Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Borderlands review

Spinning a successful and addictive formula than kept me playing for over thirty hours, Borderlands on 360 and PS3 is not the type of game that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a deep and meaningful experience. But the consistent presentation, the brief moments of harrowing drama and the lashings of black humour produced a package that was memorable and surprisingly effective.

This is not the most obvious title you'd expect me to be covering. After all, Borderlands is a pretty shallow experience all told and it's easy to sum up the game within a sentence as it rarely does anything deeper than feed into a Diablo-style addiction for loot. Indeed, you could argue that this could be a National Rifle Association's members wet dream come to life as the main driving force behind this game is the acquisition of a 'Gazillion' different type of firearms. It's about as soulless as Pandora, the bleak planet on which this human borderland is set on.

And yet I found something about this game, about the atmosphere it created, to be gr eater than the sum of its basic parts. Yes, on the surface it's nothing more than a first-person Diablo-style shooter with a few rudimentary role-playing components to help fuel the addictive loot-whoring nature of the gameplay. But the setting of Pandora and Borderlands art-style gave it a certain depth that I began to really appreciate after over twenty hours of play.

The cel-shaded visual style gives Borderlands a slightly different edge to many of the post-apocalyptic shooters than have recently sprung up. Although the character models have a cartoon-like quality, it takes nothing away from the bleak surroundings of the planet and if anything, adds a bit more humanity to a pretty wretched alien environment.

I say post-apocalyptic, but in truth Borderlands isn't anything of the kind. Pandora is just a frontier world, temporarily settled by major corporations in pursuit of a mythical 'vault' which promises riches and treasures like any good alien world should. What you experience is the aftermath, with bandit towns and corporation villages struggling to survive in the harsh environment. It's taken directly from the American West, with the same vibe of a frontier town under constant attack from Native Americans or battling the elements.

None of this is particularly obvious when playing the game, as I rarely found myself getting caught up in observing the scenery or feeling like the story was going in a deep and meaningful direction. The quests are only perfunctory levelling up exercises and excuses to kill more native creatures or grotesque variations on bandits. The main quest that veers closer into the mystical nature of the vault is easily ignored and the 'guardian angel' that infrequently contacts you, serves as just an intermittent narrative tool that can also be easily forgotten.

So why do I feel so enamoured with Borderlands on a slightly deeper level? In part it's due to the portrayal of this borderland world. Its Mad Max-inspired visuals and the deep vein of black humour that runs through the quests and characters give it a hook that Fallout 3 never presented to me. The wasteland of Washington was a powerful location, but the presence of super-mutants and the depressing depiction of post-nuclear holocaust never sat well with me. Fallout 3, in all its brilliance, was a little too bloated and inconsistent with mixing its FPS presentation with its true RPG roots.

In my experience Borderlands behaves itself and the bolting-on of a few role-playing stats works a lot better in the real-time presentation that both games operate. The aliens in Borderlands also feel properly native to their world and the game. None are remotely humanoid and feel more akin to the creatures out of Half-Life's Xen world than the usual zombie gene pool I've come to expect from any sci-fi videogame. Even the over-sized, one-armed bandits feel consistent to Pandora's world whereas the super-mutants of Fallout 3 did not. One-armed bandits? Like I said, black humour throughout.

The best moment that demonstrated a darker edge to Borderlands and even gave me the impression that the game was capable of more depth were the audio diaries of Patricia Tannis. She's one of the story's main characters and the diaries I uncovered in her various side-quests were hugely entertaining and added a great deal of character to the game. They follow her exploits as leader of a scientific expedition to Pandora. Needless to say it goes pear-shaped quite quickly and the diaries chart Tannis' mental state from haughty science-girl to stark-raving mad outcast in hilarious fashion. But they're also laced with a little of the harrowing detail that life on such on frontier planet would inevitably lead to.

It's a stretch to say that these are affecting in any deep way, but I found they added a little more colour to what is a fairly simple and obvious game. These diaries and a few quests that came up later veered the narrative very briefly away from the black humour I was used to and into more disturbing territory. These instances never lasted and sometimes it felt as if the game quickly covered over them as if it was embarrassed to delve into any deeper territory than the mere loot-grabbing it had been doing since the start.

In this way I'm a little disappointed that Borderlands didn't go as far as I felt it could. But I can hardly fault the game for sticking to its strengths and keeping the addictive gameplay going in lieu of any meaningful narrative. It has successfully spurred me on to return to Fallout 3 - and maybe there I'll find the right balance between a deep role-playing narrative and over-the-top combat.


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