Borderlands helped define the looter shooter genre, taking the basic gameplay loop of games like Diablo and applying it to the first-person shooter genre. It hews closer to that inspiration than others of its genre in many ways, while keeping a style distinctly its own.
The tone of Borderlands is undeniably weird, as the game’s cover makes immediately clear. It features a masked Psycho, a common in-game enemy type, apparently shooting himself in the head with finger guns. The vibe doesn’t quite match that image in practice, though. Borderlands can be a wacky game at times, though the main plot is played mostly straight. The silliness is mostly injected via the various side characters like the Claptrap robots you find all over. The game’s distinct cel-shaded look also sets it apart from other shooters.
When you boil it down, the gameplay loop of Borderlands is pretty simple: you do quests, you kill bad guys, you get randomized loot. Most of this loot is in the form of guns, which are randomized not only in effect but in appearance. There are six main types of guns, as well as a variety of manufacturers that align with general attributes that are applied to each gun. You’ll also modifications for your basic grenades, more powerful defensive shields, and class mods that can have a huge variety of effects. The game uses a standard color scheme to indicate loot rarity, as well as keying the power of its loot to level, resulting in what is now a familiar scheme for searching for that next upgrade. Inventory size starts small, requiring you to sell off excess loot frequently, but can be upgraded to a pretty good size via sidequests. Ammo capacity can also be increased by spending increasing amounts of money (refreshingly presented as cash rather than some pseudo-futuristic credit scheme), which can otherwise be spent on the same kind of loot you’d otherwise find.
The gameplay in Borderlands feels pretty good by shooter standards, with the caveat that one of the stats is accuracy. Inaccurate guns can be a pain to use, and you’ll find yourself using them more early on before you find really good guns. Sniper rifles will always be more accurate than shotguns, so you’re not going to be completely helpless, but there has to be room to grow as well. There are four characters to play, each aligning with a specific class that has a unique ability. Each character has a three-part skill tree to improve, and it is laid out in such a way that you’ll be able to concentrate on one or dip into two during a typical playthrough. The level progression is based on points spent per tree, though, preventing a generalist approach to the game. Fortunately, you can re-distribute skill points for an affordable price at many points throughout the game, allowing you to experiment.
The characters are imaginatively setup, presenting classes that range from the pretty standard Soldier to the more supernatural Siren. Any class can use any gun type, though each has skills that suggest a focus on certain guns. The special abilities of each class are on a cooldown but can have battle-determining effects and are usually subject to significant upgrades by at least one of the skill trees. The characters have a lot of personality, though not as much as the various denizens of the world.
The plot of Borderlands doesn’t really live up to the creative spirit of the rest of the game. You (and your companions, in multiplayer) are Vault Hunters, on the planet Pandora in search of an ancient alien vault presumably filled with treasure. The plot centers around the machinations of various factions trying to find the Vault first. You’ll make friends and allies along the way, but the details are pretty forgettable: finding the Vault is always the priority. The game offers tons of sidequests, usually with several appearing at once after major plot points. Some of these are quite amusing and rewarding, while many others are just a slog. There’s no good way to know which is which on first glance, which is too bad because you definitely don’t need to do them all to be powerful enough to complete the game. There is a cash penalty for dying, but cash is plentiful and there’s not a lot to buy besides ammo upgrades, so that’s not really a concern either.
On the whole, Borderlands is a fun shooter with fun loot mechanics and a fun world. The series doesn’t fully embrace its wackiness in its first entry, and lacks a certain level of personality in all aspects aside from its graphics. The enemy types are interesting but there are a limited number of them, battles are challenging but often go on too long and in a repetitive fashion, and predictably most of the loot is vendor trash. The game also lacks a minimap, a serious oversight that is corrected in both its sequels and the Enhanced version of the original. Indeed, if you’re going to play Borderlands today, I highly recommend playing that version instead of the original. It’s worth it just for the minimap, and they added a number of other fantastic tweaks as well. Borderlands may not have received the love of Borderlands 2, either from its creators or the public, but it’s still a fun game in its own right and worth playing if for no other reason than to get all the later references. Your four Borderlands character choices all appear as plot characters in Borderlands 2 and beyond, so give Borderlands a shot.