Over the years there have been many attempts at merging different genres into one and other. Commonly one of the parts is the Role Playing Game genre, adding leveling and other RPG conventions into something else. There have been some recent successes in this act of genre mashing, with Dawn of War 2, Castle Crashers and Puzzle Quest being three of the more successful attempts that come to mind. The merging of the RPG with the FPS, however has had a rocky history to say the least, with the balance between shooting and statistics proving to be a difficult one to master. Gearbox’s Borderlands, is the latest attempt to forge a successful RPG and FPS hybrid; the game features multiple classes and characters, talent trees and purportedly “Bajillions of guns.” Continue reading this iteration of Three Reviews in One, to see how we dissect the game and decide whether it is one of the hallmarks of hybrid genres or if it struggles to merge the two genres into one.

Jason:

    When I found out about Borderlands, that Gearbox was going to attempt to merge first person shooting and role playing elements, I was intrigued by the idea of being able to level grind in a first person shooter; I was also skeptical because these ideas are well intended, yet never turn out well. The idea of gathering tons of loot to be sold off for better equipment is a mechanic that never goes stale in my mind and Borderlands caters to my hunger for more loot admirably. Starting Borderlands for the first time, I noticed how well the HUD was implemented into the game, how organic the game elements felt within the universe. For starters, you are greeted at the bus stop by your talkative friendly neighborhood robot who has a device for you, introducing the HUD as a part of the game world.

Borderlands HUD

    Within the first hours of the game the difficulty became apparent, playing solo and to a greater extent playing with friends. I found that playing solo, I got overwhelmed many times by several groups of skags (small rabid sci-fi wolf like creatures) early on ending up with me losing a portion of my hard earned cash and respawning at a previous checkpoint. In co-op the game throws even more enemies at you, creating an air of always feeling overwhelmed by the forces working against you. I really liked how the first few missions ease you into the game’s functionality, it makes you feel more a part of Pandora and you appreciate each ‘add-on’ that you previously didn’t have whether it be shields, grenades or your character specific action skills. This all helps the sense of belonging within the game world, adding to the immersion first started by the introduction of the HUD. What did you first think of it Tim?

Tim:

    Leading up to release, there was a buzz surrounding Borderlands from within the enthusiast press. My enjoyment of the game hinged upon one deciding factor. In the gameplay videos I’d seen the gunplay didn’t look quite right, so if the shooting felt off to me when I got my hands on it, I knew I wouldn’t want to play anymore, this was my big problem with Fallout 3. To my pleasant surprise the shooting felt great, the guns all feel like they have a force behind them, the sniper rifles my hunter character was using felt as if they were capable of taking a man’s head off.

   In the early stages, there is a variety to the quests in Borderlands, you always seem to be finding something new to use, or setting off on a different type of quest, or murdering a different enemy type. This excitement of discovery does peter out though, by the end of the game I was wondering how many more bandits I could possibly shoot and if they would ever introduce a quest type that wasn’t ripped out of an mmo. There is a real lack of spectacle to Borderlands, with no set pieces to spice up the action. There are some impressive looking bosses for sure, but they all devolve into the same cycle of shoot it in the face, rinse and repeat.

   The pacing and difficulty are about as even as a generously potholed road, one minute you’re carving a swathe through enemies striding towards your objective and another you’re stuck dying while trying to use cover against some of the much harder enemies. Overall though I found the game to be a bit of a cakewalk. There were few times when I had trouble with enemies and that’s why the difficulty spikes stand out to me. The second playthrough is much closer to the difficulty I would expect from a game of this type.The saving grace is that the shooting feels so good that the repetition and sudden changes in difficulty don’t start to get old until quite a few hours into the game. How about you TJ, what are your feelings on the game?

TJ:

    Borderlands is one of my “exception” games. I always say that I never buy games for their multiplayer aspects, because I need a story in order to push me along. However, I would be lying if I said the amount of hours I have put into Borderlands were because I was genuinely interested in what secrets the “vault” held; I couldn’t care less. No, what pushed me along in this game was being able to share all the exploding headshots, awesome new rocket launchers and life-saving shots with a friend. Well implemented co-op usually overrides any faults of a game for me, and this game is a prime example. The amount of fun I had shooting up Pandora with a friend distracted me from the (eventually) stale selection of enemies, terrible split-screen, slightly annoying quests, lack of what would be helpful features, sometimes choppy framerate and the missed opportunities for any good set pieces (like Tim said). Because of this, the game suffers from the “co-op complex”, so to speak; those faults are glaringly obvious when you’re trudging through the wastelands all by yourself. When you can’t set up strategies of your tank buddy running into a group while you give cover fire, or staying back with your sniper rifles and double headshotting some unsuspecting brute, the game becomes a grindfest that, combined with the lack of difficulty in single player, can lose its luster real quick. This makes the game somewhat hard to justifiably recommend for solo players.

borderlands boss

   With four different classes and three skill trees per class its safe to assume that, when playing single player, most of your playthroughs are not going to be the same; but then again, they’re not going to be all that different. While each classes’ action abilities are different, if you’re shooting solo, your strategy pretty much devolves into you running around in circles shooting while using your action ability whenever it’s off cooldown. With three other friends at your side, however, you can be at the back sniping peoples’ heads off while your friends are in the fray throwing turrets, punching people in the face and phasing in and out of dimensions. You can see where the maximum fun potential of the game lies. Don’t get me wrong, the game is still enjoyable by yourself, but it was definitely made with a party of two or more in mind. Closing comments?

Jason:

    I feel that Borderlands is one of those few games that successfully merges two genres together, first person shooting taking the helm and supported by RPG elements that provide many variations of play. This works well because the sharp first-person shooting feels spot on and the skill trees, while a bit unbalanced, serve as a constant reminder of what to look forward to after gaining all of your hard earned experience. If that isn’t enough for you, then the thousands of loot drops may very well suffice. Nothing feels better than receiving that new shotgun with stats that tower over your current one and has a x4 incendiary boost on it that pretty much guarantees that any enemy you shoot burns to the ashes. The multiplayer is also where the game shines. While I will say that playing Borderlands solo is a fun experience, playing with up to three friends online is really the way the game should be played. Instead of trying to figure out what skills will boost your health or give you the most resistance from the many enemies that come at you, the frame of mind is more of what I can allocate to aid my comrades; whether it be releasing your turret that heals the party and restores ammo, giving your bullets and melee attacks a chance to daze enemies, setting ablaze a group of enemies at once or even sending out your pet Bloodwing to attack multiple enemies. This acts as a somewhat tactical way of playing the game that feels both natural and satisfying.

   The story in Borderlands is definitely the weakest link of the experience. I honestly tried to care about what was going on in the world of Pandora but in the end it wasn’t cohesive enough. Having plot points come up just before a boss battle doesn’t keep me immersed in the story when very little is sprinkled throughout the rest of the game. I can only hope that the coming downloadable content will fill that void as well as shed some light on our four protagonists’ reason for being. If you like first person shooters or role playing games at all, you will definitely find something to like about Borderlands.

Tim:

    My feelings are that Borderlands is definitely a shooter first and RPG second. While I had a good enough time with the game for it to be worth the money I spent, I’m not chomping at the bit to get back into it. The RPG elements feel very tacked on, I didn’t think I was becoming more badass or even progressing my character at all. In the end, the story is a zero sum, your character is essentially the same at the end of the game as the beginning. I’m not sure where Jason found these “many variations of play” because I found that no matter which character I was using the game played the same, everyone can use all the weapons and there are quite obviously “good” and “bad” talents.

borderlands talents

   While your playstyle will change when you have a friend or two involved, to me any semblance of tactics went out the window as soon as the shooting started, there simply wasn’t any motivation to have a strategy for any of the encounters, apart from shoot it in the face, rinse and repeat. Again it comes down to the low level of difficulty, why have a plan when you can run in headfirst, guns-blazing and end up with a favorable result. Borderlands takes some MMO/RPG conventions, however I feel if it took a few more it might’ve made me feel invested in my character. I found I missed Character customization, choosing from a pre-made character pulled me away from making a personal connection and the fact that the characters lack any real personality or story of their own doesn’t help. I also felt as if the game needed some armor drops, or a shop to change your clothes, your character simply looks the same beginning to end.

   An actual story arc is sorely lacking, it would be nice to have some reason to do any of the quests, the search for some mysterious vault isn’t enough motivation and for the love of Poseidon please have an ending that isn’t the biggest tease since side-boob in a PG-13 movie. Finally I’d like to have seen more action abilities, If they had added action skills to the end of each skill tree it would make the endgame feel more varied to the rest and add some later game reward that wasn’t an intangible passive skill, this would also help give the talent trees more meaning.  I’d recommend Borderlands to someone that has friends to play with regularly or the type of person that doesn’t mind grinding through a game with good shooting mechanics which ultimately doesn’t pay off in the end, recommending this for RPG players would be a disservice, its all shooter with a sprinkling of faux RPG flavor.

TJ:

   My final thoughts are a bit of a mix between Tim and Jason’s. While the skill trees do feel a bit tacked on and every character only having one action skill and being able to use every weapon in the game does keep solo play from being drastically different, the game truly shines in cooperative play. The skill trees have just enough difference in talents for there to be “solo talents” and “coop talents” which can give a bit of a sense of a different play-style; and taking down a big boss with a buddy or two or three with you is the best experience in my book. All the issues I have with this game melt away when I’m in an intense firefight with my friend right next to me, yelling at each other who should throw grenades, who should use their action skill and which little bugger we should be concentrating on first. Holding off the horde while slumped on the ground, bleeding out, your friend frantically trying to revive you gives you a real sense of teamwork. Multiplayer is where this game is awesome.

borderlands characters

   I have to stress that this is an FPS with RPG elements. If you come into this game expecting an Oblivion or Final Fantasy quality experience, you will be let down. You don’t get the over-the-top stories you get from JRPG’s and you don’t get the customized, personal experience you get from Western RPG’s, but you do get experience points, skill points and tons of guns. The amount of gun drops is insane and makes that big upgrade all that much more special. On the other hand if you come into this game thinking that headshots are instant kills and rocket launchers should blow people up, you will also be disappointed. You have to be able to accept the middle ground. If you’re a lone gunner, I’d give this game a rent to see how it plays and go from there. If you have one to three regular game buds and are looking for a solid coop experience, buy this game. Unless your friend’s name is Tim and he keeps trying to transport you to the next area where everyone is four levels higher than you and thinks constantly reviving the other player while they’re bleeding out is an acceptable strategy.

That about does it for this edition of Three Reviews In One, join us next time for another edition.