A gay bar in the heart of Sydney’s Kings Cross is hardly the typical place for a video game show-and-tell session. But then, Borderlands is hardly a typical video game.
Upon descending the flight of stairs and discovering a cavernous space with brightly lit LCD screens and an open bar, it was immediately clear that 2K Games were pulling out the stops for the media. Having the improbably named Randy Pitchford, founder and CEO of Gearbox Software in attendance, along with vice president Steve Gibson, allowed us to learn about this much anticipated title directly from the people who have nursed it through a difficult inception.
In production now for four years, Borderland’s development could hardly be called swift. Although the artwork was largely finished halfway through 2008, a minor revolt from within caused the design team to drop the ultra-realistic look they had originally gone with for Borderlands in favour of a more laid back, hand-drawn approach. Despite being somewhat at odds with the brutal, gritty game world, this was a fortuitous move, as the laconic and over-the-top NPC’s manage to simultaneously inject the title with humour and charm, as well as seamlessly providing a point of differentiation with pretty much every other shooter out there.
Of course, Borderlands is no mere shooter. Gearbox always intended to include a strong RPG element in the game, fusing fast paced first-person action with a robust skill tree and level system. Each of the four main playable characters is uniquely adapted to suit a particular fighting style – Lillith is more adept at sneaking from rock to rock and using sniper weapons, for example, whilst Brick can stock up on defensive skills and act as a tank. It’s very much up to the player as to which they prefer.
The creatures that inhabit the game world are diverse and, generally speaking, mutated. If you can imagine a mix of Mad Max, Tremors, Dune, Aliens, Starship Troopers and Total Recall, you’re probably on the right track. You’ll initially face fairly basic creatures that have relatively slow movement and damage potential; however before long your skills will be tested with “Badass” monster variants, and instanced boss fights which are every bit as tricky as they sound.
If this seems terribly familiar, it might be because Gearbox has drawn inspiration from not only popular films, but also other games. There are clearly elements of World of Warcraft, Diablo, Fallout and Gears of War to be seen, however the positive attributes of these titles have been retained carefully and appropriately. For example, you can enter the aforementioned instances (called “doglegs” in Borderlands) where you may have a strategic objective to complete, such as killing a named boss or plundering the zone for resources, yet loot is largely confined to ammunition, weapons and money, the latter being used to purchase additional items from the many vending machines dotted around the environment.
Weapon drops are random, and the now familiar colour identification system of white, green, blue, purple and orange has been retained to denote the quality of the find. Where Borderlands differs however is the procedural generation used to create the items. Gearbox essentially fed a bunch of manufacturers, types of weapons and ingredients such as wood, steel, and plastic and told the software to engineer the weapons from there. The result? Millions of permutations. There are more weapon variants, we’re told, than every game ever made for the Xbox 360 and PS3 combined.
The artwork, too, reflects this. Pick up a rifle with a large magazine capacity, and the associated picture will faithfully reproduce the additional volume. Need a better scope? You’ll know one when you see it. It’s the little touches like this that sets Borderlands apart, and it’s clear that a team somewhere has spent a considerable amount of time getting it right.
Shooters just don’t cut it these days without co-op, and sticking with the RPG theme, Borderlands features drop in, drop out matchmaking that also adjusts creature difficulty on-the-fly depending on the number of players allied in the game. The co-op has a number of advantages – you can have multiple people controlling vehicles (and able to swap seats without stopping) as well as the neat ability to duel with your allies to test your new skills and equipment. Not to mention making up the numbers for those dogleg challenges, too.
Before setting out for this trip, I’d read somewhere that Borderlands could most accurately be described as a RPS – a Role Playing Shooter. This is probably the best definition, as although it’s clearly a shooter above all else, the RPG element will be what keeps punters glued to their screens. With thirty main quest trees and over a hundred additional side quests, players can expect around eighty hours gameplay before the game hands you over to the wild and expects your character to fend for themselves. It’s at this point that we’ll discover whether it truly has legs to stand on, although with that amount of gameplay already promised, it seems likely the trip there will be a blast.
Borderlands launches October 23rd for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, so if you like a bit of depth to your shooters, you’ll definitely want to watch for this one prior to the festive season.
Our thanks to 2K Australia and Take Two Interactive New Zealand for getting us to Sydney to check out Borderlands. Stay tuned for our interview with Randy Pitchford shortly!