See, the encounter with Sledge, and the small side-quests leading up to him, made one thing very clear to me: Borderlands is built with multiplayer in mind, and since none of my friends are online to help me out, I'm taking him on solo. But each enemy encounter is so obviously designed with multiplayer in mind that it takes away from the single-player experience. Each battle presents you with numerous tactically advantageous positions to exploit, one for each of the game's four characters. The sniper Mordecai has plenty of vantage points to take shots from; side routes let the sneaky Lilith slip by undetected before blowing baddies to bits; Roland's heavy gunning is protected behind plenty of cover; and Brick's fists efficiently clean any up-close-and-personal clocks. Rolling around the open areas as a lone wolf is certainly enjoyable-solitude accentuates the tension of dangerous situations, especially when you can hear the phenomenal soundtrack instead of your raucous pals-but it's just not the best way to play. With nobody to cover your flank and no one to pull you out of the muck when you run into trouble, the single-player mode becomes a lonely experience.
But despite its intimidating, pseudo-open-ended scope, Borderlands is expertly controlled. It's a first-person shooter mashed with a role-playing game, and it aces both genres without sacrificing anything on either end. It even manages to sneak in a few of its massively multiplayer RPG-influences with similarly structured fetch-quests that are broken up into fast-paced, instance-like experiences. Naturally, this means loads of leveling and loot. To streamline the madness of fighting for cash and experience points, Borderlands brilliantly awards everyone in the party an equal amount without cutting anyone short. Your 250 XP kill earns everyone 250 XP; when I find $50, everyone gets $50. And because awesome guns, grenade modifiers and class-specific equipment dropped so regularly I was never at odds with my allies over who should get what-we'd all get to tinker with new toys or sell our sweet finds sooner rather than later.
Everything fell into place perfectly based on our agreed roles and there's an addictive quality here that's on par with Diablo, where the constant promise of new doodads and skill tree bonuses were enough incentive to keep you up way too late. The back of the box brags about "BAZILLIONS" of guns to discover, and given the visual and statistical variety of each weapon I stumbled across I'm not willing to challenge Gearbox's hyperbolic chest-beating just yet.
The Thrill of the Hunt
When you can get a full party going, Borderlands begins to shine; it's one of those games that's chock-full of moments that you'll lovingly recount later. Each online experience is made memorable by fun things like smashing into each other with two rocket-mounted buggies, periodically punching your friend to instigate a duel and reviving him later amidst a fight you can't win without him. These moments jive perfectly with the tone of the game, which is surprisingly jovial considering the post-apocalyptic theme. The incredible comic-book art style is a significant factor, with the thick black lines and bright colors breathing a surprising amount of life into an otherwise bleak setting. Watching the nipple-pierced torso of a goalie mask-wearing psycho tumble away from its blood-geyser legs was so silly that I couldn't help but giggle at the absurdity. I got an extra kick out of a lot of the game's goofy characters as well: T. K. Baha is a perfectly loony farmer; the singing, dancing and periodically profane Claptrap robot is adorable; and Dr. Zed's a wildly unprofessional (and unlicensed) medic.
Don't expect these quest-givers to contribute much of a narrative, though. Feuding brothers, audio journals and missing people are interesting objectives, but I played the side-missions to boost a few levels, not deepen my knowledge of the 'verse. Despite my disdain for grinding in RPG's I found myself enjoying the occasional assassination or camp raid because of the satisfaction that comes with leveling up and helping out your buds. Just be sure to adhere to each mission's level recommendation or you'll find yourself at the wrong end of a losing battle.
Let's Do That Again!
There's no doubt that Borderlands has its faults but everything that exists around those sticky spots is incredible. The fun I had with the rock-solid gunplay and extensive role-playing elements was considerably amplified by each additional player. Borderlands is an absolute blast that I'll go back to again and again, even if my friends aren't around to help out. Considering how great of a time I had in Pandora, though, I expect they'll be around for a while too.
PROS: Co-op loot-scavenging rocks; great graphics, style and music; RPG/FPS hybrid is outstanding
CONS: Single-player suffers from co-op focus; the story is interesting but it feels a tad shallow