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Hands-On Preview: Borderlands

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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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.