Replay: Borderlands

In the first of this Replay series, which involves me going back to a game that has been available for a considerable length of time and seeing how well it’s aged and the legacy it has created, I looked at the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer and what it managed to achieve back in 2007 and how it stands in 2012. In this second part, I’ll be looking at Gearbox’s RPG/FPS offspring and seeing how it’s stood the test of time, as well as what the game did in the first place to warrant such a positive reaction from the community.

Released back in October 2009, Gearbox’s new IP Borderlands arrived amidst a wave of unfamiliarity and unawareness of what the game would entail. To be frank, I imagine that a lot of people were expecting the game to be dead on arrival, as its cartoon-ish visual style and outlandish promises sounded much too good to be true. What eventually came to be was nothing short of a remarkable, deep and huge game that took the addictive nature of loot-collecting and typically RPG elements, such as character upgrades and inventory systems, and combined them with an enormous weaponry collection and an astonishingly good co-op experience to provide one of the most creative, enjoyable and unique video games to grace the industry for a very long time. 

The successful combination of the above elements worked in Borderlands’ favour, as the game has sold around 4.5 million units worldwide to date. What launched as an unknown entity became a critical success, impressing the masses with its intent to create something out of the ordinary, no matter how bizarre it may have looked. A sequel – Borderlands 2 – is due for release in September 2012 and unlike last time, this release does not have a cloud of caution smothering it. People know about Borderlands, they know what to expect and the game will inevitably enjoy a huge launch, both in sales numbers and praise from the collective gaming community and if it succeeds at being as good as the first game was, it’ll be well-deserved.

One of the things that impressed the most with Borderlands, back when it was first released and even now, is the excellent weapon collection. You probably heard the claims of there being ‘billions of weapons’ in the game and if you had never played the game before, you most likely thought that somebody was seriously lacking in the mathematical department. Those claims, however, were not preposterous. There are literally millions, possibly billions, of weapons that are unique from any other. They’re not aesthetically unique but their stats, ranging from the damage they do to elementary affects, are different to others, even if only by a smidgen. The end result was, and still is, a fulfilling weapon collection that always had something new to offer, whether it be hours later or years later. 

I have spent many hours on Borderlands in the past and the sheer choice of weaponry and gadgets, such as shields and grenade types (of which there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of combinations), threatened to prove intimidating. Although vast in size and scale, Borderlands’ collective arsenal did, at various times, become too big to handle. For example, you often came across an extremely powerful weapon and thought that you couldn’t possibly discover anything more powerful, but then ten minutes later you’d open a chest and be drowned in stronger weapons. Although it proved to be somewhat addictive, the result was the feeling that no matter what you did or how hard you played, you’d never find something at the pinnacle of the weapon system and whenever you thought you could see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it would extend a little further, becoming ever more unreachable. The game was bigger than you could have ever imagined and it loved to hold it over your head and laugh as you tried repeatedly to grab a hold of the bait. 

As well as a vast weapon system and a gorgeous, crisp and colourful cartoon art style, Borderlands’ combat system and wealth of customization options contributed just as much to the game being as popular as it is. Everything, from collecting XP from every kill and upgrading your character’s abilities, to managing your quest log and inventory, added to the game’s overwhelming addictive nature and desire to keep you enthralled for unhealthy numbers of hours. The RPG elements that were included in the game were extremely well-polished and it was due to the mixture of RPG and FPS that Borderlands never felt like another run-of-the-mill first-person-shooter. Instead, it felt totally unlike anything else you could find on the market and in an industry that is continuously seeing games clone elements from other, more popular, titles, it was highly welcome, perhaps even more so now as the aforementioned copycat methods are employed more often in order to compete with the biggest sellers. Borderlands never had to compete with anything because there was nothing like it compete with. There still isn’t. 

Possibly Borderlands’ biggest success stemmed from the co-op, especially online, that enabled up to four players to play through the entire story. Yes, the whole game, from beginning to end. Not only that, players could share loot that they had collected, trade items and level up their character, which was persistent both offline and on. It wasn’t without its issues, which consisted mainly of lag and overzealous hosts that would kick you from the game for breathing wrong, but Borderlands had, and still has, one of the finest co-op experiences that you can find on the market. The game was extremely fun when you played it on your own but when you teamed up with others, that enjoyment increased ten-fold.

Borderlands was another example of a game that’s fun to play on your own but can only truly be appreciated when you’re exploring Pandora with friends, or even strangers. Such is the unfortunate problem games that have such strong co-op systems tend to have, in that their single-player efforts feel massively underwhelming compared to the stronger multiplayer. Valve’s Left 4 Dead is another example. You don’t play with bots in Borderlands’ single-player, but it’s still nowhere near as fun on your own, as was the case with the zombie shoot-em-up. 

Whilst Borderlands became a classic in the making, forcing its way into the collections of avid gamers across the globe, it wasn’t without its problems. The co-op was hindered by iffy net-code, the sheer size of the game often felt intimidating to come up against, the enemy AI could sometimes be ridiculous, sometimes the glitchy nature of Pandora felt like the game’s toughest enemy and so forth. However, the biggest problem, at least for me, was the extremely poor story. It was clear that the story wasn’t a primary concern when it came to developing the game as it was merely dressing for the better, and more attractive, elements of the title. It’s fortunate that the things the story was dressing up were strong enough to make the rubbish story less of a detractive concern and more of an ignorable flaw. 

Fast forward to 2012 and how does the game feel today? Well, still rather strong as it stands. I recently loaded up the same character I had been using all of those years ago and although my skills were a little rusty, I managed to get back into the hang of things pretty quickly. The art style still remains impressive and colourful enough to give me a headache, and the combat system that impressed so much back in 2009 feels just as robust now and really hasn’t allowed age to erode its strength.

What was initially so impressive when Borderlands was first released remains so today, and that is just how creative the game feels and looks. Shooting enemies and collecting guns are merely one layer on a cake that has dozens, such as managing your inventory, equipping yourself with the correct items for the task ahead, figuring out where to spend your upgrade points next, taking your character online and helping lesser-level players and so forth. Borderlands looks like another FPS at first glance but when you delve into it, you uncover bits and pieces that make it feel unlike any other. It surprised me back then and it still amazes me now. 

Surprisingly, Borderlands still has an active community playing online, albeit one that’s become infested with modders and their nefarious schemes. My first co-op match after two years consisted of level 69 players, all wearing invulnerable shields and weapons that killed anything in sight in one shot. Perhaps the influx of these people willing to go to such lengths for the most powerful equipment stems from the game’s refusal to allow you to reach the pinnacle, as I mentioned earlier. Or perhaps they’re just born-and-bred cheaters who want everything without the necessary work. Regardless, a lot has changed since my last outing on the co-op and it’s not necessarily for the better, although it seems less jittery and laggy which are obvious plus points. 

One thing I have noticed now, as opposed to 2009, is how difficult the co-op can be if you enter the wrong game. The large number of level 69 players – the highest available – that play online makes the difference between their level and yours massively noticeable. You see, Borderlands allows you to join any co-op match rather than restrict you to people that are of a similar level to you, meaning that a level 1 player could join a level 69 player and the other way around. The result is total annihilation at the hands of the beefed up enemies, or feeling like a God among men as your superhuman character steps on the level 1 enemies like ants. It can be hilarious sometimes and it can also be frustrating, but the freedom to choose whether or not you want to be systematically slaughtered by everything that moves is refreshing.  

Since its release, Borderlands has created a legacy that will ensure it’s fondly remembered many years in the future, even after new consoles have arrived and made the previous look like floppy discs. Placing the game into one single genre is difficult as it contains so many elements of numerous genres that to define it as just one would mean ignoring the others, which would be doing an injustice to just how good the game is. In fact, a new genre should be created just for the franchise. Role-playing-shooter, perhaps? Weapon-collection-simulator? Bloody-beastly-brilliant-Borderlands? That one sounds good. Regardless, the game’s insistence on not wanting to belong to one single genre is part of what makes it so compelling, and hopefully the same will become of the sequel. 

As brilliant as the game is, one has to wonder whether Borderlands 2 has any semblance of a chance at impressing on such a scale as the first game did. The allure of billions of weapons and a vast co-op system contributed to Borderlands becoming the success it has, but the sequel is unfortunately hindered by the expectation of these things, rather than being able to surprise people with them. That’s not to say that the game won’t be good, just that it may not surprise as much as the first title did. Such is the penalty most sequels have to pay these days.

Borderlands has created a legacy that will outlast the current generation of consoles and beyond. The game’s sheer brilliance at smelting elements from multiple genres, alongside a fantastic co-op system, made it into a breakout hit, birthing a popular franchise as a result. With the release of Borderlands 2 sitting on the doorstep, people will be making a return to Pandora in the coming months in anticipation and if you’ve never experienced the game before, now is as good a time as any. To label Borderlands as superb would be an understatement of Pandora-sized proportions. 


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