The highly anticipated release of Borderlands 3 is almost upon us and fans everywhere are
beyond excited for the latest introduction to their beloved series. Ten years ago in 2009, an
emerging genre was defined by the release of the original Borderlands. Critics at the time were
calling the game “Diablo-inspired”, little did they know that the title had enough unique elements
to spawn a genre all by itself. Through Borderlands, the concept of a looter-shooter was
popularised and eager developers have been trying to replicate its success ever since.
So, what exactly is a “looter-shooter”? A looter-shooter is a subgenre of well, shooters, it can be
either first-person or third person and focuses on interesting and exciting in-game “rewards” or
loot. Everyone playing a looter-shooter inevitably ends up begging for the perfect drop, they
want the coolest piece of armour or the most powerful gun, but of course, the odds are against
them which makes the rush greater when they get the item they’re looking for. With its
implausibly large library of randomly generated guns, Borderlands was able to convert the
addictive loot-chasing gameplay of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) titles like World of
Warcraft into its own single-player (or co-op) experience.
Borderlands is well-known for popularising the genre but it’s a common misconception that it
was the first looter-shooter ever made. It’s a difficult task to attribute this feat to a specific game
but one of the earliest instances of a game which brought together many critical elements of a
looter-shooter is Hellgate: London. Hellgate, released in 2007, was the vision of former Blizzard
employees who were heavily involved in the creation of the original Diablo. It’s easy to see the
similarities between the two titles, both are built around randomly generated levels and take
place in a world invaded by demons. Many early elements of the looter-shooter genre can be
observed in this hack-and-slash action RPG. The game features six playable classes which
each bring their own flair to the gameplay, the concept of distinct classes would go on to
become a staple in the genre due to both the replay-ability it encourages and also because it
gives co-op players different experiences to those they are playing with.
Besides the class system, Hellgate also makes use of a random gun system with over 100
different base weapon types complete with random enchantments. Interestingly, the game
allows you to switch between first-person and third-person cameras if you are playing a ranged
character, melee characters are forced to play in third-person (likely due to animation
constraints). The game had a mixed reception at release and would go on to have a peculiar
history. Hellgate’s developers, Flagship Studios, intended to support the game for much longer
than they did but they went bankrupt less than six months after release. The company’s
intellectual property then passed over to Korean publishing company Hanbit Software who
eventually relaunched the game with Korean multiplayer servers in 2011. Unexpected but
welcome news came in late 2018 when Hellgate: London was released on Steam with some
Hellgate: London was by no means a huge success story which is why it comes as no surprise
that no other developers immediately tried to replicate some of the systems in place. That was
until, as previously mentioned, Gearbox Software struck gold with their 2009 mega-hit
Borderlands. Simply stated, Borderlands took the gaming world by storm. It combined the loot-
driven shooter gameplay from Hellgate with beautiful cell-shaded graphics that still hold up well
even today. In addition, the game’s plot, setting and character design have received
tremendous praise for how interesting and engaging all these elements are. For those
unfamiliar, Borderlands takes place on the ravaged planet of Pandora where mega-corporations
have squeezed the planet of all its natural resources and have ruined its ecosystem. However,
the planet still attracts brave adventurers called Vault Hunters who are trying to find a legendary
vault full of advanced alien technology and riches.
Unlike Hellgate, Borderlands was a massive success which is why it did come as a surprise that
there weren’t many similar games being developed in the years immediately after its release.
The gaming industry was still very much going through its open-world RPG golden age with
titles such as Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption releasing soon
after Borderlands. The looter-shooter genre would remain a one-hit-wonder until surprise,
surprise the critically acclaimed sequel to Borderlands was released in late 2012.
If Borderlands created a storm in the gaming world then Borderlands 2 created a hurricane. The
game would go on to become the best-selling game in the history of its publisher (2K Games)
and would receive numerous “game-of-the-year” awards. Borderlands 2 retained the best
elements of its predecessor and its additions served to engage and entertain the player in new
ways: in-game challenges that reward the player with base state increases, a plethora of new
customisation options and a more streamlined multiplayer experience all improved upon the
original Borderlands formula. The most memorable part of playing Borderlands 2, however, has
to be its incredible plot. While Borderlands was somewhat bogged down with having to build an
entire universe from scratch, Borderlands 2 was free to experiment with a world its players
This freedom spawned Handsome Jack, one of the most iconic video game villains of all time.
Jack does his best to impede and harass you as you try to derail his nefarious plans and
remove the iron grip his corporation Hyperion has on the planet. It’s not his constant attempts to
kill you that makes you hate him, it’s his cocksure attitude and constant taunting that make you
want to desperately reach the end of the game just so you can see him get his comeuppance.
Borderlands 2 is widely considered one of the best shooters of the modern era which makes it
almost indisputably the greatest looter-shooter of all time.
So, after Borderlands 2, it was surely time for another developer to try their hand at cracking the
looter-shooter genre? Correct. When legendary developers Bungie, famous for creating the
Halo franchise, announced their full departure from the Microsoft tree in 2010, everyone was
curious what their new franchise would be. The answer came in the form of Destiny, a more
multiplayer-oriented looter-shooter that released in 2014.
Destiny was the first true competitor to Borderlands, it had entertaining gunplay, absurd variety
and quantity of loot and amazing visuals. The focus of Destiny is much more on the multiplayer
aspect of the genre, while Borderlands feels like a single-player game that can be played with
multiple players, Destiny feels like the exact opposite. In true Bungie fashion, the game’s maps
and weaponry are satisfying and well-put-together but the game had shortcomings in other
areas. The story and setting of the game were widely panned at release for being paper-thin
and uninteresting. It also exploited a nefarious aspect of the genre that would worsen with its
sequel, the monetization of loot. Destiny was created with microtransactions in mind and its
experience systems undeniably inches the player towards paying instead of grinding. Destiny,
although a fun and well-built game, was one of the early exploiters of a now pervasive problem
In 2017, Destiny 2 released and improved upon the core gameplay of the original. It’s still fun,
it’s still addictive and it’s still laden with microtransactions. Though, unlike the original game, it’s
now standard practice to attempt to squeeze players out of extra money in Triple-A games.
Anthem, BioWare’s 2019 attempt at a looter-shooter, had such an egregious form of
monetization (in combination with stale and limited gameplay) that the player base has all but
abandoned the game, less than one year after launch. Borderlands 3 will also have
microtransactions, though they are strictly cosmetic. The sad reality is that additional
monetization is likely here to stay in looter-shooters but recent high-profile failures like Anthem
will hopefully advise developers and publishers to dial it back.
From the early beginnings of the genre with Hellgate: London, to its poster-boy series
Borderlands, to the latest variations of the genre with Anthem and Destiny, looter-shooters were
clearly a trend of the last decade and all signs suggest they’ll continue to pop up during the next
decade as well. Will the genre move in a more positive direction or will new releases continue to
drown in monetization? Only time will tell, either way, I’m off to kill some psychos in Borderlands