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Make a run for the Borderlands

With the near ubiquitous nature of broadband-enables video game consoles, we've seen an increase in games that are intended primarily for online cooperative play. Games such as Left 4 Dead and the new Borderlands have basic single-player functionality, bu

Now playing: Watch this: Game trailer: Borderlands

With the near ubiquitous nature of broadband-enabled video game consoles, we've seen an increase in games that are intended primarily for online cooperative play. Games such as Left 4 Dead and the new Borderlands have basic single-player functionality, but are clearly intended for multiplayer sessions with friends.

The social utility of this type of cooperative gameplay is an especially important point of differentiation after a season of single-player hits, from Batman: Arkham Asylumto Uncharted 2.

Jeff, Scott, and Dan took the game for a spin to see if it's worth a spot on your holiday wish list.

Mixing elements of pop-culture touchstones from Mad Max to Diablo, Borderlands stands out from the crowd with its graphics, done in a faux hand-drawn style vaguely reminiscent of French comic book artist Jean Giraud.

The razor-thin (even for a video game) plot about mercenaries on a semi-deserted planet searching for a treasure trove of alien artifacts is merely a deus ex machine to give players assignments to carry out -- usually involving a delivery boy style run through the badlands, killing bandits or hunting for a missing item. The handful of characters you meet are essentially cardboard standees, who act as vending machines to pick up new aissgnments, and to return to after to claim a reward.

In practice, the single-player game is a grim trek through the desert -- good if you're into endless shootouts, and fighting your way through the same stretch of road over and over again -- but it left us cold.

The real appeal is the up-to-four-player multiplayer version of the game -- which friends (and we guess strangers as well) can band together, much as one would in a massively multiplayer online game. The mechanic for linking up online is brilliantly integrated -- invite a friend who is also playing (something easy to see through the in-game friends list), and they can instantly beam into your version of the game world. Their personal games are automatically saved, and they pop up next to you with all their skills and equipment, can stay as long as they like.

Hooking up with others online instantly changed the game into a social event, with gunplay. By bringing in higher-level players, seemingly insurmountable enemies became easy to beat, and the game's mostly barren landscape now felt like it was teaming with activity.

Another key selling point is the semi-random nature of the weapons and equipment one finds -- they're mostly created on the fly by the game, allowing for nearly limitless variations. In practice, most of the guns look and feel the same, and you'll spend far too much time comparing stats and modifiers trying to figure out which gear to keep and which to ditch. Some may find this fun, we found it to be the video game equivalent of busy work.

The bottom line is that Borderlands works best when you and your friends all agree to get the game for the same console, and can work out your schedules to sync up for online play.

Last year, Fallout 3brought an incredible level of detail and world-building to a post-apocalyptic wasteland video game. Borderlands does not, but it's not trying to.

With a more ridiculous fun-loving Tarantino-like attitude, the game's gun battles and missions unfold with a sense of randomness--which is because a lot of the loot and weapons you collect are in fact generated randomly. That's the idea. Play for the ridiculous assortment of treasures, and for the anything-goes wild atmosphere.

Single-player gameplay felt thin and too full of do-this-do-that missions, but adding players for online co-op makes it more like Left 4 Dead, but with more story. The incredibly deep catalog of items and weapons reminded me of old PC games from the '80s and '90s, where you'd spend five hours questing for a better set of leg armor. But if you want a role playing game that's light on the RPG and heavy on the kick-butt, give it a try--especially if you like playing online.

Borderlands is an impressive hybrid, successfully combining role-playing and first-person-shooter elements. Come to think of it, it's surprising that these two don't join up more often in games. We saw this effort in Fallout 3, but the first-person-shooting mechanic in Borderlands is much more satisfying, while the story in Borderlands doesn't come close to that in Fallout. Looking past the mostly forgettable plot, the unique art style, and seemingly endless array of discoverable weapons, are the true stars here.

The game is set up on a mission-to-mission basis and for the most part, you'll have your hand held as to what you're supposed to accomplish. And while the single-player experience is mostly running around to the next mission start point, the online co-op definitely makes things a bit more interesting, but ultimately leaves you reliant on whether or not your friends own the game. Teaming up with online random players can be enjoyable, but it's not always ideal.

Your school of thought will ultimately decide whether or not Borderlands is a must-play. If you think online co-op should be just as engaging as a single player experience, then this is probably the title for you. However if you're like me, and you still look at co-op as an added bonus, you may want to give Borderlands a rent. That said, if you're open-minded, Borderlands may just be the title to change the way you think about online co-op.