Borderlands Legends is a squad-level real-time strategy game set in the punk sci-fi frontier world of Borderlands. While that’s as good a logline as I’ve heard all year, there’s just one problem.
I don’t think the people who created Borderlands Legends ever played Borderlands. And I don’t think they’ve ever played a strategy game, either. In fact, Borderlands Legends seems to have been created by a cargo cult who know what Borderlands and strategy games are, but they don’t have the first clue as to how or why they work.
Borderlands Legends is odd right from the start. The game goes out of its way to include recognizable elements from the parent franchise, down to icons and typefaces. The laboriously-paced tutorial is even narrated by Claptrap, the series’ garrulous robot mascot, who peppers the introduction with one-liners. No one will argue that the humour in the Borderlands series it isn’t fairly juvenile. But it’s also delivered in the PC/console editions with a lot of verve and occasional sharpness. Borderlands Legends has none of that. It’s like when your dad would see you watching Eddie Murphy on TV and immediately launch into a terrible Eddie Murphy impersonation.
But if the writing bothers you – worry not. After the tutorial, Borderlands Legends becomes a plotless string of random enemy encounters on a handful of pre-created maps. No dialogue ever appears again – or if it does, it appears at some point beyond which my patience was willing to carry me.
If the combat was good, all of the half-hearted attempts at aping Borderlands’ sense of humour would be forgiven. Alas. Every mission consists of the same routine: waves of enemies appear from the edges of the screen and your four heroes (the player characters from the first Borderlands: Lilith, Mordecai, etc.) must defeat them. Your units have different weapons and unique special abilities, which sounds great – but using those abilities to kill mindless swarms of opponents never presents any kind of interesting tactical decision. But for the fact that your characters can be moved, it could have easily been a tower defense game.1
About all that moving. Directing your Vault Hunters around the tiny maps and designating their targets is an absolute chore – two times out of five the game doesn’t seem to recognise your input at all. The path-finding is atrocious and unpredictable. Lilith, apparently as bored as I was with the combat, would occasionally start doing wind sprints between two arbitrary points on the map if I ordered her to move somewhere. But I learned quickly that there was little reason at all to move my squad anywhere – the optimal strategy for almost every map was just to cluster your units near the center and leave them there, popping off special abilities at random. Eventutually, Borderlands Legends started to resemble an agoraphobia support group on an away day.
Maybe Borderlands Legends isn’t the product of a cargo cult of programming savants on a desert island. Perhaps there’s some corporate rush-job to blame for Borderlands Legends being such a dog. All of the trappings of an exciting Borderlands-themed tactical game are present: a large selection of weapons, RPG-style character levelling, a cover system. But it all feels so half-baked, I can only guess that this game didn’t get rushed out the door as much as it got launched out head-first and told never to return.
In the bigger picture, Borderlands Legends is a perfect example of the regard in which the big PC and console makers hold the mobile games market. Consider this game, or the recently released (I’m not making this up – read more about it at Pocket Gamer) Halo 4: King of the Hill Fuled by Mountain Dew. To the big publishers, smartphones and tablets don’t represent new possibilities and new audiences, they’re a place to squeeze another dollar (or in Borderlands case, five dollars) out of their existing fans. Indie developers are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on touchscreens and big publishers are exploiting another revenue stream.
I’m reminded of the way that major newspapers used the web four or five years ago. When you went to an online magazine like Slate, articles would be filled with hyperlinks, images, videos – the stuff of the Internet. Reading The Times online, you would see no links, no images at all. That’s because Slate was creating for the new medium, inhabiting it. The Times didn’t care about any new-fangled platforms, it was just looking for another way to monetize the content already written for the print edition. How’s that working out for them today?
1 out of 5