Cast your mind back to the final moments of Halo 2 or Oblivion. Or Goldeneye, Bioshock, Killzone 2 or Infamous. They all share one common feature: inadequate finales.
But forget those games because Borderlands outdoes each one of them in a remarkable show of development madness. I’d put a spoiler warning here but the reality is there’s nothing to spoil. You spend twenty or so hours grinding through a campaign built on proverbial RPG fetch quests, battle your way to a forgettable final boss fight and then… nothing happens. The equivalent of Tolkien concluding a novel early, Mount Doom: Closed for refurbishment.
But not rewarding the player with riches (or, you know, narrative closure) is only the icing on an extremely undercooked cake; if you look closely enough you’ll probably see some yolk.
Selling itself as a Role Playing Shooter, Borderlands is a fusion of Fallout 3, World of Warcraft, and any competent FPS and in terms of quality is less than the sum of its parts. Despite adopting a distinct and visually unique cel-shaded art-style, there’s little underneath and as the wow-factor accompanying an FPS (sorry RPS) having not been set in a grey-photorealistic world extinguishes, it promptly deflates.
You’re quickly inundated with fetch and kill quests, infrequently punctuated by textbook boss fights, and whilst this works for the typical MMO whereby mass-team work elevates monotony to social monotony and therein it thrives, played alone they’re predictably uninspiring.
A problem exacerbated by the world. Visually identical throughout, the dirty brown hues replaced only occasional by metallic grey corridors, it’s an apathetic backdrop sparsely populated by two-dimensional personalities, sporadic pockets of mercenaries and overly aggressive creatures. The appeasing cel-shading doesn’t prevent the barren landscapes from escaping tedium, though if it weren’t for its art Borderlands would have little to flaunt.
Gearbox can, however, sell Borderlands on its satisfying combat and diverse range of weapons (which are all apparently randomly generated). The various weapons have a tangible force to them, which helps keep repeated gunfights interesting, and the opportunity for a seamlessly infinite number of variations (sniper rifles that fire shotgun shells, explosive assault rifles, shotguns that fire rockets just a few I found) means combat is frequently altered depending on the kit you have equipped. It also means you never attach yourself to a single weapon or style of play, which is as beneficial as it is detrimental.
An on screen stats system ensures you’re always carrying the best weaponry (so long as you can be bothered to check). By aiming at a dropped weapon you’re shown a pop-up stat box and given the option to compare with your current weapon. Its integration means the frantic pace of combat, followed by routine travelling, is rarely interrupted for more than a few moments.
And for the first few hours, confined to Fyrestone, Borderlands excels. The familiar quests and refined map mean levelling is quick, travelling for more than a few minutes rare, and all the hooks Gearbox sold it on during the run up to release are put to compelling effect. You quickly get a feel for Fyrestone, and it even shows some personality, but when the opening four hours or so come to a close, you’re let loose on a larger world and the quote unquote story rushes you through a series of drab locations; barren wastelands void of life bar sporadic groups of bandits who bark lines like “Meat puppet!” and “Are you gonna scream when we cook you?” both of which sum the AI up collectively.
And when levelling slows, fetch quests tire and travelling between the numerous maps becomes customary, Borderlands crumbles. It doesn’t help that there is no narrative; the majority of the game is dedicated to performing menial tasks for non-existent people – missions received from notice boards situated about the world. There’s just no depth, character dialogue is offered in the form of on screen text and there isn’t any incentive to explore areas outside of the mission structure.
It feels like a game designed to frustrate first, and entertain second. Locations are usually placed as far away from the mission start as possible, leaving you to either stare at loading screens as you fast travel, or pilot one of the slippery vehicles, whose whimsical combat doesn’t come close to replicating the fun of battles on foot. Death is also punished by an unforgivable financial charge (about 5% of your total funds) as well as the ammo and time wasted on fighting a losing battle. Worse still if you die during a boss fight the boss replenishes his shield and health whilst you rush back. I guess the healthcare on sparsely populated bandit-controlled outer worlds is more laudable than the law.
The Second Wind feature alleviates some of the frustration of dying but it’s a feature, as is the case with much of the game, that’s evidently designed for multiplayer. In the same vein as Modern Warfare’s Last Stand perk, it allows you to fight for a few seconds after your health hits zero, successfully killing an enemy lifts you back to your feet with some of your health regained. It’s a nifty little feature, and works wonders in co-op, but alone is often reduced to inevitable aggravation as enemies run around in circles, or hide behind crates.
Even minor inclusions like having to constantly pick up money, looting is a convention sure, but who isn’t going to want to collect money? Having to explicitly retread every battlefield after a fight gathering dropped funding seems obtuse and more than that, time wasted.
But Borderlands is obviously designed to be played by four-players at a time. Enemies are tougher and weapon drops are more extravagant to compensate. Not to mention the fact that the classes work best alongside one another. The Hunter can sit back and snipe whilst the Berserker gets his hands dirty (literally, with blood…). Played alone they both feel somewhat unqualified at certain points in the game, only the soldier feels equipped for all scenarios. There’s also built-in duelling similar to World of Warcraft’s. Initiated by each player bashing the other, they’re fleeting but comical diversions to the mundane missions
On a technical level there are issues with frame rate from the offset, the unambiguous gore and blood effects slowing the game down when you’re too close to the action, and by the end, with bigger and more enemies entering the fray, it grinds to a halt frequently.
Ultimately there’s enough in look and concept to separate Borderlands from the vastly superior Fallout 3, but the lack of depth in its world and characters, a shallow story and host of proverbial missions mean it’s unremarkable where it should have been hugely enjoyable. The biggest insult is a deficient conclusion that leaves you questioning why you invested so much time murdering space-dogs, comparing stats, and wandering through its bleak vacant wasteland. Far from reaching its potential then, Borderlands is one of the year’s biggest disappointments.