Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Borderlands PS3 review

Again going cheap I picked up Borderlands for the PS3.

Pandora - a frontier desert planet filled with dangerous creatures and bandits, why would you come here? Because of The Vault. Alien technology, filled with riches and worth the hardships if you can just find it where so many before you have failed.

Borderlands is in essence an action version of Fallout 3, you're in a first-person perspective, you get missions, experience, add to your skills, juggle your inventory; you're also exploring what is pretty much a wasteland and getting shot at by 'raiders' and mauled by the local fauna. The difference is that it's geared towards action, no conversation trees, no Mercantile type skills; just get the mission, do the mission; and get paid.

You start with a pick of four characters and yes they're the basic archetypes. Brick is good with his fists, Roland is an all rounder, Lilith is more sneaky and Mordecai likes to pick people off at a distance; so warrior, ranger, rogue and mage pretty much. I chose Lilith for my first playthrough.

The first thing you notice is the graphical style, it's a nice cel-shaded affair and looks very comic-book and this style is kept throughout in terms of graphical information that appears on screen as you aim at enemies or examine found weapons or ammo. Point the reticule at such and an information pop-out will hover over the object. For enemies it shows basic health and shield as well as type and level; for weapons you get the full stats for that weapon, for ammo it's just a simple ammo-type icon.

On-screen information is arranged well and other developers could learn a thing or two here. All the information you could want is displayed at a quick glance with enough detail also provided if you need to inspect it a little closer, warnings flash at the sides and there are audio cues applied too; the little bip when your shield fully recharges is a most welcome sound. It's a shame then that the internal menu seem so cluttered in comparison particularly as you'll be switching to it with some regularity.

The menu is made up of five tabbed sections, but you'll really only be dealing with two - the inventory and the map. The inventory screen hits you with an overload, contents on the left, equipped items on the right; select any object and full details appear bottom right, ammo counts and money are bottom left. You get four weapon slots mapped to the d-pad, though only two are available at the start of the game with the other two appearing as part of the story-missions. To equip a weapon, simply highlight it, hit X, and pick which slot you want it in, then X to confirm. To just compare weapons, highlight it, hit Square and the right hand side of the screen will switch to a duplicate list that you can scroll through with both sets of information appearing side-by-side at the bottom. The system seems set up to want you to pick an equipped weapon and compare it to an inventory weapon as by default all equipped weapons appear at the bottom of the list; likewise you can only equip the weapon you're comparing to not the one you first selected.

It works, but the trouble is that there's a lot that can be picked up and you only have a finite number of slots to keep things in so you keep coming back to this screen to juggle inventory so it needed to be slicker.

Onto the map, and you can tell you'll be using this a lot as by default holding Select takes you straight to this tab rather than open up the last one used. It's pretty basic information the shape of the level, larger buildings and rock formations and various icons denoting vending machines, vehicle stations, etc. Your position is shown as an arrow and the objective for the current active mission shows as a diamond. The latter is the first problem with the map; the objective is denoted by the active mission, but you can have several unfinished missions on the go at the same time in that area. So imagine three missions, the first objective is tucked up to the East whilst the other two are closed together to the West; how do you know this? Well you don't as the mission selection screen is on another tab. So you switch to that tab, select a mission, switch to the map, check the objective, switch back, choose another mission, switch back, check, switch, chose, switch, check. If you don't do this then you could do mission 2 to the West, mission 1 to the East and then find you have to return back to the West to do mission 3.

The second problem is that you can't add your own points or text to the map, this is particularly problematic when you encounter problem number 3 which is to so with the "transitions". To get from one area to the another you have to travel to a set point to 'cross'; on the map these points are marked as stars... and that's it. Fancy heading to the Rust Commons to shoot some Spiderlings and you'd better remember which of the three stars on the map is that particular entrance. Once activated there is a fast-travel system, but it only works between certain points and sometimes the correct "transition" point is closer than the fast-travel post; except you don't know that.

The mission tab is also a mess. Active missions appear at the top and you can sort them by area, but completed missions just appear as you finish them in a heap at the bottom. In theory you never need to concern yourself with finished missions, in practice you may find yourself asking "Where did I encounter that loot box that I didn't open because my inventory was full? I was doing that mission?"

The remaining two tabs are the complete opposite to the point that one is almost pointless to have and the other leaves you wondering how it works due to lack of information.

Okay but what's the gameplay like - it's fun. Move around on foot or drive around shooting things and blowing things up it rarely gets repetitive despite doing the same things over and over again. To a large extent that's down to the various different weapon types and elemental effects they can produce. Use a quick firing, but low damage, SMG with shock damage to take out the shield of an enemy then switch to an explosive sniper rifle to blow his head off. The AI helps too, it's not amazing but each creature or bandit has their own quirks. Psychos will mostly run straight at you Bandit Hunters will duck behind cover while Bruisers will steadily advance. In fact there are only two really bad things I can say about the gameplay itself and one of these is dying.

Well yeah that's normally bad, but there's a couple of catches here; firstly you don't die straight away you get a chance of a "Second Wind" all you have to do is kill an enemy and you'll get some health back and can keep going. If you do die you get sent to the respawn point which may be miiiiles away or just nearby and that'll take away some of that hard-found money. This is why you'll come to hate the Psycho's particularly the Midgets; lower their health enough and they'll come screaming at you with a live grenade, take out your health and... wait they're already dead, you bleed out and back to the respawn point you go.

The second is spawning enemies. You'll quickly run out of inventory space or finish a mission or the arse-end of some canyon and need to get back to restock your ammo and sell off the loot you've found. Except the nearest vending machine is way back at the start of this level; ya know the one you just fought tough and nail to get through and is now happily re-stocked with all those nasties once again. It seems daft, but at times it's almost quicker to let them kill you or save/exit and watch yourself respawn back exactly where you wanted to be.

Yes there's nothing more boring than trudging back through empty areas, but come-on guys give me a break I clear-out half of the town move up to the next section; duck back under withering fire and find I'm being flanked by the enemies I'd just taken out.

There's also little inconsistencies that niggle. Buy a Storage Deck Upgrade so as to hold more ammo and it automatically gets added, get rewarded with a Backpack Upgrade that gives you more Inventory slots and it sits in the Inventory until you use it. I suppose there's a limit to the number of slots so you could sell it when maxed out, but just give me something else instead. Likewise there's the standard problem with these graphically lush games in that areas that you can clearly reach or squeeze through are comprised of invisible barriers that you slam in to or back up against resulting in a painful end.

The difficulty curve is also not that steep, not a complaint per se, but having got the hang of head shots, equipping bonuses and sticking to one weapon type to build up proficiency bonuses, I was taking out the 'bosses' with little difficulty and the standard Crimson Lance enforcers with one-shot kills.

Yet it's still fun and I really do want to run through the second playthrough despite its problems.