Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: I do indeed have sixty hours logged in Borderlands. Of those sixty hours, about twenty were repeated efforts over several years to play through the game solo and burning out before reaching the second town. The other forty were slogging through the entire game and all the DLC with my co-workers in a last-ditch attempt to actually experience everything. And I succeeded, obviously, but I put more stock in the quality of the company than the quality of the game. We’ll dig into why that is, of course, but right on the surface it should be clear why I wouldn’t recommend a game that I couldn’t break into without some serious heavy lifting from my friends.
The backwater hellhole planet Pandora hides a dark secret, the mysterious Vault said to contain unimaginable riches. Drifters from all over its dusty reaches and beyond have thrown away their lives in search of this treasure, and your motley group of four is just the most recent in a long line of fools. But there’s an equally mysterious lady in your ear, urging you on to succeed where so many others have failed, and the major players of Pandora are starting to make moves on the Vault as well. It’s going to take a lot of firepower to reach this tantalizing secret, and luckily for you there’s more guns and ammo than sense laying along the broken road to your goal.
Borderlands was notable for a lot of things, but sense of style that pervades the game is a big part of it. “Space western” is not a new motif (and wasn’t new in 2009, either) but the ramshackle towns, bandit gangs, and twangy soundtrack did a lot to sell it alongside alien varmints and caves of exotic space minerals. The cel-shaded look also garnered a lot of attention, giving the grungy, detailed hovels and creatures a unique look against its contemporaries. It’s a very appealing mashup of aesthetics, and having a big mystery to uncover at the end and kooky characters to help you along only made the mix more potent.
That was certainly why I kept coming back despite bouncing off the gameplay so many times, but nothing could save the solo experience for me. Borderlands was the first big Diablo-style FPS, giving you a wide-open world of fields and dungeons to blast through for randomized guns and loot. Your guns fell across a number of classes like pistols, revolvers, shotguns, rifles, and even rocket launchers, and each find was a random kitbash of visual components and stats. However, the game ran afoul of that old ARPG trap where instead of giving you dozens of enemies to mow down like a badass, it would throw half a dozen meaty foes to chip away at per encounter. Unless your weapons were incredible it could take an agonizing amount of time to kill things, especially since the game lacks significant staggers or any real feedback from enemies. In a group this is manageable, but solo it means you’re going to be getting rushed all the time.
The thing is, your weapons really aren’t going to be incredible due to some viciously unpredictable RNG. The ranges on stats for your guns are nonsensically huge, leaving most of what you find as unworkable garbage. You should get a few decent ones out of the mix every now and then but there’s no guarantee of that, and even bosses and chests have no guarantee of giving anything worthwhile. The one time I beat the game, I found an SMG at level 18 with such perfect stats that I literally could not find anything better. For the rest of the game, including the final boss and all the DLC, I still used that same SMG. It doesn’t help that the guns are the only really compelling gear to find, and even the class skills are all passive effects that you won’t notice unless they’re one of the few role-defining ones.
There are plenty more gripes I have with the game, like the twisting, confusing maps or the long stretches of uneventful wandering or the hour-long unskippable tutorial section or the far too infrequent fast-travel system. But really the core deficiencies with the combat and loot should be enough to explain my difficulties with the game that could only be overcome with friends and luck. I think it’s telling that of our group of four, only one person went on to play the sequel and never finished it. Borderlands could be given a pass back when it was the only real ARPG/FPS around, but now that it isn’t its flaws just run too deep. There are so many better options for shooting and looting that I could never see myself returning to this one, even if it wouldn’t be for like the tenth attempt.