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RPS Interview: Borderlands

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This week we had a chance to put a few questions to the producer fellow from Gearbox’s upcoming sandbox science fiction shooter, Borderlands. Simon Hurley, for that is his name, talked a little about the game world, the vehicular combat, the four-player online co-op campaign, how the story will unfold in a non-linear environment, and the testing nightmares involved with having half a million weapons…

First of all though, there’s that obligatory origin story. Creating a science fiction universe from scratch is an admirable project for any development studio, and one that doesn’t seem to occur quite as often as it could. So how did the fiction of a defrosting far-future colonial hellhole came about? “The universe and story for the game have been discussed here at Gearbox for quite some time,” said Hurley. “We’ve always had a desire to make a game based in a gritty and rough sci-fi universe, so when we decided to start making Borderlands, the project leads came together and started to expand upon this theme. Over the course of our pre-production phase, we continued to mold the story into what it is today. A lot of people have influenced the story – it has truly been a team effort, and this has helped create a real sense of ownership and commitment from everyone.”

The story, you might recall, was briefly outlined in this trailer.

Colonisation of an alien planet isn’t going so well, and what’s more, the planet has a secret. Man, those distant planets are never straight with us.

From what we’ve seen so far, however, the story is one of the least interesting aspects of the game. What’s rather more enticing is the fact that Borderlands seems to be a remarkably open ended shooter with vehicles, bandit-dudes, wide-open environments, dungeons, and gigantic, roaming monsters. It’s ripe for that kind of wandering and poking about in virtuality that we love so dearly. So are we actually looking at it being a large, explorable game like Stalker or Oblivion? What kind of story should we expect? Something wide open and sandbox, or fairly linear? “The game can be played both ways”, says Hurley. “There is a main mission storyline that advances the story and the game, and there are large, open environments in Borderlands that are ripe for exploration.” Ah, sweet exploration, how we savour it in our games. It is too rare a commodity in these modern times.

Hurley continued: “You will come across all sorts of enemies, loot, and gameplay experiences along the way. We also have several vehicles to help you get around (in addition to doing crazy vehicle combat with) so you won’t be slogging along on foot all the time. Because of both the dynamic nature of the game, the size of the world, the randomization of certain aspects of gameplay, and game adjusting itself based on the number and experience level of the players, it’s a different gameplay experience every time you go through it. If you just want to go exploring, there is always new stuff to find and new enemies to fight.”

And nor should that exploration be solitary: there’s a chance to play through with a chum or three. How do Gearbox expect the co-op to work? Will PC players be hosting a game for others to join?

“We designed Borderlands as a 4-player co-op game from the ground up,” says Hurley. “Anyone who has the game can begin a game instance, and invite others to join that game instance (that they are hosting) at any time. Any player joining can either start a new character, or bring their character from a different game instance with them to their friend’s game, along with any experience, gear, loot, etc. that they already have. They can trade or sell their current gear, find or buy more, level up, etc., and then take their persistent character back to their own game.”

Science fiction FPS Diablo? Ooh. And loot is clearly a big deal too. Gearbox have talked about their random weapon generation which will cough up around half a million variations, something which sounds like a nightmare for anyone testing the game. In fact how can Gearbox ensure that nothing ends up being randomly overpowered? “Yeah,” says Hurley, “our QA guys have their work cut out for them. We have several game designers who are focused exclusively on making sure all the weapons, gear, skills, leveling are both functional and a lot of fun, and QA is constantly hammering on the game to make sure everything works right. Due to the nature of our system, there will be some weapons that are more powerful than others – those are the ones you are going to be looking for. There are some loose rules in place that govern how the guns are put together, how rare and powerful they are, and when and where you will find them. But there will be times where you might find crazy-powered guns that do mega-damage – when that happens, we say let it! It’s all part of the fun.”

Needless to say, you’ll be using that weaponry to shoot stuff, both bandits and other explorer types in the game world, and the monstrous beasts that are making life difficult for the human colonists, as Hurley explained: “Aside from the human enemies in the world, there are a variety of critters and creatures you will face. Some are big, some are a little smaller, some are ginormous. When the planet was first settled, it was in winter (Pandora has a multi-year rotational cycle), so most of the creatures were hibernating. Now that it’s heating up, the settlers are realizing this planet is a lot more hostile than they though, because the creatures are coming out, and they are hungry.”

Not that the beasts will be a match for good ol’ fashioned hardware, eh? And of course we’re big fans of vehicular combat here at RockPaperShotgun. Would Hurley tell us what sort of vehicles we’ll be fighting in and against in Borderlands? Will we be able to fight on foot as well as in vehicles? Answer me! “The game will have a healthy dose of both on-foot FPS action and crazy vehicle action,” says Hurley. “So far we have shown the Outrunner vehicle (kind of a futuristic dune buggy), but we have others in the game as well – right now we are having a lot of fun with the Salt Racer, a dragster-type vehicle that races around the Salt Flats, blowing up other vehicles, running enemies over, and getting run off the road by Scythids, one of the creatures in the game. Each vehicle holds at least 2 players, each has a gun the driver can operate (yes, drivers get to shoot, too) along with a gun turret, and each provides a different kind of gameplay.”

The maths of this, and previous questions, means that we’ll be able to do four-player exploration co-op with multiple vehicles. High speed battles ahoy! Is it me, or is this now looking like one of the most ambitious games currently in development? “I guess you could say that,” says Hurley. “We’ve had a lot of challenges with both game design and technology but have overcome them all, one after another. The team is incredibly ambitious, which I suppose shows in the game that we’re making. We set out to create something truly unique in the FPS genre. I believe we’re delivering on our goal. The game has been a blast to work on – we can’t wait to get Borderlands out there so everyone can experience it and play it for themselves!”

Yeah. Sounds okay, ‘spose. Borderlands will be released some time in 2009.

(Excited!)

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