Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, playing videogames was an anti-social affair. Games were designed to be a single player, pitting his or her cunning against the will of the game developers. In more recent years, though, many more games are made to make multiple players work together. Borderlands is one such game. It can be played alone or with four players, but seems to work best with a minimum of three people. When it does work, it works very well; there is lots of genuine fun to be had here.
Borderlands is a first person shooter, but unlike its comrades in the genre, it does not follow a linear storyline. It is a role-playing game very similar in structure to the 1996 game Diablo; the players are given succinct quests either of the formula “kill X villain,” who is undoubtedly surrounded by minions, or “retrieve Y artifact,” which is also protected by tons of baddies. There are rewards of experience, money, and items for completing each quest, and none but the main story missions are mandatory to advance to different areas.
Now, if the gunplay wasn’t loads of fun, the game wouldn’t be worth a second glance. But the combat is fun. Headshots are extremely satisfying and sometimes necessary. Enemies run into combat headlong or take cover based on their roles. Different weapon types are very distinct, and there are enough that each player in the party can pick a specialization weapon that is both unique and viable in combat.
One of my favorite parts of Borderlands is the simplicity of the inventory system. There are very few types of items, and they are extremely easy to decide to keep or discard; almost all items are weapons, and they are either worth using or selling immediately. Defeated enemies drop ammunition and money to buy better weapons, neither of which take up inventory space. The only other item to worry about is shield. There are no multi-piece suits of armor, no weapon modifications, and no health kits. That last part isn’t true, but they aren’t worth carrying around. That being said, the penalty for dying isn’t very harsh, so there’s less incentive to stay alive at any cost; the game removes a small amount of cash relative to the player’s level and teleports him or her back to the last checkpoint.
The next major discussion point is difficulty. The game does not scale the difficulty of the enemies to the level of the player, which I really like. It does, however, scale difficulty to the number of players working together. With only one or two players the game is incredibly easy and just not as much fun. The enemies can be easily defeated and give plenty of experience for fast leveling. Once a third person is added, though, the game transforms. The enemies are legitimately difficult and require a good deal of teamwork to handle in a mob. With four the game borders on mean-spirited, but in a good way. Some of the quests require a bit of preparation and leveling before they can be tackled, which is a sign of good game design. It keeps the players invested in the progression of their characters and gives short-term, visible rewards.
Unfortunately there are difficulties apart from the game design. Finding time to play was not an issue; finding time to play with multiple people was. If one person in the party is not present while the others play, he or she has to be caught up before being able to do story missions alone later. Even the people I live with were hard to tie down for a couple of hours all together to get some good play time in. Also, even while playing over a wireless LAN in the same room, there were occasional lag spikes that got obnoxious.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the test machines and performance. This game was tested on the RPI Mobile Computing Program’s T61 and T61p, as well as a Macbook Pro. The T61 required the graphics settings to be turned down pretty low to get a decent frame rate, but the other two ran it without problem.
I do recommend this game. If you, the reader, can find a few friends to play with, this is an extremely accessible game that even the more casual gamers can enjoy. It does get a bit repetitive around halfway through, but the story isn’t terribly compelling. It will still make for a satisfying experience and a fond memory of time when you didn’t have to play alone.
Special thanks to the Review Crew: Peter Ingulli, Richard Morris, Matthew Hibbard, and Max Barrett.