It's a first-person shooter! It's an RPG! What the hell is it!? It's Borderlands. So how is it?
A ragtag quartet of adventurers wander across the surface of the planet Pandora, searching for the Vault of legend. Along the way they shoot things, gain levels, and gather enough weapons to choke something large that eats weapons, thanks to Gearbox's random content generation. Things to shoot and things to loot. What more could a group of players ask for?
For the answer to that question and more, we turn to the assembled game critics.
Borderlands lacks the charm of Fallout 3, Mass Effect, or Half-Life 2, but it does offer a crap-ton of ‘roided-out bandits, effed-up dog things, giant spider demons, and screeching pterodactyl beasts to shoot with a crap-ton of guns. And that's really what it's about – finding weapons and shooting things with them. You have to assign a skill point now and then, and there's kind of a story, but those things don't matter much. You can skip the text description of every quest in the game, because they will always consist of the following steps:
A. Go somewhere.
B. Kill some shit.
C. Flip a switch or something.
D. Kill some more shit.
A more traditional description for Borderland would be, "cooperative FPS with Diablo-esque mechanics." You start off by picking a character: Roland the gun-toting soldier, Lilith the stealth/magic femme, Mordecai the sniper, and Brick the boxer/tank. Then you guide that character through a grand journey with multiple quest hubs and dungeons; most of the quests are of the simple "go to a dungeon and kill/collect x amount of y." My first playthrough, where I mostly focused on going down the critical path with a little bit of (but not nearly all) of sidequesting, took about 27 hours. By the way, the overarching story of "finding the secret Vault while guided by a mysterious woman who talks to you in your mind" is just serviceable; it's there to give you a reason to kill things, but don't expect anything more in-depth.
Official Xbox Magazine
Just make no mistake: Borderlands is a hardcore-gamer's game. It won't be fun to those dudes whose two major purchases this year were Transformers and Madden 10. For starters, there's no difficulty setting whatsoever, so when you're getting pummeled - and you will get pummeled - you can't bop down to Easy and race ahead through the story missions. That thrashing you're getting is Borderlands' way of telling you to take your time and properly level your character. Side quests are usually optional in games, but the only optional part of them here is which ones you do. The story missions won't level your character enough to let you survive, so you'll need to linger in each location until you've built yourself up appropriately. (Thankfully, the missions have tags that clearly display this info.)
When you can get a full party going, Borderlands begins to shine; it's one of those games that's chock-full of moments that you'll lovingly recount later. Each online experience is made memorable by fun things like smashing into each other with two rocket-mounted buggies, periodically punching your friend to instigate a duel and reviving him later amidst a fight you can't win without him. These moments jive perfectly with the tone of the game, which is surprisingly jovial considering the post-apocalyptic theme. The incredible comic-book art style is a significant factor, with the thick black lines and bright colors breathing a surprising amount of life into an otherwise bleak setting. Watching the nipple-pierced torso of a goalie mask-wearing psycho tumble away from its blood-geyser legs was so silly that I couldn't help but giggle at the absurdity. I got an extra kick out of a lot of the game's goofy characters as well: T. K. Baha is a perfectly loony farmer; the singing, dancing and periodically profane Claptrap robot is adorable; and Dr. Zed's a wildly unprofessional (and unlicensed) medic.
While Borderlands and Fallout 3 share a similar apocalyptic, Road Warrior-esque setting, the former does a much better job of making you feel like a wasteland scavenger. Very few story elements are present, so you don't have a constant "I better get back to the main quest" feeling hanging over your head. There's no disappearing family members or ominous government forces making you feel the need to progress through the story, only the desire to grow stronger and survive the myriad creatures populating Pandora. No matter which character you choose, you're not the offspring of a brilliant scientist or politician and you're not the only hope for humanity...you're just a journeyman with a gun (and ideally a few friends).
Borderlands gets a lot of things right, in particular the balance between being a first-person shooter and being a role-playing game. The shooting mechanics are sound, as are many of the role-playing aspects, save for a few design quirks. Growing and customizing my level 35 Siren was a great deal of fun, when the tedium of all that walking around didn't spoil it. But where Borderlands excels is in offering a functional four-player cooperative loot-hoarding experience, with gorgeous environments to adventure in and smartly crafted items to collect or covet. The game has a few faults, including its traveling inefficiencies-a weak map combined with plenty of long-range fetch quests-and its easily forgettable story line, but it's still relatively easy to recommend, provided you can tap into the best portions of Borderlands, its cooperative multiplayer modes.
Why am I craving Taco Bell?