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The Secret Formula Behind Borderlands -- How A Sci-Fi Western Multiplayer Role-Playing Shooter Changed The World

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Posted September 17, 2012 - By Jonathan Deesing





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Borderlands

I seriously doubt anyone sat down and said to their friend, “you know what game they should make? A first person shooter role-playing space western game.” When I first read about Borderlands, I was confused about the entire concept, but I was still hopeful. Indeed, the game came on the heels of the highly successful and seminal Fallout 3, which shared the strange combination of first person shooter/role-playing game. Like Fallout 3 before it, Borderlands took the first person shooter genre and shook it top to bottom. What came out was one of most strikingly distinctive games in recent memory.

The game struck at a time when our love of WWII shooters was just wearing off and we were in the process of switching obsessions to modern shooters. Graphics were making leaps and bounds closer toward photorealism. Story had for the most part taken a backseat to multiplayer elements. The campaign-heavy titles of the past were few and far between. So Borderlands certainly didn’t fit the mold of the current shooter, which is why it was so perfect.

People wanted to play with friends as was made apparent by the success Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Halo titles. Thus Borderlands struck the exact nerve of compromise between multiplayer and single-player. To this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever played the game by myself. I can’t speak to other people’s experience, but Borderlands replaced many of multiplayer games I played online. I could still murder the hell out of people and chat with my buddies while I was doing it, but there was a great story that kept me entertained along with the cherry-on-top RPG elements that pepper the game.

Borderlands

For me, Borderlands in many ways changed the way I played console games online. Sure, I played Horde Mode in Gears of War 2 obsessively, but it was always just an activity; there was no real investment in it. But Borderlands became my obsession for the same reason people get addicted to MMOs; gear, loot, and glory. Unlike a single-player RPG, I was looking for loot not only for myself but for my friends as well. And the drops were not just standard weapons like they were in Fallout 3, but they were all unique and completely random. Finding just the right automatic shotgun for my friend that played Brick (I was Lilith of course) was just as cathartic as killing a huge boss.

What really gripped me was the ways in which I could change my character to support my friends. We decided early on that two of us adjust our skill tree to help us attack up close while our two friends supported us. By the time we had reached max level, the four of worked in picture-perfect tandem. This was the real beauty of Borderlands; the replay value. Like Diablo II, players could replay the game over and over, in a million different ways, and still find a million different guns and strategies.

And I never once grew tired of the story. This is partly because it was often too frantic to follow, but mostly because it was just so damn different. From the very first scene of the game, I knew I was in for a treat. Any game that starts on a derelict bus in the desert with characters posing themselves, all while Cage the Elephant plays is an automatic A in my book. Sure, the idea of humans colonizing a mining planet wasn’t unique, but having them abandon it to a variety of corporations while four bounty hunters look for treasure? Yeah that caught my attention. The MMO-style quests also kept me involved in the story whether I wanted to be or not.

Borderlands

I don’t even have to mention that the gameplay was flawless and the visuals were revolutionary. Though cel shading had been used in countless games before, Borderlands brought it people with gorgeous and ultimately timeless presentation. It didn’t receive a fraction of the criticism The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker had seen because cel shading seemed ideal for the mood and environment of the game. How else could Gearbox have presented their impossibly eclectic shooter than with a cartoonish vibe? Realistic graphics or some variation (like those in RAGE) would have just looked silly and out of place in Borderlands.

The trick, however, was not simply cramming elements of an RPG, FPS, and MMO into one game, it was making it work. But this perfection was delicate. Remove any of the aforementioned elements and the game suffers noticeably.

Take the quests in the game. If you remove these—replacing them with the traditional straight path campaign—you have a game with little to no replay value. How many people repeatedly play through the campaigns of Halo or Call of Duty? Not many, because the experience changes minimally. But in Borderlands, there were hundreds of quests and thousands of ways to complete them. Or ignore them altogether. Without quests, no amount of cool weapons could keep multitudes of gamers grinding away killing mutant bug things.

Borderlands

And what of the weapons? If the game featured only standard weapons like most RPGs, the incentive to trade with friends and loot constantly wouldn’t exist. Instead, we were given weapons more like those found in MMOs; with random skins and abilities. I remember getting on forums just to drool over the sweet weapons other people had found in the game. The hope of getting those weapons was enough to encourage me to log countless hours picking over the corpses of my victims. The same applies to the story, cel shading, vehicles and RPG elements. Borderlands was an intricate puzzle that would have been entirely incomplete lacking even one piece.

From the time I’ve already spent with Borderlands 2, I feel strongly that we can count on another great title from Gearbox. Ideally they won’t mess with what made Borderlands Borderlands while also innovating cool new features. But at the end of the day I don’t know that I’ll feel quite the adoration I felt for the first game. For me, Borderlands was my perfect bowl of porridge; not too hot, not too cold, and full of my enemies’ blood.

The Secret Formula Behind Borderlands -- How A Sci-Fi Western Multiplayer Role-Playing Shooter Changed The World
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