Borderlands Review

Fun combat and a steady flow of rewards make this journey a massively enjoyable one, especially with some fellow mercenaries along for the ride.

The Good:
Satisfying gunplay.Tons of weapons, shields, and helpful items.Four unique and equally fun-to-play characters. Distinct, appealing artistic style. Great system of rewards.
The Bad :
Lonelier, slower-paced for a solo player. Massively unsatisfying "climax" Lackluster loot sharing system.

On the hostile, bandit-ridden planet of Pandora, there is one thing that draws off-world attention: The Vault. This mysterious alien structure is rumored to hold treasures of fantastic power and wealth, and so it attracts fortune-seeking corporations and individuals alike. In Borderlands, you are one such individual, but the satisfaction of unlocking the Vault's secrets pales in comparison to the rollicking good time you'll have on your way there. Borderlands is all about the journey, not the destination, and like most trips, this one is much better when you have some friends along for the ride. Solo players can still have a good time, because the bloody and entertaining combat is paired well with rewarding loot and engaging experience systems. But Pandora is a lonely place for a solitary mercenary, and lone wolves will find the pace deliberate and the friendly characters too few and far between. Those who take advantage of the four-player online cooperative mode will experience the game as it's meant to be played. The pleasing rhythm of killing enemies, gathering loot, and cashing in is punctuated by fighting bosses, completing quests, and leveling up. As a solo merc, this rhythm is slow and methodical, but as a team, the pace quickens to an invigorating clip and pretty soon you've spent hours having a riotously rewarding time.

The world of Pandora has a dusty, run-down feel, yet it manages to be vibrant and eye-catching at the same time. The art style features black-line borders and a colorful palette that give the game a not-quite-comic, not-quite-cel-shaded look. It takes some getting used to, and its technical execution is less-than-perfect . Yet what Borderlands lacks in precision it more than makes up for in style, and hours into the game you'll still be appreciating the thoughtful design touches that bring this world to life. Though the different environments occasionally feel too similar, there is enough distinct detail to keep them from blurring together. Your vanquished enemies also do their part to keep things visually interesting by dying in a variety of gruesome and entertaining ways. Bodies explode, limbs fly off, and burning enemies occasionally disintegrate from the ground up until only the mask of their face is left hanging in midair. It sounds (and is a bit) horrifying, but when the mask drops comically to the floor and finally burns up, don't bother stifling that chuckle. The art design resonates well with Borderlands' irreverent sense of humor, and the game is playful without feeling too goofy.

You travel through this world as one of four characters, each with a unique look and attitude. You don't really get to appreciate the character designs if you play solo because you have no AI teammates, but you do hear frequent quips that give you a little bit of character-specific flavor. The most important difference between characters is the action skill, which is a special ability that can give you an edge in combat. The Hunter can release a vicious bird of prey, the Soldier can throw down an automatic turret flanked by shields, the Siren can turn invisible and speedy, damaging all enemies in the vicinity, and the Berserker flies into a damage-resistant rage and delivers brutal punches to his enemies. You unlock these abilities after playing for a short while, and not only are they all fun to use, but each one can be customized in a couple of strategically distinct ways. You can tweak and upgrade your ability by investing skill points in appropriate skills. So, for example, upgrading the Hunter's bird of prey not only can increase the amount of damage it does, but can make it attack multiple targets, steal health from them, slow them down for easy sniping, and cause them to drop more loot. Expanding your action skill makes you more deadly in combat, and it's one of the most rewarding parts of leveling up. Killing enemies, finishing quests, and completing in-game bonus challenges earn you experience points, which in turn earn you a new level. Leveling up boosts your overall fortitude and grants you a precious skill point to use however you see fit.

You can also spend your skill points on other improvements, and each character has three different skill trees that highlight different tactics and abilities. So the Soldier can essentially become the team medic by developing the skills that allow him to shoot teammates to regenerate their health and that make his turret create a healing radius. Or he could choose to become more deadly, increasing his turret damage and combat rifle performance. Though your weapon proficiency improves based on how much you use a given weapon type, different characters have skills that favor different types of guns, so it's to your advantage to play to your character's strengths. The Berserker can certainly become proficient with the sniper rifle, but his melee-focused action skill and preference for rocket launchers make him a better choice for wading into the fray. Though the branching skill trees offer intriguing ways to specialize, your initial character choice has the biggest impact on how you'll go through the game. Fortunately, each character is fun and deadly in his own way, so you can't choose poorly, and you'll probably want to experience what each one has to offer. Playing cooperatively allows you to enjoy and benefit from the other characters' abilities, something you don't get to appreciate when playing solo, unless you start a new game.

Expanding your abilities and leveling up is one of the main ways that Borderlands consistently rewards you. Loot is another. Loot can be found in containers, dropped by enemies, or given to you as a quest reward. It includes money, ammo, shields, mods that boost and alter your grenades, mods that boost your skills, and, of course, guns. Guns are classified in familiar categories: pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, combat rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and so on. Each class feels distinct, and the shooting mechanics are well tuned and satisfying, which makes it fun to blast baddies. Base damage, clip size, fire rate, accuracy, and bullet spread are just some of the variables within each class, and some guns have more exotic features, like bladed pistols that increase melee damage or a shotgun that also shoots rockets. They can also do elemental damage, which comes in a variety of flavors that put a special kind of hurt on and can even do damage over time. Equip an incendiary gun if you want to burn flesh, or a corrosive gun if you want to deal extra damage to creatures with tough hides.
You will come across a huge number of guns in your travels, though most are only good for selling back to the many vending machines around Pandora. However, you will continually find better guns throughout your journey, and because a sweet gun or awesome shield could be be found on the remains of any human or animal and in any inanimate storage container, you'll spend a lot of time searching and picking things up. There is a lot of stuff to pick up in Borderlands, and it can be a bit unsettling when you realize just how much of the game you might have to spend looking down at the ground, pressing a button to grab your loot. Initially, it feels like you're looking down and pressing a key far too often. But as you progress, you'll become a more proficient loot-grabber, and you won't be bothered by the action. You'll even grow to love the sight of a battlefield littered with the tiny towers of light that seem to proclaim, "Grab me!" Watching your loot fly towards you and hearing it lodge in your inventory is satisfying, though there is another kink in the works. You can hold the reload key to pick up all the ammo and money nearby (something you'll want to do often), but if you hold the button while looking at a gun, you'll immediately equip it. This can cause you to equip some bogus guns if you're not careful, but this is quickly remedied and rarely too bothersome. You can compare guns within your inventory, and if you've used up your limited space, you can check the specs on a fallen gun easily and drop one from your inventory if you like.

Vending machines supply a wide variety of goods to the intrepid mercenaries of Pandora.

Unfortunately, dropping items is also the only way you can give them to your teammates, and there's no way to exchange ammo or money. If teammates are using the same type of gun, this can lead to some problematic ammo shortages, which is another reason to play to your character's strengths. This can also lead to disputes over who gets that fancy new shotgun, so it's best to have a gentleman's agreement in place over how to handle these issues. Borderlands allows you to resolve disputes by melee attacking a friendly player and challenging him to a duel. If your teammate melees you back, a colored dome pops up and the two of you fight to the death. The loser doesn't actually die, just loses some health, and there's no way to put a wager on the match, so the victor doesn't necessarily receive the spoils. As long as you're playing with a respectful group, you should be able to avoid loot-hoggers and the like, but it's still a bit disappointing that there isn't a better way to pool and equally distribute your collective resources. Still, joining other players online is easy, even if you all have characters at different levels. Borderlands does a good job of adjusting enemy difficulty to accommodate more players, though the larger the level gap, the easier it will be for higher level players, and the tougher it will be for lower level players. It's worth noting that the story-related missions--that is, the ones you have to perform in sequence--reflect the host's progress, and players who are behind the host may not get credit for completing certain missions.

Having some friends on your side makes things a lot more pleasant, given that about 99 percent of life on Pandora is your enemy. Human enemies range from bandits that are smart enough to wear shields and take cover to psychos that light themselves on fire and sprint toward you, screaming about rending your flesh from your bones. The local wildlife is universally hostile and includes skags (toothy dog-beasts), spiderants (armored insect monsters), rakks (raggedy death bats), and scythids (wriggling prehistoric grubs). Every type of enemy appears in various incarnations, ranging from young and weak to badass and on fire. These variations are generated anew during each encounter, so even when you kill a clutch of enemies in that same gully for the fourth time, it will be a different bad-guy loadout. You'll fight hundreds of each enemy type throughout the game, and the fact that groups are varied goes a long way toward staving off repetition. The two-seater vehicles also offer some locomotive variety, and many of the areas are much more fun to traverse on four wheels than on two legs. You can conjure the lone vehicle type from the many Catch-a-Ride stations. The touchy handling takes some getting used to, and you can run into some exaggerated physics problems when crashing into rocks. However, there's nothing quite like vehicular homicide to stave off bandit-killing fatigue. In or out of a vehicle, the simple act of killing enemies is pretty fun, and since you're constantly reaping loot and experience rewards, even repeated encounters have some incentive attached to them.

The combined incentives of killing enemies, gathering loot, cashing in, and leveling up are the main driving forces in Borderlands. The various quests you undertake cover a good variety of motivations, but most follow the pattern mentioned in the previous sentence. The 1 percent of life on Pandora that isn't your enemy will often have quests for you, though only a handful of characters are voice-acted. Of these, there are a few standouts, including the bumpkin car-rental mogul and the borderline sociopathic archaeologist, but for the most part Borderlands offers precious little in the way of non-player character contact. This makes playing solo a lonely experience. Though the action is still satisfying and the world is still interesting, solo players will have a slower-paced adventure in which the flashes of comedy also serve to underscore how sparse those flashes are. The main story is thin and the final encounter is pointless and thoroughly unsatisfying, so anyone hoping Borderlands will deliver a climactic conclusion is almost certainly going to be disappointed.

After you uncover the secrets of the Vault, you are once again set loose into Pandora, where you are free to quest on and remember why you enjoyed your previous hours with the game. Borderlands has tens of hours of quests to fulfill, and you'll likely find yourself enticed back to explore new skills, find new guns, and kill more enemies. Though the core action doesn't change drastically over the course of the game, it is woven together in such a way that once it ensnares you, you'll want nothing more than to plunge into Pandora at any chance you get. Combat is satisfying, and upgrading your skills and equipment is engaging. The constant stream of loot and experience is rewarding, and sharing it with some friends makes the experience that much richer and more exciting. Despite its hostile (albeit stylish) environment, Pandora is a great planet to visit if you want to shoot some stuff. Just be sure to bring some friends along for the ride.


Dragon Age: Origins Review

Incredible storytelling, great characters, and exciting battles are just a few of the things that make this fantasy role-playing game so extraordinary.

When was the last time you felt totally lost in a fantasy gameworld? When was the last time you played a game with such a well-crafted and enjoyable story that you knew you’d remember it for a long, long time? Dragon Age: Origins is that kind of game, so rich and involving that you are powerless to resist its wiles and whims, so touching and triumphant that your mind and heart will be moved. In the fictional land of Ferelden, you meet memorable characters and fight for a cause you believe in, and it's this backdrop that makes developer BioWare's newest role-playing game so extraordinary. Dragon Age is more than a well-crafted story, however: It's a lengthy, intricate, and thoroughly entertaining adventure that's easy to fall in love with.

Dragon Age's plot, which deals with the impending invasion of a horde of demonic creatures called the darkspawn, isn't where the story's biggest surprises lie. The shocks, the joys, and the disappointments spring from the repartee among a number of remarkable characters; they lurk within books of lore and stories of martyrs; and they burst forth during spine-tingling moments when you must choose from a selection of difficult choices that affect the tale's direction--and the way your associates interact with you. Ferelden is a colorful and fascinating kingdom that takes enough cues from well-known fantasy tropes to be familiar, but bends enough conventions to feel original. Dragon Age features dwarves, but their caste-based society and the social paragons that rise above it twist the norms enough to keep you intrigued. Mages remain under the constant watch of templars, a restriction that doesn't sit well with those who view such policing as virtual slavery. The role of religion in human circles is of particular note. Chantries provide refuge to those worshiping the all-powerful Maker, and chanters recite the holy word near their houses of prayer. But lest this world sound too serious, don't despair: One such disciple slides food references into her chant, and a few dwarves warn you not to fall into the sky. Small, humorous touches like this are plentiful. Even if you aren't the literary sort, Dragon Age may inspire you to read every note, every character bio, and every creature description, thanks to the richness of the world and the consistency with which it's presented.

You'll learn even more from the companions who join you, and you'll grow to care about them on your quest for glory. There's Morrigan, the cynical apostate mage bound to your cause for reasons that become clear only late in the journey; Sten, the strong, silent type who isn't so quick to reveal his innermost thoughts; and Zevran, a darkly mischievous would-be assassin with a wild streak and a playful disregard for the law. There are others too, including Alistair, a wisecracking, vaguely insecure member of the Grey Wardens, an elite group of champions that recruits you early on. Great dialogue and fantastic voice acting make these characters leap off the screen as if they were real friends, and the way they interact with one another feels authentic. Morrigan and Alistair banter about the role of templars in the lives of mages, and the sweetly devout Leliana tries to communicate with your trusty canine cohort in some amusing exchanges. You may even develop a romance (or two) before all is said and done. The course of love isn't always a smooth one, though it can be a bit steamy, in a PG-13 sort of way.

Uh oh--this can't be healthy.

Relationships must be nurtured; in the world of Dragon Age, love doesn't develop at first sight. Rather, you must improve your standings with available party members by giving them gifts and fulfilling quests in ways that please them. Doing so opens more dialogue options and may even reward you with unexpected gifts beyond the private pleasures of your tent. Your personal relationships aren't all you need to worry about when facing a difficult decision, however. On significant quests, you'll encounter complex choices that force you to weigh the risks against the rewards, even as you try to stay true to your own vision of your character. Are werewolves heartless killers, or is there a method to their madness? Should you wholeheartedly embrace a political candidate, or will some unexpected information have you playing double agent--or just killing the opposition? Such open-ended quests have become staples in many similar RPGs, but few make these decisions feel so momentous. The anxiety that results when you encounter important choices is a result of superb writing and character development: When you care about your destiny, decisions have more weight

Even Dragon Age's initial moments present important decisions that affect how your adventure plays out. You'll customize your own avatar's look from a variety of presets, but more importantly, you'll choose a race and class. The choices may seem initially limited, but your options eventually expand. Later, you can choose up to two subclasses once you reach the necessary level requirements, and there are a few different means of unlocking additional skill trees. Your initial race and class choices don't just determine the kinds of skills and spells you will have access to, however; they influence how the first few hours of the game progress. You will experience one of six different "origin stories" that follow the events that lead you to the elite Grey Wardens. Every origin story leads to the same place, but that doesn't mean you leave these events behind for good. Characters you met early on will cross your path again, and crucial moments of your origin story will continue to haunt you. The varied origin stories not only provide plenty of replay value, but allow you to see familiar characters from a different angle. A prisoner you meet within a dank dungeon may not have much impact on you if you are playing as a Dalish elf, but if you play as a human mage, this encounter is a bittersweet reunion.

You aren't a lone adventurer, however. You can take up to three companions along with you, and eventually you will meet more willing (or unwilling, as the case may be) darkspawn slayers. You can switch out party members back at your camp or in other friendly areas. Party members you don't use will remain at camp, though they thankfully level up even when you don't take them along. Your comrades aren't just AI-controlled henchmen; you can take full control of any party member at any time, though how you do so depends on the platform. PC owners get the most versatile and rewarding experience in this regard. You can zoom the camera in to a close third-person view when exploring and conversing with non-player characters, or pull the camera back to a tactical view, which makes it a breeze to quickly and easily micromanage every spell and attack, in true Baldur's Gate tradition. On consoles, you always view the action from behind a single character, and you use a shoulder button to switch among them. It's a great way of experiencing the buzz of battle, though occasional pathfinding quirks are more apparent in the console versions, simply because you experience the action from a single perspective at a time, rather than while managing four characters simultaneously.

If you've played a BioWare fantasy RPG in the past, you'll feel right at home with the combat system. By clicking on your target or pressing the attack button, you don't just swing a sword, but you approach your target and queue up your attack. Once your party has gained access to a good number of spells, stances, and skills, battlefields explode with bright colors and raucous sound effects, and it's a lot of fun to switch back and forth between party members, managing your abilities and taking advantage of various spell combos to wreak havoc. There are dozens of different types of enemies to slice up, from giant spiders and darkspawn, to ghosts and walking trees, to demons and, of course, dragons. Allies will join you in the biggest battles, and the best of these, particularly those toward the end of the game, are thrilling. On the PC, they're particularly challenging, and many battles benefit from frequent pausing and tactical thinking, so that you can queue up attacks across your entire party. The same battles on consoles are noticeably easier.

Nevertheless, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions have their challenges, and no matter which platform you choose, you can customize your cohorts' AI behavior to be more effective in battle. Using the tactics menu, you can set characters up to drink potions when their health gets low; have Morrigan cast helpful crowd-control spells when enemies are clustered together; and program sturdier characters to draw enemies' ire when more vulnerable party members are under attack. As you level up, you will earn additional tactics slots, allowing you to implement even more intricate actions. You can also apply basic behaviors to your team members, making them more aggressive or defensive, and you can switch them around on the fly if an experimental custom tactic isn't working as you intended. When things come together as you plan--such as when Morrigan freezes a hurlock in place and Alistair smashes it to smithereens--battles are even more rewarding.

All of these elements coalesce wonderfully, making for a memorable and exciting adventure that keeps you on the move. The flow of loot and pace of leveling are both highly satisfying, and because you have four active characters to consider (in addition to others back at the camp), you spend a lot of time poring over armor and weapon choices. The tempo is even quicker than the Dungeons & Dragons games that preceded Dragon Age, thanks to important tweaks that minimize downtime. For example, you do not need to rest between encounters to replenish your health and recharge your spells. Instead, health and stamina are replenished quickly once the skirmish ends, allowing you to string encounters together without unwanted breaks in between. Should a party member fall during battle, he or she will be resuscitated once the battle has ended, albeit with a stat penalty applied (though it can be cured with an injury kit). These factors, and more, give Dragon Age an excellent sense of forward direction.

All the spells, tactics, and skills sound like a lot to organize, but the interface does a great job of helping you keep track of things. The PC interface is brilliant, letting you browse through your inventory and tweak your quickbars quickly and easily. The console versions do a surprisingly great job as well, making it simple to sort through your quests, and to queue up actions while battle is paused. One particularly useful feature is the ability to identify inventory items as trash and sell them all with a single button press once you're back in town. There are some console-specific interface irritations that could have been cleaner, however. For example, identifying new codex (that is, lore) entries can be troublesome, because the list doesn't scroll down until your highlight cursor reaches the bottom of the window. As a result, you can't always distinguish new entries from old ones, which is an issue that doesn't plague the fantastic PC interface. The consoles' radial menu, on the other hand, is an excellent way of letting you access every battle skill, and it works somewhat like the similar interface in Mass Effect--albeit with a few more layers.

The differences between versions aren't limited to the interface. Dragon Age doesn't look amazing on the PC, but it's an attractive game nonetheless. Zooming from an isometric view to a third-person perspective is slick, and while environments don't hold up quite as well when viewed up close, they're consistently lovely when viewed from above. On the flip side, the Xbox 360 version looks positively disappointing. Textures are highly compressed and colors are washed out, though the upside is that this version maintains a smoother frame rate than on the PlayStation 3, where things might get jittery when swiveling the camera around. The PlayStation 3 version features higher-quality textures than those on the Xbox 360, better color saturation, smoother facial animations, and shorter load times. Minor visual hiccups, like corpses that disappear and reappear, are a bit more common on the PS3, however. The PC version is the superior experience, but if you're choosing between the two console releases, the PlayStation 3 has the upper hand. Some minor glitches are shared between the console versions, however, such as rare occasions when the soundtrack or voice-overs disappear. We also ran into a few quest malfunctions that could be replicated on all three platforms, though they were relatively minor and did not interfere with the progress of the main quest.

No matter which version you choose, however, there are plenty of audiovisual details to note. In many ways, Dragon Age looks and sounds like other high-fantasy games, but while the towers, forest paths, and underground caverns are what you've seen before, the art style is attractive, and a few sights, such as an underground dwarven city, are particularly eye-catching. Character models don't exhibit Mass Effect-level expressiveness, but they look good and animate smoothly enough. Also of note are the splatters of blood that appear on your party members after battle. It's a nice idea, but the splotches look like they've been splashed across you with a paintbrush. The crimson stains are a cool thematic touch, however, because blood plays an important role in Dragon Age. The sound effects are excellent, console glitches notwithstanding, and the soundtrack, while typical for a fantasy game, swells and murmurs at all the right moments.

Few games are this ambitious, and even fewer can mold these ambitions into such a complete and entertaining experience. You might spend 50 or more hours on your first play-though, but there are so many paths to follow, so many details to uncover, and so many ways to customize your party that you'll want to play again as soon as you finish the first time. PC owners even get an extra dash of depth via the downloadable toolset, which lets you create new levels, spells, skills, and even cutscenes. But any way you slice it, here's the fantasy RPG you've been waiting for, the one that will keep you up late at night, bleary-eyed, because you have to see what happens next. Like the best fiction, Dragon Age will sweep you up in its world, so much so that when you're done, you'll want to experience it all over again.


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