Hands-On Preview: Borderlands

By Alec Meer on July 28th, 2009 at 9:05 pm.

A little while back, I spent a few hours playing Gearbox Software’s upcoming, toon-styled, free-roaming FPS-RPG. I was horribly, desperately hungover at the time, and was almost sick on Randy Pitchford while he was cheerily explaining the thinking behind Borderlands to me. I am the most professional of all the games journalists.

But that doesn’t matter. Only the game matters. Here’s how it is.

(Click on the pics for bigguns, by the way).

It was mutiny. Gearbox head Randy Pitchford didn’t want it – he just wanted to finish and ship the damned game. His artists, though, were bored and frustrated. Mutiny. In secret, they returned to work.

They created an art style that totally reinvigorated Borderlands, one so impressive that Pitchford immediately abandoned his plans to shut down this little troupe of breakaways. He also claims that it was enough of shock to also dramatically shake-up Gearbox’s whole approach to development. (I’ll be bunging up an interview with him on such matters in the next couple of days, incidentally).

Here and now though, what matters isn’t so much whether the happy accident of the comicbook character outlines and semi-cell-shading should or shouldn’t have happened, but whether it suits the game. Or, whether the game suits it.

The answer to that is an even more important question: how does Borderlands play? We’ve heard about the thousands of weapon combinations, that there’ll be free-roaming of a sort, a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Mad Maxian vehicles, but what we don’t know is, well, what happens when you sit in front of your PC and fire up this game.

It’s like Fallout 3. No, wait, it’s like Hellgate. No, wait, it’s like Doom.

Well… it has some of the core values of all of those, but a very different implementation. It’s an RPG-FPS, fundamentally. But unlike Fallout 3 and Mass Effect and Hellgate, this isn’t an FPS-like targeting reticule built awkwardly on top of dice-rolls and statistics. It’s statistics and dice-rolls built on top of a first-person shooter. That simple inversion is key to why Borderlands works – this is an action game first and foremost. You won’t find yourself lost eight phrases deep in a dialogue tree. You won’t find a precisely-targeted headshot failing to hit because of some invisible maths, and you won’t find that aiming somewhere within a 20-foot radius of someone automagically punches a bullet through their chest. You will find that hiding behind a rock or running away stops you from getting shot. As does shooting first, and accurately.

The RPG stuff comes as a result of playing the FPS stuff well – you take out the various homicidal men, mutants and mutant-men efficiently, you earn yer XP and your loot drops. It sounds phenomenally simple, and it is. It’s just that no-one’s done it right before. Well, there’s Deus Ex and System Shock 2, but this is scarcely attempting to be those. No moral deliberation, philosophical pondering or literary references here. This is about the joy of meatheadery.

It’s very fast and very silly – more TimeSplitters than Half-Life. You battle Mutant Midget Psychos and are guided around by blind drunkards and crying robots. You wield triple rocket launchers and quad-barrelled shotguns. You respawn instantly into a New-U clone body upon death. You score critical hits on rad-addled dog-things by shooting them in the open mouth. It’s openly ridiculous, and the hyper-stylised look only boosts the glee of that. Pitchford describes it as “the polar opposite of Brothers in Arms”, and he’s not wrong. This is a game geared utterly towards instant, out of the box fun. There are 30 core story missions and 120 side-missions; after a spot of being shepherded through some introductory stuff, you’re free to go fairly off-piste. Alternatively, you can go straight to the co-op mode.

Procedural weapon generation based on combining a raft of randomly-selected elements – e.g. x base gun template + x barrels + x type of ammunition + x barrel-length – means there are more guns in the game than Gearbox can count. It’s somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, they think. If you pick up something incredible (the now traditional white, green, blue, purple loot colour system denotes something’s degree of awesomeness), you’d better watch your back. When you die [yikes - my useless memory managed to conflate dying with a system crash that did cost me all my stuff] sell or discard a gun, that massive, massive degree of randomness means you’ll probably never see the same one ever again. If you find something spectacular, you can consider it nigh-on unique. Sadly the vehicles weren’t on show at this demo, which also meant I didn’t get a clear sense of how freely you can roam, but if it’s based upon similarly unbound, randomatic principles, I’m expecting only good things.

It’s the thrill of high-speed violence paired with the compulsion of loot collection. That’s a dangerous combination, and in the wrong hands an incredibly cynical one. Given that Pitchford repeatedly trots out variants of “fuck it, let’s just have fun”, it’s pretty clear that cynicism doesn’t play much part in Borderland’s DNA.

It isn’t a tactical shooter, and it isn’t a talky RPG. It steps back to the base level of both genres and then piles style and energy on top. It’s the opposite of feature creep – returning to why people wanted to shoot monsters in the face and collect shiny things in the first place. From what I played, it wouldn’t be wrong to call it shallow. It would be wrong to call that shallowness a bad thing. Pitchford again: “we’re dancing around innovation more than we’ve ever done before.” In the land of the endless cover systems, unbound carnage is king.

That said, I’m a little worried about the intense-yet-aimless nature of the co-op mode. I’ll need to play it for much longer to get a real sense of it, I suspect, but in the half hour or so I had there wasn’t much teamwork beyond panicked heals (a one-button task) of fallen comrades and occasionally all shooting the same monster. It was fun, and intuitive, and fast enough to scratch a testosteronal itch almost instantly, but it felt perhaps a bit too vague and messy to yield the sense of satisfaction you get from, say, finishing a Left 4 Dead co-op campaign. Then again, I was playing a slim, out-of-context slice. I certainly got a bit more of a kick out of the roaming, questing and levelling up of the singleplayer, though.

What else? XP unlocks new abilities, but your own FPS prowess is absolutely vital. Pitchford talks about a level 4 player taking down level 10 mobs, simply due to his expert way with a targeting reticule.

Oh, and there’s a bunch of different classes to play as – a straight-up Soldier, the sniper prowess and vicious winged pet of the Hunter, the mystical steathing of the Siren and, my personal favourite, the meaty melee of the Berserker. Hand-to-hand combat for everyone else is largely just a panicked stab at an enemy who’s got too close, but the Berserker can enter a frenzy mode (expandable by spending level-earned skill points – eventually, I was gaining health every time I killed someone in rage mode) that maps a barrel-sized fist to each mouse-button. THUMP THUMP THUMP. Yeah, he’s kinda like the Heavy. The Heavy, though, doesn’t get to punch 20-foot-tall mutant insects to death. I’m definitely playing Berserker.

So does Borderlands live up to its art-style? Totally. Of course, the real proof of this death-pudding is in whether it can remain this spectacular and compulsive for a couple of dozen sustained hours. We’ll find that out for sure this October.

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114 Comments »

  1. Snooglebum says:

    Ooh, so excited.

  2. Vinraith says:

    Thanks Alec. The more I read about this the more promising it looks.

  3. AsubstanceD says:

    any form of narrative, or characters or game world background? I definitely have hopes for this game, but I think to keep my interest it would need something in those areas. Not that it needs to be anything groundbreaking in these areas.

  4. Professor says:

    The art style seems a little too much “inbetween”. There’s a fair bit of cel shading but not enough to make it fully cel shaded. This bastard child looks just plain wrong in my eyes, but I guess I’ll have to play it and find out.

  5. inanimotion says:

    Yaaaay
    Looking forward to release now, thank you.

  6. unclelou says:

    Alec, do you happen to know if it also has different armour? The official website alludes to that being the case, but it is never explicitly mentioned, and the characters in the screenshots always seem to wear the same gear.

  7. Optimaximal says:

    The official website alludes to that being the case, but it is never explicitly mentioned, and the characters in the screenshots always seem to wear the same gear.

    The Eurogamer preview alludes too the fact that you can pick a different graphical style for your character – the ones repeatedly shown in the screenshots are just the defaults.

    No idea on armour being visible on the characters, but it would make sense…

  8. Marcin says:

    Well this just went from a tentative “this just might be good” to a day 1 buy. Thanks Alec, and looking forward to more info on the expansiveness of the thing.

  9. Cutman says:

    You should do drunked reviews more often. This one is incredible.

  10. Cutman says:

    You should do hungover reviews more often. This one is incredible.

  11. Wirbelwind says:

    SILLY ROBOTS RUN AWAY FROM SANDVICH!

  12. ScubaV says:

    Sounds intriguing, but the key unknown for me is “Does Borderlands have direction?”. If it’s a sandbox, make-your-own-fun style a la Fallout 3 or Morrowind, then I’ll be quickly bored. But if it has narrative drive like Stalker or to a flimsier extent Far Cry, then the fusion of FPS and RPG is going to have me very interested.

  13. Serph says:

    No one’s done an RPG+FPS with loot drops and exp before? Weapon combinations? Skills and classes? Customizable armor? Wait, what was that game…it started with Mass…Mass, errr…..

    This game ought to have a humorous plot to go along with the arcadey combat. Otherwise it’ll just end up being “that apocalyptic shooter thing” no matter how much “shallowness” is extolled as a virtue.

  14. unclelou says:

    Sounds intriguing, but the key unknown for me is “Does Borderlands have direction?”. If it’s a sandbox, make-your-own-fun style a la Fallout 3 or Morrowind, then I’ll be quickly bored. But if it has narrative drive like Stalker or to a flimsier extent Far Cry, then the fusion of FPS and RPG is going to have me very interested.

    I don’t expect it to be like any of those games you mention, really. I guess it’ll have a simple story, and the RPG aspect will be limited to levelling up – which suits me fine in that genre. Shoot stuff, collect loot.

  15. fishmitten says:

    Mass Effect is by no means a First Person Shooter.

    Borderlands looks pretty fun. I’m not sold on the gunplay yet, but it’s hard to tell from a handful of videos.

  16. hamsterfury says:

    So……

    SUCK IT PLANETSIDE!!!

  17. unclelou says:

    No one’s done an RPG+FPS with loot drops and exp before? Weapon combinations? Skills and classes? Customizable armor? Wait, what was that game…it started with Mass…Mass, errr…..

    I expect Borderlands to have as much in common with Mass Effect as Diablo 2 has with Baldur’s Gate – nothing at all. The only FPS/action-RPG hybrid I am aware of is Hellgate: London.

  18. Dominic White says:

    “No, wait, it’s like Hellgate.”

    This will immediately send half the internet running for cover, screaming bloody murder.

    But not me. See, I’m one of the few people who liked Hellgate – well, at least liked it AFTER patches (the launch was a goddamn trainwreck). In the final couple of weeks of its life, where they actually had gotten their act together, added several gig worth of patches and content and made it into what it probably should have launched at, it was actually a rather good shooty/looty/levelly hybrid.

    It’s sad that this only lasted for a couple of weeks, though. Maybe Borderlands can pick up where it left off.

  19. Serph says:

    FPS, TPS…same difference. Personally, I prefer FPS because TPSs make me feel a bit disconnected from the action, and make me less responsive to damage my character takes. Still, not enough to call it totally groundbreaking.

  20. Alec Meer says:

    - There’s a core storyline with around 30 missions, and 120 optional side-missions (I’ve just added that factoid to the main piece, btw). Takes about 15 hours to do just the story missions, but Pitchford reckons people’ll do plenty of side-missions because a) fun b) otherwise you’ll remain fairly low-level and may struggle.

    - Didn’t catch what the major plotline was (honestly – didn’t care. Boderlands seems more about showing off a bunch of fun locations and enemies than destiny quest gubbins), but the missions I did play involved taking out various ‘orrible raiders who were troubling civilian settlements, and fending off attacking beasties. It was pretty humourous in tone throughout, especially the tiny robot (see last screenshot) that’s essentially a mobile tutorial. There are thematic similarities to Fallout 3, but it doesn’t take itself especially seriously and the voice acting didn’t make me want to die.

    - Armour pickups take the form of shields with varying degrees of damage resistance and health regeneration, but visually the only costume tweaks is colours, which you can do for free at pretty much any point. Or so I recall. By chance I’m meeting Gearbox again on Friday, so will double-check.

    - Mass Effect wasn’t even slightly an FPS. And I’m not talking about its camera perspective.

  21. unclelou says:

    Agreed, Dominic. Hellgate: London was Doom with stats and loot. A lovely combination. If it had been commercially succesful (and spawned addons, as additionally planned), I wouldn’t have needed another game for a long time. ;-)

  22. Psychopomp says:

    @Serph

    Mass Effect falls in with Fallout 3, in the sense that there’s a bunch of dice rolls going on for everything you do. Borderlands, if you aim at the head, you hit the head.

  23. Torgen says:

    Borderlands = Auto Assault done right?

  24. Plant42 says:

    Yeah yeah, note how revolutionary the art style change was. That whole ‘revolution’ just happened to occur a few months after devs from Prince of Persia gave a cell shading talk at GDC in 2006, and were kind enough to give away actual examples of code they used for outlining, stair-stepping falloff mapping etc.

    Quite a few games went cell-shady after that talk.

  25. Heliocentric says:

    Opposing force was great, as were the first 2 brothers in arms game. The third bia tried to be an fps and failed at being an fps and failed at being a squad tactics game. I’ll be needing a demo to drop money here. But the class based expansion reflex based expression is very planetside. And non mmo planetside sounds good to me. Games which have vehicles but arbitrarily force you to be on foot annoy me (crysis gets a pass by letting you punch cars over and throw people at people who you were using as a human shield.) i mean, having a gunship would help combating xenoforms? They can’t jump that high. What do you mean it isn’t sporting? I’m trying to save the world/president(‘s daughter)/universe/myself.

  26. jsutcliffe says:

    I am still completely and woefully in the dark about the single-player experience. So many previews talk it up as a first-person Diablo and its multiplayer promise. Is there a single-player game in there anywhere?

  27. unclelou says:

    - Armour pickups take the form of shields with varying degrees of damage resistance and health regeneration, but visually the only costume tweaks is colours, which you can do for free at pretty much any point.

    Thanks for the clarification. Not too happy about that – much of the compulsion to keep on playing these games comes from seeing the character gradually change his wimpy cotton pants to a full-body titanium armour.

  28. Cutman says:

    Umm, could someone delete that first post of mine, and then this one too please?

    I must of been hungover myself when I did that.

  29. Jason says:

    “My love for you is ticking clock BERSERKER!”

    I enjoy playing high-damage melee characters in games, and this one sounds promising indeed!

  30. Vinraith says:

    @jsutcliffe

    Err, did you read the article? This is almost entirely about the single player mode, the differences between it and the MP mode are noted towards the end.

  31. Taillefer says:

    Silverfall had a similar style. It had the option to turn the outlines off, and looked better without them.

    I’m undecided about the game. I’m worried It may be a little too shallow, by the sounds of it. Possibly a bit chaotic. And I have no interest in the multiplayer. My decision rests on a demo.

  32. Doctor Doc says:

    Do you know how the save system works? If you can just save at any time then you could easily prevent ever losing your awesome gun anyway.

  33. Carra says:

    As a wow purist I have to say: no grey, no orange?

  34. Markoff Chaney says:

    “Would you like to make some Fuck? BERSERKER!”

    I spent, when all was said and done, over 400 dollars on the promise of Hellgate. I love the FPS + RPG marriage concept so much. My biggest issue with the game, after patches, was that my ability to use a mouse to aim wasn’t rewarded as much as I would have liked.

    This game seems better on most all accounts and I look forward to it greatly. There’s a time for deliberate, considered movement in an FPS and Arma 2 can scratch that itch of mine. It would be nice to replace Painkiller and Serious Sam for that twitch itch and add in some “one more level, one more drop” carrot dangling for extra incentives. Multiple classes for different playstyles and co-op with friends… I’m worried I’ll wake up with sticky sheets.

  35. Jad says:

    It’s statistics and dice-rolls built on top of a first-person shooter. That simple inversion is key to why Borderlands works – this is an action game first and foremost.

    This is why I’m excited about this. While I like many genres, my favorite still has to be the FPS. I’ve been playing a great deal of Fallout 3 recently, and while its an awesome game, every time I engage in non-VATS combat I’m reminded that its not really an FPS even if it looks like it.

    Also, there are some actual FPSes that don’t quite seem to get the traditional feel right: I found the shooting in Bioshock to be too … loose, with inconsistent feedback in the basic did-my-bullet-hit-my-enemy way. Its a very subjective thing, of course, but there seems certain companies that can do the basic mechanics, the visceral feel of an FPS better than anybody else. I’d put Valve and iD and (personally, at least) Infinity Ward in that list. FEAR had an unusual but very satisfying feel to the combat as well. I’m not sure if I’m explaining myself as clearly as I’d like here — does anybody else get this feeling too?

    Anyway, Alec: in your opinion, would you rate the bare-metal moving-and-firing FPS actions of Borderlands on the level with, say, a Valve game or an iD game?

  36. Sinomatic says:

    Don’t suppose anyone could tell me whether the co-op games can be hosted on a paid for server (like I can with L4D)? I play with friends worldwide and hosting games ourselves is not a possibility.

    I like the sound of this, but not much point if I can’t play it with my mates below a ping of 2000…

  37. Riaktion says:

    This game has taken the place of Dragon Age as my “need to buy on release” game. I never buy games on release.

  38. JKjoker says:

    any words on the DRM this game will be dipped into ?

  39. Meatloaf says:

    Based on what I’ve seen, this game is going to be brilliant.

    Most games drag you around by the wrist like an energetic child, eager to show you this and that and this other thing in hopes of impressing you. “See? Look at this! It’s so cool! Oh, now come over here and look at this, and then this too!” Gears of War 2 comes to mind, particularly.

    Borderlands, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be played to have fun. It’s already having a wonderful time by itself. It’s just inviting you along.

  40. TheJimTimMan says:

    A quick bit of maths done in the windows calculator, assuming 15 to 30 variations of each “part” of the weapon, would suggest a figure between 7,796,250 and 24,300,000 weapons in the game.
    That’s… a lot of guns… and this isn’t taking into account special properties weapons might have.

  41. JKjoker says:

    @TheJimTimMan: too many guns is not necessarily good, remember Diablo 2 where 99.999% of item drops were freaking useless because there were way too many useless traits in the combination lists

  42. TheJimTimMan says:

    @JKjoker: Very true, that’s why I’m hoping Gearbox’s generator can come up with some interesting combinations; I probably won’t stick to one sniper rifle or shotgun the whole time because of higher damge values or better properties since I might find a cool sounding or looking assault rifle or pistol that I’ll use until I get bored of it or run out of ammo.
    Also remember that Diablo 2′s combat system was very much different in that it was a “pure” RPG, not one where skill-based accuracy played much part due it’s reliance on attributes.

  43. Marcin says:

    Alec: please to be telling us more of vehicular mayhem and … well, this is subjective but “the feel” of the shootery. As well as possible, much obliged :)

  44. Baris says:

    Oh man, this is by far the game I’m most excited about this year.

  45. roBurky says:

    You make it sound like the combat is going to be Serious Sam -esque. Would that be right?

    (I don’t fancy any more Serious Sam)

  46. Serph says:

    Well, a game that is first and foremost an FPS, and adds the RPG elements to that, seems better than an RPG that just happens to have guns.

  47. reaper47 says:

    Sounds interesting, looks interesting…

    Still feels a bit like a mix of stuff I already know, and no matter how good the ingredients, I’m not sure if I like the taste…

  48. blindpsychic says:

    The only thing that’s really bothering me is the really poor outlining in those shots. If these were say, an ink comic book panel, the lineweights should be getting lighter as the get further away. But in some shots, the line weights for stuff far away is really thick, and in bl4l.jpg, there’s even inconsistent line weight. Stuff up close like the rebar on the left, hardly has a line, yet stuff in the far distance (those rusty spine shaped things, and the big rock thing) have really super dark outlines, which is really messing up the sense of space. Is this better in motion? Because this screens are really noisy.

  49. KP says:

    Unrelated to news item: I think Rockpapershotgun gave Men of War a favorable review and I brushed over it… got it in the $7 sale and played it with friends… holy SHIT I wish I had listened to RPS! This game is INCREDIBLE. :D

  50. Rob Jellinghaus says:

    On Quarter to Three, someone quoted this article, mentioning the “you lose your gun when you die” part.

    Well, that really sucks, because I don’t WANT to lose my gun when I die. You don’t lose your weapons when you die in any other RPG I know of. So why in Borderlands? What is the fun in that? You have the uber weapon, you get taken out by a baddie, and suddenly you have to sift through 1,000 shit guns just to get something that is vaguely able to kill some of the mobs your ubergun ate for breakfast?

    I’m not seeing the fun in that.

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