Flashback to Pandora, a Borderlands Review

As you may or may not know, and if you spend any time on the internet at all I’m erring towards may, a new borderlands game was recently announced. For some people this is great news, for other people it’s mildly interesting. I fall into the latter category. That being said, several of my friends stand by borderlands as one of their favourite titles and though I last played it several years ago shortly after it came out I thought I’d give it another go. What follows are my thoughts regarding Borderlands, how it played, what I enjoyed, and what I feel it could have done better. I hope to follow this post up with a sequel after playing Borderlands 2 and eventually we’ll see what happens with Borderlands 3 as well.

So without further ado, let’s start. There will be spoilers, the game is a decade old, you’ll be okay.

Character select is seamlessly done with a pleasant bus ride across Pandora, you’re on your way to a small town called Fyrestone where you’ll start your search for the Vault. All you know about the vault is… well not a lot. You know it’s basically a myth and promises grand treasures, if it’s even real. But this is a videogame and you’re set up as a vault hunter, so it’s not too difficult to appreciate the premonition of the vault being real.

Anyhow, you select your character and the game introduces you to a couple of core concepts, the first being the ECHO system (This thing powers your HUD and communications and was a nice way to apply a logical in-game explanation for why you have a floating bar of health on your screen at all times) and the next being the New-U stations, a form of insurance that can rebuild you in case of death, at a %-cost against your current monetary value.

This was by all means a pretty nice introduction, CL4P-TP (The iconic robot friend) then throws you straight into action, takes you to a crate where you’ll pick up your first weapon and leads you to Fyrestone, which is currently under seige by bandits. There’s no tutorial on how to shoot, dodge or use your ability yet (as you don’t have it) but the panic of being thrown into a gun-fight is plenty enough education. You do what you know best, you point and click. When it boils down to it, that’s what Borderlands is, a straight up shoot-em-up with some story attached.

At this point I’ll let you know that I chose Lilith as my character, I didn’t give much thought to the choice gameplay wise, she was the only female and that’s just my preference, needless to say it didn’t appear that the choice of character had any effect on the story and as such I haven’t felt the need to go back and try the others. As you start progressing the story and doing side-missions from bounty boards the game will introduce you to new things through tool-tips on the screen. These were things like Scooter’s Catch-A-Ride or your characters core ability at level 5.

Lilith’s ability is called “Phasewalk”, it allows Lilith to move quickly from one place to another invisibly, but she can’t jump whilst doing it. This ability can be augmented with artifacts to cause an elemental area of effect attack on entering and exiting the phasewalk. Overall, I mostly just used this to speed myself up getting around places and felt it didn’t offer much of an impact to be used aggressively.

Fast-forwarding a bit we’ve progressed more of the story and been introduced to some more of the characters. Marcus, who drove us to Fyrestone and leads the gun market on pandora, Dr Zed (Who apparently is not in any way Dr Ned) who sells medical supplies and shields, TK Baha a blind but lovable redneck, Scooter owner of Catch-A-Ride, Taniss and some others (who unfortunately were not impactful enough for me to remember). The story I felt was mediocre. I wasn’t invested in any of the characters stories (excluding Taniss who I’ll go on about soon) and the only thing it had going for it was the search for the vault. We find what we’re told is a part of a Key to the vault by a Cortana-like hologram in your ECHO and are encouraged to seek out help to find the other pieces. This hunt takes you to Taniss.

Now at this point if you’ve been doing side-missions you’ll already have been introduced to Taniss via a mission to hunt down the Echo recording she left around the Arid Badlands. These recordings were genuinely one of my favourite additions to the game and are what helped me invest any sort of relationship between myself and Taniss when we eventually met. Taniss is an eccentric by nature, and crazy by consequence. She’s a scientist who we are led to believe works for the Dahl Corporation (a name you’ll see littered on trash-bins, yes that’s a pun, and also on some weapons) and who was tasked with finding the vault in order to obtain technology that is thought would help Dahl to compete with or even beat Atlas, their biggest competitor. This mission has led to Taniss being abandoned with less-than-civilised folk to help her with her search. So when Taniss eventually double crosses you it actually comes as a surprise but it’s reassuring to know that when her plan falls through and she is kept as a captive she still considers you a friend and helps you to put things right. Despite being verifiably insane, Taniss is a genuine character, fiercely independent and wonderfully charming to talk too, and it’s a damned shame that the same attention to character wasn’t applied to the rest of the cast.

The story resolves with a dissapointing bossfight, Commander Steele of the mercanary army you’ve begun fighting since your first steps into Old Haven reaches the vault first and opens it, letting out a creature known as the Destroyer. The Destroyer immediately kills Steele robbing you of a satisfying revenge plot and then turns it’s attention to you. The ECHO ghost convinces you that you can beat it whilst it’s weakened in this world, and what follows is one of the most boring boss fights I’ve ever encountered. Steps were made to make the fight more interesting than the rest of the gunfights, such as giant tentacles that can be broken by shooting their weak points, but beyond that it was a single stage of repetitive combat that took too long as I’d ran out of Sniper Ammo on my way there and couldn’t seem to produce more during the fight. I ended up finishing the fight by shooting it repeatedly for several minutes with a gun called The Dove (a repeater pistol that doens’t consume ammo) that I’d kept in case of this exact emergency. The Destroyer dies, there was no great treasure and you sell your key to Tannis so she can look after it for the next presumably 200 years…

So far, this review probably colours the game in a dim shade of grey. That would be a fair assessment too if all you cared about was the game delivering you a good story. But let’s talk about the biggest selling point of Borderlands… The Guns.

In my opinion Borderlands felt like an experiment in exciting gun-play from a company that were still trying to find their feet in the game development scene, and so they tacked on a half-decent story with a half-decent cast (kudos to their diversity though, and gentle touches on issues such as sexism). As for the experiment… the gun play was actually really fun.

My experience was fairly limited to switching between snipers and revolvers, because that’s generally my comfort zone with shooters. I want to do as much damage as possible in a single hit so I don’t have to worry about any consequences, Lilith was great for this. If things got too hot I could phasewalk away and take some more pot-shots. I’d encountered many guns but ended up sticking with a level 23 sniper rifle for the majority of the game as it had stats that just couldn’t be beaten. That being said I played around with all of the options and found that running down a mob of skags with a combat rifle, taking out a swarm of rakk with a shotgun or blowing up psychos with a rocket launcher were all fun situations to be in. However, nothing quite beat the thrill of finding a boss and sniping him dead in 3 or 4 headshots. This is what I felt the game was all about and this is where the game delivered the most entertainment.

Following the initial game, you might have guess that I’d picked up the Zombie Island DLC featuring Dr Ned… This story was actually better than the core-game story though it featured a much smaller arc, less characters and fewer locations. The story was well contained, the plot twist was fun to experience and the hat-tips to established cultural icons like scooby-doo were well received.

Finally before I summarise I’ll briefly touch on the graphics, because I feel if you’ve read this far and have realised I haven’t brought them up yet there’s probably something wrong with me… and that would be fair. Borderlands has an iconic style that’s hard to miss, it’s a rough-shod hand-drawn cell-shaded style that has won over many fans of the game in it’s history and I have to say I loved it too. It was charming and it helped to establish the games cartoony atmosphere and despite this it wasn’t too much that it would detract from the darker subtones the game intended to display alongside that.

So to summarise. Borderlands could have been an excellent game, it was charming, it nailed it’s core element and it was a breath of fresh air from the more grim shooting games it could be said to compete with. However, it fell down on story and character development and from a game that’s core element is no more than a fun gameplay feature this was dissapointing. The DLC did improve on the writing and characters and the core game did feature a diverse cast which were benefits, but I felt the world was too abstract and the player investment just wasn’t there. The resolution to the story was extremely poor to boot. I’m looking forward to playing the sequel though as I’m hopeful that Gearbox were able to learn from this first experience and improve on all the areas I’ve discussed.

Thanks for reading and if you have any thoughts yourself please share them with me via email. I’d love to hear them.

Now I’m off to Catch-A-Ride.

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