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.

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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.

Discussion

314 comments
PyroSniper
PyroSniper

This game looks like a co-op Mass Effect set in a post-apocalyptic world. Its gonna be freakin awesome. And Nakor, I totally agree, split-screen sucks, I would rather play on XBL or do system-link anyday. Split-screen multiplayer is a thing of the past, I'm kinda glad to see the new trend of them removing that option, especially for FPS.

Nakor
Nakor

Lol I can't believe the guy complaining about no 4 player split screen. Xbox Live makes it stupid for them to invest the time and processing power required to do that. Get Live and if you can't, don't bother crying about it. Why would you want a 4 player split anyway? 2 player split is bad enough (I hate it and have trouble telling what is going on.) I remember 4 player split screen and it was terrible. No idea what is going on at all.

91987
91987

ok so ive been hooked on fallout for the past few months.... and this game looks even better... great 1/2 mil + guns awesome comic book art and of course those rpg elements that we all love - deffinetly gonna buy the end of 09 is lookin great!

91987
91987

ok so ive been hooked on fallout for the past few months.... and this game looks even better... great 1/2 mil + guns awesome comic book art and of course those rpg elements that we all love - deffinetly gonna buy the end of 09 is lookin great!

yellowhairguy
yellowhairguy

HOLY **** HOLY **** I THINK I'M GONNA HYPERVENTILATE! THIS GAME IS GONNA BE SOOOOOOOOO UBER.

supernaught360
supernaught360

I'm pretty stoked for this game, but like avann I'm pretty burned out on FPSs. In fact, I don't currently own any. TRIGGA MIKE - yeah, it would be great to have the Fallout 3 elements with nicely honed action/shooting/gameplay, 'cuz the shooting in bethesdas game is weak.

Joolsy
Joolsy

I can't help feel disappointed by how they have shelved many of the RPG elements that were promised originally. The new art style differentiated it from FO3 and I applauded that brave decision, but now we are left with an arty sprawling FPS - so what?

avannn
avannn

can we be able to switch cameras as in fallout 3, i'm getting tired of FPS !

wade805
wade805

i am getting this and mag

v3pointoh
v3pointoh

This really is my dream game. Shooting, Co-op, Role-Playing, millions of guns, Mad Max setting, amazing comic book art style. What's not to like?

xSD_TRRIGA_MIKE
xSD_TRRIGA_MIKE

I like how its like fallout but its made by a good action shooting company and is a RPG which i love.

H0RSE
H0RSE

The part on the "medic soldier" had me sold. I love playing medic/healers in game. Now I can deploy a turret to kill bad guys, and concentrate my fire on healing...brilliant.

Dominus-Nox
Dominus-Nox

Sounds awesome, hope it isnt multiplayer focused though

kriptik6
kriptik6

this kind of looks like a fallout 3

Jhraxlin
Jhraxlin

The lighting shadows are far from perfect judging from that last screenshot there.....

invictuslemming
invictuslemming

4 player co-op sounds great, but like 99% of all the recent games, its only 2 players per console... I remember when these next-gen consoles came out, we were promised the processing power increase would allow for more 4 player split screen games and we're told they weren't possible in the past due to hardware limitations... So what the heck's going on? All these great games coming out, yet 4 player split screen appears once in a blue moon. It seems almost less common now than it did in the previous generation.

Awesome_Anime
Awesome_Anime

It's my freakin' dream game. A First-Person shooter/RPG with a crapload of stuff to collect and an art style like my comic books all in a realistic game where you can blow bandits in half with shotguns!!

simosihvonen
simosihvonen

@Kleinster123 What I meant was, that there will only be maybe two dozens (hopefully more) of weapons types: pistols,revolvers,smgs,rifles,sniper rifles etc.,but for each weapon of the same type the stats will be little different like rate-of-fire,damage,accuracy,ammo type and other effects i.e poison, freeze/slow. Atleast this is what I think it's going to be. But because they can basically make unlimited different versions of the gun type thay can say that there is "millions" of different weapons.

kleinster123
kleinster123

@simosihvonen let me correct u theres millions they said they lost count in a interview its a must buy

simosihvonen
simosihvonen

it's the game that i been waiting for! FPS-style controlled shooting game,"thousands of weapons" and good rpg elements (looting,skill trees). Can't wait!

ThumperBN
ThumperBN

I'm not sure about this one - I'm not a big fan of cell-shaded games. To me, they look kinda "shareware" for lack of a better word - unprofessional. I especially don't like it when cell-shaded is placed within a more realistic 3D world. It makes the characters look like 2D paper dolls, which detracts from the whole atmosphere of the game. I'll keep up with it and give it a chance anyway - I hate to pass final judgment until I've at least played it a few times. :)

JunkyMcMuffin
JunkyMcMuffin

I'm a big graphic novel fan, so I like it when a video game does cel-shading justice. Crackdown, Prince of Persia, and now Borderlands!

nafetheninja
nafetheninja

hahaha...now some unstable teenager will shoot himself and think he will be healed

nafetheninja
nafetheninja

i cantttt wate....its goin to be so beast....just plz dont mess it up

xRownan
xRownan

The healing bullets is kind of silly, but it seems like someone needed to do something crazy in a game. Hah This game should be really fun.

Tarantula878
Tarantula878

I wish they never changed the graphics to cel shaded

mossongreens
mossongreens

so shooting yourself in the foot is a good thing now!? Hyped for this game since the first teaser way back and my hype grow with each reveal! Can not wait...don't let us down

htotheo
htotheo

when i first heard about this game the weapons thing intriwgues me but i have to say the graphics jsut looked like run of the mill with no personality or style. As soon as i saw the new art style i was hooked and things are sounding like they are getting better and better. I also must mention the inspiration taken from the diablo series as it is one of my favorite games, hence the loot will keep me quite motivated. I think the new art style also suits the amount of crazy weapons that can be generated from shotgun sniper rifles to insane 7 barrel revolvers with fire bullets.

raven805
raven805

HEALTH BULLETS?!?!?!?! WHAAAA?! *gets shot* …odd… I feel better somehow… Thank you gearbox.

moosesashi
moosesashi

I can't wait for this one. It has been years since the last time I was so amped about a game. Especially this far from the release date. Giggity!

bodylotion
bodylotion

looks good, might give it a shot.

Kman8909
Kman8909

I have to say that I've been excited about this game since I first heard about it and I was kind of bummed out when I heard it was going to be "Severely Delayed" but I'm glad to see that it is showing it's face once again to the public. The cell shaded graphics don't bother me. In fact it may be nice to have a shooter with a sort of "Cartoony" atmosphere, if you know what I mean. Graphics aren't everything and in a game with as much scope as this game I can see why the graphics may have been altered. Like I said, I don't mind and in fact I kind of like the direction the art went in. It gives it a sort of distinct look. One thing I'm kind of wary about though is that it is sounding a lot like Too Human. I honestly did not like Too Human because it practically twisted your arm to go play with someone else and it had (in my opinion) a weak story to boot. I just hope that 2K Games realizes that, while multiplayer is great, and is something that I am looking forward to doing, it doesn't need to ALWAYS be used. I know that there will be times when I will just want to explore on my own without having to rely on an ally. All in all it kind of looks like this game is going for a Fallout 3 sort of angle, given the RPG elements and the FPS elements but it is offering a bit of dungeon crawling and multiplayer (something I'm very excited for). As I said, I look forward to this game. Happy to see its face again. ^_^

scarface_dm
scarface_dm

I am not a fan of cell shaded graphics but I like the way this looks

Clive-Owen
Clive-Owen

OMG...! LOVELY! loooks like killer 7 and such, but waaay better!

Jeff_Boldt
Jeff_Boldt

wow switching to cel shading was a bad idea, this game now officially looks aimed at children.... I'll still play it but my initial impression just went from like an 8/10 down to a 6/10. Guess that's 2k for you though.

guitarist1980
guitarist1980

I loved Too Human. But I think I will love this way more. Diablo 2 was my favorite game for a long time I love the loot drops and customizations you can make.. but hopefully the game play is challenging and keeps you wanting more and maybe it will hold us over until diablo 3. cant wait to play this game.

allotheabove123
allotheabove123

this game lloks to blend the smoothness of a FPS to an RPG because in fallout 3 your gun feels a little slow

Mastiff
Mastiff

After keeping tabs on Borderlands for a while now, I'm really disappointed with the cel shaded style change. I enjoy Crackdown, but the graphics could be nicer if they weren't cel shaded. Prince of Persia was barely passable as a game, and the cel shading again seemed like a cop out. I guess I personally just don't like cel shading. Regardless of how detailed and well-animated a game might be, I still have to look at it the whole time, and cel shading always looks less polished IMO. Sorry, Borderlands. My 2 cents above is all you'll be getting from me.

CJCoulter
CJCoulter

Looks promising, but I hate to get my hopes up. Let's pray this lives up to its potential.

b0p1878
b0p1878

i love FPS and RPG cant wait to see what this a be like (*cross fingers**wishing* multi-player fallout) and if they can add PvP online a be crazy

quiglythegreat
quiglythegreat

"Chip on your shoulder much, T.K.? Hard to blame ya." That's just bad writing right there, really. Very unprofessional

Spartan_418
Spartan_418

so many awesome looking games coming out this year this is gonna be like another 2007 but its gonna get really pricey i dunno how much I can squeeze in next to MW2 and ODST sad face :(

santanu_k
santanu_k

Art style seems very good! remembering me of XIII!

6reatNate
6reatNate

Looks like a keeper...cant wait