There is a tendency amongst the heavy-hitting, magnum opus games to take themselves just a little bit too seriously - to mistake being atmospheric for being just a little bit dour, overly worthy, and earnest.
Gears of War 2 was of course quite the game, but after a few hours of play you ran the risk of going blind just walking into the kitchen because your eyes had lost the ability to handle colour that wasnt a grimy beige or grey. The last GTA was a vast, sociopathic epic without compare, raising the bar for technology and production values - but the infinitely sillier and less intricate Saints Row 2 was nearly certainly more actual fun to play. Fallout 3 is the undisputed king of the RPG/FPS, or even the action RPG in general, but its ever-so-slightly overly bleak demeanour and dense plotting sometimes lost sight of the minute to minute thrill of gaming. Yes, your brilliantly constructed narrative and clever character development is a laudable milestone in RPG history, but note we are holding a rocket launcher. Can we blow shit up now, please? Enter, a-whooping and a-hollering, the brash, colourful, but most importantly "fun" idiot cousin, Gearbox Studios Borderlands.
Borderlands is a first-person perspective role playing game featuring guns a lot of guns. Its balance is light on the character development and heavy on the firepower, with really only the most cursory attempt at an over-arching plot. Your character is one of four murderous types with no apparent back story or past who are literally fresh off the bus onto a backwater planet full of psychotic banditos in a quest for a big pie of treasure. Now run along and shoot someone in the face.
The plot, such as it is, will involve you doing various quests collected from notice boards and the rare NPCs, with the emphasis usually on extermination and assassination rather than fetch and carry. The setting is a different planet, but you couldnt slide a rusty razor between it and a good old fashioned post-apocalyptic wasteland, complete with ramshackle huts, mutant beasts and nutters dressed in leather chaps and hockey masks. Nuked as the place may look it is a long way from bleak, with the cell-shaded graphics bringing colourful cartoon jollity to the dustiest of canyon or stickiest of slaughters.
The four characters to choose from are familiar basic classes. There is the Soldier with a penchant for assault rifles and the ability to drop a sentry gun, a Long Ranger who will do better with pistols or sniper rifles and comes with a nasty little winged pet as a special attack. Also there is the Phasewalker who would be recognised (and burned) as a Witch in other RPGs, who can become invisible or effectively slow down time, and the man-mountain Melee Tank who is better with explosive weapons but you wouldnt like him when hes angry. Once chosen, the appearance of your character can only be changed in as much as their three basic costume colours, as there is no system of armour or apparel. The simple skill tree is comprised entirely of passive skills that add percentage point to your special skill, up clip sizes, or reduce cool-down and reload times. There is very little in the way of appreciable customisation, and by the end of a play through you will likely have all of the skills unlocked, or at least all of the ones you are at all interested in.
As you play though, your interaction with the characters will be limited to accepting their quest or not no narrative difference will be made if you take or ignore all the side quests, and there isnt a karma or morality system. Its all just loot and corpses behind you. Your only motivation is ever more cash for bigger guns. And do you know what you do with the bigger guns? Go and splatter the nearest boss bandito and take his bigger, shinier gun and cash. Repeat.
This sounds like a recipe for tedium, but Borderlands remains compelling right the way through by appealing to our most basic and craven instincts. Loot. Loot and slaughter in fact. There is an incalculably vast array of guns on offer in Borderlands, largely due to what looks like a random weapon generation routine as was used to create random weapons in Diablo, as well as a large selection of set epic and legendary weapons. The experience of battling or hoarding your way to obtain a new and beautiful pistol, revolver, shotgun, rifle, sniper, rocket launcher or esoteric alien weapon and then unleashing it on the previously difficult enemy is a tangy, dirty satisfaction that will carry you right the way through the 25 or so hours of gameplay.
The random generation routines will base the weapon's appearance on its properties, which will mean each will look as novel and satisfying as they handle. Any revolver you find may come with a 2, 3, or 6 shot cylinders, any number of damage or accuracy buffs or de-buffs, a variety of scope strengths, reload rates, firing rates, critical hit chances, recoil values and a host of other curious little effects. Even the most casual gamer will be able to appreciate how their new piece handles just by blazing off a few rounds into the sky, rocks or a passing bandit or if youre a more considered shopper you can troll through your inventory and see how it measures up and do some tactical selection.
The stripped-down, immediate gratification version of RPG that Borderlands operates is evident in what is the closest the game comes to individual character development via Weapon Proficiencies. Killing enough villains with a type of weapon will increase your proficiency with it, increasing damage, accuracy and ammo reserves. The higher levels require the player to have preferred one type of weapon for most of the game, but this is unobtrusive as if you have been distributing that much lead with one class of weapon it will be because that was what felt good in the first place, rather than a grind to achieve a desired status of upgrade.
Borderlands is entirely about gratification, with an RPG mechanic working in the background only in order to reward you for your murdering ways and to lend the next instalment of slaughter a sense of freshness and homicidal acquisitiveness. The passive upgrade system will not get in your way, nor will the open and simple inventory. The quests will come with a big fat directional reticule on your compass in case you get lost, the map will be filled in already when you arrive on a new level. You will have the option to walk across the wasteland, bounce across it in free and heavily armed vehicles, or simply warp from frequent save point to save point. Everything is designed to provide the minimum friction between you and your next freakish, amusing target. Even death proves little impediment to the gunplay: if both your fast recharging shield and your health reaches zero, you will be given the chance to catch your Second Wind. This works a lot like the Last Stand perk in COD: Modern Warfare multiplayer - your character will sink to their knees and the screen will fade over the next 20 or so seconds as you bleed out. However, kill any other enemy on screen and you will leap back to your feet with fully recharged shields, free to go back hammering at the heavy individual who actually put you down. Most of the gigantic boss battles will be seasoned with a smattering of otherwise ineffectual peons whose only purpose is to have their heads blown off and put you back into the game versus the big bad, be they dinosaurs, maniacal pygmies, cyborgs, gun runners, mutants, or Mothra. Death itself will only cost you a small percentage of your cash no XP penalty or Resurrection Sickness and a respawn at a close by point.
Borderlands is perfectly satisfying as a singleplayer experience, but some of your best slaughtering will be done in the drop-in co-op mode, where online players can invite you to join their game, or you can drop into theirs. The quest progression will follow that of whoever is hosting, but the experience, weapons and cash will be carried over by the individual player, and taken with them when they leave. Whilst there is no loot sharing system, which can make for some irksome treasure hogging, the simplicity of the co-op system is as smooth and satisfying as the rest of the game's design. More players in a game will automatically up the difficulty and the number of hostiles, but will also commensurately up the quality of the drops. Tooling across the bandlands in a vehicle with a live player driving and a live player manning the turrets, smoking mutant fools for no other reason than the cash and the chuckles is hard to beat, and when you or they get bored and leave then you can just get back to the quest progression you were enjoying before.
The worst features of Borderlands are fortunately the ones you can ignore completely. Scattered through the land are player-vs-player arenas where you can throw down against your erstwhile co-op buddies. They are a waste of space in single player and in multiplayer serve no discernable purpose for loot, stats or enjoyment. Additionally, despite the vast mountains of guns youll come across and loot purely for the purpose of later resale, the extremely keen inventory system will always equip one of your hot-keyed slots with the new firearm if you havent found its like before. This can lead to more inventory resetting than the player would want in this otherwise extremely streamlined system.
The colourful, stylised visuals are backed up by a sense of humour in the dialogue and character design. You can ignore anything anyone says, play the whole thing in mute if you so decide for all the difference it will make for your ability to progress, but listening to the few repeat characters such as the helper robots (GIR from Invader Zim, anyone?) helps to make the whole experience that much lighter, more accessible and plain old fun.
Borderlands will not set any benchmarks or push any envelopes in the RPG genre, or even its niche FPS-RPG setting. It simply does not do anything that we have not seen in some form or other elsewhere, nor does any individual element or mechanic uniquely stand out. What it does do is take the most basely satisfying parts of the whole RPG genre and lay them out in a fast moving buffet of bloodshed and looting. The joy of acquisition and dominance inherent to role-playing games is married to the savage joy of slaughtering entire crowds of victi.. sorry villains, and in conclusion I can heartily recommend it.