Borderlands touts itself as a revolutionary combination of the FPS and RPG genres. However, our time with the first hour of the game reaffirms that it's a shooter first, RPG second. In many ways, that's a good thing. One simply has to think back to last year's big first-person RPG, Fallout 3, to recall how poor the shooter elements of that game were. Aiming and movement felt clunky, and forced players to use the game's VATS targeting system. Borderlands, reassuringly, gets the basics of first-person movement right.
It shouldn't be surprising that Gearbox, whose previous works include Half-Life expansion packs and the Brothers in Arms series, would be able to competently craft a shooter. FPS vets will be able to jump into Borderlands with no problem -- running, gunning, grenade-ing with ease.
The ability to play Borderlands like any other shooter certainly makes it more accessible than games like Mass Effect and the aforementioned Fallout 3. However, the less-than-perfect shooter controls of those two action RPGs forced players to experiment with the unique aspects of those games' respective battle systems. It's evident that both games are RPGs first, disguised as shooters. Borderlands, on the other hand, asks that you simply shoot first -- and wonder about other features later.
Playing Borderlands exclusively as an FPS is fun -- but it misses a certain visceral quality found in "true" FPS games, like Call of Duty and Halo. Perhaps it's because the first hour involves fights with just two enemy types: bandits and alien mutts ("pup skags"), neither which offer much challenge. The barren desert landscape doesn't provide much stimulation, either. Whereas other FPS games have you jumping out of exploding castles, this experience felt decidedly more tame.
Still, we found ourselves pressing on through the single-player campaign. Perhaps it's shameful to admit, but killing enemies and leveling up is always fun. Being able to level up in a FPS is what brings many players back to the multiplayer lobbies of Call of Duty and Resistance 2. The rewards for leveling up were immediately apparent, as our HP increased dramatically with every level. The game tracks weapons use, and in turn, skill and efficiency are boosted for a particular weapon the more it's used. Depending on the class you choose, you'll be able to grow your character through a skill tree, each with drastically different bonuses. We were able to eventually unlock the ability to summon a turret, which also conveniently acts like a shield. With the promise of additional abilities down the line, it's clear our characters will become quite powerful ... if only it didn't take so long to get there.
Grinding is clearly going to be an important part of the Borderlands experience -- and MMO players will find no problem with that. In many ways, Borderlands' story feels like an offline MMO: talk to NPC, acquire quest, kill targeted enemies, win loot, get XP, and repeat. We found ourselves spending a lot of time partaking in the game's various side quests: finding stolen food, exploring a cave, and clearing a creature cache. Like many other MMOs, there was little draw to actually partaking in these quests other than to gain XP and level up. Many of these missions are presented with nary a line of spoken dialogue, appearing simply in a text window that pops up when speaking with certain NPCs.
It's a good thing we spent so much time going through many of these excursions. Without being able to boost our XP, there's almost no way we could've defeated the boss that stood in our way at the end of our preview. A bulky, armored man not only shot fire at us, he summoned dogs that flanked us and killed us during our first bout. Thankfully, we were instantly revived in a device resembling Bioshock's Vita-Chamber. Rematch! With turret ability equipped, we were able to focus our fire on the high-HP guard dogs while hiding behind the slight protection offered by our low-level turret.
Character progression will ultimately determine if Gearbox has successfully blended the FPS genre with the RPG. Borderlands must reward players with meaningful powers, character growth, and a focused narrative if it expects us to grind our way through fetch quests and miscellaneous errands. Otherwise, the RPG dressings will just get in the way of a decent shooter.