Andrew Bryant punches dogs… (AND IN THE GAME!)
If there’s one game that set the goal posts for how to do co-operative play, it was Valve’s Left 4 Dead, the 2008 zombie survival success story – building a game solely around the concept of co-op play is a tall order, even in these highly-connected days of internet and social networking, and is something Borderlands, a pseudo role-playing shooter/dungeon crawling hybrid from Gearbox Software, attempts to build on, assuming you can ever get a game going (more on that later).
Starting out as a high concept ‘serious’ role playing game, Borderlands steadily ‘devolved’ into the comedy role-playing shooter we see today, most notably driven by a radical change in graphical style brought about when the development team apparently rebelled against the original ‘boring’ designs. Thick outlines, disproportionate bodies, illustrated textures and a penchant for angry midgets are the order of the day here.
The slapstick is layered on thickly, with stereotypical characters populating every location (including a robot sidekick-type character that annoys and charms in equal measures) and brightly coloured weapon vending machines conveniently pop up everywhere. A weapon generation system ensures an enormous assortment of random weaponry with appropriately silly names such as Evil Zapping Shooter and Ugly Killing Flaming Shotgun of Death, which is all the more of a shame when you encounter your forty seventh Pistol of Shockingly Electrocuting Violence that only differs from the last by an extra 1% damage dealt and the colour of the grip. Still, it’s a very clever system, especially when you find a drum-fed sniper rifle or revolver with a sniper scope, all fully modelled and animated.
The madcap humour works (even if some of it is distinctly toilet), as it complements the visual style in making up for the bland, ugly and depressingly static landscape that makes up your adventures in and around Pandora. The majority of dungeon crawlers offset their incessant loot crawl by mixing up the landscape every so often, but Borderlands eschews this for the open-world model of wide open arenas with random ‘dungeons’ too plunder as one of your many concurrent missions demand.
The interstitial landscapes are large, pockmarked by random settlements full of psychotic midget bandits and their weapon vending machines (yet they all brandish curiously balanced weaponry), boltholes full of respawning angry maw-faced XP-sinks called Skags & fleshy hives loaded with airborne Rakks, all literally waiting to be cut down (using bullets or wheels) by you and your comrades – the game spawns creatures as you approach and then proceeds to generate waves from nearby areas as you cut them down in true dungeon crawler fashion.
The single player/co-op divide is where the game draws comparisons with the Left 4 Dead model, but it is also where they diverge in playstyle. Both games are perfectly playable in both modes, but whereas Valve’s zombie apocalypse carries its reliance of 4 player co-op into the single player mode, using AI to make up the team, Borderlands uses more standard techniques such as scaling loot and limiting the danger of hostile encounters depending on the player count. The multiplayer experience is definitely where the game is at; especially as all the individual player abilities come alive, with the situations the rag-tag team get themselves into becoming emergent as skills are unlocked and new methods of approaching situations are tried, even if it does boil down to running backwards and shooting most of the time.
In-game voice chat is horribly broken, but it can be easily sorted by using a third-party tool such as Steam, X-Fire or Ventrillo. Further too that, the game curiously uses GameSpy for its matchmaking and requires such an arse-backward array of port-forwarding and p2p lobby juggling that getting a game to work is needlessly convoluted and painful. The lack of Steamworks or Games for Windows: Live also precludes sensible friend management, requiring the swapping of account names beforehand. It’s a fundamentally horrible cluster fuck that hurts the game right where it desperately didn’t need hurting.
Assuming you get the game going, you’ll have a riot. Each character fills such a definitive niche that nobody is ever surplus to requirements and gamers are rewarded for fielding a full diverse team (rather than everyone just using Brick, what with there being no class restriction). Whilst fights can get a little spammy at times, when Roland lays down his remote gun, which has the side effect of healing and restocking friends, loading up Mordecai with crucial sniper rounds for his Vicious Chemical Sniper Rifle of Critical Pain +2 to top the boss character Lilith & Brick are currently pummelling, you do get a sense of team work. Even though the game doesn’t necessarily discourage lone-wolfing, the fact that your tactics are limited to a single feature-set heavily restricts both fun and enjoyment.
A moment of both sadness and unfortunate clarity arrives when you’ve all had a blast and everyone parts company (presumably to go play Left 4 Dead 2 or Modern Warfare 2) – if you’re hosting, the game proudly, if unintentionally, proclaims that the denizens of the wastelands are ‘a bit weaker now’. Sadly, it’s a pale reflection of the entire of Borderlands. When you do finally get a game going, over any of the formats (I can only assume the console matchmaking is much more robust, successful and organised), you’re going to have an absolute riot – the game is fun, fast paced and entertaining enough. It’s just a shame the single player experience is so empty and vacant and the method of alleviating that (co-op madness) is so fundamentally broken to the level of frustration.
Negative as my words sound, I don’t actually ‘dislike’ Borderlands… It’s a well put together IP, the gunnery is top rate at time and the co-op experience only topped by (yep) Left 4 Dead. It’s just a shame it wasn’t released at a sensible time (i.e. with no Call of Duty to rival it for my online compatriots time) and more work wasn’t put into the PC release, on which this reviewers opinion is based.