Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Late to the Party Reviews: Borderlands

So apparently I have a thing for mercenaries.

My favorite web-comic is Schlock Mercenary; my two favorite TV shows (The A Team and Firefly) are about mercenaries; and almost every video game I’ve ever played the hell out of has featured mercenaries.

Like Mercenaries 2, for example. I played through that game voraciously, going so far as to find every hidden tool box twice (one at the end of my first playthrough, and then again at the beginning of my second playthrough).

Recently I finished up the plain vanilla, unexpanded edition of Borderlands. I completed the main story, in search of buried treasure, and every single side quest available. Even the arena battles, which were gobs of fun playing after beating the game, as I had leveled up well beyond the requirement for those missions, and I simply dominated the arenas.

I’m not sure why the mercenary theme works for me so well. I suspect it probably has to do with being a way to incorporate an arcade mentality into a story based game. Arcade games are all about blowing things up for points. That’s basically what a mercenary does, except his points are hard currency.

But enough about my pathologies. We’re here to review a year old game, gosh darnit, and that’s what we’re going to do!

Borderlands is a First Person Shooter with RPG trappings. Specifically, MMORPG trappings. The world is wide open, you get quests from people with giant exclamation points over their heads, and most of those quests involve killing quantity X of mob Y. The game even features multiplayer to encourage partying up with other players, but I don’t care about that so I won’t be writing about it. Suffice it to say that it’s there if you want it, and my understanding is that it is functional.

There is a story to Borderlands, but it serves little purpose than to keep you moving through various areas of the world, killing progressively more difficult mobs. The story has something to do with an ancient alien vault that allegedly contains vast wealth. Naturally, your character wants it. Because treasure is money, and mercenaries like money.

There are four characters to choose from representing different classes: There’s the Soldier (aka The Mario), the Siren (a rogue), the Hunter (a hunter) and Brick (the tank.) Each character has his or her own special ability. The Soldier can throw down an automated turret that provides suppressing fire and cover. The Siren can “phase walk” which is a fancy way of saying she can become invisible and sneak behind her enemies. The Hunter has a familiar that can be deployed to kill enemies. Finally, Brick can go into a berserk mode where he regains health and can punch anything to death.

I played as Brick, because Brick was the closest I could come to playing as Jayne Cobb, and I think a game featuring Jayne Cobb as a main character would be smashing. Literally.

Each of these abilities can be buffed and upgraded with skill points as the character levels up, which is another RPG trope that found its way into the land of FPS’s.

The main point of the game, though, is loot. There is a lot of loot in this game. It’s like Diablo but with FPS controls. You kill a mob, it drops loot. Even if it’s an alien coyote, it drops loot. Even if you kick a pile of alien coyote poop, it drops loot. (The in-game explanation is that the alien coyotes are indiscriminate about what they eat, and because the environment is so harsh they can eat things like weapons and money without suffering ill effects, aside from gunshot wounds from the loot-happy merc that really wants a purple healing shield.)

Loot is color coded by rarity, but not necessarily by quality. I finished the game using largely green and white weapons, which are the most common. Playing the game “right” would require me to use blue or purple weapons, but none of the blue or purple weapons I found had the stats I wanted (High accuracy, high damage, moderate rate of fire and I don’t care about reload speed.) Anyway, when you play as Brick, weapons matter less than how you spend your skill points. Why? Because Brick’s fists can be the most effective weapons in the game.

And I can say that honestly and literally. I carried a pack of alien weapons, rocket launchers of various types, and hard-hitting sniper rifles into the final boss battle with the critter I like to call the ginormous fanged space weegina. (Whether that design was deliberate or not, I think folks at Gearbox have some issues with the lady-types) How did I beat it? I ran up to it and kept punching it until it fell on me and crashed the game.

Clearly, I was playing it wrong. I reloaded my save file and beat the boss “right” using a combination of rockets, machine gun fire and grenades, and I defeated the boss again, but without the crash.

There are two things I have to say about my overall impressions of this game: 1) It was well worth the $30 I paid for it and 2) I have no plans to trade it in.

I plan to revisit the Borderlands someday, when there isn’t so much going on and I feel like investing a lot of hours into another character (or more likely I’ll just play Brick again.) For now it will occupy a space on my shelf I’ve dedicated to games I plan to replay eventually, next to Bioshock and Batman Arkham Asylum.