Co-op Review: Borderlands (Xbox 360)

Editor's note: Just like in our last Co-op Review, our goal here is to offer two viewpoints on one title; a title that's explicitly meant to be played with friends. Borderlands is a fast-paced co-op lovers' dream, and as such Aaron and Nick worked through the game multiple different times with varying numbers of participants. Enjoy, and let us know in the comments what you think about this review.

Aaron:

Let's get the praise out of the way: Borderlands is a monumental success, a title overflowing with charm, style, solid combat and addictive gameplay.

And now, the condemnation: Despite its quality, Borderlands' longevity is questionable upon subsequent playthroughs. What was so impressive at first becomes a chore later on. If I were an economist I might call this a case of diminishing returns; however, numbers scare me.

It seems desperate to scan for criticisms after spending over 35 hours on one game. But in the end, Gearbox's accomplishment in creating a polished loot-fest for consoles is a fleeting bit of impressive technical fancy.

That's not to say Borderlands isn't worth purchasing. You'll enjoy it, and your money will have been well spent. Day after day, you'll keep coming back to look for the next elusive upgrade. Maybe that Badass Brawler will drop a revolver with a 2.2x magnification scope that can rapid fire corrosive bullets in a fraction of the time your last gun took. Or you might pick up some chump change and a health pack. Don't be alarmed by the game's subtle insistence on gambling your time away: You'll find yourself playing "just a little more" to find the next big cache. That's the point.

Shootin' at the dock of the bay

Borderlands is unequivocal gun pornography -- a sensory overload of randomized statistics packed into each computationally different piece of ballistic hardware. That's what made Diablo so successful. That's why, to this day, the press and the fans refer to any game containing random treasures and frantic mouse-click combat (or controller trigger depressions in the case of Borderlands) as being Diablo-like. Gearbox even added a reference to Blizzard's franchise with an enemy named Rakkinishu, a fully modeled pun of a classic Diablo II enemy. Its loot: a cracked sash. If you don't get the joke, Borderlands might be the most original game of the past 10 years for you. Just remember that PC gamers have been slaughtering hordes and filling relic coffers since 1996.

Yet the Diablo parallels aren't a negative trait. That pedigree, one valuing the pursuit of loot above all else (and the belief that all classes are created equal until skill points are allocated), is the strongest aspect of Borderlands. This game is a nod to the tradition of obsessive item collecting coupled with deep action-RPG elements. It works because the concept has always worked iteration after iteration, and it's somehow fun every single time. Though to be fair, I can't think of another FPS title that so perfectly incorporates the isometric stylings of the Diablo franchise into a shooter's ground-level perspective.

How else can we dissect a title so obvious in its goals? If you can't find joy in the slaughter of thousands of enemies and the endless hunt for better gear with a few friends, Borderlands isn't for you.

The vehicles, while a bit squirrely, certainly pack a punch

Nick:

Never underestimate the importance of a good ending. No matter the faults a game may have in structure or design, a great narrative escalation leading up to a satisfying conclusion can accommodate for any number of hiccups along the way.

Unfortunately, when an excellent game is tethered to a half-hearted final sequence with not even the slightest hint of closure -- not to mention no sign of what's to come in a sequel -- the player is left with such a sour feeling that there's no way in hell they're returning to that same game environment.

Borderlands falls squarely in the second category. Despite its brilliantly calculated pacing, engaging variety of firearms and intense-but-rarely-unfair combat, the thirty or so hours it took me to arrive at the vault on Pandora felt entirely negated by the abortive conclusion. It'll ruin nobody's enjoyment of the game to explain that the final boss is located at the vault; you kill it, it drops some inconspicuous loot, and...that's it. The mysterious windswept lady says you can go sell the vault key for some money and it'll be openable again two hundred years down the line. There you go. Time to start a second playthrough, right?

Wrong. For such a brilliant Diablo-like game, Borderlands missed one crucial component: A gripping conclusion. It's the part that tugs not just at your brain's obsessive impulses but at its emotional receptors as well. Why did anyone go back and play through Diablo 1 on Nightmare or Hell after killing the prime evil himself? Because in order to truly defeat him, the hero had to take on his curse -- and we all know that can't last forever. It makes the prospect of a repeat playthrough exciting because a sequel is inevitable, and the ending (admittedly poor as it was in the first game) was enough compulsion to add purpose to a second venture into the abyss.

The right combination of talents means everything in Borderlands

Diablo II did an even better job with the betrayal of Marius at the hands of Baal. Even though Diablo was once again killed, his soulstone remained -- allowing Baal to deceive Marius, murder him in cold blood, and begin his march toward Mount Arreat and the ominous Worldstone. With an expansion imminent, Diablo II offered plenty of reason to keep venturing back throughout the world of Sanctuary in search of better loot, more robust skills and more challenging duels. And it's probably safe to say that its expansion, Lord of Destruction, wouldn't still have the massive fanbase it holds today without a similarly compelling conclusion: Tyrael's destruction of the World Stone and the unpredictable, dramatic future that would follow. While Diablo is undoubtedly the genre-defining series for hack 'n slash RPGs, it very likely would have lost its place at the top to other admirable contenders (Titan Quest, Sacred, Torchlight) without having developed a solid purpose and alluring narrative within the world of Sanctuary.

They may look like great hosts, but bandits really aren't your friends

The thirty-odd hours I spent with Borderlands were an absolute blast. Whether going it solo or with a group of friends, the game scaled intelligently and always provided something fun to do or exciting to kill. But I realize now that I was only enjoying the raw design of the game, and not the Borderlands mythology itself. Even the world itself is devoid of character; while its sarcasm is deeply entrenched in the characters and missions themselves, and it certainly benefits the game, it's no substitute for a real soul or purpose.

Gearbox demonstrated a first-class understanding of what makes gamers tick, and what makes playing a game with friends fun. They nailed the science -- and the next time around, with any luck, they'll discover the soul as well.

Borderlands is available for a suggested retail price of $59.99 on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and for $49.99 on the PC. The reviewers completed the story mode, and each began a second playthrough that adds different enemies and more difficult encounters. The multiplayer was tested throughout much of the game in varying numbers of two to four participants.

Recommended for:

  • White-knuckle, trigger-depressing action
  • The lack of shame in being a total loot fest
  • An initial sense of style and humor that separates Borderlands from other titles
  • A drop-in/drop-out multiplayer mechanic that makes the concept look easy
  • Those with a lot of friends

Not Recommended for:

  • A lack of longevity -- it's great while it lasts, but who cares about getting to level 50? (Aside from me. -- Aaron)
  • The ending: a complete letdown that nearly ruins the earlier fun of getting there
  • It's almost there, but not quite -- Gearbox showed a lot of potential here, but missteps in the tone and pacing of the game after a wonderful honeymoon period make for a bit of head-scratching

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