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October 30, 2009

Game review: 'Borderlands'

If "Fallout 3" represented the courtship phase in the inevitable marriage of role-playing games and first-person shooters, then "Borderlands" marks the co-habitation period.

If "Fallout 3" represented the courtship phase in the inevitable marriage of role-playing games and first-person shooters, then "Borderlands" marks the co-habitation period.

There are some messy revelations that weren't apparent before and will need addressing in the future, but for right now, the net effect is pretty nice.

The changing tide is apparent almost immediately: Following a brief story line introduction that doubles as a tutorial, "Borderlands" drops you into a gameplay flow that's more indicative of a massively multiplayer RPG than a first-person shooter.

Different spots on the map post missions, and you're free to simultaneously take on as many as are available. A few of them trigger story advancements, but most (even those central to the story) offer little more than some dialogue text inside the mission info screen.

"Borderlands" lets you experience the story alone, with up to three friends online or via LAN, with a friend via split-screen, or any combination of the three at any point, and the story line structure remains consistent regardless.

The game isn't lacking for personality. The frontier setting is home to some wonderfully seedy characters and a darkly funny sense of humor, and the cel-shaded graphical style looks terrific and lends a great sense of irony to all the dark inhumanity it paints in vivid color. But those searching for some engaging storytelling will find no such thing.

The real goal here - in true MMO or "Diablo" fashion - is to kill nearly everything that moves, rack up experience points and level up your character so he or she has access to the game's ridiculous assortment of armaments and mods.

"Borderlands" absolutely nails the leveling system. The character class upgrades are endlessly useful, the weaponry mods often wonderfully clever. And because weapon upgrades apply to entire classes of guns rather than specific weapons, you can apply them liberally without fear of wasting cash or having to stick with old weapons when better ones come along.

Better ones do come along - often. In true "Diablo" fashion, "Borderlands" goes absolutely crazy with just about every first-person shooter weapon staple, mixing and matching fire modes and gifting rarer guns with powers that typically are the domain of superheroes. Precious few games can entice a player to ditch a rocket launcher in favor of a pistol that packs more punch, but "Borderlands" can and regularly does - until, of course, an even crazier rocket launcher comes along.

All of this and more lies in store ... eventually. The sum total of the game's main and side quests amounts to a massively long adventure, and the first five or so hours of that experience have you fighting waves of scags (think giant rats) and dimwitted barbarians who lack any artificial intelligence whatsoever. It's dull with friends, and it's even worse alone.

Just keep at it: The A.I. never reaches Mensa country, but it does improve exponentially, working in tandem with all those perks and weapons to make "Borderlands" a much more enthralling shooter than it first appears to be.

REVIEW

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

Also available for: Windows PC

From: Gearbox Software//2K Games

ESRB: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)

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