Borderlands (Xbox 360)
Like a yuppie getting a tattoo, Borderlands wants to be cool and edgy.
It's set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future that developer Gearbox clearly thinks is cool and edgy.
The game opens on a bus. Only it's not just any bus. This is an extreme -- or rather, "xxxtreme" -- bus. When a dog-like thing called a Skag wanders onto the road -- beep beep -- the bus runs it down. Because that's the kind of bus this is: an xxxtreme, dog-running-over, awesome, "Mad Max" type of bus.
It's a bus that's so self-consciously awesome that it's lame.
Everything in Borderlands is so self-consciously awesome that it's lame. I'm sick of these scorched-earth futures. I'm sick of the xxxtreme, do-the-Dew aesthetic.
It's not original. It's not fun. It's white noise at this point.
Anyway, back to the bus. The jovial bus driver drives along at xxxtreme speeds through an xxxtreme landscape. We know he's jovial because he has a bobblehead in his own likeness. The game prompts me to select one of the four passengers on the bus as my character.
Roland is the token black guy. Lilith is the token girl/chick. Mordecai is the token crazy one. Brick is the token muscle-y one.
Don't agonize over your choice for too long. I played as Brick and Roland during my time with the game, and didn't really notice any substantial gameplay differences. Besides, since the game takes place from a first-person P.O.V., you won't be seeing much of your character anyway.
Once you settle on someone, the bus driver pulls over, drops you off, then roars away. (XXXtreme, dude!) A small robot who obviously graduated with honors from the R2-D2 Academy for How to Be a Cute Robot appears and escorts you into the game's fake Fallout wasteland. There are primitive huts that are also somehow technologically advanced. These huts have obviously been cobbled together from wrecks of other big, cool xxxtreme things.
The game is set on planet Pandora, in an area called the Borderlands. (Thus the title!) Bandits, mercenaries and lots of those weird dog-things that the bus ran over have descended on the Borderlands in the hopes of one day finding the location of the Vault, a place that's supposedly jam-packed with lots of valuable alien stuff. An advanced alien culture supposedly created the Vault and stashed all of its riches there.
But if they are so advanced, why would they have left all of their awesome, xxxtreme alien riches behind? That doesn't sound very xxxtreme. Or credible.
The game calls itself a role-playing shooter (or RPS). I kind of like that term; it has a nice ring to it. Every quest you successfully complete, every Skag you shoot, earns XP. Earn enough XP, you level up. Simple. Gearbox dumbed down the RPG elements to make the experience palatable to the Call of Duty/Halo crowd. There's a bit of RPG-type scouring for junk -- you'll have to search garbage piles for ammo and health -- but nothing on par with the nonstop dumpster diving one needs to do in Fallout 3.
I'm not a big RPG fan, so the most flattering thing I can say about Borderlands is that the RPG stuff didn't bug me too much. It's not intrusive. I did spend a little bit of not-unpleasant time comparing and contrasting weapons on occasion. I also intentionally fought people/creatures to get my level high enough to deal with the occasional stubborn boss. Conversations with quest-givers are mercifully short and sweet, unlike the Shakespearean-length monologues I've sat through in Oblivion, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. By and large, Gearbox kept putting things in front of me and asking me to shoot them. And I was OK with that.
The game's shooting mechanics are serviceable. You aim, you shoot, you reload. You can seek cover, if that's your thing. It's pretty straightforward stuff. I found myself doing a surprising amount of backpedaling in Borderlands, a skill that DOOM taught me in the mid-'90s. (Crispy Factoid: DOOM was the original xxxtreme game, dude.)
One of my problems with Borderlands is that, even after leveling up, I never felt all that powerful. Enemies would appear. I would shoot them or burn them or whatever. They would fall over. More enemies would appear.
The game seems to be missing some punch, some pop, some zip. Maybe the gunfire isn't fiery enough. Explosions are small and neat and lack any kind of kersspllllooooossshhhh. I wanted evisceration. If you're going to go xxxtreme, then go all-the-way xxxtreme. Where are the decapitations? Where's the dismemberment? Where's the damn blood, dude? Enemies feel like XP fodder instead of real people. That's a problem. An xxxtreme problem.
Beyond that, Borderlands as a place doesn't really feel like a place. It never comes alive. There's no rhythm, no pulse, no sense that anyone ever really lived here. It makes even the Goron Village in any Zelda game look like a bustling metropolis by comparison.
Borderlands feels like a virtual-reality simulator. It feels like the game itself, like those aforementioned huts, has been cobbled together from the parts of other, more xxxtreme games. Ultimately, it's a game that never stops feeling like a game, and as a result, the entire experience is as flat as 2.5 liters of Mountain Dew that someone left the cap off of (definitely not xxxtreme, dude).
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.
Get the first hour in Kyle Orland's Games for Lunch: Borderlands.