Gearbox Software's Borderlands is part first-person shoot 'em up, part role-playing game, a dusty slog across the planet Pandora in search of the legendary treasures of the Vault.
Along the way, from the bus that drops your player off at the nearly deserted town of Fyrestone to the final showdown at the secretive Vault, a lot of looting and a lot of shooting is gettin' done. That constant collection of Halo-esque recharging shields, stat-boosting artifacts, character class modifiers, grenade types and "bazillions" of guns is as much of Borderlands appeal as the four player, drop in, drop out cooperative multiplayer mode.
There are four classes to experiment with: the burly, melee-skilled Berserker; the turret-spawning Soldier; the Siren, whose Phasewalking skill makes her fast and invisible; the Hunter, who favors his sniper rifles and his pet Bloodwing. Each class comes armed with dozens of customizable skills and Borderlands packs in over a hundred missions to play through, so the game can't be knocked for its lack of variety. Is everything else in place?
Co-op Is King: Borderlands is at its best during co-op, when the mix of enemies becomes more varied, when the challenges are made more difficult, and when you've got a partner to take the gunner position in one of the game's vehicles. When player skills and capabilities complement each other well, you can churn through some of Borderlands' less interesting fetch quests, hauling ass as a team to the next bounty, power leveling each other with quickness. Credit to Gearbox, who made the process of getting into a game relatively painless, minus a bit of confusion surrounding completed or half-completed quests from the game's single-player mode.
A Magical Wasteland: To get the superficial stuff out of the way, Borderlands looks damn good. The "concept art" shading adds personality to what otherwise might have been flat, barren stretches of desert land. The Xbox 360 version holds up relatively well, only slowing down when things get really hairy and when the bad guys get really big—things drag a bit more noticeably during the game's last hour, when some heavy action goes down. Player characters and enemy designs look sharp—we just wish there was a little more room for additional character customization.
One In A Bazillion: With randomly generated weapons, especially when almost everything is a gun of some sort, there's valid concern that the variations will be difficult to notice, that every shotgun or machine pistol will feel the same. Fortunately, that's not true in Borderlands, as weapon manufacturers, elemental attacks (fire, electricity, corrosion) and a long list of attributes make many guns feel surprisingly unique. The same is true for the one-off guns, typically picked up from a major fallen foe or given as a reward. These uniques, like the sub-machine shotgun Boom Stick or a burst fire rocket launcher, tend to be the most interesting variations, if not always particularly useful. You'll likely settle into a quartet of reliable favorites that complement each other well, as well as come to appreciate the handy and illustrative "compare" option in the inventory screen.
Quickly Addictive: Borderlands' reward system, granting you big bonuses in cash and experience for completing quests, kept me coming back for more, even when I had planned to take a break. Just one more quest, I'd say, in search of new loot, new levels and new areas to explore. This quick addiction to the game's frequent pay-offs was made more intense during co-op, when the rewards come much more frequently thanks to cash and experience sharing. (Warning: while the money and XP are shared, the rest of the loot is first come first served. That, and the lack of a secure player-to-player item trading option, means you should play with trusted friends.)
We Got A System: The game's attribute system, focusing on elemental modifiers, reload times, clip sizes, and other weapon functions, works quite well. It's not as complex as many of the role-playing games and massively multiplayer online games that it clearly borrows its weapon/shield attribute system from, but there is depth to it. For the most part, it's easy to understand why one shotgun or shield is better than another, even if the naming system for items can be cryptic.
Second Wind: Second Wind lets the player keep firing with their dying breaths. Should they take out their killer before the screen fades to black, they'll recover a fraction of their health and shields. Not a groundbreaking innovation, but something that saved my ass more often than I'd care to count. And I love it for that.
Getting There Is None Of The Fun: You're going to spend a lot of time in Borderlands going from point A to point B. And for the most part, all that hoofing it around is going to suck. Here's a long list of reasons why. The game's map is sometimes confusing, meaning I too often had to check and recheck and recheck my location via the menu screen. There is no mini-map overlay, unfortunately. Maps are lacking in key information, things like the locations of main characters, where town-to-town "transitions" actually go, and the ability to place your own waypoints. One of the faster travel concessions, the teleportation between "New-U" respawn points, is made less useful, because most missions don't tell the player where to go to collect rewards, so teleporting can be kind of a crapshoot unless you're taking good mental notes. Finally, vehicles, while much faster than walking, can sometimes get stuck on world geometry, resulting in a very long jog to your destination.
More Like Bore-derlands, Am I Right? Alright, Borderlands is fun, so that may be a little harsh. But at some point, between collecting 24 bottles of booze and scouring six Dumpsters for... whatever and running on foot all over the damn place, monotony can set in. Borderlands, especially when played solo, can get a little... dull. There's plenty of grind here for those who like it, but there's also plenty of grind for those who don't.
Suspect AI, Suspect Aim: I saw the AI do some pretty dumb things during my time with Borderlands—about 22 hours, if you're curious—which usually worked to my advantage. Granted, Pandora's wildlife and lowlife probably aren't that smart or they'd have found a way off this rock, but they'll often forgo cover for standing in front of it or even on top of it. Some of the more difficult boss characters can act thickly as well, getting stuck in behavior loops that make them so much simpler to kill. Dumb though the AI may be, it has an amazing ability to keep its sights trained on you, unfairly in some situations. Like those son of a bitch turrets.
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.
Borderlands was developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 20. Retails for $59.99 USD on consoles, $49.99 on PC. A copy of the game was purchased by Kotaku for reviewing purposes. Completed single-player mode, played 20 co-op missions on Xbox Live with groups of two and three players on Xbox 360. Tested splitscreen co-op mode.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.