Back in the halcyon days of 2009, the first person shooter genre was becoming a wee bit stagnant. Everything was serious, gritty and full of war. Gone were the days of wit and vigour that we experienced in the 90’s with the likes of Doom, Duke Nukem and Timesplitters. The FPS was grown up now, and had no time for jokes.
But then a company called Gearbox Software came along. Up until then they had made a name for themselves by developing popular Half-Life expansions Opposing Force (seriously, where is Corporal Shephard?) and Blue Shift, as well as the Brothers in Arms franchise. But now they had something new, something zazzy, something called Borderlands.
I remember hearing about Borderlands and, I’ll be honest, being a bit nonplussed. As I said the FPS genre had burnt out a little bit, replaced by the Open World games of Grand Theft Auto. Even with its distinct visuals and promise of RPG elements, I was indifferent to the whole game.
Then I saw gameplay, and I was hooked.
I bought it, and before long found myself immersed in the world of Pandora, bandits named “Nine-Toes” (who has three testicles) and guns made by the likes of Jakobs (great name), Maliwan and Hyperion. Oh, and a beat-boxing little robot called Claptrap.
I was so impressed I named it my game of the year over the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II and Street Fighter IV. Quite frankly it blew me away with its unique style, humour and all round innovation. The game breathed new life into the FPS and showed that RPG elements can be implemented well without seeming shoe-horned in. I still think of it fondly now, and with the sequel now out and getting equal plaudits, I’d like to tell you why…
The story is simple. You are one of a group of 4 “vault hunters”, tasked with finding a mythical vault on the desert planet of Pandora. Once there, a wacky CL4P-TP robot, or Claptrap, and a mysterious “Guardian Angel” help you on your path, helping you fight Mad-Max style bandits, deadly creatures and galactic defence force The Crimson Lance. Also helping you against this cavalcade of enemies are guns. Lots, and lots, of guns.
While Borderlands had a story, it was by no means linear. Various side characters would give you quests that varied from picking up an item and delivering it elsewhere, or tracking down name bandits or mythical creatures to steal their loot. Or glands. Along the way various distractions and challenges were available to tempt you into spending a little bit more time in that Skag lair, pounding them away with your caustic shotgun.
Naturally how you played depended on who you played with. Borderlands had 4 distinct classes based on the tropes of RPG’s of old. You had the Warrior in the form of Roland, the soldier. The Mage became Lilith, the Siren, complete with phasing abilities. Your Rogue was Mordecai, a sniper who had his pet bird Bloodwing to sweep down and attack enemies. Finally, you had the Tank: Brick. As big and as hard and as fierce as his name suggested. Each character had their own unique special abilities and skill trees that you could spend Skill Points on that you earned through levelling up. While Roland would throw down a turret to pump bullets, and eventually rockets, into an enemy, Brick would go Full Loco and run toward bandits fists-a-flying.
In the end though, this was the special icing on the explosive cake that Borderlands sold itself on. Gearbox boasted that Borderlands had millions upon millions of guns, and that you wouldn’t see the same one twice. This was also true for Class Mods, Grenades, Relics and Shields. And true to form once you dive in every gun you loot is completely original… albeit sometimes in a minor way. The guns were the usual range: pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles and rocket launchers, but each new gun would bring a new quirk. Maybe it had a blade attached to the front for superior melee damage. Maybe it fired in burst rounds when zoomed. Or maybe, if you were lucky, it had an elemental effect attached to it for extra damage. Ahh the elemental weapons… these also came in a variety of styles, from the crispy Fire, to the buzz of the Shock, to the melty goodness of the Caustic. When the Orange, Blue or Green, or even the Yellow of Explosive damage, came up, a grin would come across my face like a happy porn star.
Of course, the colours from the elemental bonuses weren’t the only hues to catch your eye. Taking inspiration from Diablo’s loot system, each item you picked up had a colour attached to it to denote its rarity. This ranged from your bog-standard White, your tempting Purple all the way to the rumoured Pearlescent (although it should be noted that many said this was a bug in the game and that Orange was the true top gun, Goose). The rarest of the rare usually came with some catchy phrase or reference in red lettering, suggesting a further bonus to the gun. The discovery of these items added an extra element of fun to the game, and quite often I found myself returning back to Gun Vending Machines (courtesy of jovial Russian gun-peddler Marcus Kincaid) in order to see if a rare beast suddenly appeared.
But it wasn’t just the guns that put Borderlands on the map. As I’ve already mentioned, the games visual style was one that caught the eye of many a gamer. Cell Shaded graphics were a big thing in the turn of the century, but had been seen since as a fad. Gearbox disagreed, and instead covered Borderlands in bright, distinctive colours and thick dark lines to highlight them. The cartoony style, subtle enough not to look too ridiculous, made it stand out in a world of Grey and Brown. Borderlands was a game that didn’t just want to look good, but look damn fun.
And that didn’t stop with the graphics. While the soundtrack took a solemn, Western vibe when you walked around the desolate landscape, the dialogue from various characters made the planet live. From resident unqualified medic Dr. Zed’s twang to the crazed screams of the bandits who ran around trying to eviscerate you, everyone stood out. The characters felt like characters instead of cardboard cut-outs, including all the non-important residents of the various towns you came across. But if you thought I dismissed the music above, you’d be wrong. The atmosphere music got tense when it needed to, and set a mood around you that immersed you in the game. And the soundtrack? Unforgettable. Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” made an opening sequence iconic, and the song “No Heaven” that plays over the credits was the cherry on the cake.
So, once you opened the vault (no spoilers here… yet.) and completed Borderlands that was the end. Right?
Wrong. Gearbox decided that the cup should runneth over for fans of the game, and went about releasing DLC that would turn a great game into a classic. The first to come along was, not surprisingly, a homage to zombies. The Zombie Island of Dr Ned saw you travel to Jakobs Cove to discover what happened there, and end up fighting a wide range of movie monsters. The story was equally as brilliant and the humour top-notch, and this piece of DLC drew in many more fans for the game. Disappointment though did come from the next one, a horde challenge mode called Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot. While the introduction of the character of Moxxi and the Bank to store your guns were welcome, the game itself was a bit of a grind which betrayed the fun of the game.
Naturally this was all resolved with the next two pieces of gaming delight: The Secret Armoury of General Knoxx and Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution. The former was a highlight for Borderlands; expanding the story with the introduction of moody Crimson Lance head honcho General Knoxx, it bought new enemies, new weapons and a certain uber-boss known as Crawmerax. It also bought about a new level cap, increasing it from 50 to 61, which delighted many experienced vault hunters. Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution enhanced the story of fan favourite Claptrap, who had gone a bit maniacal and decided to take over Pandora using the power of his robot chums. It bought back some old favourites back from the dead, and was more of a pleasant diversion than the previous General Knoxx. However it also bought back the grinding in the form of the collectable achievements, which were let off as this involved pizza and pants.
And so, Borderlands became a legend in the genre. Successfully combining FPS gameplay with RPG elements, it ended up influencing a whole new generation of games for better, and worse. But most of all, it bought the fun back into the genre. The laughs and jokes and use of references became quotable amongst gamers and taken on board by other companies in their games. On this, Gearbox acquired the licence for Duke Nukem Forever, which turned out… well I liked it anyway.
But the main thing that Borderlands did was create a new franchise. Borderlands 2 is out now and from this gamers perspective, it’s a lock for Game of the Year again. Well done Gearbox and Randy Pitchford for developing a classic. With added Wub Wub. And Bazillions of guns…