Gearbox Software's Borderlands will combine the aiming and shooting of an arcade-style shooter with the hacking, slashing, experience levels, and loot of a traditional Western role-playing game. And we've finally played it from the perspective of two of the game's four character classes. While we weren't able to run through the game's list of some 30 different primary quests (and 140 side quests), we did get a chance to play through an early portion of the game and get a look at multiplayer. We have much to report, but please be advised that this story may contain minor spoilers.
Borderlands begins with a bus ride where you choose your character class from either the soldier (a standard class that specializes in assault rifles and shotguns), the siren (which tends to acquire weapons with alternative properties, such as incendiary bullets), the hunter (a sniper profession), or the berserker (a close-combat profession that uses short-range weapons and fisticuffs). You then get dropped off at the starting town of Fyrestone to be guided by a smart-mouthed robot that never seems to run out of things to say. Though the reason your character is on the abandoned mining world of Pandora to track down a mysterious "vault" that's said to house powerful and valuable alien technology, your first order of business is to figure out the interface. The robot walks you through the game's onscreen interface, which displays your character's health and ammo supply, which is standard stuff for a shooter. Your character's experience bar and minimap will also be displayed, which is standard stuff for an RPG and a good sign you won't be playing your average, everyday arcade shooter.
As a soldier, your experience will be a pretty standard one if you've played a first-person shooter before. This profession seems best equipped with automatic assault rifles and shotguns and eventually learns the ability to deploy stationary turrets, which can take on different properties as the soldier gains levels (either spitting out regular fire to fill your enemies full or holes or to actually distribute healing or other support features to yourself and any nearby teammates).
Sirens, on the other hand, have the "phasewalk" ability, which shifts them in and out of this dimension, essentially cloaking them for a few moments. Phasewalking also gives you a short speed boost and the ability to perform powerful melee attacks and cause damage to nearby enemies when shifting. Because special abilities have a cooldown time, it seems best to save your character's special powers for when you really need them. Like the soldier, the siren can also learn additional skill trees. In this case, the controller, elemental, and assassin paths help you regenerate health or daze enemies; add elemental damage, such as fire or corrosion, to your attacks; and increase your melee or critical hit damage, respectively. While you gain upgrade points by earning experience levels, you won't be able gain enough points to max out every single skill tree in any single play-through, so you'll want to choose those skills that best fit your own playing style.
Things start off easy while you get used to the game's premise, and the first few missions involve flushing out a few pesky bandits and killing the local wildlife: skags. Skags are hideous doglike creatures that live in packs. While the pups make for some basic target practice and their lunging attacks are a great way for you to practice doing some melee pistol-whipping, it's not long before you discover the larger whelps and some that are the size of a small rhino.
In any case, the early mission structure seems to do a good job of leading you around as you gradually restore the ruined town of Fyrestone and blast randomly generated hordes of enemies to kingdom come. These low-pressure encounters are a good way to get used to the shooting mechanics, which, at least in solo play, will absolutely require you to make smart use of cover. Early on in the game, you'll pick up your first regenerating personal energy shield, which works the same way as the shields in Halo do--they absorb damage until they run out, and unless you duck behind cover, you'll then start taking health damage.
Borderlands doesn't have a ton of evasive maneuvers aside from ducking and sprinting, and if you try to spray-and-pray, your guns will regularly run out of ammo, which makes you a sitting duck until your characters can slap some more bullets into their weapons. Fortunately, if your aim is true, you can score Borderlands' version of headshots. These are "criticals" and deal huge amounts of damage if you can hit an enemy in a vital spot, such as hitting a human bandit in the head or pouring bullets into a skag's open mouth. After killing enough enemies or completing enough quests to fill up your experience bar, your character will gain a level that is complete with a giant onscreen "LEVEL UP" message. Your character will also receive an automatic increase in maximum health and weapon damage, as well as an instantaneous refill of health and shields, which is very handy in tougher fights when you're up against multiple foes.
When the going gets tough, one of the best resources Borderlands offers is the ability to play with up to three friends in cooperative, drop-in/drop-out multiplayer. Multiplayer opens up plenty of new tactical possibilities because a well-coordinated group can offset the lone-wolf player's shortcomings of always having to duck behind cover to replenish shields or reload weapons. Multiplayer lets you use group tactics to pin down enemies with covering fire while your buddies circle around for the kill. This is especially handy for the short-range tank character and his fists of fury.
Borderlands has a wicked sense of humor along with some colourful characters, such as the town doctor, Dr. Zed. He doesn't actually have a med school degree, but he'll keep you supplied with med packs nonetheless. TK Baha is a crazy blind hermit who sends you on a mission to recover his prosthetic leg from a particularly formidable skag. While the local fauna are vicious, there's some equally dangerous local gangsters too, such as Nine Toes (who we're informed also has three testicles) and his boss, Bone Head. Naturally, killing these outlaws will earn you valuable experience points and new weapons, and you'll be able to curry favor with the townsfolk. However, over the course of the single-player game, your character will also receive missives from a mysterious female character that occasionally materializes in a static-filled transmission. The character reveals that you've been chosen to find the vault, advises you to ally with the townsfolk to get them to help you on your quest, and gives you occasional guidance along the way.
The game seems to have a rewarding loot system. Your enemies will often drop piles of loot, and you'll be encouraged to be a pack rat by pawing through every last little box and crate for a wad of cash, an extra pack of bullets, or the odd randomly generated weapon. These can include submachine guns, pistols, rifles, and grenades. Loot is color coded according to its rank with five levels, and the more difficult a mission or boss is, the better the reward. Bosses tend to drop the best weapons, so it's definitely worth grabbing them once the coast is clear.
At the beginning of the game, you can equip only two different weapons, though you can later unlock four different weapon slots. However, you can only carry so many weapons in total, so it's a good idea to keep the best and sell any weaker weapons you find to the local arms dealer for some cash. Fortunately, buying and selling is a breeze because there are conveniently located vendor kiosks (which look like oversized vending machines) in Fyrestone, around key locations, and near boss battles. So you can buy any needed supplies, sell off your unneeded loot, and even purchase a randomly generated "special" item from the kiosks, which are available only for a limited time. Over the course of the game, you'll find weapons and items with all sorts of different abilities, such as energy shields that also heal damage to your character's health; weapon mods that cause your grenades to split into multiple projectiles; and guns that shoot rounds that deal fire, electricity, or corrosion-based damage.
Borderlands' cel-shaded graphics look distinctive, and anyone who enjoyed XIII or Prince of Persia will likely welcome this approach. Borderlands makes use of the Unreal Engine, and the characters, weapons, and environment are detailed and have a vibrant color palette. If, like us, you're looking forward to Borderlands, then you'll be glad to know that the wait is almost over. The game will be shipping next month for the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the PC.