Borderlands, the hit shooter from Gearbox, is best played online with up to three others. It is in that co-op spirit that we present our triple-header review of the game by hal, Sir_Brizz and Dark_Pulse. Three opinions. Three scores. Only one of them wrong.

These little buggers can put up a fight!

hal: Taking the co-op loot-fest and light role-playing elements popularized by Diablo and mixing it with the first-person shooter, Gearbox is breaking new ground by piecing together familiar elements in a new way. Likewise the Borderlands world of Pandora borrows, with a wink and a nod, the junkyard wasteland so heavily identified with the Mad Max films and tosses in a bit of sci-fi and a standard epic adventure quest. Too many ingredients sometimes threaten to spoil the dish, but this time on many levels it works.

A catchy tune and a lengthy unskippable sequence serve as the introduction for the four protagonists, all of whom have a special talent and an affinity towards particular weaponry. The Hunter, Mordecai, is a marksman with a companion bird of prey. Brick is your basic tank that specializes in explosives and brawling. Roland, a solider, provides support bonuses for the team and a deployable shield and turret. The most unique character is probably Lilith, the Siren, who possesses the ability to phase shift which causes major area-effect elemental damage and grants her a few moments of invulnerability, allowing the chance to flank opponents in a hit-and-run fashion. You can customize the colors used in your characters clothing, but that's the extent of your ability to create a visually unique character. Most people will identify with at least one of the four but though playing to the strength of your class grants special abilities, ultimately they all play about the same.

Just about everything you or your team does will earn experience points to boost your general stats. In typical over-the-top Borderlands fashion, XP numbers visually pour from opponents as you cause damage. Gaining a level nets you a skill point which can be used to work your way through a few different skill-trees. Weapons are divided into classes (shotguns, pistols, repeaters, etc) and firing one will increase your stats for that particular weapon class. Furthermore, modifications can be uncovered or bought that will further boost stats for both yourself and your team. There's a great deal of flexibility with how you develop your character, though playing to the strengths of your class will give you the greatest advantage. Gearbox smartly allows you to rebuild your skill tree at any time, retaining your skill points to apply them differently, for only a small monetary charge. This allows you to explore different play-styles or to switch up when playing co-op online.

The real stars of Borderlands, however, are the weapons about which Gearbox brags there are millions of combinations. They do a fine job throwing out just enough tantalizing loot to stoke your desire to play just a little longer to find that chest with the weapon you've been searching for. There's the danger that so many variations might have resulted in a bunch of generic firearms, but they've thankfully given them a bit of life by establishing several different weapons manufacturers and giving them each a unique identifiable trait. Hyperion guns, for instance, are unusually accurate and are typically red and Maliwan weapons are always imbued with higher elemental damage properties.

A woolly mammoth? Nay, a nasty infested boss

Given the importance of treasure hunting, it's a bit hard to understand why you're given no place to stash a few favorites. There's a nice weapon-card screenshot system that allows you to visually capture the stats of your weapons to show off to friends, but that's little comfort when you're forced to give up a unique item that just won't fit in your limited backpack. The recently released add-on Mad Moxxi's Underdome addresses this somewhat by providing a bank to store a few more items, but it'll cost you (currently $9.99) and it's a feature that really should have been in the game to begin with.

You won't remember Borderlands for innovation or story. In fact, you can skip most of it along your way to the fabled Vault. Just follow your quest markers and enjoy the action if that's what you like. The narrative fills in a bit of backstory, but it's mostly very superficial and not very interesting. Thankfully, a few of the NPC characters and bosses are fairly memorable due to the competent voice acting and a few good jokes. Overall the world of Pandora has a lot of flavour, but not much depth.

Borderlands really shines when playing online with three friends. Three cooperative friends, that is. Each member of the team enjoys a share of the money and ammo, but the weapons and other pickups are first-come first-served. Ideally, weapons are divided according to need and class strength, but given that any class can become competent enough with any weapon, there's not much incentive. Public games often become a race for loot. The online component also brings with it another gripe - no Universal Plug and Play - which means that you're likely going to have to search around various forums and messageboards to figure out which ports need to be opened in order to host a game. Joining is simple enough, despite the limited and inelegant interface offered by Gamespy. But there's no reason why a game that doesn't rely on dedicated servers should be so difficult for the average user to set up.

Interestingly, the singleplayer experience is not that bad. The strength and type of enemies is scaled back as player number and level is reduced, so most fights are perfectly manageable. You'll certainly miss the ability to revive one another, but there is a Second Wind mechanic that at least allows you the chance to revive yourself should you kill an enemy while you're downed. There's also a certain charm to the spontaneity three other real players provide and nothing's more fun than manning a pair of dune buggies to terrorize the locals. Still, it's perfectly playable on your own and if you're the kind that likes to take your time and play games a little more deliberately you may find it enjoyable enough.

Another piece of the puzzle...

Visually, Borderlands hits the mark with its refreshing pseudo-cell-shading approach. The early and mid-game environments are well-done and provide interesting and somewhat open gameplay areas and believable architecture. Later in the game, as the pathway becomes more linear, the levels conform more to more to what you'd expect from a standard first-person-shooter.

The voice acting is good and the actors give life to a well-crafted cast. Though there isn't as much dialogue as you might find in an RPG, what is there is effective at setting the tone and doesn't come across as predictable or mechanical. It sounds like they had fun with their roles and indeed, several of them are part of the Gearbox development team. The music, anchored by an incredibly catchy opening tune from the band Cage the Elephant, is appropriate and is largely cued by the action taking place in-game.

Overall, Borderlands provides a rare treat: solid co-op first-person gaming. A few technical flaws and a weak storyline are the biggest drawbacks, though most people will find themselves too busy looting to notice. Already two downloadable additions are available - Madd Moxxi's Underdome Riot and The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned - are available, with a third on the way. You'll definitely find plenty to do and a bare minimum of 40 hours of out-of-the-box gameplay before you begin to feel you've seen it all. A second playthrough with your leveled character featuring tougher enemies and better loot is available to extend that even further. It's hard not to recommend the game for anyone at all interested in the genre.