPG elements with good combat, and a really terrific arsenal. Borderlands can be as uneven and unforgiving as the worst dungeon crawler you ever played, but when it’s clicking, the there’s a lot that makes you want to draw that space revolver and charge into the fray.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]
Editor’s note: Updated 12/9/10 to indicate in the headline that the reviewed version is the OnLive version. Also added information about the Mac version from Feral Interactive.