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E3 09 Preview: Borderlands

By Jeff Buckland, 6/12/2009

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I really loved Hellgate: London for what it was, and absolutely hated it for all the things it should have been but never achieved. Released in an unfinished, buggy, and deeply flawed state, it still pulled me in for weeks, something most games can't do, and that was without me ever having become an optional subscriber. So when I say that Borderlands looks a hell of a lot like Hellgate done right, I'm coming from the perspective of both people who love and hate that game.

The biggest connection between these two games is their fusion of first-person shooter action along with a Diablo-style loot system as well as cooperative play between people in a game world that combines just as many RPG elements as it does twitch-based moments of action. Of course, it is hard to see any similarity at first if you have seen recent screenshots or videos. First, it's got a slick visual style that the developers insist make the game look more like the original concept art than a cel-shaded cartoon like many are calling it, and in motion I have to say it does generally look like much more than just cel-shading since there's a lot of texture work in between the black outlines as well. But there's also the open world environments complete with Mad Max-style vehicles and a general post-apocalyptic science fiction atmosphere, and while it's not like this setting is brand new, we've never had the RPG/action elements coming together in an open world like this.


The first impression I got was that Borderlands is a half-decent shooter with some cool visuals, interesting cooperative play, but not a lot else. But the first time a boss took a dirtnap and randomly-created guns showered out like a multicolored fountain, I started feeling those addictive Diablo-style tendrils grabbing hold as the developers poked through the selection to search for the perfect gun. And these guns, while they are procedurally built, look and act like real FPS guns, not just the same non-reloading gun with a couple of useless variations in it. Fun examples were sniper rifles with impressive revolver-style loading mechanisms and acid-effect guns that melted away troublesome enemy body parts. Guns can have different reloading styles complete with their own animations, unique upsides and downsides, special properties applied, and so on. While other shooters have dabbled with randomly creating guns (Hellgate London does come to mind), none have quite gotten to this level of detail. No, you won't quite be building your own guns out of distinct pieces, but the game itself is doing exactly that whenever a new one is created, and those classic World of Warcraft item colors - green for uncommon, blue for rare, purple for epic - are all here to denote the quality of the weapon. None of this is going to revolutionize the FPS genre, but I really like the level of detail that has gone into every procedurally-created gun included so far and I think it can be an important part of keeping people comign back to Borderlands.

It's also important to mention that among so many other highly scripted E3 demos this year where the person talking is following a script and the person playing is carefully doing every fight in a way that marketing and PR have signed off on, our Borderlands demo was done much more by the seat-of-the-pants. Sure, we knew they'd finish a quest or two and get into some firefights in a couple of given locales, but the weapons they used were created randomly and the action was chaotic enough in some places that there was simply no way to reproduce it the same way every time. This is a good sign; if doing the same fight repeatedly in a game can result in one of many different outcomes each time you play, it is going to keep your attention longer. If Gearbox can harness that for most of their game, we'll likely have a winner.


The demo revolved around both completing quests and doing a little bit of freeform exploration, but it was the large firefight at the end that really got the blood flowing. Gearbox employees Steve Gibson and Allison Berryman tackled a base full of bandits together, mowing them down with great-looking weaponry that had some interesting effects (including a wicked head-melt gun) and a solid look and feel that put this part of the demo squarely in the cooperative FPS arena. But it doesn't have to always be that way: players can also at any point hit someone else with a melee attack, which in the world of Borderlands, is like typing /duel in a MMORPG. If the enemy hits back with their own melee attack, a dome appears overhead - no matter where they are in the world - and they're locked in a 1v1 fight. Two men enter, one man leaves!

Players will travel the wastelands as one of four characters, each with unique talent trees, and will get to use vehicles to travel between points. Cooperative play will be for up to four players, and while the world's basic geometry will be the same every time you play, the placement of minor settlements and encounter areas can change. Even monsters' abilities will be randomized, making for some interesting opportunities for both fun and frustration if enemies get all the right or wrong ones for your character type. Unfortunately, details on much of this are still a little sketchy, but some of this is likely to either make or break the game.


On top of that, not much is known about Borderlands' overall length and just how large and landmark-filled its game world is. A hell of a lot of this game's lasting appeal will rest on how well the team delivers on this - randomly created guns only go so far if it's not fun to kill monsters and level up for hours at a time. It's also just a little strange that we know so little about the game still, despite the release date being only a few months away now. But they're confident they'll make it, and so far the plan is to start an internal beta test in a couple of weeks, so we'll see how it goes. For what it's worth, Gearbox has been delivering solid first person shooters for years now, so I fully expect them to do better than developers like Flagship or the many Diablo clones that have been released over the years. We'll find out soon, as Borderlands is slated for a launch on 360, PS3, and PC in October.


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