Back in 2009, Borderlands released into a world anxiously awaiting its arrival. First person shooters of that time had reached the zenith of popularity thanks to titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the Battlefield series, and Left 4 Dead. But a co-op, cel-shaded, irreverent, first person shooting adventure chock full of loot, skill trees, and a new world to explore? Gamers were chomping at the bit in anticipation of Gearbox Studio’s handiwork! We have since seen the release of a sequel, pre-sequel, and are fresh off the press of the newly-announced Borderlands 3. It was only logical for Gearbox to freshen up their original outing with a brand new coat of paint to sate old fans and welcome new ones! But how does this game hold up a decade after its release?
Borderlands takes place on the planet of Pandora. You take the role of one of four Vault Hunters- a Hunter, Soldier, Siren, or Berserker who have been brought to the planet in search of this elusive Vault that only opens once every 200 years. But this rare phenomenon brings about more interest than from one lone vagabond: bandits and corporations bar your path at every step of the way as they try to take the prize for themselves. Throughout the course of the story you are pitted against foe after relentless foe as you gather loot, level up, and gain skills to keep pushing through the hordes and stake your claim on the Vault.
Gearbox took several steps to set Borderlands apart from other games of its day, echoes of which have impacted the gaming landscape to this day. Rather than opt for a broody, oppressive tale of violence as they originally intended, they altered the game last-minute to boast colorful and cartoony visuals to clash with the violence onscreen. The remaster’s cel-shaded visuals look quite crisp on the Xbox One, and any awkward animations from back in the day only help add to the game’s bizarre atmosphere. And as I’ve maybe, perhaps, POSSIBLY alluded to up to this point, Borderlands aims to be weird. This applies to its visuals, story, dialogue, and even in-game weapon descriptions. Characters come across as time-worn and often mildly crazed in their odd requests: think the Wild West, but with a dose of Loony Tunes added in for good measure.
Mechanically, Borderlands provides the player with the perfect set up to track down the Vault in style! Taking cues from Diablo, enemies drop loot and weapons of varying rarity for players to collect, sell, and wield if their level is up to par. These range from the typical fare of machine guns and rifles, all the way to augmented snipers that explode enemies into fiery bits and powerful alien weaponry that never runs out of ammo. Weapon proficiency increases the more than you use each gun type so that you are rewarded for dedication to a certain playstyle, but you are thankfully allowed to swap between four on the fly after a bit of progress. All of the guns are easy to use though thanks to the game’s slick controls, although I do have some gripes about the accuracy system (more on that later). Each of the four Vault Hunters also have a unique skill set to complement the gunplay. I chose Mordecai the Hunter, so I had the ability to send out my vicious bird ally to hunt my foes from afar. Perks for both this ability and various gun boosts were purchasable with skill points at each level up.
The game is quite large, but Gearbox incorporated multiple ways for you to get around as you complete quests and explore the world of Pandora. Vehicles are unlocked very early on. These machines are fast, durable, and equipped with either rockets or a machine gun. And tires. Those also do a bloody good job on enemies, no pun intended (okay, pun absolutely intended :P). Players who find themselves struggling against foes can use a vehicle to help tip the scales in their favor. Money and ammo are automatically gathered when you run over them in a vehicle so you don’t have to constantly get in and out, but weapons and upgrades don’t offer you the same luxury, which was a tad annoying. Those who wish to sidestep some of the long journeys to and fro can also use the fast travel option shortly after leaving the game’s opening area, but only at designated points.
While I enjoyed my time in Pandora, I did experience some speed bumps that made an otherwise pleasant journey a bit turbulent at times. For starters, the story was entirely forgettable. My only impetus for moving forward was better loot. Borderlands isn’t really a game you play for story anyway, but it would have been nice to feel more drawn in by the narrative. I mentioned that the controls were great, but the gun accuracy system takes a dump on it by having far too many Elder Scrolls: Morrowind-esque “I hit it but I didn’t really hit it” moments. I fumbled numerous sneak attacks on bandit camps due to my sniper shot going astray despite being firmly trained on my target’s face. While this is perhaps a bit more in line with real guns, Borderlands isn’t a story steeped in reality and so it felt more like cheap losses than anything.
On the note of cheap things, Borderlands’ quests have about as much substance as 007 Goldeneye: Go here, shoot them, Press A here, done. This wasn’t as much of an issue upon its original release in 2009, but it definitely felt dumbed down by today’s standards. The game’s enemy systems are also poorly aged: weak enemies that fall to one bullet and give almost no Experience Points will hound you at every turn in the overworld. It was more practical to avoid exploring and focus entirely on questing. But even then, there were multiple occasions where enemies in a quest area spawned almost right on top of me rather than coming from a designated location as I mowed down their ranks. To end my rant, I HAVE to bring up the game’s few boss fights. These damage sponges require you to blast them for minutes on end before they finally die. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as much of an issue in co-op mode where their attention would be divided between multiple Vault Hunters, but I found myself spamming the game to overcome their brutal strength on my own. The final boss in particular was straight up OBNOXIOUS.
While a modern remaster, Borderlands: Game of the Year definitely feels more like a product of its original time. I had a lot of fun while mindlessly playing the bulk of the story and listening to music or Twitch streamers in the background, but it wasn’t an adventure that gripped me by any stretch. Borderlands carries on the irreverent torch first held by games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and early Fallout games, albeit to a milder degree, but keeping the path alight for other titles to indulge in like-minded insanity. It also helped modern games step away from the “edgy, try-hard” atmosphere and adopt more creative approaches to their presentation. I’m not opposed to investigating the Borderlands sequels, but I don’t think they will be anything I actively seek out unless someone makes a strong case for them. Regardless, this game was a fun foray for me into a bit of new territory.
Final Score: 3/5
Review Score Translator
5/5- Magnificent! A quality game that goes above and beyond to deliver a near-perfect experience
4/5- Great! A game that is a joy to play despite a few minor hiccups along the way
3/5- Fun! A good game that has some issues, but is still worth playing despite the frustrations
2/5- Meh! A game with at least a handful of redeeming qualities, despite the majority of it being a mess
1/5- Yikes! A game that shouldn’t have been allowed past the final stage of developer approval