This game is a hoot. Touted as a “roleplaying shooter” or RPS, Borderlands is a hip, quirky, funny, and all-around enjoyable game. Some people might debate whether it’s a roleplaying game or not, but, as I might have pointed out already (I don’t remember if I’ve said it in any recent posts or not), CRPGs are actually just adventure games with character advancement mechanics and a combat system, with no real relationship to actual roleplaying.
Borderlands meets that criteria. It’s an adventure game in that you must explore places and solve problems (all of them simple problems revolving around killing things and/or finding things, but that’s actually par for the course for a wide swath of both CRPGs and adventure games in general). It has character advancement, with experience levels and skills of a sort that you buy with points granted by gaining levels, plus some other things that I’ll talk about in a minute. Instead of some kind of tactical combat system, it has a real-time, first-person shooting combat system – but, really, all that amounts to is a different vocabulary. Nobody tries to say that Oblivion isn’t an RPG, and it’s essentially the same thing (even using the same software, I’m given to understand), just lacking guns.
As I said before, this game is a hoot. The setting is fun and funky, a sort of dangerous frontier planet that draws adventurers and mercenaries due to legends of an alien structure called the Vault that’s bound to contain tons of loot. Then you’ve got desperate little settlements beleaguered by psychotic bandits, and corporations that stand to profit off of the whole shebang. But that’s not the point – the point is the *character* of it all. Consider these advertisement soundbytes from one of the ubiquitous arms-dealer vending machines, spoken by a guy with a Russian accent:
“Vladof! You don’t need to be a better shot, you just need to shoot more bullets!”
“Is shooting bullets not cool enough for you? Get yourself a Maliwan, and set some people on fire!”
The whole vibe is like that. There’s a certain cavalier, who-gives-a-shit, tongue-in-cheek, existentialist quality to the whole game, right down to the ending and the song that plays during the ending credits. The Vault is kinda real, but it’s also kinda not, and it kinda doesn’t matter. There ain’t no heaven, and nothing really means anything, but it’s actually kind of fun that way. It sure is fun to shoot stuff, at any rate.
I want to talk about the mechanics for a while, which are totally boss. So, you’ve got four character classes. Each class has a special “action skill” with a cooldown, although I consider only one of them (the Siren’s Phasewalk skill) to actually be interesting. Beyond that, each character has three branches of other skills with a whole ton of different effects. Each point that you spend on a skill in one branch contributes to unlocking the next tier in that branch. It’s not possible to gain enough levels to get every skill either.
What I love about these skills is the way they work. The Hunter (sniper specialist) has a skill called “Smirk.” What it does is, whenever he kills an enemy with a critical hit (defined not by chance but by where you hit the enemy – frex headshots), he and all his teammates gain a percentage boost to XP for a few seconds. The Siren has a “Phoenix” skill that activates upon killing any enemy; during this state, she is on fire (and burning all enemies close to her) and has a percentage chance for her shots to not use up ammo.
What I like about this is how effects are stated, in very simple terms and dependent on a.) level of skill and b.) character level. I also like the way that they work; they’re either constant, or they’re like, “when you do X, then Y happens.” They’re simple, straightforward, and allow you do to special things just by having them – you don’t have to spend “technique points” or whatever to use them, you don’t have skill levels that you have to increase through practice. You just have a set effect that gets better if you put more points on it, but is already useful out of the gate. And they all add significantly to your tactical options in a firefight.
(All of those principles are things I’d like to see in table-top RPGs. If you’ve been keeping up with MADcorp, you probably already know that.)
Add onto this a type of inventory item called a Class Mod. Each Class Mod adds to certain skills, enabling you to further specialize or to cover bases that you didn’t have enough skill points to cover. Also, you can hit a New-U station, pay an amount of cash based on your level, and redistribute all of your points whenever you feel like it. Which is awesome.
All of this just totally explodes in relevance when you play multiplayer. Actually, the whole damn game gets better in multiplayer. Not only does it change the landscape of optimal skill and arms choice, but the number of enemies increases proportional to the number of players, allowing you to really and truly have some fuckin’ fun.
The equipment mechanics are friggin’ awesome. For one, it’s all randomly generated based on a few templates, so you get different versions of the same gun, with different mods on them and different pros and cons. You have to balance fire rate, fire power, magazine size, accuracy, and special effects (like the potential to set people on fire or electrocute them). You can also do side-by-side comparisons, enabling you to quickly judge how this new gun you just found stacks up to the one you’re already using.
And one more mechanic, my favorite of them all: when your hitpoints get dropped to zero, you start dying and go into a “Fight For Your Life!” mode where you can’t move around, your aim gets wonky, and your vision starts going out as all the blood flows out of you. An on-screen timer shows you how close you are to bleeding out. However, if you can kill *just one enemy* before that timer runs out, you get a “second wind” and rejoin the battle with full health. What that means is you can play the gamble and just get all up in the enemy’s face, taking hits all the time but dishing out damage by the facefuls with easy-peasy critical hits (at this range) – if you’re good enough and don’t get unlucky, you’ll get repeatedly taken down but also keep getting back up within the next second or so. It also means that if you keep your distance and try to play it safe, you’re less likely to get taken down in the first place, but if you do, you’re so distant from the enemy that it’s hard to get a second wind. I preferred the former approach (particularly with the Siren, whose prevalence of area-effect, crowd-control, and speed abilities seems custom-tailored for it), but I love that the game made me think about it.
My second favorite thing in the whole game: “badass” is a mechanical term. It’s applied to enemies that are tougher and worth more XP than other enemies of their level.
Downsides to this game are that it’s quite short (although there’s expansions, but I haven’t tried them), and the quests get kinda repetitive. Most of all, though, I think they could have gone even further with the whole existentialist thing. As it is, they kind of pull their punches a little bit, and let you think a little too much that some of the things you’re doing are making the world a better place. I’d like to see more suffering happen as a result of your actions, but cast in a way that made you laugh it off rather than feel bad about it. Considering how many ugly things this game makes you laugh at, I don’t think it was out of the designers’ reach to do this.
But, all in all, this game is a hoot. I recommend it to anyone who likes or at least tolerates shooty games.