Borderlands is the upcoming first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid game from Texas-based studio Gearbox. It puts you in the role of a freelance bounty hunter in search of the treasure hidden in an ancient vault on a mostly deserted mining planet. But as you make your way through the world of Pandora, recovering more-powerful weapons and gaining experience levels by fighting off scavengers and the local wildlife, you come to understand that the job you're on isn't going to be as simple as waltzing right into the vault and walking off with the goods--and that you're not just up against a few crazy bandits, either. We had a chance to hunker down with some of the later parts of the game and have much to report, but please be advised that this story may contain minor spoilers.
Your character does, in fact, start out on a simple treasure hunt but quickly learns that nabbing the goods won't be easy. That's because the location of the vault is secret, it's guarded by dangerous enemies, and also…you're not the only one after it. We stepped into the shoes of a high-powered siren, one of the game's four playable professions, which focuses on stealth and "elemental" damage bonuses added to her various weapons. As we mentioned in our previous coverage, the siren has an inherent "phasewalk" ability that lets her become invisible for a limited amount of time, becoming completely undetectable to her enemies. At higher levels, this ability can become significantly more powerful, since it can let her effectively sneak around oblivious enemies in the middle of battle, and it can be upgraded so that when she leaves her phasewalk state and returns to "normal," she deals an explosive burst of damage to her nearby targets, not unlike the backstab attack that thief and assassin characters often use in traditional role-playing games.
In addition, at the higher levels, the siren's elemental abilities make her weapons deadly. To clarify, Borderlands has an unusual random loot system that will let you find different weapons as loot (or for purchase from one of the game's many weapon vending machines) that may have totally random properties, such as faster firing rates, better accuracy, and, most importantly, a chance to deal bonus damage, such as additional fire, electricity, or poison-based wounds on a successful hit. The siren character's various specializations increase the likelihood that her weapons will deal this bonus damage and increase the actual bonus damage levels.
Although the siren is presented as a challenging character to play (because she has less health and fewer weapon specializations than other classes), the enhanced damage of her elemental bonuses actually seem to help compensate for poor aim, since even a few lucky hits may trigger bonus elemental damage that continues to eat away at your enemies, and since a few of the siren's abilities deal damage to enemies in an area, so your firing doesn't always have to be precise. Of course, since Borderlands has a critical hit system that awards well-placed shots with bonus damage, being precise does help.
In our time in the advanced areas of the game, we visited a few different areas with a character that was ridiculously powerful--several levels ahead of each area and armed to the teeth with a high-powered sniper rifle, an incendiary submachine gun, and a flat-out ludicrous rocket launcher that just happened to have the ability to fire rockets that split into multiple shots with every pull of the trigger to deliver absurd amounts of damage in a single area. Because we were packing this much heat, we decided to try out our new toys first in Old Haven, a bombed-out town that has been taken over by a mysterious faction of disturbingly organized mercenaries known as the Crimson Lance.
These mercs are apparently after the vault, just like you, and they'll attack you on sight with their own high-powered sidearms and from turret emplacements. They also carry generators that erect translucent red shield barriers, which they can set up in front of themselves to create their own cover. Unless you have a powerful sniper rifle that can zoom in on the tiny body parts they leave exposed, or some very good grenades, like incendiary Bouncing Betties that split off into multiple explosive bits, you'll have to fire on these barriers continuously to wear them down and get at the enemies behind them. Fortunately, we came equipped with both. Still, we found ourselves alternating between sighting far-off enemies to pluck them off with sniper headshots, and scrambling for cover after turning a corner to find a handful of mercs dug in at different locations (on different floors of buildings, behind on-the-ground cover, or manning high-up turrets). In fact, we found ourselves reaching for health packs and occasionally ducking behind cover to recharge our chewed-up personal shields (which work just like those in the Halo series by losing power when you take damage but regenerating if you can get to cover). However, we eventually managed to pick off all our foes--not an easy task even with a fully-loaded character. Then again, for those looking for a real challenge, Borderlands will also offer an enhanced "elite" mode the second time you play through it--the lowly enemies you faced your first time around will start around level 30 or so.
We then skipped ahead to a different area much further in the game, closer to the alien vault. As it turns out, although Borderlands' early areas take place in dusty deserts, there are also more-advanced areas that take place on snowy mountaintops, where the mysterious alien creatures known as the Eridians guard their vault. The Eridians seem like a race of insect-men--several of the lower-level ones walk upright on two legs but have wings and can either take huge flying leaps or simply take to the air and fly. They carry their own ranged weapons but don't seem to hesitate at the opportunity to leap in your face and claw at it. In addition, since they're aliens with totally different bodies than humans, they're effectively immune to headshots, though if you're persistent enough, you can find their weak spots to score critical hits (or you can continue reading this sentence, since they seem most vulnerable in their hindquarters, just below their abdomens).
Fortunately, these beastly aliens aren't immune to rockets, and they're less immune to rocket launchers that fire multiple explosive rounds, and the smaller ones blow up pretty good. However, there are multiple varieties of these aliens, including giant-sized ones, and they don't just walk or fly around on their own power--they also cruise the skies in gigantic alien craft that carry multiple troops. If you're feeling really ambitious, you can open fire on these alien vessels, but doing so can earn you a lot of attention from some very angry aliens.
What we've seen of Borderlands suggests that it will offer all the action of a conventional shooter (different weapon classes, headshots, weapon melee, and significant cover that must be used in the heat of battle to duck out of the way and recharge spent energy shields or reload your clip), along with the unendingly random loot of an addictive RPG. The game is scheduled to ship later this month.