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 two-player split-screen mode or 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 occasional jaggies and slow-to-load textures reflect its less-than-perfect technical execution. 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.