Lots of video games start their life as a crossing of two ideas or slight twist on an old formula. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is Metroid meets Castlevania. Dead Space is Resident Evil 4… in space! Warcraft is clearly Blizzards own spin on the Warhammer setting except not as bleak. Hell you could even go as far back as the original days of video gaming to do this when it comes to the classics. Everything that's old is new again is just as true in the medium of video gaming as it is in books and movies.
Borderlands has been advertised as "a first-person shooter and RPG made a baby" and that's actually a fairly apt way of describing the game. The experience is a solid one but not without its flaws. However these flaws are minor enough that, for most, they will not cause much of an impediment to enjoying this game.
There isn't much of a story to be had here, more of a set up for an adventure. You will choose between one of four mercenaries who have arrived on the planet Pandora for their own reasons. However once they arrive here they find themselves on their own and end up turning their attention to looking for the legendary Vault, a treasure trove of alien treasures that would make the explorer who found it rich beyond measure. Thus the character embarks on a trek across the length of Pandora to try and find the legend itself.
Each of the four mercs plays out fairly similarly with only a very few minor differences in their starting capabilities. As a matter of fact the main differences between the characters are their class skills and their action skill. The class skills are broken down into three trees each with a different specialization, quite like Diablo II. Some of these class skills focus on increasing your ability to use class preferred weapons (the Hunter can reduce a sniper rifle's swaying) while others focus on increasing the effectiveness of the action skills. These are the real difference between characters, each class having its own action skill. Lilith, the Siren, is one of the cooler ones as she goes invisible to enemies only to reappear with an explosion.
That's all well and good but let's focus on what's truly important: the gameplay. If you've ever played a FPS then you know what to expect when you start up Borderlands. Running, jumping, shooting and strafing are all going to be very important to completing this title. There's even a vehicle with a mounted turret that controls a bit like the famous Warthog from Halo. The above mentioned class skills are where the main body of the RPG element comes in. Since you only get one point to place per level, and there are 21 skills per character, you really need to determine quite carefully what sort of character you wish to create.
Some have immediately jumped onto the comparisons between Borderlands and Fallout 3. The post-apocalyptic setting, first-person shooter meets RPG but there's a fundamental difference between the two. Borderlands is more about the first-person shooting than it is about the RPG whereas Fallout 3 is the exact opposite. There are no player stats to consult when pondering what weapon to use nor behind the screen dice rolls to determine if your shot hits. There are two main things that modify your weapon effects: proficiency with your weapons, increased by using the gun, and the guns themselves.
You have a number of guns at your disposal - shotgun, combat rifle, sub-machine gun, sniper rifle, rocket launchers and a variety of pistols. Rather than having a wide variety of pre-set guns with minor differences, like comparing the Battle Rifle to the Assault Rifle, Borderlands is all about the randomly generated weapons and what they're capable of. This is where the vaunted thousands of guns people have been talking about come in.
In the Diablo games there are a few different types of magical loot to find. The first are the unique items, developer created equipment that is usually very rare and incredibly powerful. These have the same effects every time you see them and are usually the sort of things people try to get their hands on. The random loot is fairly powerful as well, created on the fly by adding a prefix and / or suffix to the title of a weapon. So killing an enemy might make him drop Plate Mail, Holy Plate Mail or Holy Plate Mail of the Whale, each being a successively stronger piece of equipment. The random items were more common but could be quite strong as well.
Borderlands does away with the unique weapons almost entirely, replacing them with the random loot. There are a few unique pieces that you'll find every now and again from set quests but even these have nothing to really show they're set apart from the random loot besides a quote or comment inside of their stat box. It's weird that they'd make such a big fuss over a randomized drop system when it's something that's been in just about every loot based game since Diablo popularized them. This reviewer has some very fond memories of random loot in Champions of Norrath.
Leveling up your character is done via the old fashioned methods of getting your hands dirty by doing some quests. These can range from killing certain enemies, gathering up items while killing enemies or hunting down hidden items… while killing enemies. There are a lot of quests in this game especially considering that it's a fairly small game world you're playing in but they don't get boring easily since you're always well rewarded for your efforts, be it in treasures you find during the missions or rewards for completion. The main weakness to the bountiful quests is it's too simple to over level your character resulting in the main quests being far too easy.
What does make the quest a bit too repetitive for their own good is the difficulty of completing quests. It's not that anything about the quests themselves is too difficult, no that's not the problem at all. The problem is, oddly enough, respawning enemies. Enemies that you kill seem to be on a timer of sorts. Once this timer expires they will begin to respawn at their initial location. There have been numerous times that this has become a serious issue especially in multiplayer games where more enemies spawn in and they are more aggressive.
A particularly bad venture into a new area might go like this: Your level 15 character accepts a quest ranked for a level 12 character to kill a particular bandit. Venturing out into the wild you discover level 15 enemies all throughout the canyon. Pushing past the first group of enemies you find the second group to be a bit much for you as you slowly try to take them out one by one. As they rush your position you begin to fall back only to find that the enemies behind you have chosen to spawn back in leaving you trapped between two groups of enemies that are of equal level to you. Thus you die, forced to respawn back at the start, and get frustrated thanks to the enemies spawning in behind you. It's not a game breaker, since you can just level up to get past this issue, but it may be off putting for many gamers.
Solid art design for the characters and world itself help to buoy the experience that is Borderlands. When it was announced that the game was switching to a cel-shaded approach there was concern about how it would end up looking. Well it looks absolutely gorgeous, almost like a high quality animated movie. Except this one has bodies being blown apart with blood flying from sheared off limbs. All of this wouldn't mean much without sound that does it justice. Luckily atmospheric music pairs up with almost all top notch voice acting to fully put the experience together. The theme song is especially catchy even if you're not into jazzy sounding rock.
The repetitive quests are really one of the only major problems that mar the experience that is Borderlands. If you're a fan of the kill n' loot variety of games then you will definitely enjoy this title. But should you be expecting the deep storyline of an RPG or the pure linear levels of a shooter you will be remarkably disappointed. Accepting Borderlands on its own terms is key to enjoying the experience. It may be a late comer but this is definitely one of the better games released in 2009.