Last month, we brought you a preview of Borderlands from our man across the pond at this year’s manic E3. Gearbox and 2K were recently kind enough however to bring the game along to a small venue in London for us non-E3 attendees to get in some extended hands-on time.
Set in the post-apocalyptic wastes of Pandora, Borderlands is an RPG and FPS hybrid inspired by the dungeon-crawling antics of Diablo and the open world gun-toting thrills of Fallout 3. Gearbox has a pedigree in crafting FPS games with their console adaptations of Half-Life and the Brothers in Arms series, so it goes without saying that the Borderlands is a prospect well worth keeping an eye on.
Brick is the ridiculous man-mountain in the foreground. Lilith’s the one at the checkpoint, with wee robot helper, Claptrap.
These winged beasties are a real pain. The giant creature in this shot is something we’ve yet to encounter however.
Sampling Xbox 360 code, there’re no surprises therefore when we find that the controls are tight and responsive and the core gameplay itself is incredibly solid. What’s pleasantly surprising however is juts how seamlessly integrated the RPG elements alongside the core shooter experience.
Although we only got to see a relatively small section of it, the game world itself is a huge expanse with plenty of potential for exploration like any RPG title worth its salt. That it’s also an accomplished shooter is par for the course, making Borderlands a satisfyingly cohesive whole where neither gameplay aspect has to vie for attention.
During our hands-on with the game, the first thing that hits us is the distinctive art-style, which adopts a cel-shaded look to create its dystopian Mad Max-esque vision. Closer scrutiny reveals details such as hand-drawn pencil lines and shading on some textures, which lends the game a comic book style that is both innovative and striking.
Pandora is a planet right on the edge of the galaxy (hence Borderlands), so naturally it’s an unappealing wilderness, inhabited by vicious dog-like creatures called Skags, feral psychopaths and a menagerie of bizarre mutants and backward pariahs, so exercising caution is of paramount importance as you feel your way through the rocky terrain.
Our first port of call as we enter the corroded tenements is a rendezvous with an exuberant little one-wheeled robot named Claptrap, who we soon learn is just one of many that acts as an aide who unlocks doors and offers hints throughout your perilous journey. This particular encounter with Claptrap involves a light tutorial, introducing the intuitive controls and help with navigating a few unwelcoming areas where we also get to try out our first rifle on the violent natives.
Claptrap is an endearing character, so when he gets damaged we immediately embark upon our first mission to recover a part to repair his smoking chassis, which is a mercifully easy task and thus a fine introduction to the game’s mission structure. Eventually, Claptrap guides us towards Dr. Zed and our first real assignment, which leads us to other characters and introduces the vending machines that can be used to purchase upgrades for shields, weapons and other abilities.
Eventually we’re left to our own devices, free to explore the vast open-world of Pandora. Much like Fallout 3, Pandora’s settlements are cobbled together from sheets of rusty metal, lumps of driftwood and other waste materials, so everywhere you travel has a ragtag, decrepit feel, drenched in dripping, painted graffiti and all the traditional hallmarks of decay and degradation. And like Pandora’s patchwork architecture, the weapons - of which there are literally millions to unearth - are unconventional combinations of various salvaged components, meaning that you’re never quite sure of what you might find.
These masked, bare-chested psychopaths are commonplace in Borderlands. Put those millions of guns to good use!
Vehicles were an element of Borderlands sadly unavailable during our hands-on. They look like an absolute blast though.
Like any good RPG, levelling up your character is an essential factor to progression; so wandering foolishly into a hostile enemy camp without the requisite experience can be suicidal as we swiftly learn. Dying results in an instantaneous respawn at a previous checkpoint, so frustration is happily sidestepped altogether. In an effort to play and see as much as we possibly can during our brief time with the single-player segment of our hands-on, we rapidly level up and upgrade our character to level 12, before striding into boss territory to confront the first major antagonist.
Boss encounters take place in closed off arenas, where escape is possible only by unceremoniously carking it during the fight. That’s not how we roll though, so we resolve to defeat the villain without having to respawn. This fraught battle introduces us to one of Borderland’s coolest gameplay mechanics, the ‘Fight For Your Life’ sequences where you’re granted a final chance to continue fighting when your health has almost completely depleted. If you can successfully maintain a sustained attack upon your foe without taking damage while the screen urgently pulses with a crimson hue, you‘ll activate a regenerative health boost and be duly awarded a ‘Second Wind.’
Beating the boss following a hard-earned Second Wind, we collect the spoils from his still-warm corpse: hundreds of dollars and a scarlet, incendiary flame gun that dissolves enemies. Sweet. Still, the fight’s not entirely at an end as his minions wait for our departure from the arena and mount a violent counterattack, which is deftly handled by our newly acquired, skin-searing handgun.
We’ve played the first ninety minutes of Borderlands’ single-player and already we’re utterly smitten. Had we not been told to move onto the four-player co-op mode, we could have contentedly carried on playing for hours on end. Graphically, Borderlands is still somewhat rough around the edges at this Beta stage, but there’s no denying that the intrinsic gameplay mechanics are incredibly absorbing and unapologetically compulsive.
Nevertheless, we’re understandably keen to check out some four-player action, so it’s on we go to a new region of Pandora where we’re given a level 20 character with different expertise from the soldier-class hero we’d been enjoying in single-player. We choose to play as Lilith, the agile siren who can blow herself up and form temporal bubbles to slow down enemies. She’s a mean shot with a sniper rifle and fast on her feet too, making her an integral part of the team. The remaining members Roland, Brick and Mordecai each possess medical, aggressive and increased combat capabilities respectively, with each given their own specific skill tree to develop. Playing with these characters counts towards your overall level, so your character is always persistently upgrading between each game mode the entire time you play.
Our play time with co-op beginning in earnest, we meander our way through the Gully stage, our group soon becoming fragmented as everyone goes on the offensive against the thick-armoured spider beasts that are clustered throughout the rocky confines of the ravine. Gradually, we work out that the only way to efficiently dispatch the spiders is by shooting what Gearbox President Randy Pitchford calls their ‘ass-sacks’ which are exposed and vulnerable to gunfire.
Hands-on time with the four-player portion of the game is restricted to just thirty minutes of intense team-based action wherein we discover even more wild and inventive randomised weapons along the way. In this time, the potential for experimentation with the four character classes is huge and therefore, by extension so is the replay value.
The gang's all here.
We're loving the cel-shaded art style.
Playing Borderlands has blown our expectations right out of the water. We knew that Gearbox had something special on their hands, but we had no idea that it was something as exceptional as the well-executed, eminently playable RPG shooter we ended up thinking about for the entire train journey home. Very few hands-on events also end with us talking for hours off-the-record with the enthusiastic development team too. Clearly Pitchford and VP of Marketing Steve Gibson regard Borderlands as a real labour of love and by God, it certainly shows.
As we’ve already mentioned, the game’s visuals could use some attention, but there’s more than enough time for Gearbox to polish them up to a mirror shine. Sort the graphics out though and they could very well have a bona-fide classic on their hands when the game finally hits late this October. Besides, any game featuring axe-wielding Psycho Midgets is fine by us.