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Hands On With Borderlands Co-Op

This week we've had a chance to play through the beginning of Borderlands, courtesy of 2K Games. What follows are some preview impressions of that co-op experience. We expect to unleash a full RPS Verdict on the game later this month.

Playing the single-player version of Borderlands causes one single game feature to stand out. When you are reduced to zero health you have some time in which you bleed to death. This gives you a chance to revive yourself with a "second wind" by getting a kill. In the co-op part of the game this makes perfect sense, as it's also an opportunity for your buddies to run over to you and help you up. In the single player game, however, there are times when there is nothing to kill, and no buddy to help you. You simply kneel there, bleeding to death. And it's kind of heart-breaking.

This feature alone, I feel, demonstrates how Borderlands is meant to played with friends. Once router port-fiddling is defeated that's easily done online by making your normal game an internet game, playing your own campaign, and then inviting chums when they're available. We've had a chance to do that, and we've just finished the opening section of the game known as "Arid Badlands", by playing through as a team.

Arid Badlands very much an introductory experience, with the chirpy robot character and a mysterious static woman explaining everything after you pass the character selection screen. You're asked to help out a ramshackle frontier town which is sparsely populated by redneck characters. You're a treasure hunter, looking for a mythical vault, and lots of people seem invested in your finding it. Arriving via an armoured bus, you kill some bandits off and starting settling in. Once you open up the main hub town, Fyrestone, then it feels a little like the opening stages of an MMO. There's a strong whiff of those starter area cues you get in games that are longer-term and slower-paced than traditional shooters.

There's not much "worldiness" to it, with only a handful of friendly and rather characterless NPCs. In fact, from what we've seen there's little general activity in the world, but there's nevertheless some evidence of more complex infrastructure: wind-turbines, powerlines, and a neat vehicle system. All this bodes well for the rest of the game, which should hopefully expand on the idea of Pandora as a world. Although there's constant combat from the start, Fyrestone and the surrounding area feels low key and preparatory, and once early missions unfold then that air of RPG is even stronger. The back and forth of minor quests, the mission dispensing characters and bulletin boards, the hit numbers bouncing from enemies, the stats and colours for weapon types - I almost expected the badlands to open up and reveal some kind of "World Of Guncraft" beyond.

And yet the best fun we've had in the first part of the game has been thanks to the focus on gunplay. Borderlands is embedded deeply in the shooter category, and it will send you running for cover and aiming for headshots. Some of the fights we've had have been ludicrous tooth-and-nail running battles, with a joyous chaos to them. In this opening area there are two main kinds of enemies: skags, a kind of mutant dog-lizard thing, and bandits, who come in various shapes and sizes of mean and mutated. Playing co-op hugely amplifies the chaos of a firefight because so many more high level enemies appear. You're often dealing with multiple targets and trying to drag your friends to their feet while you yourself are under fire, as rabid midgets stab axes into you, and heavies hammer you with machinegun fire.

All this this drives the loot-hunger, of course, because co-op battles bring about more impressive enemies, and therefore even better drops. With millions of weapons, various shields and other mods to play with, there's a whole load of tweaking to be done to your character, and swapping loot back and forth is going to become routine among friends. I suspect, however, it's going to trickier to play with strangers: there's currently no formal system for loot sharing, meaning anyone can run in and grab whatever they like from the hundreds of stashes that you uncover. A limited inventory space, however, means that the greedy run out of room rather promptly.

I'm coming to love the art style and general attitude of the game. The hand-drawn textures give the game a look that is clean and crisp while still being down and dirty. It's comic book and playful, with a bold sense of thrills, and a good feeling for why we enjoy getting an even bigger gun. While Arid Badlands is a brownish desert it nevertheless has a bunch of interesting design going on in it, not just in the visuals, but in way the sidequests and the main story arc interlock. It's structured so that you have plenty of opportunity to back off and level up a bit before taking on more serious tasks.

Having taken down the early bosses and fought our way through what I suppose constitute the first "dungeons" in the game, we're certainly interested in seeing what comes next. And for that, you'll have to wait for our next article.

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