Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.
Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PC and PlayStation 3.
In a Nutshell: A cel-shaded "role-playing shooter" with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi slant. The opening credit sequence (accompanied by the excellent "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" by Cage the Elephant) introduces you to your four playable characters, each with a unique unlockable special skill. There's Mordecai (Hunter), whose pet bird Bloodwing rips apart foes; Lilith (Siren), who can temporarily walk through another dimension and damage enemies as she phase shifts; Roland (Soldier), who tosses out a turret gun that delivers cover, hurt and eventually healing and ammo; and Brick as himself (a tank of a man with Hulk-smash skills).
Once you pick your character, you're booted off the bus and onto the arid desert wastelands of Pandora (no, a different one!) near the aptly named Fyrestone. Here you'll meet the first of many dancin' robots to guide you through your first labyrinth, giving you ample opportunity to search anything shiny, dank and green for weapons, ammo and other goodies. Oh, and you start killing folks about 30 seconds into the game. (The FPS element is strong with this one.)
The main quest line (if you can call it that) is... um... wait, don't tell me... well, there was this vault. Or something. And, according to legend - oh, hell, forget it. This game is about killing things and collecting loot. There are occasional allusions to what happened to researchers and other settlers. Sometimes, I even pay attention. But then a really big guy with a bigger gun starts yelling at me, or the "local wildlife" decides to play, and my trigger-finger starts getting itchy.
Once you've opened up the world a bit and leveled up (2-3 hours for even novice players), the game becomes what you make of it. There are mission boards across the land, but missions only appear as you progress. Each offers a "Level" and "Difficulty" ranking, which makes choosing your own adventure much, much easier. (The difficulty drops as your character level rises since the mission level stays the same.)
It's a great single-player experience, but where this title really shines is co-op. More about that below.
Learning Curve: The game, hampered by confusing UI (particularly on split-screen co-op, where you have to horizontally scroll your dialog boxes), can take awhile to suck you in, and it's easy to get discouraged if you start going up against higher level enemies before you're ready. Fortunately for you, we've compiled our best getting started tips.
The training is well-done and elementary for anyone who has played both an FPS and RPG. My biggest issue has been retraining my brain to use a completely different set of buttons than most games I've played. Also, my finger occasionally grazes the front left bumper, triggering my special skill unintentionally. The wait time for the skill to "cool off" and return makes that a painful accident.
Your early training missions, all a short distance from Fyrestone, open up some critical elements: namely, a source for paid health and ammo. It's worth noting that you can find both all over the game for free, but don't count on getting exactly what you need when you need it - buy a few back-ups or plan to do a lot of walking back to your mission when you respawn.
But I digress. Once you have access to health and weapons, you can start to venture out on your own or take on work - it's up to you. It's worth taking missions for a couple reasons, however. The first, and most obvious, is leveling up. You won't get the option to spend any skill points until you hit Level 5, when you open up your special skill. Plus - listen up kids, this is important - your enemies have levels as well, and they are already out in the badlands. My poor little Level 3 character was slaughtered by the Level 11 NPC next door in about 2 hits. I returned the favor later, after leveling up to 15, when his bullets damaged my higher-level hide much less.
The learning curve for starting a co-op game without making a mistake is actually a little steep. Good luck with that. Be prepared to quit and restart a bit until you've worked out how to get in the right slot with the right character and ensure that everybody is ready at the same time.
The Save Game: The game offers a local respawn point whenever you pass a Nu-U station, though it doesn't technically save your game as far as we can tell. When you're done playing, you should quit to the main menu to ensure your actual mission progress is saved. When you quit and come back, any enemies you defeated will likely have returned (heck, newcomers appear in places you've cleared while you're playing if you're gone for more than a couple minutes!) though any checkmarks you've made toward completing missions are preserved.
If you load an existing game in co-op, you should always let the lowest level player host - otherwise, low level players will make no progress in their game. We just keep separate characters for our co-op game, and they always play together.
Family Factor: This is for the grown-ups and high teens only - very violent, very bloody. Plan on saving and quitting quickly when younger children wake from nap, or play late at night (as we do!).
Buy, Rent or Skip? Unequivocal buy. This is a fantastic game with lots of replay value, plus DLC to keep you going once you crack Level 50 and beat all of the missions. It's our Busy Gamer News game of the year for 2009 based on depth, staying power and just how much fun it is to run around and shoot stuff after a long, hard day slaving over the Interwebz.
On a Personal Note: I'm thrilled to finally have a co-op game that I can play with Gamewatcher. This has become our nightly ritual, and I truly look forward to it. Gamewatcher and I have never been big co-op players. It isn't for lack of desire - we're just not into the realistic war games, and haven't found a title that we truly enjoyed playing together in some time. Now, we can't wait to get Pikachu Fan tucked into bed ("Hey! It's 4 p.m.! Wow, you must be tired...") and head downstairs to kick some Pandoran ass.
It's also the first game in awhile that has convinced me to start over so I could try out the various character choices. Each character has a unique set of skills, from weapon mastery to how fast they can haul across the desert. I've played all but Lilith (who is Gamewatcher's co-op character, now and forever!) and settled firmly on Team Roland for one very good reason: His turret. As we say around the Busy Gamer News labs, it's like having another soldier on the field.
Mordecai comes in a close second. In fact, I prefer him in pretty much every way except for the all-too-critical special weapon. He has the best voice acting (outside of Lilith), moves like the wind and comes equipped with some superb sniper skills - a must in this game. But his bird just doesn't cut it for me. If Mordecai had a turret, he'd be perfect.
I found Brick to be the weakest of all the characters, despite his clear physical strength. He doesn't run, he lumbers. His weapon skills are difficult to master, and his Hulk-smash special was extremely difficult use. Being a major melee fan, I expected this man-tank to be my long-lost FPS love. Instead, I dumped him like a ton of Brick.
We've been playing a Roland/Lilith combo that has worked out surprising well, other than our vastly different gaming styles. Gamewatcher is a hang-back and snipe kinda guy, whereas me... well, let's just say patience is not my virtue. But I'm learning. Because the most critical thing you can do in this co-op game is heal your teammate, assuming you can get to him/her before they respawn. (You pay for the Nu-U each time, and it gets EXPENSIVE.) Duck and cover, recharge your shields, and holla for help, kids!
Best of all, this game has remarkable replay value. I know, as I have now played some missions three times (two solo characters and co-op with Gamewatcher) and I'm about to start solo again with Roland. While these missions have gotten easier with each replay (knowledge is power), even the new missions I'm encountering with Gamewatcher as we progress into our Level 30s continue to entice and enthrall me.
I haven't enjoyed a game this much in general since Fallout 3, which is still my fallback title when I don't feel like playing the game du jour. I can see Borderlands competing with Fallout 3 for that fallback position for a long time to come. And I haven't even bought any of the Borderlands DLC yet.
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