Genre mash-ups can prove to be disastrous, and few genres have seen as many terrible attempts at combining two unlikely gaming genres as RPGs. We've reviewed a ton of them here on this site, including quite a few bad ones. It's refreshing to see one so well executed in the form of Borderlands - part FPS, part Diablo, part Elder Scrolls.
That sounds like a strange mixture, and that's partially because it is. Borderlands takes its control scheme from first person shooter controls - most similar in layout to Call of Duty 4 - while combat at large is governed by traditional RPG level based combat, with statistics determining how much damage your bullets deal.
You're dropped into a large open world and quests are gathered from various NPCs around the world and kept in a quest log, all accessed and arranged similarly to the Elder Scrolls titles with a handy map waypoint poking you in the correct direction for your current quest. The final key element in Borderlands then is gathering loot, presented in a way as irresistible as it was in Diablo.
'Loot' in Borderlands generally refers to weapons, ammunition, shields and cold, hard cash. Weapons do exactly what they say on the tin, with the expected weapon classes available including Sniper, Pistol, Rifle, Rocket Launcher and other traditional FPS regulars.
As well as weapon classes there are fictional weapon manufacturers, all of whom specialize in making guns with certain buffs. One manufacturer often has guns with a higher clip size meaning less reloads, while another often equips their guns with elemental status effects.
Gearbox didn't lie when they said there were millions of different guns in Borderlands, but you might disagree depending on your definition of 'different'. In reality the difference between guns often amounts to one or two statistic points - right before sitting down to write this review, I picked up a Sniper Rifle that was identical to the one I already had in every way except the new one had a slightly higher critical hit bonus.
Every loot drop in Borderlands is highly randomized, and even set weapon drops from bosses and special enemies have a random element in terms of what the weapon's statistics will be. This goes for other elements such as shields too.
This might seem lazy, but the random element is what makes this game Diablo-like - I felt a surge of excitement every time there was a weapon drop in the hope that something awesome and epic would've dropped. The random element can lead to some truly crazy guns, including shotguns with scopes, pistols that set people on fire when you melee them and even effects that allow the player to naturally regenerate ammo.
It's true that the majority of the weapons you pick up will be pawned off to vendors as they're rubbish, but there's an exciting quality about gathering loot in Borderlands that becomes addictive, and that World of Warcraft "just one more level" and "ding" feeling is definitely present.
Aside from choosing what guns to use, you'll be faced with another key choice in Borderlands - character class. At the start of the game you're introduced to four classes, all of whom specialize in certain types of combat.
The Soldier is the expected lead, a balanced character that can fulfill a number of roles and be a bit dynamic. The Hunter is the traditional Sniper class, the Siren is a bit like a Commando - weaker than the soldier, but deadly if used correctly - and the Brick specializes in heavy weapons and punching stuff to death.
The soldier definitely feels like the most self-sufficient of the classes and feels like the way to go as the skills of the other three really aren't up to scratch in close-combat scenarios - particularly so for the Brick and the Hunter. In many ways, it feels like these classes existed for the game's four player co-operative mode more than single player play as each player can take a specific role there without making life cripplingly hard for themselves.
Each class has a different skill-tree and set of skills and will require a different play style and approach to each combat situation. Every level-up after the fifth grants you a skill point which can then be spent on upgrading your current skills or acquiring new ones in the branching skill tree. There's a level cap at Level 50 that the upcoming Downloadable Content will inevitably raise, but it'll take you two playthroughs of the game to reach that cap.
The aforementioned cooperative play is a big selling point of Borderlands and it's highly recommended that those that usually go it solo give it a try on this. Gathering four friends together and playing together ups the difficulty by leveling up enemies and dropping more of them on the field for each player present making for much more intense combat.
Better than that, co-op allows players to be much more specific in their skill and weapon load-outs, allowing exploration of the classes that single player isn't as forgiving for - and there's a lot worth experimenting with for every class.
Indeed, some class skills are specifically designed for co-op play. The soldier can gain a skill that means shooting allies heals them - a deadly combo with a powerful, fast-firing weapon - turning the soldier into something like the Medic from Team Fortress 2.
In almost every way the co-op in Borderlands enhances the experience, with a few slight caveats that will encourage you to play with people you trust. There's no trading system, so borrowing or swapping guns with one of your allies means dropping it and hoping they drop whatever they offered in return rather than running off with your precious rare drop.
Anything you do pick up (or steal) in a co-op game will carry back over to your single player experience, as well as levels gained and skill points spent, meaning you can drop into friends games and they can drop into yours with few consequences. A word of warning, mind: too much co-op and you might end up overleveled.
Overall the combat in Borderlands is probably the most successful fusion of RPGs and shooters I've seen to date. It doesn't have you pausing the combat every few moments like Fallout 3 and it doesn't feel like more an action title with RPG elements outside of combat like Mass Effect - it feels like a successful fusion of RPGs and shooters period.
It's a shame, then, that Borderlands is let down in a few key areas. The storyline is paper thin, based around your characters' quest for a hidden vault that'll make them rich on the alien planet of Pandora. It feels like Gearbox put gameplay firmly first for this game - which is a good thing - but the story here is so flimsy it's almost non-existent.
This is strange, especially considering that there's some really cool stand-out characters and some good dialogue here and there - if a simple quest-giver can be written so well, a few explanatory cutscenes and plot twists of the same quality would've been a very welcome addition, especially if they came out as well as the superbly-directed opening of the game, one of the few actual cutscenes in the game.
While combat is fun, non-storyline quests are also pretty repetitive. Quests usually consist of travelling to a location and collecting something, but that something will be guarded by a bunch of psychopaths you'll need to take out before you can reach it. Occasionally, quests will simply ask you to kill a bunch of psychopaths without picking anything up, or assassinate one particular psychopath.
Despite a lack of storyline and character development the world of Borderlands does have a lot of character, and primarily responsible for this is the pretty semi-cell shaded art style. The world looks drawn and colored in, and everything has a nice thick black outline. It kind of reminds me of the PS2 shooter XIII, but more detailed.
It looks great, but to go along with the greatness there's also a bit of a negative side, with frame rate plummeting at taxing spots. The music is the same story - what little music plays is superb, but it's infrequent and tends to play at the strangest of moments.
Borderlands works competently as an online co-operative game or as a single player experience, feeling a bit like a small-scale MMO in either mode. My recommendation is you try both, but the game is definitely worth playing to experience a successful, well-made fusion of the RPG and shooter genres.
Borderlands is dragged down by a few key issues that are all bought into sharp contrast by how stunningly well-built the rest of the game is. My heart actually told me to give this game a higher score than I have, but my head also tells me that these issues cannot be ignored. Heart or head, Borderlands is definitely worth picking up and playing through at least once, if not more.