In the bleak future of galactic apocalypse there will only be one truth remaining: that of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. Anyone who wants to know what the games of the year really are will be forced to travel across the bleak reaches of space, and land on a desert-planet, where the disembodied hand of the one true leader of the Autobots will unerringly point the way to…
Jim: In some ways Borderlands could have been made for me. Open-ended, post-apocalyptic, with stylised visuals and bangbangbang shooty action. It’s just the kind of mixture of combat thrills and co-op chaos in a wide-open setting that I have always yearned for. What was a genuine surprise for me was that the level-based mechanic – something I generally dislike in games anyway – fitted into the most level-unfriendly gametype, the manshooter. This alone was a great achievement by Gearbox, but the wider world design, the flourish of the art-style, and the sheer bulk of the game, all gave me something to shout about.
It was in multiplayer that the game showed its true colours, however. Racing about in vehicles, fighting flocks of swooping-monsters and screaming “This is Bat Country!” The way in which the game amped up its enemies for your combined firepower was glorious.
There’s a BUT of course, because Borderlands was far from perfect. Even if we ignore the clumsy, unfinished PC version’s numerous faults on release – easy to do now that they’re largely patched and tweaked out – the feeling remains that Borderlands didn’t quite take enough from RPGs for it really register on the All Time Greatness scale. No weapons locker, no way to manage your quest log, even a poor map system. All these things have been done better in other games, usually RPGs, and there was no real excuse for Borderlands not to have learned from them. If they’d managed to port the loot-excess joys of Diablo-style games to the FPS, then why not everything else?
I nit-pick because it is my prerogative, but ultimately this is one of the games that I have enjoyed more than any other in 2009. I’ve spent hours alone with it, and many more hours with co-op chums. It’s telling that it’s one of just a handful of online game that all four of the main RPS editors actually got together to play. That really does count for a lot.
Most interesting, perhaps, is that 2K have recently trademarked “BorderWorlds”. There’s no doubt that whatever Gearbox do next, it’s going to be built on this excellent foundation. I look forward to it.
Kieron: Yeah, as Jim says – in this most divisive of all years for RPS’ staffers, this is one of the very few which brought us together. Not even just playing it – but playing it, at the same, time with one another plus random people from South America. As such, it’s the FPS of the year.
I mean that in both a complimentary and a more backhanded fashion. Yes, definitely the most fun I had with first-person-shootitude in the year of our Lord 09 – give me this over Call of Duty, any fucking day. But it was also the first-person-shooter which most characterised the year. A year where every genre in the world turned into an RPG, whether it wants to (i.e. the more literal adding RPG systems to everything) or not (Heaven help a game which doesn’t come with achievements). A year where cross-development and modern-extra-monetization routes remains a mixed blessing. A year where the whole industry seemed to be torn between the knowledge that doing new things (and then milking it over the next few iterations) is the only way to actually make any real money… but simultaneously being aware that the costs means they can no longer takes the risk. A year when co-op is, critically speaking, now the dominant form of multiplayer – of which Left 4 Dead’s victory-lap was another fine example. A year… oh, you get it. However you cut it, Borderlands was very 2009.
Forget that. This is good work, and at least in a few areas absolutely state of the art. While Borderlands draws on many modern themes, expect to see more games pick up on its own innovations – whether they want to or not. Specifically, expect to see – to I imagine John’s absolute horror – more games realise that the basic XP-track-quests-dialogues of WoW are actually more compulsive than any traditional narrative for the majority of gamers.
Oh, yeah. In more than just its setting, Borderlands could be a a Dark Future indeed.
I dig the hell out of it.
John: Oh gawd, that does horrify me. But I’m also fairly certain Kieron’s absolutely wrong. I’d wager that a significant majority of MMO players don’t ever read the quest text, but instead hammer at “Okay” until the bare bones of the task appear in the summary box. I know that’s how I played Borderlands, anyway. It is, for me, a game about running around and shooting, and I don’t really need a motive for that. Especially when the offered motives are generally nonsense. Perhaps Kieron’s point is (I mean, I could just ask him, but that would mean alt-tabbing windows) that people don’t want to invest in an emotional and complex meta-narrative, but instead be given little chunks of brief story to justify the next task. If so, perhaps that’s partly why I never felt any significant connection with Borderlands.
I did, however, enjoy playing it. And I’m thinking it’s likely to be one of the games I’ll go back to during the Christmas break. It manages to be an interesting and entertaining shooter. However, it’s a shooter with an RPG infection that leaves it constantly having to squirm and scratch at itself in awkward places. I never found the Diablo-esque fun of checking one weapon against another, partly because doing so was just about the most irritating thing in any game this year, and partly because the increments were confusing. The hideous muddle of keyboard and mouse commands, menus requiring five mutant poly-jointed hands to comfortably use, and lack of ease for anything other than firing a weapon, stank of a game that had been made in a bubble.
But despite the genuine anger I feel toward how bloody terribly the menus and commands were put together, I still really want to go back to play it some more. A huge part of that is how beautiful it looks. As much as we all know you don’t need great graphics to be a great game, it really doesn’t hurt to have them. Plus it has a very pleasing sense of being silly. And like I keep saying, running around and shooting is a tremendous amount of fun. I do recommend it, really I do. But I’m still really cross with it too.
Alec: I played the Xbox version of this first – a work thing, not a preference thing – and my little heart broke. It wasn’t bad, not even slightly, but it felt wrong – like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon, or trying to kiss a lobster. Obviously I’m hugely indentured towards the mouse and keyboard as killing tools of choice, but even so – headshots didn’t seem to shoot in the head, trying to get a bead on a bounding worg (or whatever they’re called) was tiresome, and most of all my right hand hurt like hell from having to press a button to manually pick up every single cash drop. My hands. MY BEAUTIFUL PIANO PLAYER’S HANDS. (I can’t play piano. But former PC Gamer editor Ross Atherton once told me my hands look like I can).
So I scored it 8 for an Xbox magazine (a scandalous number to assign to a big-name game in that strange, fierce world), then grumbled and procrastinated when team RPS tried to arrange co-op games. Then, after a lot of networking headaches, I did join one and Lo. LO!
Gearbox might want a big greasy dollop of the money-goo contemporaries such as Epic and Valve have hoovered up from consoleland, but Borderlands is such a PC game. It’s fast, it requires precision and it hangs around obsessive looting: gamepads have yet to truly master these things. (It also looks a hell of a lot better on PC, but I don’t wanna be Graphics Snob Moany-Man). In turn, I felt fast and precise and like an obsessive looter. I.e. Borderlands achieved exactly what it supposed to, and that I was briefly tricked into believing it had failed at : a novel approach to something that, realistically speaking, is quite ordinary. There is nothing wrong with ordinary – in this case, it’s giving me exactly what I want. To whit, shooting’n’looting.
It wasn’t really about the weapons in the end – all those inflated, confusing numbers that had us expecting to have a pistol that shoots milk one minute and a sniper rifle that fires nukes the next. It’s a raw joy to be given something weird (my bestests were the revolver that grew its own ammo and a rocket-firing shotgun), but really it’s just about wanting /better/, and duly being given better. Borderlands does that often and at speed. That sustained carrot and stick of over-strong enemies and the hope of the tools to defeat them: it’s an old, old trick, older than sausages or Terry Wogan, but when someone gets it as right as Blands did, it’s chemical magic.
I’m annoyed the DLC has focused on adding new content rather than fixing problems, such as the rudimentary co-op, the flaky networking, the limited inventory and the lack of cash auto-loot, but such is the way of things. Much as I dug it, Blands does feel a little like a proof of concept game in some regards: I’m expecting genuinely incredible things from the inevitable sequel.