Gearbox Software is calling Borderlands the product of a marriage between two of the video games industry's mainstay genres: the role-playing game and the first-person shooter. Dubbed the "role-playing shooter," the game cherry picks the best gameplay aspects of both categories with the goal of creating fun, twitch first-person action with skill trees, tiered abilities, and the lust for filthy lucre.
To do this, the team at Gearbox has taken features normally found in dungeon crawlers and massively multiplayer online games--notably the scale of the world and the desire to clamber for loot--and thrown them into the mix with tried-and-true shooter mechanics. Though the game's stylized visuals will certainly catch your eye, digging a little deeper reveals multiple character classes, carefully tweaked skill trees, and guns. Lots of guns. We recently had the chance to take the game for a spin and get hands-on with a work-in-progress build of the single-player and multiplayer modes on the Xbox 360 and found that this is no ordinary run-and-gun game.
Borderlands puts you in the role of one of four vault hunters searching for elusive alien technology found on the planet Pandora. We don't blame you if your mind begins conjuring up images of a few games that have gone before--including a certain Bethesda game released last year. The team at Gearbox is open about having drawn inspiration from many of the seminal games within the two genres and takes pride in including elements from them during the shaping of the project.
The beginning is always the most logical place to start, and though our build had been stripped of the game's opening cinematics--which we were told will reveal detailed background information about exactly what's going on--once loaded, we found ourselves alone and thrust into a dusty, barren world. It was apparent from the outset that this dustbowl--replete with salvaged shanty towns--was a tad on the unsavoury side, and as tumbleweed rolled past, the muted colour palette of browns, reds, and grays only further amplified the sense of isolation and desperation needed to survive in this postapocalyptic world. This year's E3 saw the announcement that the game would move away from its realistic graphics for something the team is calling "concept art" visuals. The style is striking and gives characters and environmental objects thick black borders but stops short of a cartoon look.
As we scanned the sandy horizon, we began to hear a high-pitched mechanical voice beckoning us. It was then that we realised despite its forsaken facade, Borderlands isn't nearly as lonely as we thought. A short jog toward the makeshift community introduced us to Claptrap, a seemingly good-natured robotic character with more than a few passing similarities to WALL-E and Jhonen Vasquez's GIR character from the short-lived Nickelodeon animated series, Invader Zim. Claptrap gave us the guided tour of the area, and as we ducked and weaved our way through narrow corridors of cliff-face and hopped over corrugated steel barricades, we were given glimpses of some of the other residents of Borderlands, including leather and armoured bandits driving souped-up Max Max-esque vehicles. Claptrap's role is as much comedic relief as guide, and when he's shot during an ambush while attempting to open a gate for us, he mourns his leaking fluids.
Here in the town, we were introduced to the game's shooting and navigation mechanics. Anyone who has played a shooter in the past few years will instantly be at home with the left-trigger controls used for weapon iron sights (or scopes if available) and the right-trigger controls used to fire. Weapon damage straddles the line between FPSs and RPGs because the game will call on two specific factors to determine your hits and misses. The first is your weapon accuracy skill, which can be upgraded via your skill tree and raises as you level your character. The second is your proficiency with particular weapon types; like weapon skill points in RPGs, these increase with continued use of an item. Gearbox reps on hand pointed out that while each weapon subclass has its own proficiency metering system (pistols, rifles, shotguns, and the like), hits and misses are not determined by a "dice roll" system.
Procedural weapon creation in Borderlands has long been a talking point for the game. Rather than creating a set of standard weapons--such as a single pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, or alien technology weapon--and taking a page out of the Diablo and World of Warcraft books, weapons are dynamically generated as you play. For this to work, each weapon type has been fed a set of variables that are randomly combined to create an object, and while they may appear physically similar given their finite number of materials and finishes, it's unlikely you'll come across two of the same item with identical stats. During our play, we saw weapons that appeared similar but had vastly different properties, such as a run-of-the-mill sniper rifle and one that fired incendiary rounds.
Ammunition in the single-player portion of the game seemed reasonably plentiful, and while picking up bullets from dead bodies should give you enough to keep moving, you'll be encouraged to scavenge to find extra booty throughout the environment. Quest items, ammo, and cash glow to indicate their presence in the world, and short vertical pillars of light help you quickly locate objects dropped by fallen enemies. When you get close enough to an object, all you do is hit the X button to pick it up, and you can also hold the X button to sweep across groups of items to grab the lot. Though easy to spot, we had a little trouble picking up objects because we found we needed to be standing right on top of them and looking directly at them to register.
Questing is a major part of Borderlands when it comes to levelling your character. Quests ranged from the obligatory kill quests of bandits and local wildlife to fetch and return missions. Completing these gave us access to key non-player character allies who in turn supplied us with armour, weapons, and information. Quest objectives were marked on our compass and map, and while there appeared to be much hand-holding in the lower levels, we're hoping the game takes off the training wheels to encourage players to explore the vast nothingness, particularly once vehicular combat comes into play. Gearbox is promising the final game will include between 130 and 140 side missions in addition to the main storyline. The game will also feature zones called "dog leg" areas that act as repeatable instances in the world. These will have respawning bosses that can be farmed to help improve your chances of getting a desirable weapon drop.
Our demo quest chain culminated in a showdown with the local "badass" (the game's name for elite enemies), Nine-Toes, a leader of the bandits in the area. Killing him and his guard named Skags rewarded us with chests of weapons, each ranked with stats and green or red arrows to show their relative value to the gear we were carrying. Because this is a bounty-hunting game, you are encouraged to horde unwanted weapons and items and later sell them at vending machines to raise your cash reserves for medikits.
Character persistence is a major feature of Borderlands, and while you'll be able to go it alone to level your character in the single-player component of the game, you'll be able to pick up where you left off when you take it online with friends. A dynamic scaling system will ensure that if you're fighting alongside mates, enemy mobs will scale accordingly in difficulty. Experience, cash rewards, and ammunition are automatically shared among the players in the group regardless of contribution, though currently, there's no loot system beyond a first-come-first-served dash for weapon drops. This free-for-all mentality also extends to rare weapon drops, so you'll want to be in the thick of the action (and close to the corpse) when the fighting stops to ensure you get your fair shot at the spoils. There's also currently no option to inspect the gear of other players in your party to help distribute the gear. We can see potential for dispute, especially when matchmaking online with strangers, but Gearbox assured us it's all part of the plan to help foster the intended value of the game's items and keep players coming back for one more boss.
Four character classes will be available in multiplayer: Brick, a tank with a brutal melee attack; Mordecai, a hunter character with a specialty in sniper rifles and access to a bloodwing pet; Lilith, a magic spellcaster with phase-shifting abilities and area-of-effect attacks; and Ronald, the game's soldier character who can deploy a turret that provides covering fire and shields incoming attacks. As in offline play, skill trees will enable you to customise your play style by reducing the cooldown and effectiveness of your special abilities. We opted to play Brick and took immense pleasure activating his blood-lust berserker ability and using the triggers to control our left and right fists as we ploughed through waves of enemy midgets.
The game's "fight for your life" damage system means if you take too many hits, you'll drop to one knee and need assistance from a member of your team. Like Left 4 Dead, if you continue to take damage in this weakened state, you'll be knocked to the ground and killed, but if you successfully slaughter you attacker, you will be rewarded with a second wind; an unaided save that will put you back on your feet and allow you to continue, albeit with low health. It's a fun system and has you blasting away as you frantically try to knock the last skerrick of life bar from an enemy to get back in the fight.
Online cooperative play encourages teamwork to get through scenarios, though if you're the lone-wolf type, there's still some scope here to work at your own pace. The appearance of a giant flaming badass Skag late in our multiplayer session forced the group to come together and work as a single unit to take it down.
Fun cooperative online play, solid single-player questing and exploration, and customisable RPG elements that provide the basis for unique visuals have us eagerly awaiting Borderlands when it hits the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC platforms this October.