Borderlands Uses Winning Formula to Create a Monster Game

Imagine being on the leading edge of a near-future gold rush—a race to stake your claim on what you've been told is an off-world utopia teeming with untapped resources and the promise of enough advanced alien technology to single-handedly allow its lucky discoverers to lead humanity into a new golden age.

Now imagine that you and a few thousand of your friends hop the nearest interstellar transport to this newly discovered paradise, only to find upon arrival that you've been sold down the river. The air is breathable, the land is somewhat arable, but for all intents and purposes, you're homesteading on Planet Arizona. What do you do?

If your response involves turning a perfectly usable planet into a post-apocalyptic craphole within less than a decade, then Borderlands may be the game for you.

Planet Pandora's taken a beating since humankind first set foot on it. What was once an ugly, barren landscape full of dormant alien fauna is now an ugly, barren landscape full of angry alien fauna, Mad Max-style gangs, and enough rusty sheet metal to send the tetanus-phobic into an apoplectic seizure.

Borderlands picks up when a cache of alien hyper-technology is discovered, leading those Pandorans who haven't been beaten down into permanent NPC status by their oppressing environment to take up the claim-jumping mentality anew.

It's a mishmash designed to create, at least in the short term, an unstoppable gaming supersoldier. Many of the game's fundamental elements (character classes designed to fit specific roles, tier-based tech trees, randomly generated item drops and creature loadouts, multi-player co-op-friendliness) are cribbed from the Blizzard playbook, while others run the gamut from gaming staples like the Quake and Fallout series to discordant sci-fi action flicks like Pitch Black.

What makes Borderlands stand out is the fact that all these variables are thrown together in a formula that actually functions as a whole. Its simplistic run-and-gun gameplay works as an asset, allowing players to fall into their classes' roles (or with enough customization, any role they wish) without a steep learning curve, and its weapons-generation system (that advertised "87 bazillion guns" isn't too far off the mark) turns tasks as mundane as visiting a vendor or killing off your 300th mutant midget psycho into a potential Christmas come early.

But underlying all that is a sinister monster of the old school. The promise of that next rare item drop is the shiny little bait that distracts players while Borderlands moves its gaping anglerfish maw into position. One quick snap! later, and a pick-up game has turned into 40 hours spent on a single character.

It isn't strictly malevolent; Borderlands simply exists to devour players' time. The methods it uses to entice newcomers—the Diablo-style loot and creature-generators, the possibility of finding a shotgun with a 20-round clip that rapid-fires clusters of electrically-charged rockets with a sniper rifle's accuracy—are simply the siren's songs that distract unwary users until after their productivity is already dashed against the rocks.

So Borderlands is pretty much set for the short term, but as an entry into the meta-genre known for venerable titles (Diablo II is still a go-to for PC co-op despite being nearly a decade old, and any decent multiplayer FPS can find itself with a stubbornly persistent user base), a successful long-term Borderlands strategy requires a few things if it wants to achieve the kind of lasting success made possible by its predecessors. Unfortunately, its progress in these all-important fields has been mixed at best.

Borderlands' multi-platform release, a strategy normally considered beyond reproach, serves to fragment its user base—which is anathema to success in a genre which typically thrives best in a single large group of shared players. Giving the console versions a week of market exclusivity and using Gamespy—an outdated, unpopular, and traditionally bug-ridden matchmaking service—for the PC version's multiplayer functions further weakens the Borderlands brand by skewing its users toward consoles, which are critically immune to the user-made modifications so popular with the PC multiplayer crowds.

Borderlands developer Gearbox looks to be in it for the long haul, though. While user-made DLC is obviously off-limits to Borderlands' biggest installed base, official downloadable content is already in the works for all platforms. The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, a content pack with the inevitable mix of new areas, weapons, and shambling horrors, is scheduled for release by year's end.

Will Ned, an obvious nod to another ubiquitous gaming trend, push Borderlands' cheese factor past critical levels? Probably not. Aside from having the best DLC title of 2009, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned should be a welcome addition to a game that makes a name for itself by chewing up tropes and spitting out co-op gold.