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In the past, I associated loot-focused games with titles like Diablo and Titan Quest. Games that are often considered dungeon crawlers. Games that give you an overhead view of the action. But things would change in 2009 with the release of Borderlands, a loot-focused first-person shooter. It was a mix of elements from two genres I enjoyed and I had never played anything quite like it before. Developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games, Borderlands was released for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in October, 2009, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in April, 2019, and Switch in May, 2020. For this review, we played the PC version, specifically the Game of the Year Enhanced Edition on Steam which includes all of the DLC, supports 4K resolutions and HDR, adds in Gold Chests and new weapons among some other things. And if you already own the original game on Steam, you should have received the Enhanced Edition for free. The only change I don’t like, at in the Steam version, is that LAN support was removed for some reason.
Set in the future at a time when mega-corporations are attempting to control and colonize various planets, some time before the events of the game, the Atlas Corporation uncovers a Vault filled with advanced weapons technology. After they fail to find more on the planet Pandora, the Dahl Corporation colonizes the planet and discovers proof that another Vault does exist. Upon learning of the their discovery, Atlas invades forcing Dahl to abandon the planet leaving behind most of the population. The legend of the Vault attracts mercenaries called Vault Hunters to Pandora and the story opens with four hunters arriving in search of the fabled Vault. They learn that they must locate multiple alien artifacts which are required to open it. On their quest, they encounter several interesting and wacky characters and must fend off Crimson Lance, the private military force employed by Atlas sent to retrieve the artifacts.
Borderlands does not overload you with cut scenes. A lot of information and lore is conveyed through text and transmissions and because it’s always clear where you need to go and what you need to do, the story never really feels shoved in your face. To put it simply, you’re objective is to find treasure on an alien planet. Borderlands does have a unique tone and style. I like that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously and there’s a lot of attempts at humor. Now I like to think I have a good sense of humor and I do enjoy the overall brand of comedy on offer in Borderlands but I can’t say every joke landed. Sometimes I felt like the writers were trying too hard to be funny.
I did play through the game with friends and the only DLC they refused to play through with me was Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot. After playing it myself for the first time, I don’t blame them. The plot centers on Moxxi trying to find a fourth husband which is simply a backdrop for repetitive wave based shooting gameplay. The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned has you investigating the source of the zombies that inhabit the region. The plot of The Secret Armory of General Knoxx revolves around a woman named Athena who wants to destroy the Atlas Corporation and General Knoxx who is tasked with stopping her and the Vault Hunters. Then there’s Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution which was our favorite of all the DLC. It centers on a rogue army of Claptrap robots that want to destroy humanity.
Inspired by games like Diablo, Borderlands is a loot-focused cooperative first-person shooter. A lot of people refer to games like this as “looter shooters”. The more players there are, the more challenging the gameplay. If a player falls, they are given a set amount of time to kill an enemy to save themselves or another player can revive them. If a player does die, they respawn and lose some money. Players can also initiate duels by hitting each other with melee attacks. Loot is a major part of the gameplay. It can be found in the environments, it’s dropped by enemies, and it can be purchased. Loot consists of weapons, ammo, money, shields, health items, grenade mods, and class mods. The four Vault Hunters are essentially different character classes that specialize in different things. You can play as a Berserker who’s good with his fists, a Siren that has advantages using sub-machine guns and elemental weapons, a Hunter who prefers sniper rifles and pistols, and a Soldier who is good with combat rifles and shotguns.
You earn experience for completing objectives, challenges, and killing enemies. Earn enough and you level up and starting at level five you are rewarded with a point that can be spent on skills to improve your character. Each character has a their own Active Skill that can be activated during gameplay which is basically a unique ability. You can equip up to four weapons along with grenades, a shield, and a class mod and store any others you find in your inventory along with health items. Class Mods provide special bonuses and characters can only equip mods that are unique to their class. Furthermore, you can increase your proficiency for different weapon types by simply using weapons. When the proficiency levels up, your attributes with that weapon type improve.
Loot can be found almost anywhere and can be bought and sold at vending machines and the ammo vending machine is where you can purchase upgrades to increase your ammo capacity for each weapon type. Weapons are primarily what you’re always looking for and they do have level requirements and come in different rarities. A weapon’s rarity is represented by color and each one you find usually comes with different bonuses. In our experience, the loot drops sucked for most of our playthrough of the main campaign. And this applies to most loot found in the world and dropped by enemies. The best loot often comes from bosses but you can get some good stuff from vending machines and if you’re patient enough, there are areas you can farm for good loot.
The Enhanced Edition includes Gold chests that can only be opened with gold keys and contain great loot. The weapons we received from these chests were better than anything we found out in the world, vending machines, or received as a reward. And they remained effective for good chunks of the campaign. To get the keys, you need a SHiFT account to redeem the codes that reward you with them. In our experience, we found that these Gold Chests can break things, at least a little. Somehow, each of us started with seventy plus gold keys so we always had access to great loot, rendering anything we found out in the world or vending machines basically useless.
You can easily not open the Gold Chests and play through the game using the equipment you acquire by other means. After a while, I was able to swap out the weapons I received from Gold Chests for something I found elsewhere but the quality of the drops seemed to get worse as we progressed. The beginning of the game starts out great because much of the loot we found was pretty good. But around the half-way point, we noticed that almost everything we were finding sucked and swapping out equipment was a rare occurrence. And this carries over into the DLC which we played through after completing the main campaign.
Pandora often feels like a barren wasteland planet and the world is broken up into what I’ll call regions. Each region is split up into multiple areas and you can fast travel to any discovered locations from New-U stations. The world is filled with towns, camps, caves, caverns, buildings and facilities. There’s usually a town or some kind of hub area in each region where you can interact with NPCs and a bounty board to accept missions. Once a mission is completed, you have to return to the area and turn it in for the reward. Around almost every corner is a chest, container, locker, and/or waste pile that contains loot. You can get around on-foot or by weaponized vehicles that can be spawned at Catch-A-Ride stations. Many areas are big and you will have to backtrack and revisit previously explored locations multiple times, and if you don’t have a vehicle and aren’t near a New-U station, trying to get from one place to another can really suck, especially in the General Knoxx DLC which consists of unnecessarily large areas with unnecessarily confusing roads and highways. Worst of all, none of the DLC regions let you fast travel to their areas which really drags out the General Knoxx DLC in particular because of how big the areas are.
Borderlands supports up to four players and you can play through it solo. The difficulty will depend on how many players there are and each mission you accept does come with a recommended level. After completing the story, you can start another playthrough and carry over all your equipment and stats and the enemies are scaled up. Many of the foes you encounter, especially early in the game, are various alien creatures that inhabit the planet. You’ll eventually encounter more dangerous foes like Crimson Lance soldiers, bandits, and psychos and the Zombie Island DLC features undead enemies. Some enemies are tougher than others, some have weak points and you can land critical hits by shooting the right spots. Because of how the game is designed, if you’re underleveled for the enemies you’re up against, most foes will feel like bullet sponges. And when I fire a rocket at a bad guy’s face and barely chip away any health, that always makes me chuckle. I can’t say the enemy AI is the greatest. Many foes rush you and others like to simply stand out in the open and shoot at you.
Borderlands is a game I have never beaten solo. I’ve only beaten it with friends. Once years ago and again for this review and this is the first time I played through the DLC. Whenever I tried to play it solo, I would eventually get bored and move onto something else so in my opinion, this is definitely a game that is best enjoyed with multiple players. For one thing, the missions suck. The game is full of fetch quests and if you’re not retrieving something, you’re on a quest to kill someone or multiple enemies or destroy something. And it all kind of feels the same. You’ll be doing a lot of running and driving between areas and if you’re overleveled for an area, you won’t earn as much experience for kills and things can get boring.
If you look at other loot-focused games like the ones that Borderlands draws inspiration from, the mission or quest design is actually not much different. Think of games like Diablo. What do you do? Go to different locations, slay enemies, and retrieve items. But I think it’s easier to overlook the simple quest design because of other factors, primarily character building and when combined with good loot drops, it can result in very addictive gameplay. In my opinion, Borderlands doesn’t have that same type of addictive quality. For one thing, the character building isn’t on the same level as games like Diablo II or Titan Quest and I think the loot system loses steam rather quickly. The infrequent quality drops means you can end up using the same weapon or weapons for very long stretches and in a loot-focused game, that’s not exactly a good thing.
In these kinds of games, I think loot should be what keeps you going. To always be on the lookout for something better. That feeling of “oh, a shiny new weapon. I can’t wait to try it out”. But that means the game actually has to give you something better and frequently enough that it keeps you engaged and excited to sift through any new loot you find. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in Borderlands. So what you’re left with is rather boring missions that reward you with shitty loot most of the time. I actually found an article on Gearbox’s website that goes over the loot system and why it was redesigned for the sequel. It was written by Paul Hellquist, the creative director for Borderlands 2 and there’s one segment I want to quote that basically explains why the loot system fails to be addictive or exciting.
“[T]he heart of the issue was in the growth curve of enemy health and weapon damage compared to gamestage. The rate at which the damage increased with weapon level and the amount of health the enemies had at each level was relatively flat. This meant that there was not a big difference in the damage the player could deal with a level 15 weapon and a level 30 weapon allowing the increase in player skill and the expenditure of skill points to essentially allow the low level weapon to maintain its effectiveness at higher levels.“
Knowing the loot system is flawed and the missions are boring, you’re probably wondering why people would want to play Borderlands. Well it was one of the first of its kind so I think some of these things could be forgiven to an extent. And when I say the first of it’s kind, I mean looter shooter. I don’t know if it was truly the very first looter shooter ever made in the history of video games. I know it was the first game I played that was like this. With that in mind, it was interesting and different for its time. Nevertheless, with shitty loot and boring missions, we have to look at what’s left and determine if that’s fun. Well Borderlands is a first-person shooter so I would say the gunplay would have to be good or at least decent. And I think it was, at least for it’s time. The gunplay is certainly not the greatest but it’s far from terrible. For one thing, the game contains an excellent variety of weapons and they have good visual feedback, a nice kick to them when fired. As mentioned earlier the enemy AI is average but the gore effects do help make kills feel satisfying. You can blow off body parts, blood will spew, and enemies can explode into chunks and gibs. So the question becomes does the gunplay help carry the game or at least make up for its other shortcomings? I think for the time it released, it did. If you like to shoot things, the mechanics work and there’s plenty of shit to shoot. But as of this review, keeping in mind the sequels, other looter shooters that have released since and other similar games – no, I don’t think it does anymore. There’s nothing really exceptional about it. It’s your standard gunplay.
Most of the gameplay has you running around and shooting enemies. They populate areas and/or will come pouring out from somewhere in the environments. They do come in different ranks or variants which determines how tough they are and certain elements are better against certain threats. Because the enemies don’t do anything super sophisticated, much of the challenge comes from being outnumbered. If you have a super powerful weapon or are overleveled for the area, you can obliterate threats quickly and easily, otherwise it’s going to take a little longer. You’ll want to find things to use as cover because many encounters will have you being attacked from multiple directions. Pick off a few guys, hide behind cover until your shield recharges, rinse and repeat. The enemies aren’t as tough when playing solo but you can still die easily if you don’t approach certain encounters with caution.
Borderlands does feature vehicular combat which is pretty basic and doesn’t make up a huge part of the gameplay. Minus specific objectives, it’s more or less something that just happens. There are multiple vehicles you can spawn and they come with different weapons and some areas have enemies driving around that will attack you on sight. If killing them isn’t your objective, you can usually drive passed them without issue. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the driving in general. It’s not terrible but it is easy to get stuck on things in the environments which can be annoying and you turn by manipulating the camera which I don’t really care for. You can activate a boost for a burst of speed which can help get you around faster but also result in you flying in the air before tumbling because there’s a lot of bumps and things in the environments that can send you flying or spinning out of control.
Now let’s talk about the DLC and why we’re not huge fans of most of it. The Moxxi DLC is by far the worst. The gameplay is all about surviving rounds in different arenas and each round consists of multiple waves that get more challenging as you advance. Eventually, gameplay modifiers are applied before each wave. That’s it. That’s basically the entire DLC. Oh, and it comes with a bank to store items. No loot is dropped by enemies and no experience is gained from kills within the arenas and weapon proficiencies will not improve. And when you take away the loot and experience or in other words the two big elements of the gameplay, it becomes very boring very quickly. It’s just repetitive and goes on and on.
The second worst DLC is easily General Knoxx. Every area is large and because you can’t fast travel, you spend a good chunk of time just driving from one location to another. Several areas are connected by long stretches of highways and many of the areas are filled with more roads and ramps that lead to other locations, usually where you need to go, but there’s no obvious way to get there like almost every other location in the rest of the game. Despite these issues, this DLC did add some cool things like new weapons, shields, grenade and class mods, vehicles, and enemies. Plus, it increased the level cap.
We enjoyed the Zombie and Claptrap DLCs more than the other two, with Claptrap being our favorite. The Zombie DLC adds undead enemies but I what I like most about it is the new environments. It goes for the whole dark and creepy thing which results in a nice change of scenery. Besides the lack of fast travel, our biggest complaint with this DLC is that it’s too short. As for the Claptrap DLC, the areas aren’t oversized, the pacing is solid, and you get to engage some cool and even humorous new enemies.
Visually, Borderlands features a cartoon-style presentation which I think made it look unique for its time. The environments, character models, and weapons do showcase some neat details. The Enhanced Edition does include some improved textures but it’s not a dramatic facelift in terms of visuals. Despite the interesting visual presentation, the game does lack visual diversity in terms of environments. A lot of areas look very similar and are filled with garbage, debris, and ramshackle buildings. It’s always refreshing when you enter a facility or stronghold or cavern because it gets you away from the many barren lands you have to traverse. The many similar looking areas are also why the dark and creepier areas in the Zombie DLC stand out. The soundtrack was composed by numerous artists, including Jesper Kyd, and the tunes fit the alien-like atmosphere of the world. There’s a lot of ambient songs and the more dramatic and intense stuff kicks in at certain points. On the technical side, the frame rate was mostly smooth throughout our entire playthrough. The only annoying bug we encountered was an objective not triggering which we resolved by exiting and relaunching the game.
We had fun with Borderlands and I think for it’s time, the loot-focused gameplay added a nice twist to the first-person shooter genre making the game feel unique. I do think playing through it solo can be a little boring mainly because of the repetitive nature of the game. At least when you’re playing with others, it’s more challenging and you can help each other out. It doesn’t help that the loot system isn’t implemented as well as it is in some of the games that inspired it. Loot is supposed to be exciting. Games like this should always keep you hunting for shiny new toys. But quality loot drops are too infrequent to make the system exciting or addictive and I think that’s one of the game’s biggest problems. We would also say most of the DLC isn’t worth it. In fact, we suggest skipping the Mad Moxxi DLC altogether. As time goes on, some of the game’s issues become more prominent. The lack of good loot drops exposes how repetitive and boring many of the missions are and the gunplay, while decent, does not carry the game on it’s own. The Mad Moxxi DLC is a good example of that.
Ultimately, we would recommend Borderlands if you can find a cheap copy. It’s not a bad game but as of this review, considering all the looter shooters that have released since and the sequels, its simply been outdone and it doesn’t take too long to notice. We do think the formula was significantly improved in the sequel. On the plus side, it does come with a lot of content and even if you exclude the not-so-great DLC, you still get quite a bit of bang for your buck. Furthermore, it can be enjoyed solo or with friends. It’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of loot-focused games and shooters.