Borderlands E3 2009 Demo - Skill Trees, Mad Loot, and a Slick New Art Style

We go in-depth with the latest demo for Gearbox's role-playing shooter and get a taste for treasure hunting on an alien world.

Earlier this year, 2K Games revealed that its ambitious open-world-style shooter, Borderlands, had undergone a significant artistic overhaul. We got a chance to see the new look in action during a demo for Borderlands at E3 2009. Not only that, but we also received more details on the skill-tree system, the generous loot distribution, and the reason that you're on Pandora in the first place.

The new art style has garnered a significant amount of buzz in recent months, so let's start there. The new look could be described as cel-shaded, but don't expect a bright Technicolor overhaul. The color palette on the level that we saw (from Act I of the game) was reddish and muted, befitting the dry grasses and rocky outcroppings that dominated the landscape. Detailed shading and nuanced textures gave the world a surprisingly realistic feel. Local inhabitants, such as the gnarly hyenalike beasts called "skags," felt like they really belonged within the world (and like they were really begging to be shot). A large yellow sun burned on the horizon, and we were told that Borderlands will feature a day/night cycle (here's hoping for multiple moons!).

The new look seems to be suiting Borderlands well. Although the game is aiming to be an epic adventure, Gearbox isn't taking things too seriously. There is a humorous current running through various gameplay elements, from the creature names (for example, "mutant midget psycho"), to the many places you can find loot (toilets, animal scat), to the mission objectives ("fishing" by tossing a live grenade into a lake and collecting the dead fish). The blend of gravity and mirth jibes with the visual style, creating a gritty, realistic world with an enjoyable, video-games-are-fun attitude.

So Pandora is shaping up well, but why are you even there? You play as one of four "vault hunters," skilled mercenaries who have come to the bandit-ridden backwater in search of treasure--alien treasure, to be exact. There is myth that tells of a hidden vault that hides alien artifacts of unimaginable power/value, and recent discoveries have made the myth seem a lot more plausible. That kind of development attracts a lot of attention, and there is a huge influx of opportunistic fortune seekers. The local bandits aren't pleased about this. They overran human civilization on Pandora years earlier and have had the run of the place ever since, fighting only among themselves and against the local alien wildlife for planetary dominance. The new arrivals spark a bloody new conflict, and it's into this world that your character drops.

Your first stop is the city of Firestone, a nasty, bandit-controlled place just begging to be scoured by an ambitious offworlder like yourself. As you battle to clean the streets, you'll learn who the boss bandit of Firestone is and eventually take him down; do that and you'll learn who his boss is, and heading up that ladder of command will launch you down the main story arc. According to Gearbox, there are 20 to 30 narrative missions and 130 to 140 side missions in Borderlands, plus an untold number of outposts, caves, and other uncharted nooks to explore. Our demo was a mission from Act I, and we're told that the game will have three proper acts, with transitional sequences in-between. The landscape will change as players progress. Act II will be set amid towering piles of garbage riddled with trash caves, the disposed remnants of a prosperous Pandora in which particularly nasty creatures now lurk. The third act will venture into more thoroughly alien landscapes and will feature snowy terrain, presumably near Pandora's poles.

You'll travel through Borderlands as one of four characters. Each one has a general class (tank, soldier, and so on) and three unique skill trees. Although some of the skill trees will provide familiar skills and attribute boosts, others are a bit more unexpected. Take the soldier, for example. The main skill tree will let players become proficient with assault rifles, able to use more damaging ammo types (fire, electric, explosive), and grant them the ability to create automatic turrets. The medic skill tree, on the other hand, will change that offensive turret into a healing turret. Players standing near it will get healed, and it has a chance to revive players when they fall in combat. The medic soldier can also load healing bullets into his or her various guns, and the healing power will parallel the firearm power. So a submachine gun will spray constant health from short range, a shotgun will deliver a larger health blast, and a sniper rifle shot from up on the hillside can replenish most of your health in one critical shot. The tactical possibilities here are substantial, especially if you are taking advantage of the two-, three-, or four-player Cooperative mode (two-player spilt-screen mode will be included).

We didn't get to see too much tactical depth during the gameplay, but we did get a great taste for how Borderlands looks as a shooter. The heads-up display showed a compass in the bottom-center of the screen, and the right corner showed ammo levels. The bottom left corner shows your health and shield levels, and the health and shield levels of your companions are displayed in the top left corner. Our demo rep played as a tank character, a class that specializes in dealing and taking massive amounts of damage. Wielding a six-chambered combat shotgun, he blasted through a pack of skags with seemingly little trouble. Groups of enemies, like loot drops, are procedurally generated, so you never know quite what you're going to get. You could get a timid pack of pup skags with a few adults escorting them. Or you could run afoul of a fierce pack of adults with a spitter thrown in for good measure. The pack that we saw was headed up by a "badass fire skag." Yes, that is what it is actually called. Each word in the creature's name is descriptive, and "badass" is the Borderlands version of "elite" ("We wanted to call them what they are."--Gearbox).

After all of the beasts were blasted, it was time to collect the loot. Borderlands features an extensive loot system, and you'll find guns, ammo, and other items all over the world. You'll grab guns off of dead bodies, or find chests tucked away under houses that present their contents like an automated jewelry box. Small columns of light spring out of items to not only show you where they are, but also how rare the item is. Gray items are common, whereas purple items are rare and valuable. Of course, if you're playing cooperatively, there will be competition for the best loot. You'll be able to set options to determine whether it's first-come-first-serve or whether players divvy up the haul based on a randomly generated number roll. There will also be options to let people drop in to your game, or to keep your adventures private.

Our demo rep then sauntered over to a high-tech lamppost that was actually a vehicle spawn point. This station lets you spawn a vehicle right away (though we weren't told at what cost) and customize it to your liking. Want a nice salmon-pink paint job for your four-wheeled buggy with mounted turret? Our demoer apparently did, and soon he was cruising down the road as his passenger gleefully shot what seemed to be high-impact, low-fire-rate rounds. Though the canyons didn't offer much in the way of open driving spaces, there were a lot of branching paths heading off toward who knows where. Driving around Pandora is one of the best ways of getting around (fast-travelling between safe points is nice, too), and the sheer number of possible routes made it clear that we'll be doing a lot of vehicular exploration when we get our hands on the game. After running over some skags, our demoer met up with a kindly lookin' old fella by the name of T.K. Baha. Seems old T.K. got mauled by skags a few years back and has no eyes and one leg. Although he looked relaxed with his floral-patterned shirt and rocking chair, he is apparently a good source of side missions dealing predominantly with the vicious killing of any and all skags. Chip on your shoulder much, T.K.? Hard to blame ya.

In the final encounter we saw, our demoer was rolling deep with three other companions to blow up a bandit bridge. The highlight of this combat-heavy section was getting to see two of the class-specific special abilities. The hulking tank went into berserker mode, which clouded the edges of the screen with red, leaving only his two massive fists and the enemy in front of him visible. Those fists proved to be absolutely deadly, and there was a lot of blood and broken heads before the rage subsided. The other ability, phase-walking, was showcased by one of the female characters. She turned translucent, phasing out of that reality (or something), and ran super quickly up a bandit structure and took out a group of baddies. This ability is upgradeable, of course, and will let her run through enemies and kill them outright with electrical or fiery powers.

Though the demo conveyed a lot of information about Borderlands (as you know if you're still reading this), it seemed like it was over really quickly. It may be a first-person shooter at first glance, but the skill trees, diverse weaponry, and vast world mean that there's a whole lot more to this package. Borderlands is a game that we could see ourselves pouring a massive amount of time into, and we're looking forward to doing just that when the game launches for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 in October. For more in-depth info on Borderlands, check out our boisterous interview with Mikey Neumann, the host of our excellent demo session and self-proclaimed "guy who can get you things." Like hands-on time with Borderlands, we hope.

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Chris Watters

Chris enjoys aiming down virtual sights, traipsing through fantastical lands, and striving to be grossly incandescent.


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