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Review: Borderlands

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: M - Mature Audiences
My Rating: Ages 13 and up
Genre: First Person Shooter / RPG
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2009
Review Published On: April 23rd, 2016
Played on: Martha & Thaddeus

Available from:

Gamer's Gate, Humble Store, Steam

Save System:

Most of the time, the game saves your progress for you by recording it when you travel to a new area or pass by a NEW-U checkpoint. You can save manually by quitting the game.

If you just want to pause the action, hit ESC to bring up the game menu or i to access your inventory.

Summary of
Major Issues:

Violent gunfights are the main form of gameplay, but there are a lot of other potential issues, including many innuendos and disturbing imagery. Check the Concerns and Issues section for the big list.


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A shocking death

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Taking aim at a Punk

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This is how serious things get in Borderlands

Game Overview

Most First Person Shooters take place during a war or feature protagonists fighting against overwhelming odds to save the world from some great ultimate evil. Borderlands, on the other hand, is more about enjoying the craziness and having fun with the mechanics. To be more specific, it's a spaghetti western set in the science fiction themed wasteland of an alien planet.

Vault Hunters replace the common drifters, while the vicious skags replace the iconic wild coyotes. Indians have been replaced with mystical aliens, the loyal steed with dune buggy like Outrunners, and the desperadoes with, well, space desperadoes. The guitar music and trusty sidearms are still here, in all of their glory. There's even a saloon run by your typical loose and sultry saloon girl (ie, a "soiled dove" or "Miss Kitty").

Mixing things up a little is an RPG style leveling system and skill tree. As you complete tasks and kill your enemies, you become stronger and more skilled in various types of gunplay. Each of the four playable characters can grow into three different skillsets (or a customized blend of these skillsets), making for a lot of unique ways of experiencing this hostile world. They also have a special ability that can aid them or their comrades during battle.

Unfortunately, while there's very little to complain about regarding bugs or gameplay issues, there are a lot of issues regarding the content itself. By themselves, none of these issues are particularly extreme, but taken as a whole, it seems that for everything the game does right, there's something else that people should be concerned about.

This isn't a game for the younguns, but I personally wouldn't object to seeing teenagers playing it. Despite all of the concerns and issues, it's a lot of fun and the four campaigns (and arena battles) will keep you busy for nearly 100 hours per playthrough.

Story Summary

Pandora is, as the name suggests, something of a strange little world. Most of it is barren, but various corporations have managed to make a fair amount of money by mining its wealth of minerals. They saved a lot of overhead by having prisoners or other criminals do the menial labor, but when the corporations were satisfied with their mining operations, they abandoned the planet and left their "employees" to fend for themselves.

Eventually, alien relics started to surface, and soon there were rumors of a mysterious Vault spreading throughout Pandora and other systems. Nobody knows what the Vault contains, but everyone agrees that whomever found it would have the means to enjoy whatever their heart desires. These stories attracted people, known as Vault Hunters, who came to Pandora in search of adventure and the hope of treasure.

This is the story of one such Vault Hunter, the "Guardian Angel" that appeared to guide them, and their journey across Pandora as they searched for the Vault.

Borderlands also has four DLC packages, each of which add another chapter to the legends of Pandora:

The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned
The Jacob's Corporation manages a small, secluded area of Pandora where they grow and harvest trees for their manufacturing. Things were going well, until one day employees began becoming sick. Soon, they began to die. Worse yet, they began to walk again afterwards.

Now that a zombie apocalypse has broken out, it's up to a brave Vault Hunter and the mysterious Dr. Ned (who is totally not Dr. Zed from the main story) to solve this crisis and restore Jacob's Cove to working order.
Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot
"Mad" Moxxi has led an interesting life, but she's not quite ready to settle down yet. Looking for a little more excitement, she's created a grand colosseum where foolhardy Vault Hunters can try their skills against waves of bandits and other shadowy figures from around Pandora. If the Vault Hunters can put on a good show, they'll even earn some quality loot.
The Secret Armory of Gen. Knoxx
After the defeat of the Crimson Lance in the main storyline, they began attempting to subjugate the area around T-Bone Junction. The citizens are not happy about this. Things came to a head when a high ranking assassin in the Crimson Lance defected. The Crimson Lance believes she's hiding in the town, and now the townsfolk need the help of a seasoned Vault Hunter. In return for their aid the defector promises to give you access to the Crimson Lance's secret weapons stockpile.

In the meantime, General Knoxx has been sent to oversee the Lance's operations. This veteran soldier is growing to resent his place in life, and going after a Vault Hunter would provide a way to let off some steam.
Claptrap's New Robot Revolution
Hyperion was more than happy to let the expendable Vault Hunters take care of the Vault problem. Now that the Vault will remain closed for another few hundred years, there's no reason to keep the Vault Hunters around. After all, having a group of unaffiliated mercenaries wandering about killing people as they felt like it would be bad for business. Thus, they decided to reprogram the quiet, unassuming Clap Trap so that it would take care of the problem.

This worked a little too well, as this robot eventually turned on Hyperion, starting a revolution to free all of the "slave" claptraps and crush their oppressors (ie, all humans). Now that their plan has backfired badly, Hyperion is making the best of it by hiring the Vault Hunters to put an end to the Glorious Robolution.

Points of Interest

Loot is randomly created
You'll find a lot of equipment as you explore Pandora, and one of the unique features of this game is that the equipment is assembled from randomly chosen parts. This means that the odds of finding the same weapon, shield or class enhancement twice is extremely low. Each type of equipment has a number of variables than determine how it behaves, so you can't just focus on one statistic. For example, sniper rifles differ in how much damage they do, how accurate they are, the size of their magazines, the magnification of their scope, how much recoil they absorb and even how easy it is to hold them still.

Ultimately, there is no one "perfect" tool, and you'll always have a chance of finding something better.
Scores of missions
The main storyline has 44 story missions and 82 side missions. These are spread out over several different areas, most of which are pretty huge and feature unique terrain. Clearing these missions will keep you busy for around 50 hours, give or take. If that's not enough adventuring for you, the DLC packages add another 90 missions throughout many new areas, increasing a single playthrough to nearly 80 hours if you're in a hurry to complete the game.

Also, while it's often a sign that a game is too drawn out for its own good, the large number of hours you'll spend traveling around Pandora isn't a bad thing. You'll be fighting bad guys, making jokes, and saving the day throughout the entire time.
Lots of pop culture references and jokes
Borderlands is one of those games that knows it's a bad idea to take itself too seriously. There's a lot of humor mixed into the otherwise serious drama. Frequently, mission briefings mention things from popular culture, and it's not uncommon for ECHO recorders in the DLC missions to take things an extra step. For example, the Jacob's Cove DLC (which is based around zombies and other Halloween creatures) contains a very unsubtle jab at the Scooby Doo franchise.
Steam achievements
While the first Borderlands game doesn't feature Steam trading cards, it does feature a large range of steam achievements. If you have the DLC packages, the number of achievements you can earn is increased by a fair amount, with some of the new achievements requiring a LOT of effort to earn.
Multiple Playthroughs
Borderlands has a form of New Game Plus, referred to as a "Playthrough". Playthrough 1 is the normal game as it was when you're playing it for the first time. After beating the game, you have the option to begin Playthrough 2, which is a remix of the game where you get to keep your levels and equipment, but the enemies have been made more difficult to compensate. There is also a Playthrough 2.5, which ups the difficulty again and promises even better loot for the brave Vault Hunter.
Multiple Save Slots
Instead of profiles, Borderlands uses a new save slot for each game you start. This mostly keeps track of your progress for you, so you don't have to manually manage saved games. Note that the name of the saved game is determined by the name you gave on your character's profile card. If you didn't change the name there, your save will use that character's default name.
Grinding may be needed
One of the biggest downsides of RPGs is that the player needs to grind in order to be prepared to face harder enemies. Borderlands mostly dodges this bullet by providing enough EXP from missions to keep the player at a reasonable level compared to the enemies they are about to face, but sometimes you'll still need to grind a bit in order to keep your equipment more up to date.
Finding good items can be a crapshoot
Since everything is randomly generated, it can be hard to find a new gun that's actually an improvement on your current weapons. Even the equipment sold by the vending machines are often substandard compared to what you can find on enemies.
It's possible to sequence break by accident
Sequence breaking refers to playing though a game out of order. This is usually done on purpose by speedrunners, but you can accidentally do things out of order in Borderlands. Many of the missions are designed to be played in a specific order. For example, mission B requires mission A to have been completed before you can start it. This works most of the time, but there are some missions that can be done in the wrong order. This can occasionally result in part of the story being played through before the events that led up to it have taken place.

You can also switch to the DLC stories fairly early on, and since these stories take place after the main game's storyline, you'll discover a few spoilers if you play the DLC first. Some of the bigger spoilers involve characters that die during the main storyline, as they are sometimes mentioned in past tense or are resurrected through magic or mad science in the DLC story.

Concerns and Issues

Moral issues with the New-U system
The New-U stations are special poles set up throughout Pandora. Their primary purpose is putting people back together after an "unfortunate death experience" for a small fee. Instant and easy resurrections like these are a good explanation for the game's respawn mechanic, but it's clear that there have been other, less intended, results.

Basically, since death is now little more than a painful inconvenience, killing someone is now treated as a reasonable way to deal with a problem. This has also given rise to lethal arena-based blood sports, as there's no moral consequences for killing someone that agreed to enter a deadly gladiatorial fight.
Zombies and other "evil monster" characters
The Jacob's Cove DLC is a Halloween themed adventure with all of the typical trappings. Zombies, Frankenstein monsters, Jack 'o Lanterns and even an Irish priest make an appearance. Personally, this is my favorite of the storylines featured in the game, as none of it is remotely serious. On the other hand, people may have issues with monster or horror themes, so be aware that's what you'll be seeing if you have this DLC.
Violent gunplay
As mentioned above, Pandora is a world where people regularly shoot each other for fun, profit, or both. The entire game revolves around this concept. For the most part, it resembles the cowboy stories it was clearly inspired by: when a bad guy gets "plugged", they cry out and fall over. However, there are a few occasions where things get worse, and they are outlined below.
Blood and gore
Most of the time, you're not going to be seeing much blood or gore beyond the set pieces scattered around the world (see the entry on disturbing imagery below). When you kill an enemy, they will normally fall over, which isn't terribly graphic. However, if your character's level is significantly higher than the enemy, you'll blow limbs or even their entire upper torso clean off. Of course, shooting anything in general creates splats of blood behind them, though these stains fade away very rapidly. It's entirely possible that they'll all have disappeared by the end of the firefight, making them less of a concern.

But, a few of the more important enemies have their insides exposed. The best example of this is the final boss of the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, who is not only a giant monstrosity of mangled flesh, he's also found at the end of a tunnel made out of organic tissue.
Elemental kills are extremely graphic
There are four special types of attacks in Borderlands. The first type of attack has an electrical charge that disables shields. The second type of attack creates small explosions on impact, another type sets things on fire, and the last type sprays the target with strong acid. The effectiveness of these attacks vary depending on the target; for example armored enemies tend to be weaker to the acidic attacks. By itself, there isn't anything particularly disturbing about this: "elemental" attacks and resistances are part of the strategy for many, many games.

The disturbing part comes in when the target is killed by an elemental attack. In this case, the enemy will die screaming in a very graphic manner. Of the four, fire damage is the worst, as humans killed by a fire-based attack die screaming and flailing as they burn alive. It's quite shocking if you're not expecting it.
Other disturbing imagery
Bandits are notable for leaving "warnings" for would be trespassers. Common examples include skulls on spikes, bodies hung from an overhang, and signs that say "Piss off" plastered about. Suffice to say, these aren't nice people.

The local wildlife isn't friendly either. Skags consume everything, and I mean everything. Later on, they vomit up what they couldn't digest. These piles of vomit are known as "skag piles", and usually have dried out human skulls and ribcages in them. They also frequently have some spare ammo or other useful loot, so digging through them is often recommended, even if it's a tad gross.
Sexual references
Borderlands isn't above locker room humor. Thus, there are a number of jokes or random comments that refer to sex. That said, nobody is shown having sex, nor does the player's character bed anyone. After playing it through, I think the best way to explain this part is to provide four quick examples.
  • The first example is "Mad" Moxxi, the thrice-divorced barkeep and announcer for the Underdome Arena. Just about everything she does or says is either innuendo or blatantly suggestive. She's also the most provocatively dressed character in the entire game.
  • The second example appears in the Secret Armory of General Knoxx, where the Lance renegade decides the best way to secretly contact you is to have her audio signal mixed into advertisements for a male enhancement product called ENGORGE.
  • Thirdly, there is actually a side mission where you assist a guy by tracking down and retrieving the porn magazines his wife had thrown out. Note that you don't see the full cover of the magazines, but it's obvious that they're porn. The description that comes up when they are highlighted mentions that some pages are stuck together, a detail that even the Vault Hunters find rather gross.
  • This last example is subtle, but it's there. Each of the vending machines has a cartoon version of what they sell on them. For example, the healing vending machine has a vial standing on crutches and the ammo vendor features a grenade swinging a club. The problem is the gun vendor, which is depicted as a pump action shotgun firing and priming itself. This looks very suspiciously like it's supposed to be masturbating.
References to homosexuality
These are largely used for humor, but it's worth mentioning that the characters that are the most open about their orientations are either depicted as villains or are otherwise immoral characters. Even if you don't believe homosexuality is a sin, this one-sided depiction comes off as a little wrong.

And as mentioned above, Moxxi contributes to this. When you're in her bar, she may make a slightly naughty comment about the player character. She'll even do this if the player's character is a woman. Normally you'd just think that Moxxi's character is programmed to idly make a comment if the player stays around (a common and innocent feature in modern games) but Moxxi actually has a unique and flirty line just for Lilith, showing that this was entirely deliberate.
Some enemies want to die
When badly injured, a Psycho might take out a grenade, pull the pin and suicidally charge the player. The explosion hurts everyone nearby and kills the Psycho in the process. While that's the main example of suicide in this game, there are other characters that want to die. One of the bigger examples is General Knoxx, who is about to commit suicide when the player arrives. He decides it would be better to be killed in combat with the player instead of pulling the trigger himself, but that's not really much of an improvement.

During the events of the Claptrap Revolution, fallen bandits are re-assembled into Bandit-Traps by the revolting machines. When killed, these bandit-traps sometimes weakly say "Just let me die", implying that their new life wasn't exactly pleasant.
Tannis' fall into insanity isn't pretty
One of the characters is a scientist named Patricia Tannis. She came to Pandora to study the alien artifacts, and her stay has been an extremely traumatic one. Over the course of the main game, you'll retrieve her ECHO recording devices. ECHO recorders are basically science fiction themed tape recorders, and hers have her personal journals on them. Long story short, she witnessed her colleagues get killed and eaten by the local wildlife, and without human contact for long stretches of time, she eventually developed a love/hate "relationship" with her electronics, treating them as if they were people with minds of their own. She's pretty far gone by the time you meet her, and I'm not sure therapy would help much at this point.
Brief drug reference
One of the early side missions involves finding a missing person. It turns out that the guy had attempted to scam locals into believing some random plants were an expensive off-world form of tobacco. In truth, smoking the fake tobacco resulted in fatal internal bleeding, and the buddies of the people killed by it forced the guy to use his own deadly product. The Vault Hunter that makes this grim discovery takes it upon themselves to find, confiscate and destroy the remaining boxes of toxic smokes. Don't do strange drugs, kids.
Some of the bandits have "found religion"
The bandits plaguing Pandora are largely comprised of illiterate and violent criminals. Some of them have decided to worship a giant scythid ( which is a species of alien bug that resembles a mean spirited cockroach ). If you want, there's an optional series of missions to remove this heretical nonsense by destroying their scribblings and their "god".
Frequent swearing
At this point, it seems silly to mention it, but people in this game use dirty words. The most common example is that bandits call you an asshole.