“The original looter shooter returns!”
These words from the Borderlands 3 promotional campaign should not be taken lightly. The third numbered entry in the series has been granted entry into our homes for more than a week now. Hence, there is no better time to talk about the ‘original looter shooter’. The original Borderlands may not look like that much of a game-changer when you look back now, 10 years after its original release. It’s now generally regarded now as a clunky, barren and at times, an inconsistent shooter when compared to the titles that followed. It was Borderlands 2 that brought the series mainstream attention. That part is true. Regardless, I do feel that Borderlands doesn’t get the love it deserves, especially compared to other genre pioneers. Most of the BL2 players I’ve met haven’t even played the game. With the first game having gotten a fresh coat of paint in the form of GOTY Enhanced Edition some months prior, it’s the right time to delve into the origins of the series and talk about how Borderlands gave birth to a new sub-genre.
The Advent of Military Shooters
Whether you choose to believe it or not, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare literally impacted shooters for years to come with its grounded setting and cinematic storytelling in 2008. In the years following, well up to 2011, we got a slew of first-person shooters, capitalizing on the success of CoD by trying to replicate its formula with varying degrees of success. Grounded military settings, heavily scripted gameplay, tacked-on multiplayer and a colour palette consisting heavily of browns and greys permeated these titles. Much like the Doom clones from the ’90s, there were some good games and some really bad ones.
At a time when the video game industry was filled with such ‘inspired’ products, a few games stood out. The ones that spring into my mind are Crysis, Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead and of course, Borderlands. All these shooters left a lasting impression on the genre and their impact is still felt to this day. Of these, Borderlands holds a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons. There was nothing quite like it before, at least in the FPS genre. It extracted the decade-unchanged formula of isometric ARPGs and gave it new form. Not to mention that it made Gearbox the name it is today (despite their affinity towards terrible decisions).
Originally beginning development in 2005, Borderlands was conceived as an FPS with RPG mechanics, a formula that hasn’t been properly explored til then. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s love for both genres solidified the unique yet risky core gameplay formula. The game’s narrative would allow players to slip into the roles of treasure hunters of mysterious alien technologies in the post-apocalyptic planet of Pandora.
Since the game was going to take place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic setting, it was decided early that Borderlands would feature a ‘tried and true’ art style resembling games like Fallout. Gears of War, Killzone and films such as Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog. Gearbox showed an early prototype of the game back in 2008 which featured the very familiar muted and gritty colour palette. But ultimately, this idea was scrapped and Gearbox would settle for a unique art design that would later become one of the hallmarks of the series.
The version of Borderlands that was shipped on October 20, 2009, would feature a unique blend of traditional post-apocalyptic tropes consisting of a world gone to shit, bandits, mutants, cannibals and forgotten technologies with some wacky and outright bizarre characters coated with edgy humour. Enriching it all was a comic-book-like, pseudo-cell-shaded art design that was both refreshing and outright gorgeous. It wasn’t XIII level of wacky but managed to blend hand-drawn textures with graphic novel like outlines and exaggerated character models. We finally had a shooter that wasn’t all brown and grey and ‘realishtic’ on our hands. While the later entries would focus more on the cartoony aspects of the visuals, I still prefer the og visual style that had just the right amount of ‘otherworldliness’.
While the visual design of Borderlands was in easy sell in a market saturated by military shooters, the core gameplay loop was highly experimental and risky. The prospect of mixing shooter gameplay with RPG elements wasn’t anything new as Its origins can be traced back as early as 1996. But the scale at which Borderlands mixed both was very much new. A great number of things was taken into consideration, including how to hold the attention of the players for prolonged periods of time, the sense of risk vs reward, balancing classes and the world, scale of the game world, designing quests around the loot-driven formula and last but not the least, adding a shit tonne of unique loot.
At launch, Borderlands offered the players 4 distinct classes with their own skill trees to choose from, a bazillion guns and items, a vast world separated into multiple zones, a cast of colourful characters, a plethora of side quests and 4 player co-op gameplay. But, the biggest success of Borderlands lies in how seamlessly Gearbox blended different genres and mechanics together. It was challenging, rewarding and paved the way for games like Destiny, The Divison and any looter shooter in general. There was nothing like it at the time. Truly, the Diablo of first-person shooters.
As I mentioned earlier, Gearbox recently released a remastered version of Borderlands. It brought some minor graphical improvements, restored the online multiplayer and added a lot of QoL changes. It also comes with all the 4 DLC expansions included. People used to the gameplay of later entries will have some adjustments to make before getting into the original. The gunplay isn’t as satisfying, the movement is a lot slower, the story is not very good, it and doesn’t have ‘Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep’.
Then why should one bother with it? Because it’s still damn fun and I assume will be quite cheap in Steam sales down the line. There’s quite a lot of quality content to be had here. In my opinion, Borderlands 1 handles the art design and humour much better than the later entries. It’s not always in your face and you won’t be getting poop and penis references every 5 minutes. Plus, I always believe that it’s a good thing to go back to the roots and experience where things began. Makes you appreciate them more. There’s also a bit of nostalgia thrown in since I spent countless hours playing the game with my now-estranged friends.
So maybe add Borderlands to your wishlist and give it a try when it goes on sale? You won’t regret it.
P.S; Sampad Banerjee, if you’re reading this, I’ll swear we’ll play together and finish the remaster soon.