It's a first-person shooter with mechanics usually found in role-playing games; it's set in an open, desolate world with a social structure akin to a galactic version of colonial Australia; and it's either a worst nightmare or fairytale dream for anyone with a short attention span: it's Gearbox Software's Borderlands. The game does well at establishing itself as a self-defined role-playing shooter with thousands of randomly generated guns to run amok with; but while the game is disturbingly addictive, it's hard to overlook the caveats which hold it back from being a complete experience.
After choosing one of four distinctly different mercenaries to play as (each with a unique special ability), you're let loose on the world of Pandora in search of the fabled Vault said to contain alien technology and wealth. The planet is cluttered with the remnants of a defunct mining exploration, and is home to not only deadly foreign creatures but outlaws and opportunists as well.
Culling its name from a barren wasteland scattered with clusters of human outposts and abandoned colonies, Borderlands presents a surprising setting with environments of just enough differentiation to never feel too redundant. While much of world is comprised of recycled elements and structures, and you'll find yourself re-visiting the same areas time and again, each allows you with a large, distinct area to explore.
Pandora itself is presented in a lively art style ironically juxtaposed against still bodies hanging from wretched girders and islands made of trash. However out of place it may seem, the move for color adds dimension to the world and helps set the game apart from other shooters. Color also plays a role in gameplay as it denotes enemies and weapons with elemental abilities, as well as various kinds of loot dropped across the world.
Despite this impressive art style, there are some graphical issues which detract from the game, visually. Along with some strange instances of getting trapped in fences or small crevices, invisible barriers pervade Pandora's landscape and cause abrupt stoppages while cruising around in one of two vehicles—these cases being especially curious when compared to the complete lack of boundaries of some objects as you clip through characters and tables. Besides getting stuck in or walking through the environment, drops in frame rate are frequent if you happen to obliterate large groups of enemies too quickly.
Whether you're stopping short or running through objects, as you make your way around Pandora, picking up and choosing between numerous variations of shields, sniper riles, grenade modifications, character enhancements, and other items, gives you taste of the large amount of randomly generated equipment touted to be available for discovery. While the numerous incarnations begin to feel a bit recycled after a few hours, with only slight differences in appearance and attributes, you have to appreciate the varied gun play in a first-person shooter: a genre which usually presents us with only a handful of preset weapons to discharge.
A real disappointment, however, comes from the enemies inhabiting Pandora. Though you'll never run out of creatures to set afire or corrode, expect to be pestered by unimaginative AI that is only scripted to bombard you head on. With little strategy employed by your adversaries, your survival seems solely dependent on the level of your character and the strength of your shield. The elements of stealth and distance also have little impact on firefights as even shotgun-totting bad guys are bound to attack you from afar.
Essentially, the single-player experience of Borderlands is frustratingly convoluted. With such an appreciable art style and a large world to traverse, the game ends up it revolving around a story that is remarkably thin and which makes almost no sense, leaving you to simply quest for experience and better loot for twenty-some-odd hours. Side-quests offer some exploration into what happened on Pandora and what The Vault is, but there isn't ever any clear explanation. The entirety of the game can be boiled down to go here, do X (either retrieve something or kill someone), kill lots enemies along the way, and turn in completed requirements. There's little interactivity in the world and less to do than gain levels.
On the other hand, that's also what makes the multiplayer aspect so entertaining. Gearbox have used their skills to make for a shooter where fighting high-level fiends cooperatively with friends (three online or another buddy in splitscreen play) dilute many of the game's shortcomings. As you set up brawlers for up-close fisticuffs and long-range snipers for pot shots, you suddenly discover you've employed a coordinated strategy to confuse and combat dull, overpowered enemies. Similarly, multiple long-winded quests are quickly executed for huge amounts of shared money and experience, leaving the play time feeling less reductive as you banter and coordinate with your team.
Also, with those friends, you have the option to play mildly entertaining duels either on the spot or in arenas. The challenges are little more than distractions from time to time, but luckily you're never obligated to commit to the bloodsport.
A fairly unique composition in terms of first-person shooter meets role-playing gameplay with a stylized presentation, Borderlands offers hours of leveling to do and a never-ending supply of enemies to experiment destructive weapons on. While the story barely makes for a reason to horde equipment or play out missions with parameters of kill, kill, kill, once you add a few other players to the mix, you get a game that does well in the action-RPG scene, despite its nagging issues.