Sunday, November 8, 2009

Borderlands - Verdict Edition

Well, after having had the opportunity to play Borderlands for a couple of weeks now, it's time to actually post my thoughts on a game that I have been looking forward to for literally years. Does it deliver? I got burned earlier on this year with Prototype, similarly a game I had been following for an extended period of time that I got a lot of my friends interested in and hoped would be the Second Coming. It wasn't, and I have to admit at this point that I haven't even finished it yet (I'm about 3/4 of the way through the game still), it's that good. Does Borderlands suffer from the same fate?

It does not.

Borderlands is a great game. You can see the love and enthusiasm crafted into every model, every quest, every gunshot, every effect. This is not a hastily-cobbled-together game that the developer tossed out the front door, this is instead about as polished and damn addictive game as you can get for something in this genre. I've already posted that you will either love or hate the art style. From everything I had read about the game, from reviews on other sites to comments on the Steam forums and comments on the Gearbox forums it would seem that a lot more people, if not the overwhelming majority, love the almost cel-shaded art style. It makes the game instantly recognizable (creating brand identity) and gives them a look which is simply not available anywhere else right now. Borderlands could have just been Generic Sci-Fi Shooter #274 and while a distinctive art style will not prevent this genericness it does certainly help it to stand out from the pack.

Other than the graphics though, what else are we looking at here? The campaign story is fairly light and the ultimate resolution is disjointed and does not really give you the payoff you were expecting. Maybe the guy who worked on the story and plot side of things at Gearbox had a 2-day week or something. Either way, the story, particularly its conclusion, could have been developed better. Let's be honest though, most people are going to be playing the game for a) the promised "bazillions of guns" and b) the combat. How do these deliver? The answer: very well.

Judging by a couple of people's best guesses there are approximately 17,000,000 guns available in Borderlands, so you will literally never see them all no matter how many times you play the game. This does add a lot of replay value even after you have finished the main campaign story, there is always the allure that the next weapons chest you find could contain that gun of your dreams (in my case as a Siren I'll be looking for a nice SMG please). Of course it probably won't, but you can always dream. Speaking of loot, it is colour-coded (a la WoW) so that you can easily see what's worth picking up and using or what is going to be vendor fodder. It goes White - Green - Blue - Purple - Yellow - Light Orange - Dark Orange. The "rarer" a certain piece of loot is, the higher on the colour scale it will be.

Ok so loot is taken care of, but what about the combat? Simply put - it delivers. There are four unique character classes: Lilith the Siren (the closest thing to a caster in Borderlands, her special ability is to "Phasewalk" becoming invisible, being able to run extremely fast and creating an AoE shock blast at the beginning and end of her ability), Mordecai the Hunter (the sniper class, his special ability is to release Bloodwing, his bird pet, to attack enemies at range), Roland the Soldier (the all-around class, his special ability is to deploy a turret which attacks enemies and draws enemy fire) and finally Brick (the tank, he has a large amount of health and his special ability, Berserking, gives him high melee damage and also lets him regen health while doing it.)

All of the classes are unique and distinctive, although some do develop faster than others (Lilith and Mordecai can take a little longer to mature, although both excel at the higher levels) but obviously the true draw of this game is in the four-player co-op. Unfortunately Gearbox chose to use GameSpy to manage the matchmaking and multiplayer section of Borderlands. For many people this has led to issues with being able to host games, although this post over on the Steam forums should set you right in providing the correct ports you need to forward to be able to host successfully, since the list provided by Gearbox was incomplete. Once up and running though, playing through the campaign with friends is really where this game shines. Quests and monsters become more difficult the more players are playing the game and this in turn makes the game harder and (in my eyes) more fun. Finishing the main campaign and beginning again (for what the game calls "Playthrough 2") is also a lot of fun. After finishing the game for the first time you can elect to begin again, which will keep your level, your loot and all that, but will return you to the start of the game while elevating all of the quests and mobs to your level and making everything much more difficult while making the loot significant better.

So, the age-old question, is it fun? Yes, but you have to put some work into it first. Borderlands suffers significantly from console-itus, and you need to make a few changes via .ini files to remove the worst of this and make the game into a true PC game rather than a third console version. Many of these are options that should have been changeable from within the game itself, such as microphone control. Without any changes the game will detect you have a microphone and it will be set to always-on, both in-game and lobbies. This is quite an annoying oversight since many people will be using TeamSpeak or Ventrilo especially in a co-op setting, and so when you talk on those you will also talk in-game which leads to a very annoying echo.

Other obscenities needing to be fixed via tweaking are: fixing the field of view (set to a horrendously-low console figure, this can be turned up to 90/100/110 or whatever you prefer via an easy file edit), disabling the intro movies which play every single time you load the game and are unskippable, making the right-click "zoom" function a toggle instead of having to hold it to remain zoomed (I'm honestly not sure who thought this was a good idea as the default) and being able to enable v-sync. You can find a list of these fixes here and, as always. back up the original files first in case you screw something up.

Another major fix which has only come to light recently is that, by default, the weapon information box will only show 4 lines regardless of whether that particular weapon or item has more than 4 stats to show you. In other words, the weapon may have more attributes than you can actually see in-game. The fix for this is in the same place as those above, and Gearbox have said that they will likely patch this in in a future official update.

At the end of the day, Borderlands delivers. You need to do a fair amount of work in the beginning to .ini files to change options that either a) should have been set to more PC-friendly values in the beginning, or b) should have been available from the main options screen originally, but once this is done you are ready for an engaging action shooter with significant RPG elements (levelling, improving abilities through skill trees) that set this game aside from the pack. It's nice to see a game actually live up to the hype, especially when the promises were so significant.

Borderlands receives the Gaffadin sticker of recommendation.