With the year in question being 2009, the big question surrounding this remastered release of Gearbox’s Borderlands – packed with all post-launch DLC – is whether it holds up almost a decade after first exploding onto the scene. And we use that rather over-the-top descriptor because the release of Borderlands was very much just that, a fresh action-RPG and shooter hybrid that took the loot aspect of the former and ran with it. And then ran some more, thanks to the game featuring something in the realm of a billion different guns. And a presentation and style that was equally charming as it was chock-full of attitude.
Yeah, we’re of the camp that finds Claptrap endearing.
So then, the big question. For the most part the answer is yes, it still holds up. With the original’s cel-shaded visuals still looking great compared to most 2009 releases. The new coat of 4K-paint isn’t so much a game-changer as it is a crisp reminder of the clean and scalable Borderlands visual style that first appeared here. And then again in Borderlands 2, and once more later this year with the sooner-than-you-think and long-awaited release of Borderlands 3. Perhaps the best overhaul or addition to this re-release comes with the quality of life improvements, ranging from the much-needed mini-map to a more cohesive and workable inventory screen.
That said, the same overall design issues remain. Namely with the game’s early moments and first areas. Where the maps borrow a layout reminiscent of classic Diablo, with missions requiring players to venture out and then back to a mission board, and then out again, and then back again. It’s the sort of setup where once you’ve played through the first big area in the game, you’ll feel like that was your second or third play-through. When paired with the slow pace of the first few hours, it minimises the want or need to try out a different class.
Released at a time before the term ‘looter shooter’ existed, or the likes of Destiny and The Division, our original review
pointed out the repetitive nature of the first in-game area, alongside referencing Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. And with that game still very much a thing, it’s a sentiment still relevant today.
But where World of WarCraft offers character building and mission variety (in that you can start an Alliance or Horde character, which immediately offers new areas to start grinding your early levels in), Borderlands will have you performing the same missions over and over again, regardless of your character choice. In this sense, it's immediately a flawed experience, because it takes a long time to get out of the game's first area, Arid Badlands, making it less-than-compelling to branch beyond your first (or second) character.
But it’s these early moments that also point toward a much brighter horizon, where later locations feel more intricately designed and alive. Even if they feature the same brown-and-sandy environments. As a Game of the Year edition it’s very much a case of watching the Gearbox of 2009 grow in confidence as the game’s story and elements come together, with the inclusion of the excellent The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC feeling like a proper expansion that leads into the more polished and robust Borderlands 2.
Where playing or re-playing the original Borderlands might surprise is with just how great the feel of the shooting is. Especially when played in co-op, where the different loadouts and classes and abilities blend almost perfectly with the action-RPG setup of chipping away at enemy and monster health-bars with damage numbers and critical hits displayed on-screen. The focus on player movement and overall skill, two elements that makes up the Borderlands foundation, is as solid as ever. Where alongside growing in competence the increasingly random nature of what gun will spawn inside a chest – is genuinely exciting. With elemental damage, buffs, and even a few outright crazy stats - once Borderlands hits its stride it almost never lets up.
But again, there are some aspects or shortcomings that stand out. Perhaps even more so once you factor in the arguably better sequel that arrived a few years later. Case in point, the lifeless NPCs you come across – which in a way betrays the over-the-top ambition of the presentation and comic art style.
NPCs, for example, are lifeless figures, never moving and only positioned to give you missions. They don't interact with you and aren't even properly voiced. For all intents and purposes they may as well be mannequins. Elements like this show missed opportunities for deeper engagement with Borderlands, and it's a shame because the ultimate foundation here is really tantalising.
If this Game of the Year edition shipped without all the additional DLC content that arrived post-launch then perhaps we’d revisit the original 8.0 out of 10.0 we scored it back in 2009. It’s a testament to the core design, alongside the inclusion of a few key quality of life improvements, that make this version of Borderlands worth a revisit. Played in co-op, once you leave the first major location in the game, it truly comes into its own.
It's actually really daunting when you find weapon chests, because most of the game's weapons are super cool, leaving you wanting to not ignore anything you find, even from a selling point-of-view. It's hard to realise you're invariably going to find cooler weapons the deeper into the game you go, because nothing like this (beyond WoW or Diablo) has ever existed.
And with that, Borderlands is still hard to put down once it gets going. From sub machine guns that set enemies on fire to grenades that heal you, allowing you to charge head-first into danger. Contextualised as a ‘looter shooter’, it nails both of those things. As did the sequel. And now, we excitedly wait for Borderlands 3.