From the Glossary of The Wheel of Time

The nations surrounding the Great Blight. Saldea, Shienar, Arafel, Kandor.

Ain't no rest for the wicked; money don't grow on trees. I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed - there ain't nothing in this world for free. I know I can't slow down, I can't hold back - though you know I wish I could. No, there ain't no rest for the wicked, until we close our eyes for good.

Cage the Elephant
"Ain't No Rest For the Wicked"
Borderlands Opening Sequence soundtrack

Does this whole newfangled notion of being 'social' in games irritate you? Do you not have bloody time for strategic planning or character optimization math? Do you really, really like shooting people and things? Then hey! We may have the perfect game for you.

Borderlands is a one-to-four person 'cooperative shooter' game released for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles and Wintel PCs. It was released on October 20th, 2009 after a successful pre-launch publicity campaign consisting mostly of carefully-dribbled YouTube videos. Created by Gearbox Software, the game has seen the release of (so far) three expansion packs (or DLC) in the six months since its release.

The Mechanic

This game is...somewhat odd. It's like a bastard child. Let me think. How to best describe it? Okay. Take a combat-and-exploration MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Anarchy Online. Now take a really sharp knife and start paring away big chunks of the game mechanic until you're left with, really, two things: zone exploration and combat.

And that's it.

Oh, and throw in a completely ungodly variety of guns. No melee weapons or magic to worry about here - this game is about guns. And cars. And guns. The guns, in fact, are procedurally generated, and Gearbox is proud of the fact that there are literally millions of potential weapons to run across, be shot by, collect, use and worship.

There is a story. Sort of. I can give it to you in the following snippet, and trust me, there's no spoilers here: You're a mercenary who heads to the planet Pandora, in search of a legendary hidden cache of wealth called 'The Vault.' You have to find it, and not get killed. Much.

There. You now know all you need to know about the 'plot' that hangs this whole silly exercise together.

Don't get me wrong, though. Sometimes silly is just what one needs.

At base, this is a first person shooter. You control your player avatar in first-person view, running around committing mayhem at will. Various enemies (and damn few friends) will cross your path, and all the friends will be immobile NPCs, more scenery than interactions. They'll communicate with you pretty much entirely within boring 'mission briefing' dialog boxes, which (don't let the name fool you) aren't a dialog at all but text blurbs for your edification.

They're more broke than my momma's girly parts!


You'll be able to drive cars, supplied by what sounds like a disembodied good ol' boy with a slight meth problem via a handy teleport mechanic. The cars are armed. You can use them to shoot stuff, or just run over stuff, as well as to get around. There are large portions of the map, though, that the cars can't get into - so get used to walking. Before you can even get cars, you'll need to run some missions to 'fix the car thang' so that you can beam them down. The driving mechanic is a bit odd - rather than steering the vehicles, you aim them - you move a point-of-aim around and the car steers toward it. It's hard to explain, but pretty simple once you see it in action. That doesn't mean it's a good control scheme, just that you'll understand what they want you to do. Doing it is something else again, most of the time.

This game isn't really a 'cover based shooter.' You can duck, and you can hide behind things - in this game, everything stops bullets including cloth hangings, but there's a good reason for that which I'll get into later. However, you aren't ever explicitly 'in cover' and if your head is sticking up too far, guess what!

In addition to your guns, you can equip shield modules (the equivalent of armor) which work just like the one that Halo made famous - when the shield is knocked down, you start taking damage, but if you can keep from getting hit long enough, the shield will recharge itself. There are a wide variety of perks that the shields can come with, too - health max boosts, faster recharge, health regeneration (nice), bursts of fire or shock when they run out (damage your assailants), etc.

Grenade mods do just that - affect how your grenades behave. 'Grenades' are a generic ammo type, and depending on which mod you have equipped, they'll behave in appropriate ways. Reg'lar ol' explosive grenades. Incendiary grenades. Rubberized grenades that bounce around like mad until they hit an enemy. Sticky grenades. 'Longbow' grenades that teleport between you and your target. Transfusion grenades, which somehow steal health from enemies in the combat zone and hand it off to you. Shock grenades. Corrosive grenades. You get the idea.

Finally, there are character mods, which fit into the one real remaining part of the MMORPG mechanic - the class/skill system. You can play one of four classes - Hunter, Siren, Soldier, or Brick (his name is Brick. For obvious reasons). Each has a primary talent - the Hunter has a pet 'bird thing' which he can send out to hunt; the Siren can 'phasewalk,' the Soldier can drop a short-lived gun turret, and Brick...well, he's Brick. As you level up, you receive skill points which you can allocate in an industry-standard skill tree. The character modules offer combat and skill bonuses while they're equipped - they're class specific, and there are a variety for each class that you can trade among.

Of course, you can always decide to just sell the stuff you pick up. This is mostly what you'll do.

Gameplay modes - yeah, there are a few. Single-player, of course. Then you can play in split-screen with multiple shooters on the same sofa. If you're adventurous, you can match for games out on the 'net using the PS3 or Xbox match services and play in co-op shooter mode. Although the main game wants you to cooperate vs. the environment (PvE) you can fight duels with other players by just shooting them - or by visiting dedicated 'Arena' areas in the game which serve round-robin matches via the network.

The Look

This is one of the best things about the game - one of the things that makes it interesting. Rather than go for a hyper-realistic look for the environment and the characters, Gearbox made a solid and inspired design choice to use cel shading instead. As a result, everything in the game is slightly 'flat' with sketched details rather than complex textures. The whole thing ends up looking like a really complexly-drawn comic book.

Why is this a good choice?

For one, speed. The rendering in this game is really, really fast. The lower complexity (compared to complex textured models) of the objects means that dizzyingly fast camera pans, huge explosions, crowds of enemies - none of these really slow down the renderer at all. When you first 'zone in' to an area, you'll notice that things look a little more cartoony than normal - then if you watch carefully you'll notice that the engine is adding the more complex textures gradually as they load. However, because you're conditioned to expect strong edges and less complex texturing, it doesn't bother you at all (well, it doesn't bother me). In addition, they can pull off cool tricks like changing focus by blurring layers when you sight down your gun or use a scope, and do it smoothly. Speed is also the reason for the aforementioned bulletproof tapestries; the game doesn't bother with different types of material. There isn't even any glass around, that I've seen; fewer cycles wasted on tracking transparency.

The art style of the game is nothing really new, but it's a solid collection of tropes. I know nothing about the art design team for this game, but I can tell you with absolute assurance that they are more than passing familiar with the following:

...among others.

This is SLEDGE. <Quick cutscene animation of massive, armored, psycho boss enemy.> P.S. YOU'RE NOT FRIENDS.

-Boss Intro Cutscene

The planet Pandora is a catastrophe - a slave-labor mining planet with no local law. As a result it seems to consist of desert wastelands and horizon-to-horizon trash dumps, sometimes both at once. The human enemies you face range from the Jason-Masked 'Psychos' (Psycho, Burning Psycho, Midget Psycho, etc. etc.) to strangely mutated 'Bruisers' and casually lethal mercenaries and bandits. 'Badass' variants of these types are those which should cause you to check your ammo supply and start backing away while unleashing MOAR DAKKA as hard as possible - they have enough hit points to choke an elephant, and they're intent on stuffing their gun down your throat.

Burning piles of trash the size of skyscrapers; ruined and patched infrastructure (why are there toilets scattered around the landscape with brightly-glowing status lights on them? I have no idea) and an atmosphere not so much of decay but of fermentation and destruction.

Welcome to Pandora.

My subjective impressions

I bought this game when it was released and immediately started playing it. But after a couple days, I dropped it. Why? I wasn't sure at the time, but I think I've figured it out. I had just finished playing Fallout 3, which is a fairly rich world-exploration and story-driven combat RPG. Borderlands was frustrating, because unlike in Fallout I couldn't pick up objects lying around the scenery. Nor was there really any interesting info or easter eggs to find by poking my nose into every little corner. The core combat mechanic worked better than Fallout's, but that's all there was. I was bored, and I put it down.

A few months later, I picked it back up, after playing Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed II. After those two, one a stealth mechanic and the other a strange hybrid of Renaissance combat and parkour, Borderlands was comforting to the old video gamer in me. Here, it said gruffly, I know. They've been making you care about mystic plots, and making you hide in shadows; they've been making you figure stuff out, and making you obsessively complete tasks. Screw them. Here, have a gun. Over there's some stuff you might want to shoot.

Have fun.

And that's Borderlands. It's a shooter, first, foremost and only. If that's something you enjoy, then you'll feel right at home here. If it's not, then you won't. It's not trying to scare you, or make you be super careful, or make you think hard, or engross you in some fictional epic starring YOU! Nope, it's trying to kill you. With guns. Again. And it's asking you to stand up (or crouch down) and shoot back.

Do you like sniping? Great. Have a sniper rifle. Have one of several thousand possible sniper rifles. See if you like that. Shotguns? Ooooh, we got those. Strange revolvers with multishot and corrosive acid damage? I think we got them 'round here somewhere.

As a final note, I should point out that Borderlands has one of the best opening sequence cutscenes I've ever seen on a video game. You can find it on YouTube, if you care.

And if you do, the song you're looking for is called "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" and is performed by a group called Cage the Elephant. It can be found on the iTunes Music Store.


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