Borderlands is an very brave title that makes a very big statement. Coming straight out of left field, it promised to marry the disparate RPG and Loot Grinding RPG genres into a single "MMORPG" package that fans of both experiences will enjoy. It's a seriously ambitous play... but by providing capable mechanics and attractive cell-shaded visuals, Borderlands is literally the best of both worlds.
As a treasure hunter on a dangerous and barren planet, players have the choice of four different classes when starting out. Whilst each class can use every weapon that Borderlands has to offer, they can opt to specialise in different categories as well as utilise a unique action ability. Brick, the Berzerker, can brutalise enemies in a close combat melee mode whilst the sultry Siren can become invisible for long periods of time. The Hunter specialises in sniper rifles and can summon a hawk to kill his enemies. Finally, the Solider is an all-rounder that can double up as a medic in a pinch, using a deployable turret and a mastery of midrange weaponry to dominate his foes. Each class is equally effective in combat (either alone or as part of an online posse) but provide the scope for unique tactics and playstyles- and the single combat ability means that the experience doesn't get bogged down in stats and hotkeys.
Fans of MMOs know the drill: towns provide safe havens full of vendors and NPC questgivers, but you'll need to venture out into the expansive wasteland in order to fulfil missions and kill enemies. This is where the roleplaying territory abruptly ends and we cross over into shootin' country. Enemies attack en masse and include a range of slavering beasts, Mad Max-esque raiders and some occasional titanic bosses. Enemy AI falls into the 'dumb yet relentless' category, but players will need to use a range of tactics and weapons to defeat their randomly-generated advances. Shooting is absolutely rock solid, with each weapon feeling potent and every mechanic feeling spot on. My only complaint would be the lack of an onscreen map... but despite this, it's still a pleasure to navigate the enormous levels and exterminate their depraved inhabitants. It's also worth noting that the cell shading makes the dangerous world of Pandora extremely distinctive, with otherwise bland deserts becoming eyecatching works of art.
Killing enemies awards players with money and loot as well as experience- and this is where the loot grinding comes in. Borderlands' procedural generation engine is capable of randomly creating thousands of firearms including pistols, rocket launchers and everything in between. Continually upgrading your arsenal, grenades and regenerating shield is an addictive reason to keep playing; though the menus make rejigging your inventory slightly more exasperating than it ought to be (especially in splitscreen, where each menu panel is too large to fit).
It's worth noting that Borderlands only pays lip service to storyline and context: providing only a flimsy pretence and premise for the action. However, this isn't a complaint- and I'm not sure it's even a bad thing. Borderlands is a loot grinder with a social slant, and as such, player interactions and character builds serve to define the experience rather than any tightly scripted narrative.
Unfortunately, this social slant also highlights the major problem with Borderlands: repetition. Much like Diablo II and its ilk, the core experience boils down to the following formula.
Each mission is a variation on "go to point A and kill enemy B" or a simple collection quest. Existing fans of loot grinders (myself included) will probably relish the solo experience, but you'll want at least one other player along for the ride from time to time in order to stave off some inevitable boredom. Luckily Borderlands includes both two player splitscreen and 4-player online multiplayer, making it easy to share the experience. At times, Borderlands feels like a colourful and manic pastiche of Left 4 Dead-and I highly recommend enjoying the social aspects as soon as possible.
The Short Version: Fans of both loot grinders and hectic shooters will be in seventh heaven with Borderlands and will be able to enjoy the experience solo and with other players. However, most others will need to seek out company in order to fully enjoy what it brings to the table. Either way, Borderlands is a capable FPS with simple and accessible MMO elements that will still be relevant many months down the line.