There've been a lot of games over the last little while that have promised gold bit delivered a tarnished silver at best. Borderlands, on the other hand, has been quietly plugging away (that is, if any game with Randy Pitchford at the helm can be considered to be 'quiet') for the last few years, letting the quality of its art and the premise of its seemless hybridisation of the RPG with FPS pretensions speak for itself.
And we've been listening, intently, waiting for the chance to get some quality alone time with this intriguing title. We finally have, now, and this is one game that we think is going to deliver a lot more than its wildest promises.
We've covered the premise of Borderlands in a recent Engine Room, but for the casual reader, here's the Cliff's Notes. The planet Pandora is a more or less failed colony, marked only for the viciousness of its native wildlife, and the stubbornness/viciousness of its surviving colonists/mad roaming land pirates. Cue one of four adventurers looking for lost alien treasure, and you've pretty much got Borderlands nailed down. It's a simple tale, but the depth of the game comes in the execution, and that's evident from the game's rolling credits, a flavoursome narrative introduction to the four characters you can choose to play delivered in a staccato Mexican accent and backed by alt.country rock. In a rusty bus.
Oh, and they run over a dog-thing, too. Edgy!
But it's a very cool kind of edgy, not that hyper-ironic-but-stupid kind. A lot of that awesome feel comes from the game's artistic style, which is basically cell-shading on crack. During our hands on, we got to chat with Gearbox's Randy Pitchford, and we think he says it best. "Everyone's used to HD quality textures now, so no one really notices them any more. But you wander around Borderlands, and you're constantly going 'Wow, this looks awesome!'"
This is because, on top of the cell-shading, there are actual brush and pen strokes on the characters and the landscape. You might not think this would work, but it really does - it's a very striking and - more importantly - unique visual style.
This is partnered by an almost Tarantino-esque storytelling technique, with a lot of jump cuts to interstitial screens that introduce characters and bosses as you meet them. Most memorable is the first boss you place, the menacing wastelander boss Nine Toes. When you first spy him, replete with Mad Max style headware and strutting attitude, you get a rocking chord and a splashscreen intro to him, which also explains - inexplicably but amusingly - that he has three balls, too.
Waiter, there's an RPG in my FPS - again!
If you've spent any time at all in Fallout 3, you'll have a handle on how Borderlands goes about blending first person action with detailed roleplaying mechanics, but it takes both genres in even more extreme directions.
On the action front, you've location-based critical hits, an excellent random gun generator, on top of some awesomely custom developed weapons ranging from pistols all the way up to missile launchers, and even multi-person vehicles. There are grenades, different ammunition loadouts, and gear like armour and shields to further customise how you go about shooting and beating the crap out of anything that looks at you wrong.
All of those tools will be available to four very different characters, which you'll choose based on whether you want to be, essentially, a sniper, a soldier, a brawling tank, or a stealthed rogue type. Each character also has a very different reason for being on Pandora - revenge, dark secrets from their past, it's all there, so we'll be curious to see how this affects the game's replay value.
These character types also mesh perfectly with the game's four player co-op mode, which is arguably the game's biggest draw. You can drop into co-op campaign games locally or online, and you can do so dynamically, too. It's a bit like Left4Dead in that respect, but with the game's much longer campaign, and the in depth levelling and gear, you'll be getting a much more in depth experience.
The game scales pretty well to match the number of players, too, throwing more enemies, and offering more ammo and gear in return. The browsing of these games is pretty painless, too.
But it's Borderland's levelling that really gets things interesting. As you progress, you'll unlock skill points that can be spent amongst three talent trees. The simple comparison is Diablo, really, and given the game's amount of gear, and the random drops you'll get of it as you play, it's an apt one. Mordecai, the game's sniper/hunter, can focus on ranged damage dealing, party damage buffing, or doing nasty things with his innate pet ability.
But is it all fun?
The bottom line is - yes. Awesome amounts, in fact. The skill advancement system never gets in the way of the game being a good shooter, and skilled gameplay is rewarded with lots of one-shot kills. At the same time, skilling up simply makes you - or your party - noticeably better at doing your job. The game never quite takes itself too seriously, either, so there's a lot of entertainment value from many of the NPCs and storylines. And the graphics... well, Randy really is right.
There are some niggles, though, but we really do feel churlish for bringing them up. Every drop has to be manually picked up - you can't just walk over it, you have to key activate it. In a big fight, with ammo running out, this can be a real challenge, and taking the time to line up that desperately needed clip of rifle ammo could cost you your life. Similarly, while it's great on paper, the vast amount of random weapons can become a little samey - once you get a good gun, most drops are simply trash. Then again, there's always the chance for some really weird combos, like the gun that simply makes people explode. Even the devs admit they're still getting surprised by the system.
And so are we.